December 17, 2016

SEO in 2017: Human Enjoyment Optimization

Human enjoyment optimization is a mindset shift in SEO. The future of marketing involves a change in how companies, marketers, and content writers plan, structure, and create content.

  • It focuses less on search engines and more on readers.
  • It focuses less on companies and more on consumers.
  • It focuses less on tactics and more on people.

What is SEO?

Before we talk about human enjoyment optimization, we need to understand where SEO came from.

Search engine optimization is the process of getting more traffic from the organic search results of search engines, primarily Google.

Simple definition, complex process.

Allow me to tell a story. Imagine you work at a large organization in the marketing or upper leadership level. Your organization develops technology that allows medical students to practice surgeries and other procedures in a virtual reality environment.

You’re doing decently well; your customers like your product and word spreads about your company. Beyond that, for a more proactive approach, you have a small sales team that follows up on leads that come in through your presence at trade shows and conferences.

Your data tells exactly the same story. After some light digging, you notice that people only come to your website by typing in your URL, or just by Googling your name.

But what about the people who don’t know about you? What are they searching for? They’re certainly active on the Internet, but they’re probably not searching for the exact phrase that your company uses to describe yourself.

They’re searching for related terms like health tech, medical e-learning, and virtual surgery.

You realize there’s a huge opportunity to tap into those conversations. After all, you are the experts.

You start creating content that answers questions people are asking about those topics, with answers that are so authoritative that Google sees you as the best source for information on that topic.

Take a look at your analytics, and the result is clear: more people come to your site.

Talk with some of your customers, and the real story begins to emerge: more people come to your site, who then recognize your company as the one that can answer their question, the one who knows what they’re talking about, and the one that can help them with their needs.

Congratulations, you’ve just discovered the real value of search engine optimization.

How It All Began

There’s a lot of information on the web.

Way back in the 90s, some really smart people thought it would be helpful to organize the information available on the Internet, which is an excellent idea! A few folks put together search engines of the websites that they could find by hand.

As you can imagine, that didn’t last long.

Fast forward to 1997. Yahoo is still primarily human-based, but supplements results with the help of a new technology called “web crawlers” if humans haven’t gotten to the right pages yet.

A year later, Google introduces PageRank, its algorithm for ranking websites. PageRank is neat because it looks at one thing to determine the value of a website: incoming links. If other sites are linking to a specific page, that page must be valuable, or at least popular.

How It All Went Wrong

Enter opportunistic marketers.

Marketing took a weird turn along with the turn of the century. With the release of PageRank and Google’s growing popularity, a new crop of marketers figured out that if they got more inbound links, Google would rank their website better, and more people would come to their website. In an age of overwhelming digital ads in the form of blinking banners and glaring sidebar ads, that meant more revenue (but that’s another story.)

Particularly traffic-hungry website owners didn’t wait around for other sites to link to them. They deployed a number of tactics, ranging from investing in more domains to link back to their main one, to paying other site owners to connect to their site.

Marketplaces even popped up for website owners to buy and sell Internet links.

The result was any site owned by someone with enough money to spend on these shady tactics would be shown in Google results, even if they were the least helpful and least likely to actually give searchers the information they wanted (which became likely).

So Google changed its algorithm to put more emphasis on sites that actually contained the keywords searchers were searching for.

That opened a whole new can of worms. Websites started putting keywords everywhere they could fit them in (known as keyword stuffing), leading to almost unreadable content. Some clever folks even tried new tactics like stuffing keywords in small text the same color as the page background. For example, highlight this text: Keywords are great, keywords are mine, I have all the keywords, keywords. Sneaky!

The story goes on like this for quite a while. Website owners and marketers would come up with a new tactic to take advantage of Google’s algorithm, and Google would take notice and adjust or penalize offenders, in an ongoing cycle.

In fact, in 2006, Google famously handed BMW a major penalty for using a technique known as cloaking: showing search engines an entirely different website than the one shown to users.

How Google Got Back On Course

If you know much about the digital world, you’ve likely heard about Google’s Panda and Penguin.

