The future of SEO is buying people, not links

by Matt Hunter on July 14th, 2011

Search is advancing rapidly. In recent months we’ve seen some significant changes in how search engines rank content.

The link profile of websites is becoming less important, and social data matters more and more. According to a recent survey of search experts by SEOMoz, social interactions, Facebook “Likes” and the volume of people hitting a site may be more important for how a site ranks than is the actual content on the site.

Commentator Steve Olenski recently drew some of the connections between other developments. Google search results are now not only personalised to logged-in users, but also take account of the people in the users social circle, favouring content that friends and people followed on Twitter may have mentioned or recommended

SEO is dead?
If “old” factors such as the links pointing at a website are becoming less important and search results are being determined more by how people interact online, what is the future for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) companies and experts?

Some people claim “SEO is dead”. All the old techniques to game the system no longer work, or have such a short shelf live they aren’t worth chasing. Building a high-ranking website today is only possible using a range of “white hat” tactics –add great content, cultivate great user communities, build great products - that have more to do with running a great business than they do exploiting Google per se. If you believe this line of reasoning, search experts who used to conduct link building and content building campaigns with great bravado should really just step aside and let social media, PR and product development experts run the show.
Same game, different pieces
But I have another view. SEO isn’t dead, it just needs updating. If search engine rankings are increasingly determined by people rather than links, SEO techniques need to follow. Here are the big differences in mindset between “link SEO” and “people SEO”. The two main ideas are:

1. Attract social interactions – not links
In the old world, links to websites were a proxy for votes from people. Today, people vote directly using “Likes, “+1s” and “Tweets”; and the amount of time spent on site. The job of SEOs will change from acquiring links to acquiring Social interactions.

2. PeopleRank, not PageRank
Google used to calculate the importance of a website based on the number of inbound links and the importance of the sites they came from (PageRank). Now, Google monitors the authority of individuals using and talking about a site and determines their social importance based on their own followings (PeopleRank).

Not link farms – people farms
Once these basic rules are understood, old ideas can be updated for the new world. The most interesting idea is the “people farm”: a resource of millions of virtual users that an SEO can call upon to generate +1s and Likes and Page Impressions, driving sites up in search rankings.

In the old days, SEO developers would create “link farms” and “link wheels” with links mutually reinforcing one another. In the new era, SEOs will build communities of “virtual users” to fake social interactions en masse.
Whereas link farms required SEOs to develop lots of different web properties, “people farms” will require SEOs to install spam-bot applications on millions of home PCs, controlled using centralised servers or peer-to-peer strategies.
Whereas link farms had to be disguised by adding links to properties outside of the spam network, “virtual users” will disguise themselves by surfing regular websites and even interacting with real human users.
SEOs used to try to buy a mix of links of different PageRanks to ensure a natural looking link profile on a website. Now, SEOs will need to ensure they gain a range of users (real and virtual) with different levels of PeopleRank
Google used to track the speed with which links were acquired to gauge whether they were natural or not. Today, the pace with which sites attract +1s and Like will be a sign of natural or forced growth.
Other techniques have their “people”-SEO equivalent. Whereas once SEOs purchased links from high PageRank sites, now they might purchase Tweets from high PeopleRank celebrities. (see http://Adl.y for an example in action)

Can people-based SEO really work?
Cultivating fake social interactions with “people farms” and celebrity endorsements won’t be a total answer. Until now, ranking content based on links and the votes of millions of web users has relied upon the “wisdom of crowds”. People farms follow in this tradition. However, as Google personalises search to the individual and the interactions and tastes of each individual’s community become key in governing their personal results, Google are leaving “crowds” behind and embracing the “wisdom of friends”.

The next challenge for black hat SEO therefore is just to infiltrate Google with virtual users who can spoof millions of votes, but to infiltrate the friendship circles of every individual user…

A spy in every Facebook and Google + account? Impossible?

Time will tell.

Posted in Random, SEO    Tagged with no tags


Steve - July 21st, 2011 at 6:38 AM
Hi Matt, great post. I think I know the SEOmoz post that you're referring to - I saw your comments on there. Small world! Funnily enough, another guy who's interviewed me for an SEO job was commenting on there too, haha!

I agree with your viewpoints and I love your coining of "PeopleRank." I don't think it'll ever replace or kill the link and/or link metrics (such as PageRank), especially as spammers hone in on social SEO as well (arguably, "people farms" already exist, in the form of fake Twitter followers, bought 'likes,' etc.)

With more and more factors coming into and playing a part with SEO (with Google seemingly making these types of changes on an almost daily basis these days), I think Google with combine and merge the two - the link will become less important insofar as it'll become less valuable with social citations gaining prominence as a new SEO factor. In order to adapt, so long as a website has all of its bases covered - with good on-site content and good links, as well as a good social standing via the various social media platforms - then I think that'll be the way to rank successfully going forward.
Matt Hunter - July 21st, 2011 at 12:10 PM
Hi Steve

It is indeed a small world!

I think you are right about this stuff merging. Have you seen Klout? There a few businesses out there at the moment who seem to be setting themselves up as suppliers of "PeopleRank" type metrics - maybe they hope to get acquired by Google.

For me, I think the way Google are personalising search results with data from your social network is the biggest problem for building a spambot army... It means so much more if you get a SERP and a result says underneath it "YourFriend recommended this". That's a lot of trust going on there, and spambots will struggle to match it.

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