The lessons of the past are the lessons for the future in search engine optimization for news websites

Now and then, I like to take a trip into the memory hole and remind folks what online publishing was like back in “ye olde times”… of the 1990s.

Since I’ve been writing in recent weeks about search engines and how the affect news websites, I thought it worthwhile to remind folks (or tell our younger readers) what life was like in the era B.G. (Before Google). Because where we’ve been often provides some pretty good clues about where we’ll be heading in the future.

Before Google, search engines determined which sites appeared at the top of their search results pages almost exclusively based on what appeared on those webpages themselves. This led to webmasters (a term that I just discovered my autocorrect no longer recognizes – sigh) to pack their HTML code with what they thought were the most popular keywords and phrases that would bring people to that page.

So readers would be scrolling along such pages, then come to a long blank section of whitespace, where the page’s author had typed those keywords, over and over again, but set them in the same font color as the page background so that they would be invisible to a human reader. The words, though, would trigger a favorable placement for those keywords from the search engines.

Google came to dominate the search engine business because it found a way to work around this garbage, and to reward Web pages that actual human beings endorsed, rather than ones whose publishers best played the SEO games of the day.

In the early iteration of Google’s algorithm, a Web page was assigned a score, called “PageRank,” in large part based upon the total number of links pointing to that particular page. The more that other webmasters had chosen to link to a particular page, the higher it placed in Google’s results pages.

You didn’t even need to use a keyword on the page itself. So long as enough other people were using that word in their link to the your page, your page would rank highly in the Google results pages for that term (a phenomenon that came to be known as “Google Bombing”).

To use a phrase from today’s publishing era, Google was using social media to determine the value of a page online.

You don’t need a computer algorithms to parse worthy on-page content from the worthless when millions of Internet readers around the world are doing that with their links, likes, tweets and bookmarks. Just as Google won the 2000s by quantifying the social value of that decade’s most popular way of sharing information – the hyperlink – the search engine that wins the 2010s will be the one that most effectively indexes the social value of all the ways people share webpages today, from blogs to Facebook to Twitter and beyond.

I’m already seeing publishers react to Google’s crackdown on content farms, as my wife and I have been inundated with e-mails from content farmers (heh) who are now begging for in-bound links in an attempt to salvage some Google value for their websites.

My advice to news publishers? As always, think about your community. As I wrote last month, communities drive traffic. As Google and search entrepreneurs look for better ways to index social media, keep your focus on providing news and information that appeals to your community. Then, keep looking for ways to inspire and enable your community to share links to your work with others.

Yes, that means pasting “Like” and “Tweet” buttons on your pages. (See, the bottom of this article for examples.) But you won’t fully engage your community if that’s all you do. Start there, then monitor how people are using those tools. Listen to comments and engage your community in conversation across whatever platforms they use, while repeating links to your site wherever relevant. Remember, the person you’re conversing with knows about the original piece, but the hundreds of other lurkers dropping into the conversation might not. Keep giving out those links.

Unless you’re starting your own search engine, who wins or fails in the search engine business shouldn’t matter to you. You can’t control their algorithms. So don’t waste your time and sanity trying. Stick to two basic techniques: plain English optimization and engaging your community. Do these well, and the search engine referrals will take care of themselves over the long run.

That was true in the 1990s, and the 2000s, and remains true today.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. I would say it’s still worthwhile to find legitimate partners to swap links with and get legit links whenever possible.