Have a bug problem in your house? You can squash bugs all you want, and in the end, you’ll have fewer bugs, but you’ll have to keep squashing every time you see one. Or, you can clean your counters of the mess you made cooking last month and seal the cracks around your doors.

With Panda and Penguin, Google took the latter approach, after years of the former.

In February of 2011, Google released an update to its search algorithm that it called Panda, which included a number of mechanisms to prevent sites with low-quality content from earning top rankings.

In April of 2012, Google released another update, called Penguin, that actively punishes websites that bring in links from low-quality websites.

The result was a huge shake-up in rankings, including improvement for websites that focused on creating quality content that actually answered the questions of searchers. After all, that’s Google’s goal.

Similarly, in April of 2015, Google updated its algorithm in a move colloquially known as “mobilegeddon.” This update favored websites that are mobile-friendly, marking a turning point in Google focusing on user experience in more than just content.

The Future of SEO: Human Enjoyment Optimization

INBOUND is an annual marketing conference in Boston, put on by HubSpot. It’s a gathering of the world’s most passionate, creative marketers. PHOS attended this year’s INBOUND, and it was a fantastic experience. One of our favorite takeaways was from Dharmesh Shah, one of the co-founders of HubSpot.

In our narrative of the story of SEO, we’re intensely interested in the future of what’s now become not just a tactic, but an industry. What are the opportunities in front of us as marketers, and how will Google continue to hone its algorithm to reward marketers who create killer content?

Dharmesh put a name on a concept that we’ve been discussing every time we talk about SEO: Human Enjoyment Optimization.

Human Enjoyment Optimization is the future of SEO.

SEO today is entirely unrecognizable from what it was a decade ago, and that’s a really good thing.

Today, truly great and truly effective digital marketing comes from people, for people.

HubSpot’s been saying for years that success with inbound marketing and sales is much more dependent on the width of your brain than the width of your wallet. In fact, that’s another quote from Dharmesh himself!

We’d take that a step further.

Success with inbound marketing and sales is dependent on your capacity to connect with people.

Is SEO Dead?


In February of 2005, Jeremy Schoemaker published a 176-word blog post entitled “SEO is dead.” Since then, along with major Google algorithm updates, marketers and writers alike have taken to proclaiming SEO dead.

Let’s be clear: SEO is not dead. If you’ll notice, Dharmesh’s statement doesn’t say, “Human Enjoyment Optimization is the new SEO.” It says, “The way to win at SEO is to focus on HEO.”

As long as Google uses an algorithm to crawl, read, recognize, and rank web content, there will always be a benefit to creating the type of content that ranks well.

SEO still involved properly structuring the components of your website for search engines to be able to read. For example, having proper title tags and meta descriptions that are crafted strategically to be recognized as relevant by search engines, and that people actually want to click on. You’ll always need to make sure Google is indexing your site in the first place, and that you have an XML sitemap, alt tags that explain what images are, and much more.

That’s the technical side of SEO, and it will always evolve, and never die. On the content side, in 2017 and beyond, the type of content that ranks well will be the content that is created for humans to enjoy.

So what does that mean for marketers today? Start planning.

Find Out What Your Clients and Prospects are Searching For

Not just when they’re looking for the immediate solution that you provide, but when they’re asking questions that you can help them answer.

Keyword research plays a huge role in this process, but so does actually talking with your clients. Pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Chat about your industry, their industry, and their needs (people love talking about themselves.) Turn that information into a buyer persona that can help you guide your marketing.

Find Out What You’re Really Good At

What is the unique value proposition of your company? What’s your mission? What kind of content can help further that mission, what questions can you definitively answer, and what unique viewpoints do your company’s experiences and expertise give you?

Plan, Structure, and Create Content That Answers Questions

And remember, the way to win at search engine optimization is to focus on human enjoyment optimization.

Jon Saxton

Jon Saxton

Jon recognizes passion and works to convey that in powerful ways. With an eye toward what could be and an understanding of how, he brings energy and ideas to everything he works with.