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Just Like Detroit: SEO Is Learning to Engage

I love Detroit. I used to think I was the only one, but people around here are starting to get engaged. Starting — it’s a slow process — but between projects like Detroit Works and cultural phenomenon like the wave of artists moving into the Russell Industrial Center, the people around here are starting to re-develop that sense of being involved in the world…of engagement.

And just like Detroit, SEO people are starting to recognize one of the biggest truths of living under Panda and Penguin: engagement is key to success. In this case, of course, we’re talking about engaging your visitors, and by ‘engage’ I mean ‘get them to stick around and fiddle with your website.’

A few years ago, before the black-and-white iconic tyrants took over China Google the Internet, SEO was all about building backlinks. (Before that, it was all about modifying metatags and guiding spiders…man, that was a long time ago.) But today, backlinks are being depreciated — not all of them, but Google has explicitly said that any backlink that’s deliberately built for the purposes of affecting SERPs, even if that’s not the backlink’s main purpose, is in violation of the guidelines.

In other words, SEO has been separated from link building, and has become synonymous with…what?


This shouldn’t be any kind of surprise — Google has been using engagement metrics to determine the “Quality Score” of it’s AdWords campaigns’ landing pages for years. That they would apply the same logic to SEO is almost inevitable.

What are ‘engagement metrics’?
That’s in debate — and of course, Google doesn’t want us to know, because then we could figure out a way to game them. (Don’t believe me? Just recollect that at one point Google said that it was invulnerable to link spam…) Here, however, are some really good candidates:

  • Clicks from SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)
  • Pages per visit
  • Time on site
  • Page load time
  • Returning Visitors
  • Bounce rate

In short, rather than optimizing search engines, SEO is turning into a game of optimizing user experience. There will be those clients who decide to attempt to improve engagement metrics by providing awesome products and services and combining them with amazing articles and great content — and there will be those who want to improve their stats by implementing Skinner boxes and other psychological ‘tricks’ to keep people on their page (and returning to their page).

You can bet that in a few years, those guys will be black hats, too.

In the meantime, SEO and Detroit are in the same place: struggling to figure out what exactly keeps people interested in what they’re doing. Until we figure it out, we’re stuck in Google’s “all backlinks are blackhat” void, choosing between doing something ‘wrong’ and doing nothing effective.

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