This is a guest post by Terry Van Horne. Terry is the founder of SeoPros and a 15-year veteran of Web development, currently working out of his consulting and development firm International Website Builders . Terry's interests are primarily the socialization of search and analysis of social Web traffic and applications like Twitter.
Do I think the days of easy manipulation via links are gone? You betcha! Do I think SEO will require more "marketing" knowledge, not link algo manipulation? Oh Yeah!! On that point I'm of the opinion that third-generation SEO ("the blogging linkerati") is dead; "on-page" algos are still important because they are tied to query relevance, and unwanted manipulation using text makes it easier for search engines to determine intent.
I have never believed linking is SEO; that's a 3G SEO strategy and I knew it wasn't a long-term SEO technique, because it was out of the "complete control" of the webmaster/marketer. I have always instinctively known this technique could not be useful for ranking for the very long term unless the link is one-way and not paid for or schemed, i.e., not open to manipulation. Directory, press release, and article marketing links are also seemingly gaining "suspect" authority or at the very least closer scrutiny by Google.
I dislike the term, but think linkbait! Linkbait is just old-school Internet marketing  with a new name. I tried to be "scientific" and called it reactive linking (notice when I wrote that it was placed in the "promotion" section of the site) way back in the day. Old-school SEO's used to include finding these linkbait opportunities in our competition market research. Not "SERP" competition, but rather, real competitor analysis, which is researching what content is on competitor sites.
- Here was a time when there were no keyword tools, so you looked at sites and figured out the content priorities and tried to build a better mousetrap. We're back to that now. What users want is key again, not, what some SE thinks is important.
Personally I review user tools, interactive elements of the site and types of information and topics. How the site is optimized, IMO, has little value -- you're just following the herd (as the great Jim Wilson dubbed them, "the unwashed masses"). If you're fairly new to SEO and you're researching techniques like internal link architecture and anchor text then do that analysis; I personally don't get a lot of value from it, but that might just be my style.
The tools I am interested in getting better acquainted with are Google Trends and Insights. Behavioral targeting is looking like it will be the "keyword research" tool for social media content targeting.
- IMO, that's where the real marketing starts for webmasters! Finding that niche that's unmet or can be improved on. Distinguishing the site from the thousands of other sites out there selling widgets. Strive to be number one, not appear to be number one.
Keyword research is part of this and SERP analysis is part of it, but only to find who is at the top of the SERP and therefore determine what information/tools got them there and in the end are responsible for the success of the site. (BTW, increasingly the top positions are less useful for this type of analysis, because often sites only seem to be there because they promote themselves via link strategies. Often I find the gems much deeper in the SERPs.
- That is until universal search came along with its "content positions" determined by user wants, i.e., videos, reference/resource, images, news/RTS, doubles (e.g., news and a pic in separate listings) and combos (e.g. paid inclusion and pics together) and of course the Gorg's need to sell ads.
The Age of the Digital Asset Manager
Why bother with link analysis that is susceptible to "unwanted" manipulation when Google can use the analytics and user behavior from paid search; cookies, toolbars and URL shorteners from users; the billions of DoubleClick banner impressions and SERP click analysis from personalized search? IMO, linkage is another of the chapters you can remove from the SEO textbook, or as I call it, Cookie Cutter SEO. I also call it stupid 3G SEO tricks, but the reason for that is best left unsaid! ;-)
Website positioning isn't what you think. It has less to do with SERP positions and is all about positioning for visibility in all the different, for lack of a better word, search sales verticals. PPC, comparison/shopping engines, coupon marketing, local search, personalized search and, of course, my new favorite, "Web 2.0" social community sites.
See, that's how we came full circle. The changes and signals of personal, Caffeine and universal search have brought us back to webmaster skills and the ability to market playing a bigger role than link building and anchor text manipulation.
Sure, links are still a signal but it is evident that search engines believe links are too noisy and susceptible to unwanted manipulation.