I read an excellent article today discussing problematic misunderstandings of search engine optimization. The article, by Jennifer Laycock, discusses what the author calls the "Pinocchio Effect". This analogy seems like a great way to begin to explain the contemporary function of search engine optimization.

One major problem is the baggage of past methods in search engine marketing. The environment of older search engines and the techniques to build that site became an enormous presence in the world of web design. The core belief was always building higher rankings for a site. All the marketing spiel grew around this essential intention – without consideration for the value of the site. What arose from this were dozens of questionable techniques which added to the ranking of a site without addressing the value of the site as an information resource.

The situation was untenable. What is lost when marketing is spent on search engines instead of people? This is where the idea of the Pinocchio effect comes in:

You see, deep down, search engines want nothing more than to be real boys (or girls). That’s right, it’s that simple. As search engine engineers gain more and more ability to tailor the algorithms, their ultimate goal is to help the search engines make choices the way that people do.

Jennifer Laycock

Search engines were once based entirely on numbers (well, technically, this is still true – but bear with me). They counted inbound links, measured keywords, and decided on a rank. And everybody knew it. The careful, considerate website with well-composed content was lost in a rubbish pile of empty spam tins.

So search engines have become more sophisticated – and will continue to analyze more and more carefully to try and keep their databases clean. In order for the search engine to be successful, they need to do the best possible job at delivering real content to their users. This means culling out those sites which attempt to artificially inflate their ranking.

Your ROI is not going to be based on how many hits you receive – it will be based on how many customers purchase your products. A site which is designed purely to appeal to machine-driven statistical algorithms is much less likely to appeal to a human visitor, and, in the long run, is likely to eventually scare away the more human-like machines.

The development of algorithms which can understand contextual uses of terminology, called latent semantic indexing, and the long tail keyword strategy have created an environment which favors natural language and consistency.