Search engine optimization (SEO) has been and continues to be a black box to many marketers—certainly traditional marketers, but also many digital marketers. With over 500 ranking factors that are constantly changing, SEO can seem shrouded in mystery. The truth is that SEO is rather simple and intuitive. It may involve reverse engineering one of the most complex algorithms in the world, but that algorithm aims to do two very simple tasks that every person must perform every day:
- Understand trust
- Understand context
Trust and Context in a Digital World
Trust and context between people is intuitive, complex, and highly interrelated. There are a million factors that go into why one person trusts another person, but they boil down to two things: the relationship with the person to be trusted and that person’s place in a network of other known and trusted people.
In a world where interconnectedness, diversity, and the ease of information distribution are accelerating, simple methods of trust and contextual verification begin to break down (i.e. passwords, documentation, hierarchy, cultural norms, etc.). Understanding the relationships and interactions between all participants within the network becomes one of the few ways to accurately gauge levels of trust and relevance among individual participants. This can be observed in a number of areas from social media to NSA surveillance. The concept was first applied to search engines in Larry Page’s 1998 paper explaining PageRank—the foundation upon which Google was originally built and the steps in which many network-based technology companies have followed.
Brands as Networks
Scientists have become increasingly interested in networks over the past two decades. However, traditional marketers have applied the concept of networks to branding for years. Branding establishes a trusted positive connection in a person’s mind to the brand in the context of a desired experience. Those experiences are evaluated from the person’s perspective within the context of other trust connections to similar products, companies, and experiences. If enough of those positive experiences take place (accelerated via advertising channels), then over time a trusted brand such as Coke is built.
The brand Coca Cola is simply a logo and billions of positive experiences in the minds of people created over the span of 100+ years. Anyone can bottle a can of cola. Not just anyone can grow a network of connections within the minds of people the world over between a positive experience in the context of the human need called “thirst” and a logo for their type of cola.
That is the essence of a brand and it lives within the soft tissue of human brains, increasing weight and relevance with every fire of a neuron stimulated by a brand interaction. Marketing is about accelerating those interactions, whether “artificially” with an ad buy or “naturally” by word of mouth. Increasing those positive interactions is ultimately what the digital marketer must do in the context of digital mediums. It is what SEO must do in the context of what search engines perceive.
As search engine algorithms develop more sophisticated methods of perceiving the nuanced signals of trust and context that people understand intuitively, the mysterious nature of SEO declines and the traditional marketing ideas of messaging and reach within a network become paramount.