SEO Smackdown Round 2: Old Vs. New Search Engine Optimization

I recently re-read this great quote from a book entitled “Algorithms in a Nutshell.” To summarize, the authors wrote:

“… A good way to solve problems is to start with the big picture… [because if you don’t understand the big picture] you may solve the wrong problem, or might not explore other—possibly better—answers.

I thought that idea neatly summarized the perceived battle between “new” SEO and “old” SEO. Search optimization professionals should know and understand the big picture before they define and tout the “new” SEO.

Instead of focusing on flavor-of-the-month/day/year optimization tactics, what are the big-picture items SEO professionals should always keep in mind? Does each flavor-of-the-month tactic support the big picture… or is it merely a flavor-of-the-month tactic that can largely be ignored or discounted?

Here is my take on the perceived smackdown.

SEO, strategy, HTML, keywords - photo

Keywords have always been an important part of an SEO strategy because labels and descriptions of Web documents often contain keywords that communicate both aboutness and information scent.

Keywords, Aboutness And Labeling

Keywords, keywords, keywords — I swear it’s a search optimizer’s mantra. I’ve heard myself chant this mantra many times over the years. I’m equally guilty of this chanting.

Honestly, though, what are we optimizers really chanting about? Keywords? Maybe not.

Maybe the bigger picture we’re not seeing is that we are chanting about different types of labels, including but not limited to:

  • Content labels
  • Navigation labels
  • Document labels

Of course, when I just re-read what I wrote in the previous paragraph, one word jumped out: about.

Maybe the true big picture is aboutness. Keywords are important for communicating aboutness for both human and non-human users.

So maybe the “old” picture is keywords. The “big” picture (which has always been present) is aboutness.

Site Architecture & Design

Site architecture, page layout, and design are still important for communicating:

Remember, site architecture includes both information architecture (IA) and technical architecture. A website’s infrastructure should get stronger over time and allow for the natural evolution of content.

So, I ask: how are any of these concepts “new” SEO? SEO pioneers, such as Eric Ward and I, have  known these big-picture items for many years. And, we’ve refined our methodology to accommodate technology evolution.

And, that brings me to another hotly debated topic…

Link Development + Social Media = Validation

I remember reading this from Selena Narayanasamy’s article, Lessons From The Auto Industry: Leveraging Social For Organic Traction:

“Links are not often thought of as a by-product of a great social campaign. Often the goals of those working on social profiles for a brand revolve around a simple goal: Getting more followers and building an audience… There’s more to social than simply having a sounding board. If you leverage your fans and followers correctly, they’ll be your key to naturally generating links and mentions around your brand.”

I loved reading that observation because I tend to share the latter perspective. I have always viewed social media as forms of validation and credibility.

Here’s my point: Eric Ward has been a link-building practitioner since 1994 (and he has a library/information sciences background like me). SEO companies in the 1990s specialized in link development (such as John Audette’s Multimedia Marketing group) years before Google became known and popular.

Social media has existed for a long time. Instead of newsgroups and forums, we now have Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others. Who knows whether or not these social media icons will stand the test of time?

I know that validity and credibility will stand the test of time because they are a critical part of the searcher experience.

Searcher Experience Honeycomb by information architecture guru Peter Morville

Credibility is a key facet in a positive searcher experience.Reprinted with permission from Peter Morville.

(To download the full image and explanation of Morville’s “User Experience Honeycomb: Searcher’s Edition,” please go to Flickr.)

Web Searcher Behaviors

Searching/finding behaviors are still important, with informational goals coming more and more to the forefront due to the knowledge graph and ever-evolving semantic search.

In spite of the one-size-fits-all mantra of responsive design supporters, they still do not realize that people locate and discover desired content differently on mobile devices than they do on devices with larger screens.

For example, currently, quick-fact searches (an informational type of search) are more common on mobile devices than on devices with larger screens.

Navigational and transactional queries are still important, as they are with desktop/notebook computers. But user experience professionals need to look at the big picture as well — findability is a critical part of the searcher experience.

Look at the User Experience Honeycomb above. See “Findability” in there? Yup, it’s there. As information architecture guru Peter Morville said in his book “Ambient Findability,” “You can’t use what you can’t find.”

So, is “new” SEO that different from “old” SEO? Maybe the details… but not the big picture. Search Engine Land readers, I think that first quote is critical for truly understanding SEO. You have to understand the big picture or else you will probably solve the wrong problem.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • sharithurow


    This is a point I like to make as well: infrastructure is important. A strong infrastructure should be in place so that content can be added, archived, deleted, updated, and edited easily. And the infrastructure should get stronger over time.

    Plus the infrastructure should allow for the natural evolution of content (that’s the “adding” part in the previous paragraph).

    Even now, I don’t see that done well on most websites, do you?


  • sharithurow

    Hi Bob-

    Really? Aboutness, architecture/infrastructure, validation/credibility, and searcher behaviors are hard to understand?

    Text, links, popularity, searcher behaviors correspond to aboutness, architecture/infrastructure, validation, searcher behaviors.

    The reason why I re-published that honeycomb? That’s the user/searcher experience…those facets. Aboutness? Wrote about it. Information scent and mental models? Wrote about those topics years ago.

    I and many of my colleagues have written about big-picture items for many years. People need to pay attention to them instead of flavor-of-the-month tactics.

    Ask for directions. That’s my reply.

  • Thooghun

    Great article, this is exactly how I’ve slowly begun to re-strategize my online endeavors. Taking the long-view, avoiding getting side-tracked by temporary fads, and working with what my readers are telling me. Both verbally, and analytically.

