I haven't posted here on WebmasterWorld in quite some time but this discussion was one I wanted to enter, so thank you for starting it. :)
Before I say what I think, let me give you a little background. I've worked in our industry for quite some time. I've abused all of the major search engines when it was appropriate to do so towards my and my client's business goals. Many of them no longer exist in their old form and some of them don't even exist in name anymore. I still miss the Norwegian Fast engine but can happily live without many of it's predecessors and contemporaries.
I've also taken direct payment from many of the major search engines at one time or another. Often for their own requirements in abusing another engine's algo.
I've gamed the system to rank #1 and often #1 to #10; for everything from "underpants to pull in, whether you're after a girl or a guy" , "poker", "payday loans", "mortgages" and and a myriad of every other widget phrases, whether they be red, green, yellow or often polka dot in colour.
All the while though the core fundamental wasn't about getting a ranking. It wasn't about being #1.
The rankings we chased were simply markers to our ultimate goal, metrics to measure against.
#*$!..... I didn't even care about the sales. The only stat that matters was the one the ATM told me - How much money do I have?
For most clients, their ultimate goal was very similar. It just happened to be that money meant sales and sales meant rankings....and dependant on when they wanted these rankings that often meant rankings meant links, content, both or a manipulation of one kind of another.
The rare times when rankings weren't to increase sales it was all about presence and part of the larger game of IPO and perception of importance in a brand. There were also some time, and I am talking soon after the turn of the century here, that negative aspects were the goal, again for stock market and share price reasons....
If you knew a company got a load of its sales via direct SE referral and you could effect that, then surely it would be a worth shorting them prior to their quarterly numbers?
Anyway, I digress....
The reason for the waffling, rabbling trip down memory lane is that it didn't matter what the search engine was who was "King" or "Queen" every ranking that came (and many that didn't) were simply a guide to the only stat that mattered. Yup, it's the ATM machine number again.....
Every SEO campaign that was thought about was simply a channel to try and get that ATM magic number higher. It was rarely the only channel but normally it was highly prized and had more focus than other channels, purely because the RoI was much, much higher.
IE - If we asked the simple question, "Where does spending a buck get most bucks back?" The answer kept being Search, search, search and search.
But.... that doesn't mean that once you get the visit you wanted the sale and that was it.... SPAM was fine to get the rankings, but what if you could turn those rankings you earned through abusing this 3rd party's web site algo, into a long term customer - We call this conversion optimisation now but but then it was simply thought of as common sense.
Common sense hasn't gone away and never will. People who run sites now just may not be in the position to gain a ranking like they used to be able to. That's not new. Many years ago, people couldn't rank in Google but they had an easy time on Excite.
Things change. People change. Algos change (although not that much for quite some time) but the metric that matters hasn't....
The ATM machine algo...The only stat that matters.
I haven't directly tried to rank a site for quite some time. I've advised others and helped them move their own rankings but ask yourself this. if the leading search engine wasn't there what would happen?
Well lots of people would say Social - I'd say BS, but that wouldn't stop people saying it.
Lots of people would say email - I'd say yes, but no, but yes but no...
Lots of people would say - PPC
Lots of people would say - Media buys
Lots of people would say - phone calls
Lots of people would say - snail mail
Lots of people would say - Conversion Optimisation
Lots of people would say - SMS marketing
Lots of people would say - word of mouth
Lots of people would say - tv
Lots of people would say - radio
Lots of people would say lots and lots and lots of things.
And all of them would be right.
But they'd also be wrong, because when all is said and done, nothing has changed. People buy from people. People buy from people who understand them and People buy from people they are comfortable with.
Quite simply, to hit the "Only Stat that matters, the ATM algo" you need to understand your prospect, every single fu**ing one of them, You need to treat them as the person they are and you need to hit them with the right way to speak to them.
I spoke completely differently to my (now dead) grandmother than I did with work colleagues. I speak differently to my kids than I do to my pals.
I don't speak "wrongly" with any of them, but I do communicate in different ways - Once that has been understood and once that can be accomplished via the right channel as efficiently (and hopefully) automatically as possible, it's about scale... Turn the knob to volume and see the ATM tell you how successful you are.
It seems spam hasn't gone away and for many search engines, of whatever name, haven't either but sometimes the methods do...
Let me leave you with one little, let's call it hypothetical, anecdote....
I was asked once, "if you could get lots and lots and lots of traffic on command and demand, what would be the one thing you would do?"
I thought long and hard to that question and my answer was simple, "For them to come back,and keep coming back to me again. The problem with spam, especially in the click pimping days, was to get someone in and out as speedily as possible.
My answer took a while to deliver the theoretical answer. The answer was to adapt what the searcher asked the search engine for.
In these instances it meant the user, on their 1st visit to Site A (our site) would request the search engine to only show them results in a language that was not their own - let's say Swahili. If that user continued to search in their normal language (let's say English) then the search engine would only try to show Swahili language sites with the English language search term on the page.
It meant that the competition was waayyyyyyy smaller and the only results in the SERPs the visitor understood were your one. You can imagine the CTR!
Now I am not saying I did or did not do the above, but it was very possible to accomplish (not so easy or even possible now) and i know it worked to deliver constant repeat visits for ever and a day to some sites.
In summary. Do what works, do what works well and make sure you do it in a manner that means the person will keep on coming back to you, Generally this means thinking not of Google or any other search engine but it does mean thinking of the consumer as the person they are, not the search engine referal you are likely thinking of them at the moment.
The irony? Delivering visitors what they want and building an experience that is excellent for them as an individual...... I'm sure I've read almost exactly that mantra from Google themselves as to how to rank......