As much as it would pay off for the industry to sometimes consider the longer term picture, Search Engine Optimisation thankfully isn’t rocket-science. Because space is what it is (or perhaps, it is what it isn’t) a space agency’s biggest plays rely on events of exceptional precision separated by years of patience.
One curious dimension of this is that the cutting edge tech you strap to a rocket at lift-off will be well behind the curve when the equipment actually reaches its destination. The arrival of NASA’s Juno probe after five years has made us rather introspective about tech in our own industry: it makes us wonder – if NASA conducted its mission with SEO tactics still widely in use in 2011, just how far would it go?
Google has spent most of its history trying to make keyword stuffing less effective, but even five years ago it wasn’t uncommon to see transparently high value market terms inserted into every second sentence of a piece of copy. The last five years have seen a far more mature approach to keyword utilisation develop in the digital marketing community: the practice of filling a page with every keyword that content could possibly rank for is widely accepted to be bad for user experience.
The Juno spacecraft becomes the world’s first SEO optimised rocket, emblazoned with high volume terms such as “fast rocket”, “world’s fastest probe 2011” and “best space agency”. Though minimal, the extra weight of the solvent ink used to print this enduring message to the cosmos requires enough extra fuel that several instruments called for in the original mission statement are omitted from the final specification.
In the early part of the current decade, content creation meant “write a 300 word article, cut it up into sentences, add three links, re-write each of the sentences five times and get a machine to stitch it back together”. Many SEOs used services that would manage the distribution of these “spun articles” across hundreds of obscure blogs – recognisable by their distinct uniform of default WordPress templates. On reflection, the tactic worked for longer than one would expect.
In order to achieve escape velocity from the Earth’s gravitational pull, 256 rockets were created. These rockets were composed of a range of slightly different, interchangeable components and launched from various decommissioned rocket silos/abandoned backlots all owned by one guy. The centrifugal forces generated by these simultaneously orbiting rockets cause the laws of physics to “give up and go home just like in that 1978 Superman movie”, leading to a successful escape.
Engineers spend the next five years cleaning up the remains of the 255 poorly made rockets now in low-earth orbit.
When the use of article spinning networks finally started resulting in site penalties for those that used them, guest blogging emerged as a low-volume, relatively legitimate alternative. Networks popped into existence offering access to blogs taking posts on various subjects – and SEOs started to pile on the sites with the highest “authority” metrics, regardless of the quality of content posted there or the relevance of the site to the backlinks they hoped to gain. In 2014, the then Google Webspam team head Matt Cutts exasperatedly declared that “guest blogging is done”, stating that “only the barest trace of legitimate behaviour remains”.
In order to access the outer solar system, Juno attempts a gravity assist manoeuvre by passing a large asteroid full of junk articles written by employees at all the world’s major space agencies. One of the crowbars used to insert the key word “electric heaters” into a review about the 2010 hit film “How to Train Your Dragon” collides with the probe, jeopardising the mission.
By 2011 the writing was already on the wall for PageRank – it hads been removed from the Google Webmaster Tools interface in 2009 and updates had become infrequent. This didn’t stop clients (and plenty of SEOs) continuing to fixate on it: article networks and guest posting blogs would tout their PageRank as if it still had meaning, and many client reports optimistically featured the metric in order to prove the value of link building efforts.
Halfway to Jupiter, NASA realises that they could have got results more cheaply, easily and accurately by putting probes in orbit around Venus and Mars. The mission director simply overlooked this on the basis that Jupiter was clearly the largest planet in Usborne’s First Encyclopaedia of Space.
While search personalisation was most certainly a reality in 2011, there was still a feeling that “unpersonalised” results were still entirely meaningful, that they represented a base line from which personalisation was drawn. In the intervening years, the fidelity of Google’s local search features and the increased differentiation of Google’s desktop and mobile SERPs have eroded the usefulness of keyword rankings.
Against all the odds, Juno is successfully in orbit around Jupiter and beaming back data. There wasn’t enough room for complex mass-spectrometers and high resolution cameras, but at least it’s out there, orbiting Jupiter. Perhaps Jovian businessmen will stumble across it at exactly the time they’re making a big service decision about quality space agencies. Someone has to click all that exact match anchor text, right?
Later that day, President Barack Obama angrily telephones mission control and demands to know why the United States is no longer #1 for ‘Rocket’.
Juno over Jupiter by Flickr user Kevin Gill