    I’ve spent far too much time in the past attemptng to stay-tuned, succumbing to the fear of being out-foxed, and not enough time generating “stuff” that people will find useful.

  • Essay Papers

    Thank you for sharing this with us and your articles are always very informative and insightful. As a matter of fact I am a fan of search engine land on google plus and I always read your articles. I particularly like the illustration you have given us on user experience but I wish you could elaborate more on what you have said about validity and credibility standing the test of time.

  • Shashank Gupta

    Truly amazing Article Got a whole lot of lessons through the Article

  • Jake Holloway

    One of the best articles on real SEO I have read for a long time. I have been doing SEO for 14 years now (good grief) and the fundamentals have not changed since Google appeared. The way in which those fundamentals are applied (in new and updated programmatic agents) changes – much like the decor and furniture of your house. But the house is still a house. Too many SEOs confuse being up-to-date with the latest version of Panda and the “new” importance of co-citation with actually understanding what Google wants to achieve – which you have neatly labelled aboutness, validation, etc. The message people should take from this is – stop looking at colour of the walls, understand how the house is built and what it’s for. I like it Shari..

  • Brian Pasch

    Bob, I have to agree with you. I read the article twice and did not take away anything that supported a Smackdown or anything that was actionable.

  • Tim Mayo

    SEO is just a small part of the bigger picture. A picture that is painted by creating epic content, content that people love and share, and wrapping it up in a mobile friendly site. If SEO’s continue to obsess over keywords and building links, it will be a long and bloody battle.

  • Bob Green

    Brian, It’s typical of a lot of articles out there. The content does not resolve the headline. The headline makes a promise to you…read the content for the story about the headline. Too many articles are puffery…academics speaking to other academics and not to their readers. Pontification and concurring with other writers is not an article written for your audience. Shari, no knock on you directly because I have read many great posts by you. Change the headline to what you really said in the article…clue…write the headline last.

  • sharithurow

    Hi Jake-

    I REALLY like you analogy with the house! Nicely done! Wish I would have thought of it.


  • sharithurow

    Just wanted readers to see the big SEO/findability picture. That’s why I opened with that quotation.

    SEO is a subset of findability. Aboutness has to do with a labeling system. Etc.

  • sharithurow

    Really? The headline was written last. Guys…I wouldn’t make assumptions.

    I’ll try another way.

    Text = aboutness (labeling systems from the author’s point of view)

    Links/navigation = information architecture, technical architecture, foundation and infrastructure of the website

    Popularity/social = validation of labeling systems, content, and navigation from an outsider’s point of view

    Searcher behaviors = navigational, informational, transactional

    Navigational = searcher wants to go to a specific web page

    Informational = searcher wants to know or learn more about a topic/subject

    Transactional = searcher wants to perform an activity

    I hardly think this is academic “puffery.” It’s what search engine software engineers and researchers study, test, roll out, modify…on an ongoing basis.

    We as SEO professionals can sit there and go “Only 60 characters in the XHTML title tag!” and cling to it like the Holy Grail, or understand why this is a guideline and not a hard, fast rule. Or we’re stuck writing crappy document titles because some SEOs refuse to see the big picture.

    I like Jake’s analogy, below.

  • sharithurow

    Hi Tim-

    Labeling systems are important. I wouldn’t dismiss keywords so lightly as they are an integral part of labeling systems (as well as an integral part of establishing context).

    Link building? It’s a form of validation. I would not dismiss validation and credibility so lightly.

    Google didn’t quite get the citation analysis right, but it was a step in the right direction. Scholars aren’t everyday people. I think that’s the part the researchers did not quite understand.

  • sharithurow

    Yup. And quality content generally has a good labeling system, establishes a clear context, is relatively easy to access, and is usually validated as “good” by others.

    I wish that good content marketed itself.

  • Bob Green

    I made an assumption that your article was going to be a smackdown of old vs new SEO tactics. I did not get that from the article at all. There, I made an assumption and I was wrong. There, you won the battle. I am a reader but my opinions about what I thought I was going to get and what I got were two different things. End of story. I understand aboutness. I understand the scent of search and the big picture concept…I’ve been reading about that daily for years. I get all that and try to practice all that. If that had been the headline, I would not have read the article.

    I was looking for the smackdown and there was not even the first punch thrown. It’s okay Shari.

  • Joe Maresca

    I love reading Shari’s stuff. The first thing I ever read on SEO (back in 2000) was a book Shari wrote called Search Engine Visibility. Ever since I have ranked hundreds of highly competitive terms and I have to thank her for directing me into a field that has been very good to me financially, professionally and emotionally. She is certainly a long time SEO guru and will always have my vote to be considered the “Grandmother of SEO”.

  • Joe Maresca

    The term Smackdown Shari is using in her titles is simply the beginning of the headlines she is using for her series of SEO articles on SEL. Is it safe to say that when you read the title you where preparing yourself to read an article that had some focus on the present day “don’t do’s” of SEO? If I am in fact right about that I can see where you are coming from but I think the comparison Shari is trying to make of new SEO versus old SEO is more of an understanding of what old SEO is than content in the article. Shari’s article is focusing on present day crucial elements (some old day elements too as Site Architecture & Design was important 10 years ago as it is today but more so today as Google looks for site quality more than it has in the past and measures that differently today). I think the mistake Shari made with her article (if calling it a mistake is even accurate) was that she is writing for a more advanced audience.

  • sharithurow

    Yeah…I tend to write for advanced SEOs…even though I teach SEO 101 all of the time.




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