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Bringing Down the House: How SEO is Like Blackjack

“The best part? It’s beatable.”Kevin Spacey’s character, describing blackjack in the film, 21

A while back, those skilled in the art of counting cards were able to walk into a casino, mosey up to a table, and take the house for all it was worth. Eventually, as we know, the house caught on, and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment now makes such practices a lot harder to pull off.

But shift your focus to the realm of online publishing, and you just may find a similar scenario ready to play out with SEO.

Not long ago in the world of online content, the top search engines were a lot like the most popular casinos in Las Vegas. Millions came to test their luck at the tables, but the few who knew the tricks — assuming they didn’t get caught — were the ones who broke the bank. (Note: In this analogy, Google is The Bellagio, Yahoo is the MGM Grand, and Ask Jeeves is BINGO Night at the Henderson Nevada Rectory.)

I’m not saying these original SEO masterminds were doing anything wrong; these aren’t black hat tactics I’m referring to at all. The point is that in many ways, with the right long-tail keywords in tow, SEO was essentially beatable. But unlike in blackjack, you didn’t have to be Rain Man to secure a high page rank;  you just needed to know the tricks.

For example, a target phrase in the title was a must. You needed a compelling meta description and a healthy density for your target phrases. Friendly URLs gave you a leg up on the competition, and you wanted links — lots of well-placed links — pointing to relevant content within the text. (Obviously, as the understanding of SEO increased, strategies evolved, and more competition made it harder to work the system. But the primary tactics remained the same.)

Most of these techniques are still important today. But what you’ll notice is that none of them have anything to do with the actual quality of the information presented; the articles in question could be absolute drivel. As a result, you didn’t have to pump out top-notch content to be found in search; you just had to optimize the hell out of it. But search engines like Google have begun to catch on to this act, and they are no longer willing to play along.

Google’s goal of higher-quality search results is nothing new. It’s what led to backlinks becoming the holy grail of SEO supremacy. Google basically considers every backlink a “vote” for the content it’s pointing to, with the idea being that any article someone felt compelled to link to must be pretty good (or in the case of Rebecca Black’s Friday video, exceptionally bad).

Now, with the latest updates to Google Panda, the search giant is moving even further toward refining its algorithm to return the best content possible. Even the charismatic overload of SEOmoz himself, Rand Fishkin, admitted that the job of an SEO specialist has been upgraded to web strategist with these recent changes.

So with these ideas in mind, here are five things content marketers can focus on to improve their search visibility going forward.

  1. Social media marketing – Google’s Matt Cutts actually named this as one of his top SEO strategies for 2011. Just as backlinks are meant to speak to a page’s quality, content that is shared over and over again makes an even stronger case for its value. There is evidence that Google now factors links from Twitter and Facebook into its algorithm, and content shared in Google+ has had an undeniable impact on search results and clicks, particularly for users who are logged in.
  2. Internal linking – With all the hoopla over external backlinks, it’s easy to forget that sound internal linking throughout your site is important as well. Make efforts to link to relevant content using keyword-rich anchor text, and monitor your site for 401 error pages and dropped links that could send users on a wild good chase.
  3. Analytical data – Rumor has it that Google has also begun paying attention to metrics, like average time on page, pages per visit, and click-through rates, as determinants in search. A high bounce rate, where people visit your site and immediately leave for greener pastures, doesn’t speak very highly of your content — an opinion you don’t want search engines to share.
  4. Page load time – Remember, it’s not just about having quality content; it’s about having a quality site as well. Google wants to see websites that provide a good user experience. While site speed may not have a direct effect on rankings initially, pages that take forever to load won’t do you any favors. If your site is running a bit sluggishly, get on the horn with your webmaster and see if there’s a way to speed things up.
  5. Better content – This is the obvious one, but creating content that’s both interesting and engaging is the real key to hitting each of the points listed above. Take the time to research your audience, find the topics they care most about, and keep an eye on what your competition is up to so you don’t fall behind. Everything signals that we are heading toward an age of quality over quantity, so take your time to create content that’s truly insightful rather than pushing out a bunch of junk to boost your stats.

Like it or not, these trends are not likely to change. Cheap SEO tricks may keep you on a search engine hot streak for a while, but sooner or later your luck will run out as Google’s algorithm sends Lawrence Fishburn to pound your page rank back into submission.

As Zach Galifianakis said of counting cards in The Hangover, “It’s not illegal, it’s just frowned upon.” But for content marketers who put an emphasis on keywords over quality content, the true frowns will come as a result of their page ranks.

In the end, the house always wins.