chessGuest post by Lee Frederiksen, managing partner at Hinge Marketing

At Hinge, one of our recent studies examined the online marketing tactics of high growth professional services firms. In our research, professional services executives ranked a search engine optimization strategy as the single most effective online marketing tool a firm could implement. Successful firms recognize that SEO is fundamental, but the discipline is changing so quickly that once-powerful strategies are now sometimes actively damaging.

If you spend much time in online marketing communities, you’ve probably already aware that we’ve entered a new era in SEO, ushered in under the dual signs of the Hummingbird, Penguin, and Panda. You may have heard folks cheering the changes or despairing over them. Often, these reactions say a good deal about the practices of the speaker prior to Google’s algorithm updates. But many honest, well-intentioned marketers have been taken by surprise.

The most successful firms will have to adapt in order to remain effective. But what’s really changed in SEO in the last year, and what does it mean for your online marketing strategies going forward?

Life after Hummingbird

Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, recently joined us at Hinge to deliver an outstanding webinar on the way search is changing. One of the most important takeaways is that Google has taken a decisive turn toward privileging quality over quantity. This new ethos manifests in many critical ways.

Take keywords, for example. We’ve all seen blog posts and site copy where keywords didn’t just lead the content, it completely replaced it, turning into an incoherent soup of keyword cram. This kind of optimization just isn’t going to do the trick anymore. Now, Google attempts to return results for naturalistic or “semantic” queries like “How do you build a snowman?” That means the newest iterations of the algorithm try to get a more complete, contextualized picture of any given page ­­– and return the most robust, useful results.

There’s a similar story for linkbuilding. Older linkbuilding strategies that put more emphasis on volume than quality now not only sputter, they sometimes actively work against you in search rankings. The sheer number of links to your site is much less important than the kind of links – links from quality, highly-trafficked sites and vibrant, authentic social media sharing.

Spammy linkbuilding tactics are no longer just shortsighted and cynical. They’re self-destructive, too. Many times low-quality links now have to be removed in order to improve site rankings. Going forward, more thoughtful and sustainable strategies for earning links from others must diligently emphasize substance and merit. Guest-blogging remains a viable strategy, for example, but it absolutely must mean posting high-quality material on high-quality blogs, and not allowing “high-quality” to become a buzzword.

The new rules, same as the old. (But smarter.)

When some SEOs talk about Hummingbird (and Panda and Penguin before it), you’ll occasionally catch a note of resentment – a sense that Google has pulled the rug out from underneath them, changing the game halfway through.

After a long day of reviewing bad links, anyone would be grumpy. Maybe some bitterness is understandable. But it misses the point. Google and other search engine creators have no incentive to create an indefinitely reliable set of optimization rules. Almost the opposite: they want to deliver an ever-increasingly reliable way for people to find what they’re searching for. And that means you can count on the letter of SEO law continually evolving in an ongoing series of tweaks and leaps.

But the spirit of the law? That’s going to remain steady for a good long while. Search engines will continue to privilege material that is useful. Not a stream of fleeting Quality Content™, which may sometimes have its place but can’t last in search on account of its own ubiquity. Instead, sincere writing that solves an enduring problem, rather than mechanically retweeting and then forgetting forever. With a thoughtful strategy, some common sense, and a functional nonsense filter, it’s entirely possible to stay ahead of the curve.

Lee W. Frederiksen, Ph.D., is Managing Partner at Hinge, a marketing firm that specializes in branding and marketing for professional services. Hinge is a leader in rebranding firms to help them grow faster and maximize value.