On June 12, version 3.0 of the Payday Loan algorithm went live, and the effect on some of the search results couldn't be funnier:
Because, as we all know, the user intends to find 2 Wikipedia listings at the top of the page when they search "online casinos." I'm sure they're also looking for Wikipedia when they search for "payday loans:"
But, to me, what's most revealing about the Payday Loan algorithm is the fact that it exists at all.
What's most fascinating to me is the fact that Payday Loan 3.0 officially targets "very spammy queries" according to Matt Cutts, as opposed to spammy "sites," the way that Payday Loan 2.0 does, which was launched just a few weeks ago.
What has been clear from the beginning about these updates is that they are meant to target spammy industries like payday loans, casinos, pills, and porn.
I would wager a guess that Payday Loan 2.0 specifically targeted sites that target queries from a list of manually identified "spammy" keywords. I would further wager that Payday Loan 3.0 specifically applies a different set of rules when the user searches for a query that belongs to that same list of manually identified keywords.
Here's the clincher. What all of this means is that Google can not reliably identify spam. They don't feel comfortable unleashing this algorithm on their entire index, or for all queries. They know that the false positive rate is too high, and that it would, in general, make their search results look worse.
Some would argue that, for the queries in question, it does make the search results worse.
Near as I can tell, this seems to be an admission of defeat, at least for the time being. They can't reliably fight spam algorithmically. Google intends to scare black hats out of the game by making it risky and unpredictable. They don't intend to actually eliminate the spam from their search results.
In fact, I don't see much reason for them to announce the updates at all unless the goal is to use fear to fight spam.
Where Am I Going With This?
If you've been following this blog, you should already know that I'm not advocating "black hat" tactics. It's not worth putting your site and your brand at risk for the sake of showing up in search results, especially when the tactics you use could actually hurt your reputation with consumers and damage the user experience.
The organic search industry has fallen prey to a slew of myths, among them the idea that Google is some kind of omniscient entity that will reward you simply for creating great content or being a good digital marketer outside the realm of SEO.
Make no mistake, the best SEO tactics are the ones that also work well outside of SEO.
But updates like this Payday Loan algorithm, which target only a tiny subset of Google's user queries and index, tell us that Google's main algorithm is anything but all-knowing.
Penguin tells us very much the same thing. It takes months for a new Penguin update to go live.
So here's my point.
SEO is still optimization.
While you don't want to spam your site with exact match anchor text links or create dozens of pages with slight keyword variations, there are a lot of things you still need to spell out for Google.
Perhaps at some point in the future "organic search marketer" will become a more useful title than SEO, but we're not there yet. SEO is still very much about proper markup, keyword research, site hierarchy, and hypertext links.
There is certainly such a thing as putting search optimization before user optimization, and I wouldn't recommend doing it.
That doesn't mean you should toss out search optimization altogether.