In the past, search engines had no idea what your website was actually about. You had to tell them, so they knew to include you in search results. That meant that whoever shouted the loudest (by repeating the keywords a million times) got in the search results.
That system sucked, so we moved to links.
If someone else is linking to your website, it is like a vote for you as a quality resource. If lots of people are linking to you, then you must be a great resource. SEO became about creating lots and lots of useless links (that no human will ever click on) to trick the search engines into thinking that you are worth including.
That system also sucked.
Fortunately, things are changing. Google is becoming better at connecting what a user is searching for, with what your website contains. Search for “boy in boat with tiger” and Google knows that you are probably looking for info on the film Life of Pi.
Keywords are still important, but only when used naturally, as part of valuable content. Links are still important but only when they are links that humans value and use.
If someone clicks on your search result and stays on your site, Google knows they are probably finding it useful. If they immediately click back to the search results, then Google knows that your webpage was not a good match. Let that happen a few thousand times, and Google has some idea whether to move you up or down the ranking.
Thankfully, SEO will be tougher to game in the future. People will still find tricks and cheats, but these are becoming more and more short-lived.
How can you prepare for the SEO of the future?
- Create content that users will want to engage with, and will match what they are searching for.
- Ensure that your website provides a great user experience. It is fast, secure and mobile friendly.
- Build links with the intention of driving traffic. If real people are seeing and clicking on your links, the SEO juice will flow with them.