(NFL Super Bowl XLVIII is Feb. 2 at 6:30 P.M. EST, just BTW.)
In 2011, a writer for The Huffington Post wrote an article with an infamous headline: “What Time Does the Superbowl Start?” The article’s (short) text simply answered that question.
At the time, it was considered an audacious, and perhaps insidious, exploitation of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). The Huffington Post, as a major Web property, had the juice to send that article to the top of Google’s search results—which resulted in a tidal wave of page-views as thousands of confused football fans typed that question into their search engines.
But three short years later, that sort of SEO jujitsu is fading as a favorite traffic-accruing tactic (although it retains considerable strength), the victim of three online trends:
Apps and “Cards”
For quite some time, the search-engine giants (Google, Yahoo, and Bing) have embraced strategies that veer away from simply delivering long lists of hyperlinks in response to search queries. Type in a term or question, and Bing and Google often surface stylized boxes that display relevant information: for example, type “What time is the superbowl” into Google, and the result is a “card” that includes the kickoff time, location (“MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey”), teams involved, and even the correct television channel (Fox).
Voice-activated search has accelerated this trend away from the “traditional” collection of hyperlinks. Ask Google Now or Apple’s Siri a question, and you’ll likely receive a single answer (either text or spoken) instead of a list of search results.
The increasing emphasis on voice search and “cards” has reduced the power of some traditional SEO techniques. Following Google’s “Hummingbird” update, there’s a newfound emphasis on so-called “conversational search,” which focuses on the whole query (and its ultimate meaning) rather than specific words—in theory, the better to help processes such as voice search; but a refutation to much of what worked so well before.
The Rise of Social Sharing
As Upworthy and other Websites have learned, the key to spectacular page-views (and equally impressive user engagement) isn’t necessarily designing content that ends up at the top of Google search results—it’s convincing thousands of users to share articles with hundreds of friends via Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites. (Upworthy repackages Web content with leading headlines designed to spark the reader’s curiosity— “You Think His Big Brother Will Fight the Attacker. Then There’s a Shockingly Beautiful Twist”—and sprinkles it all with liberal helpings of social-networking buttons.)
In light of that, the calculus has shifted for many a content-producing Website: it’s no longer about getting to the top of a Google search-results page, but having as many people as possible share the content (and the ads that come with it) on the social network of their choice. SEO’s significance as waned a bit as a result—now it’s just as important that a headline or title make the reader feel something in their hearts, as convince a bit of software that it deserves to be at the top of a search page.
The Google Nuke
Over the past several quarters, Google has taken a much more active role in suppressing what the company views as “content farms” or “spam links.” Part of that suppression hinges on Google’s regular updates of its core search algorithm, with tweaks specially designed to whack everything from “guest posts” to Websites that lack original content.
The search-engine giant has also devoted more effort to knocking down prominent Websites that blatantly attempt to game SEO, including Rap Genius (which apologized for its backlink sketchiness) and (possibly) Expedia.
Given Google’s domination of the search-engine space, it’s no wonder that many Websites are treading very carefully when it comes to employing some “gray area” SEO techniques that worked in the past. When Websites know that the old techniques can harm their business if used incorrectly, they’re less likely to utilize them with the aggression of previous years.
The Guessing Game
Ultimately, given the size and complexity of the systems involved (and the rapidity with which they change), optimizing a Website’s SEO is partially a guessing game. The only certainty is a lack of certainty—even if you use the world’s largest sporting event to try and spike page-views.