Well the first part of this question (What is SEO) is easy enough to answer. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and it’s the process of improving your website, it’s content and it’s back links so that the search engines, mainly Google rank it more highly for targeted keyword searches in the organic results, often referred to as SERPs.
Many SEO experts and commentators like to split SEO in to two different types, White Hat and Black Hat SEO. The difference between these two types of SEO is down to the level at which you are attempting to either game the Google system or provide Google with the type of website it is looking for.
Early History of SEO
Let me start at the beginning, when Google was first launched its algorithm for determining the results was fairly simple and as SEO experts quickly worked out the factors that Google was using to rank each website. It then became possible to game or cheat the system to obtain high ranking than a site would naturally deserve, and so SEO was born. A clear example of this early SEO was the keyword stuffing of pages. Originally Google used the number of time a keyword was on a page as a major factor for ranking it. This meant that it was fairly simple fill the page with the keyword you wanted to rank for and hay presto your website got page 1 results.
White Hat v Black Hat SEO
As an example, a website owner using White Hat SEO would have produced a page with high quality content containing the keyword several times, where as Black Hat SEO company would have just repeated the keyword as many times as possible, while hiding this by writing the keyword in the same colour as the back ground, so that visitors did not see it, but search engines did. Both strategists would have worked, in fact the Black hat on would have probably worked better, but as the Black Hat strategy was designed to game Google, the page would have soon lost its ranking and been penalised by later updates.
Does SEO still work?
So to the second part of the question, Does SEO still work? Well the simple answer is Yes. The difficulty is that Google is always trying to find new way to filter out Black Hat SEO and this is affecting all websites. Each time one of those clever Black Hat chaps develops a new way of gaming the system, they introduce an update to block it, and they are doing this much more frequently now. This means that the benefits of Black Hat are much shorter lived than they used to be and the penalties are more severe, thus making the use of Black Hat SEO like placing your website on the edge of a cliff. You will never know when and update will be released that will push it over the edge, destroying all your rankings.
While White Hat SEO is not immune to the problems caused by Google updates, though it is not affected in the same way and should also avoided any penilties. By optimising your website in line with Google’s guidelines and building WebPages with great content that is engaging and valued by readers, your website and its ranking will be much safer. When optimising your website, think is this going to make your website more appealing to humans before thinking is this going will this manipulate the search engines. Over the next few years the search engines are going to get more sufisticated and closer to human behaviour, so producing optimised content with this in mind should help future proof your website.
The future of SEO
No one knows what Google and the other search engines will do in the future, if we did it would be like knowing next weeks lottery numbers, but unlike the lottery, there are insights in to the future of SEO. Google publishish and updates it guidelines regularly but what never seems to change is their focus on quality and authority. Quallity content will always rank well and if you continually produce this, you will build a name for your self in your sector. This will be reflected to Google by people following you on Google + and sharing you work across the web, giving you as an author as well as your website the authority need to obtain page 1 rankings.