Today, a stakeholder contacted me with a request that I hadn’t heard in so long, it almost sounded antiquated. He wanted to know “what I could do” to make a certain page rank well for a rather broad-scoped term (“small business”). The page in question was no more than a laundry list of about a dozen off-site links, with no original content native to the site itself.

About two years ago, I attended a presentation hosted by PhillyCHI, a Philadelphia-based user experience group. The speaker was talking about search, specifically the pitfalls of SEO. One of his quotes has continued to resonate with me since: “Everyone ranks well for something. So what [terms] do you want to be known for?” This statement goes both ways: you can strive to have your site appear high in the roster of results for vague terms like “small business” (which is an unenviable and Herculean task), or focus on making sure you’re targeting the right audiences by crafting your content appropriately.

In other words, in order to rank well, and I mean truly well, you need to have the real deal: relevant, original content that is well-written, thoughtfully organized, and regularly updated.

These attributes have always been hallmarks of a solid web presence, but clever blackhat tricks allowed the chaff to be more visible than the wheat. It’s what gave SEO and SEM the dark marks and shady reputations they continue to bear today.

Search algorithms are much cleverer these days, however. You can’t tweak the page code or load the content with keywords to artificially inflate the importance of your site; doing so is a fast track to getting your site blacklisted, banned, or worse. Google’s PageRank, once a barometer of success, is now considered to be pretty much irrelevant. Social media mentions in search results are fast becoming a real-time ticker stream of user-contributed content.

These changes are all welcome, as far as I’m concerned. As the trickery which can be used to abuse SEO and SEM becomes circumvented by evolving search engine algorithms and the rise of social media channels, clients and content owners become more culpable for the success of their sites. It’s given the web designers and developers of the world something akin to absolution of guilt, insofar as search rankings are concerned. The folks who come to us with ideas on how they want to launch “world class websites” and have them be on the first page of Google now need to make certain they have the means, budget, and resources to generate solid content and keep up with the workload. Otherwise, they have little or no chance of true success.

This doesn’t mean us web designers and developers can relax on our laurels; good content strategy, information architecture, and solid, semantic coding remain as vital as ever to making sure those clever little spiders can still do their indexing.