Search has come a long way. In the 90s, search engines were little more than glorified directories, with such limited resources and feeble technology that it could take them days, or even weeks, to discover new URLs.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Google has evolved from a simple database of websites to a fully-fledged content portal; one powered by a hugely complex algorithm that delivers what it considers the most relevant results based on over 200 different metrics.
These listings aren’t limited to webpages either; Google’s ever-expanding catalogue includes video, image and map results, and it is able to recognise an increasingly diverse range of “entities”; including movies, books, patents, and physical places.
Google now delivers the most relevant and up-to-date results
A look at how Google handles news now, compared to at the turn of the century, is a perfect example of how far search has progressed.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Google linked to articles on the Washington Post and CNN from its homepage, and instructed users looking for news reports to read those rather than searching.
This was because Google had no news search engine and its results displayed no evidence of the tragedy. It simply wasn’t capable of catering to users wanting the latest updates.
These days, if you do a search for even the most minor of stories, you’ll see the latest articles at the top of your search results, sourced from a huge variety of publications.
Even if news has just broken, you can bank on Google providing coverage; a far cry from the static links it had to resort to in the wake of September 11.
SEO means understanding the Internet and everything that comes with it
With search advancing at such a rapid rate, it’s only natural that contemporary search engine optimisation (SEO) is a significantly different beast from that of even five years ago.
The responsibilities of modern SEO stretch far beyond keyword research and link building; to carve out a career in search, one needs to cultivate an exhaustive understanding of the Internet and all its types of content.
A background in advertising, marketing or writing isn’t a prerequisite, but understanding consumer psychology, and the intricacies of language, certainly wouldn’t hurt your chances.
Getting results in SEO is all about gaining an edge wherever possible. It’s about having greater knowledge than your rivals and using this to your advantage. The most successful SEOs are better informed and more efficient than the rest of the pack.
Almost anyone can do basic SEO – build a couple of links here, optimise a few page titles there – but learning how to use search to its full potential usually requires that one invest hundreds of hours trawling the web, reading articles and studying forum discussions.
The hardest thing for any SEO learning their craft is finding the time to obtain information that is correct and current. There are literally thousands of blog posts on auditing, link building, and optimisation, which can make finding the most relevant content an arduous task.
When you’ve got a client breathing down your neck, or a rival business eating into your bottom line, that’s a luxury you don’t have. Similarly, when you’re learning on the job, it’s not often you’ll have time to give templates and processes as much consideration as you’d like.
The evolution of search doesn’t show any signs of slowing up either. Google’s launch of Search, Plus Your World in January signalled its intent to leverage Social Media to enrich its results.
In the past a change on this scale was extremely rare, but earlier this month Google made world headlines again when it introduced the Knowledge Graph.
This technology interprets information and data from across the web and uses this to answer queries about landmarks, celebrities, sports teams, and more.
This reflects how Google is developing a deeper understanding of the web; one that goes far beyond viewing it as linear network of interlinked pages.
It’s now able to identify relationships between different pieces of content and can use this insight to build “entities” within search. This adds an additional layer to the presentation of its search results; one that I imagine will, sooner or later, have a bearing on what goes on behind the scenes.
Bing’s developments haven’t been as extensive or well publicised, but they aren’t standing still either. They’ve got their own take on Social Search, and a new three column layout due any day now.
All of which makes the life of SEOs busy and stressful, but more than a little exciting. It’s a good time to be working in search.
Tim Withers is the head of SEO at Quirk