Moving Away from Gaming the System in SEO

Are We Finally Moving Away from Gaming the System in SEO?


As we enter the 2020s, it’s easy to overlook how the internet has become deeply entrenched in our lives.

Google is over two decades old. It has become integral to the way most people use technology and experience the digital world. Businesses have come from’having a website might be a good idea’ to maintaining cross-platform social media presence and battling fiercely for search engine visibility.

Even if you’re not familiar with ‘search engine optimization’ (SEO), you know what it does: essentially determining how pages rank in search engine results for a particular term.

Recent years have brought the issue of algorithm-manipulated disinformation to the forefront of public awareness. Yet SEO has a long and fascinating history of being ‘gamed’ mechanically while trying to evolve to provide better-quality results.

With the impending release of Google’s Core Web Vitals, are we set to finally break away from the gaming of search engines? And what does that mean for the businesses that rely on SEO?

The dark arts of SEO

Google dominates the English-language market. But it isn’t the only search engine. All of them have guidelines and recommended practices for website managers to follow to increase visibility.

Thus, it’s in the website owners’ best intent to take these guidelines into account when designing and developing their websites. And since Google holds the most sway, you could expect the lion’s share of results to be driven by efforts towards complying with their rules.

However, like all other search engines, Google still relies on algorithms. And some marketers have sought to employ practices that exploit the mechanics of those algorithms, while going against their spirit, to boost their SEO rankings.

These practices are known as ‘black hat SEO.’They include link spamming, keyword stuffing, purchasing backlinks, and using misleading redirects. They are frowned upon within the industry but have nonetheless persisted throughout the history of SEO, evolving along with the technology.

Exploits with far-reaching consequences

Resorting to these dark arts in SEO is not only widely discouraged, but can actually result in serious consequences. Once the exploit is discovered, search engines can penalize your site or remove it from the rankings completely.

Even worse, from a brand perspective, you risk turning off consumers altogether. Content that bears the hallmarks of black hat SEO is generated for machine algorithms instead of real people. It makes for a poor user experience, not what you’d like to have associated with your brand.

Still, as the evidence of the last two decades shows us, many feel that the risk is worth the reward. In fact, the use of such tactics has gone well beyond the business of rankings competition and spilt into the domain of swaying voters and disseminating propaganda.

Disinformation of the public has been a growing phenomenon with serious consequences. In recent years, Facebook has increasingly come under fire for its lack of content moderation regarding fake news or hate speech.

Design in the spotlight

Perhaps in an attempt to forestall similar issues, Google has announced that it will be changing its algorithms starting May 2021 with a significant update: Core Web Vitals.

On the surface, the changes seem innocuous and straightforward. The algorithms will look at different metrics to gauge the quality of a site’s ‘page experience.’ These include loading times, interactivity, and visual stability.

The specifics have yet to be made clear, but the real implication here is that Google is taking significant action based on the design aspect.

AI could be trained to negotiate and close a home sale, for instance, and process the necessary paperwork. It could even recognize that you live in Florida and recommend that you get flood insurance as a non-negotiable part of living there.

But AI can’t design a home you’d want to live in the way only humans can. Design requires empathy for the user.

For the homeowner, how does AI anticipate the number of rooms you need, their function, size, layout, and furnishing? For the website viewer, it can guess what content they want to read, but how do they want it to be delivered?

Design is a fundamentally human activity. Google’s announcement shows that they are serious about putting this aspect of websites under a microscope.

They may not get there in 2021, but the trend is underway. Maybe black hat SEO can become sophisticated enough to continue engaging in this arms race, but they will be more expensive, removing the incentive to cheat for many.

Businesses with a legitimate interest in playing by the rules shouldn’t need to worry about the mechanics. Just align with the spirit of SEO, and focus on designing a great user experience. It’s the purveyors of low-quality exploits that need to be scrambling now.