The request to get a website ranking on the first page of Google is one that search engine optimizers and SEO agencies have been hearing for a long time. A first page listing on Google search is required for many different reasons, all of which make total sense at the organizational planning level but not at the front end of digital marketing.
Examining the reasons why the “First Page of Google” was such a ubiquitous phrase for online businesses gives us the opportunity to really understand what’s changed in search and what we now need to do instead.
The list goes a little like this:

• Clear metric. A first page listing on Google search for a specific keyword was the kind of metric anyone could understand. Search engine optimization may have had a whiff of the magical about it, but none of it mattered when you had the clarity of going to Google search, inputting a search term containing a keyword there, and seeing if your site appeared and how high it ranked.

Comparison. Everyone has competitors, and they are also aware of Google search and SEO. Seeing how your competitors ranked for the same keywords provided an easy set of targets that allowed a gauging of performance for the search engine optimization team (if the work was carried out in-house) or the SEO agency, if it was outsourced.

• Implementation. Implementing a ranking strategy based on keywords and website positions on Google search was the kind of thing team managers and CEOs could grasp without thinking too deeply about it. Plus it looked really good on color line charts.

• Research. Looking into what keywords are popular for a particular product or industry, in general, and compiling a list is one of those activities that made everyone feel that they were achieving something important.

Looking at competitor backlinks. Playing sleuth on the Web and finding out what websites have linked to a competitor site and how, was one of those activities that were a little challenging to carry out and, when completed, provided the satisfaction of having learned a valuable trade secret.

The fact that none of these activities will be quite as useful as they were in the past, is testament to the impact the introduction of semantic search has had on SEO. But it is not only semantic search that has brought changes. The semantic web, these days, is fully mobile. Browsers access the Web from a number of devices (popularly called “screens” due to different screen sizes that define them) and the “three screen browser” who begins a search on his desktop, follows it away from his desk on his tablet or iPad, and then closes it on his smartphone have become the norm.

When the Web was website based and browsing meant a large screen and a laptop or PC, search engine optimization was an easier business to tackle for everybody (though it certainly only seems so in retrospect). A website based Web also meant that websites were where all the action was.

If you were doing search engine optimization you were essentially optimizing a website. Your content strategy was website based. You created a linking strategy designed to drive up the PageRank of a website. Your efforts were localized and cumulative. Both of these points are important because they highlight the depth of the change that’s rocking the search engine optimization world and is creating the SEO challenges we are seeing. When you went offsite you did so to create links that pointed back to the website. As a matter of fact, with few enlightened exceptions, offsite work meant creating content and comments that pointed back to a website.

The practice led to some of the worst excesses in digital marketing and search engine optimization history the Web has seen. Without contravening Google’s guidelines and engaging in banned optimization techniques (called Black Hat SEO), search engine optimizers would create legit profiles in numerous forums with the express intention to join the conversation and supply, through the forum signature or forum profile, a link back to the website. In relevant posts there would be the required precisely worded anchor text that would point a link back to a website using some of the most highly contested keywords that website was fighting to rank for.

Apart from generating tens of thousands of fake profiles (not all SEO agencies played completely fair) and inflating the traffic of forums, the practice also generated massive amounts of content in poorly written, keyword-rich articles that would appear in article repositories, the same article repositories that Google would later seriously penalize for harboring some of the worst quality content on the Web.

It all made sense at the time of course because it worked. Websites that cumulatively had specific keywords repeated in a specific keyword frequency per post ranked higher in search. If they had thousands of links coming in from all over the Web, their PageRank rose. They were deemed to be more trusted. They received more traffic, and they ranked higher in search. The longer those links pointed to them, the more power the website acquired so there was not much incentive to wait to get links naturally through quality content. There was no point.

What website owners demanded was a quick rise in search and a permanent place once a website got there.

How is this relevant to us now? Well, if you are looking to optimize your website today you can no longer rely on doing work just on your website alone. You can no longer use suspect linking strategies, poor quality content, anchor text in your links, or countless similar articles posted across the Web. Keywords and keyword frequency (often called keyword density) are no longer of much use. Certainly the latter has become largely meaningless as a search engine optimization technique, and it’s more likely to work against you than for you.

Stripped of many of the tools and techniques that SEOs had at their disposal, the work at hand became even harder with the realization that not only could search engine optimization work no longer be localized, but it now also could not be cumulative. Google took the view that websites left alone without freshly created content were forgotten and abandoned, and it deprecated them as out of date and probably unlikely to produce any kind of satisfactory end-user experience.

Google’s “freshness” algorithm, introduced in November 2011, took a long look at what search engine optimizers had called “the obsolescence of the Link Graph” that was made up of all those links website owners were counting on and said it was time to solve the issue of out-of-date content. And just as search engine optimization was no longer about working on a website, creating some links, and writing some content, the first page of Google, a ranking that had become the sole deciding test of success, began to fragment.

Those in the search engine optimization industry who still retained some semblance of sanity, soon began to feel like a threatened species.

