After SEO? It’s back to old-school reputation.

As the internet industry continues to mature, it’s important to ask, “What’s coming next?”  If there’s anything that’s certain in this industry, it’s that evolution is happening faster and faster.  But when you take a step back and look at how websites and success are evolving on the web, they are beginning to look more and more like the old-school businesses from the days of our parents and grand-parents.

Let’s do a quick history.  Early in the web it was all about gaming the search engine optimization rules – keyword stuffing, invisible copy, etc were all tricks meant to fool search engine crawlers into believing something about your website that wasn’t necessarily true.  Then search engine marketing was added to the mix, and now companies could pay money to show up almost anywhere a user was searching – regardless of the match.  It’s a bit like Toyota being allowed to advertise inside the Honda showroom – whether Honda wanted them to or not.  As long as Honda was willing to pay more than Toyota for Toyota-related keywords, they could advertise on Toyota search engine results pages.  Now Google has gone to great lengths to try and minimize SEO tricks and SEM traffic-stealing (particularly as it relates to trademarked terms), but gaming and traffic-stealing are still rampant on the web.

So what next?

How do we avoid the imperfect and often dangerous battleground of search engine results?

Friends.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes today, and I would wager that they come in more varieties than ever before.  I mean, take Facebook for example – does anyone really have 500+ friends?  No.  Sorry, but you don’t.  But you can have over 1,000 “Facebook Friends.”  “Facebook Friends” can be defined for some as “people I’ve met” or “people I’ve connected with at some point in my 30+ years of life.”  We all have many more of those types of friends or acquaintances.  That’s life.

Now I don’t mean to limit this to Facebook, because people you may follow on Twitter extend to an even broader scope than Facebook.  They can be anyone.  Period.  You don’t have to know them, like them, have met them, know where they live, or know if they’re even a real person.  Yes, dogs tweet apparently.

So how does this get back to replacing search engines and bringing reputation to the forefront of the web?  It’s quite easy.  Have you ever “liked” something?  Have you ever sent a link to a friend, or your outer circle friends via some kind of instant messaging, a Facebook wall, a Twitter post, or maybe just via email?  I think we all have, and probably a lot more than we realize.  And as more and more (and younger and younger) generations get into the digital / informational age, sharing is going to explode even more than it has today.

And think how great it is when everything on the web now comes with a recommendation from one of your online “friends.”  No friend will recommend a scam site, no one will “like” a survey that’s supposed to win you an ipod but instead forces you to sign up for 8 of 10 lame offers (at least no friend that should remain a friend for long).

We can enjoy a guided tour of the internet by simply following the recommendations of our loved ones, friends, Facebook friends, and people we follow (because they’ve earned our trust).  The days of search engines are not past us, not by a long shot, but they’re less and less relevant as we learn that we can get by with out them – with a little help from our friends.

So in parting, making that website a great experience, one that folks would (& can) recommend to their peer group, is not only good for business  – it’s essential.  So make your site clean, clear, and a beautiful experience – and give your visitors easy ways to share what you have to offer with their friends.  It’ll make a world of difference to everyone’s little world, and as those worlds get connected, people, lots of people, will find their way via links all over the web – straight to your site.