The Fragmented World of Search

The title of this chapter raises an interesting question: How is it possible, you ask, for the first page of Google to just disappear? After all, from a visual point of view, the first page is still there. We can carry out a search query on Google, and the first page will appear and then all the other pages behind it, each numbered in sequence.

What has disappeared is the notion that there is just one first page of Google for a given search query—a place that has just enough room for 10 links and a few ads. A place that is the same for every person who carries out that exact same search query, irrespective of who they are and where they are, began to grow a little anemic the moment Google started to introduce localization and personalization in search.

Google first introduced localization in search in 2004 when it started to offer “relevant neighborhood business listings” and offered personalized search, as an experiment, a year later. The intention behind the former was to deliver the best possible search results to queries that had a local aspect, the latter to address the increasingly personal nature of search for the end user. In taking this path Google began to customize the search engine results pages, taking into account factors that would personalize search for the end-user, and began the fragmentation of the search presentation page for the marketer.

To be completely fair the Google search results pages were never identical in the results they returned for the same search query across the globe. The results were always drawn from Google’s local index, and for that Google relied on its capability to recognize where you were through your IP address. So a query for supermarkets would return different results in Manchester, UK (where I live), than it would in Manchester, Indiana. But while the results would be different for those across the different indices that Google was building from its indexing of the Web, those living within the catchment area of a Google Index would expect to see largely the same results for an identical search query.

This is no longer the case; not by far.

The reason for this is surprisingly simple: stickiness, or rather the concept of trying to make a site as utilitarian as possible that’s described by stickiness. In the Internet world stickiness is described as the average minutes per month visitors spend at a site or network. Occasionally it is page views (for a website) or visitor numbers (for a search engine like Google).

The point is stickiness only happens when the site itself becomes largely invisible. It fades into the background of the consciousness of the end-user and what emerges to the forefront is what the site does. Google wants to make search a seamless experience, and to do that it has created one of the largest vertical environments in the world.
Creating a vertical environment that is somehow “fenced” is every web company’s dream. It allows it to capture the end-user usage data that can be used to create sense in the pattern of online behavior. It helps it create stickiness to its brand through a variety of seamlessly integrated services. It is a great strategy for ensuring brand loyalty and a great way to introduce a steady stream of data-based products and services.

Apple has done this with its virtually airtight hardware/software environment that locks its customers into its services and products. Facebook has done it by making its social network into what the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called the web’s largest “walled garden.” Microsoft is attempting to do it with its Windows 8 environment. In short, this is a strategy that makes sense for a tech business.
When it comes to Google the accomplishment is phenomenal. Globally the search engine holds 80% of the search market share. Its own browser, Chrome, has overtaken its opposition to become the leading browser in the world in terms of usage. YouTube is the second largest search engine on the Web after Google, and Google+ is the second largest social network after Facebook. Its mobile operating system, Android, holds 70% of the global market share of smartphones.

Collectively all this adds up to a massive, digital, connected environment that allows Google to deliver a seamless search experience that is further contributed to by web applications such as Google Maps and Google Translate. Central to all this, holding it together, is search. Search is key to making the Web useful, creating order out of its chaotic data, and making it navigable.

Google search is no longer just the familiar Google search box that helped desktop users find what they wanted. In keeping with end-user preferences and usage, Google search has itself fragmented across interfaces. On mobile, for instance, end-users frequently use Google Voice Search. In tablets they use a combination of Google Voice Search and regular search. The search that powers YouTube and Google+ draws from a different index than the one that powers desktop search. Google Now, essentially a predictive search engine that preloads on your Android device what you may need to search for based on your location, draws heavily from localization and the end user’s personal web search history.

If you are beginning to think that suddenly search has become a little ethereal—it appears to be everywhere but in different forms and formats—you are right. Imagine that for your company or brand name to get in front of the consumers you are targeting, it must somehow inject itself into all these different indexes that Google has built and then arrange it so that your website actually comes up in relation to a potential answer they may have. If the task appears, at first sight, to be monumentally difficult, that’s because it is.

Search marketing and search engine optimization have become an increasingly time-consuming, expensive activity that, if performed traditionally in a top-down approach becomes so expensive, that no company has the budget to maintain it for very long.
The saving grace in all this is the fact that search, in all its possible formats, is powered by the same common denominator: data. The information you place on your website, the online behavior of those associated with your business, the connection between the different kinds of data you create, and the way that data is then used are what Google needs.

Content creation is the point where Google’s need for data and your business’s need to be found on the Web suddenly come together. The deciding factors are, as we have already seen, context and relevance, and the defining characteristic is quality. Google, of course, has been beating the drum about quality in content ever since there was a Google to speak of, so why is this now news? It’s because of semantic search. The shift in the balance of power from websites where you controlled everything to people profiles across the Web means that you also cede a large amount of control over your marketing message.

Put a little more simply, the fragmentation of search and the reliance on content produces an interesting dynamic where success for content marketing (and visibility on the Web) hinges on the overlap between what you have to say as a business and what they are interested in as a target audience,