The Death of SEO? The Evolution of Search Engine Marketing

July 26, 2012: The Death of SEO. That is the title of the Forbes article forwarded to me this weekend proclaiming SEO will be dead in the near distant future. The sensationalism created by this title is repeated with almost every major Google update in the past half decade, yet SEO continues to be a significant tactic for driving leads in B2B marketing.

I’m not going to link to the article; you can find it pretty easily on Forbes if interested. I tend to ignore articles writing the epitaph of SEO but this one struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the fact that reading the article cut into a fantastic summer weekend in New England. Maybe it was because it was on Forbes and I’m sure it caught a handful of clients’ eyes as well. Maybe it was that many of the conclusions drawn in the article are simply inaccurate. Either way, I can’t help feeling frustrated by how SEO continues to get portrayed.

The Definition of SEO

SEO gets a bad rap in many circles. From Forbes to the N.Y.Times to Dilbert, there is an inference that SEO is only about gaming a system (in most cases, a Google algorithm), often sacrificing quality and the experience of “real” visitors online. Here are a few definitions from respected industry publications that speak a bit differently about what SEO means.

Via SEOmoz: Search Engine Optimization isn’t just about “engines.” It’s about making your site better for people too. At SEOmoz we believe these principals go hand in hand.

Via Search Engine Watch: Search Engine Optimization (SEO): The process of making a site and its content highly relevant for both search engines and searchers.

And a 3 minute video via Search Engine Land:

Perhaps a lack of consensus from SEO professionals is to blame, but good SEO has always been about providing an experience that blends user experience with keyword strategy. Will SEO professionals push boundaries? Probably. But experimentation and educated testing should be part of every marketer’s strategic tactics.

Bottom-line: Good SEO is not about gaming the system.

Why You’re Doing It Wrong

Google’s growth post IPO helped fuel an industry (SEO) and an opportunity for prospective business owners to build successful online enterprises through search. However, in such a frenzy of rapid technological innovation and growth, business owners not entrenched in search engine optimization, or hit with algorithm updates early adopters felt, were easy to manipulate by snake oil SEO salesmen and “SEO professionals” leveraging questionable tactics.

Search Engine Watch’s Jonathan Allen has a powerful article outlining the significance misinformation and a lack of understanding of search engine optimization had on a small business. Jill Whalen’s article on the lies shady SEO companies tell further emphasizes the divide between good SEO and the practices that lead to SEO death sentences on publications like Forbes.

Generating low valued content with the objective of placement in sites meant solely to add weight to potential (or former) search engine ranking factors is a tactic getting hammered by Google’s most recent update (Penguin). But that does not mean every site ranking well for competitive keyword opportunities is leveraging “villainous” tactics meant to “game the system.”

By Google’s own admission, this algorithm update affected “about 3.1% of queries in English to a degree that a regular user might notice.”

The vast majority of websites were not adversely affected by this update. If you are “doing it right,” there is a good chance your site came out well ahead. By the way (shameless plug for KoMarketing), none of our clients felt pain from the Google Penguin update.

The Social Media Myth

The conclusion I have seen more than a few journalists take with the most recent Google update is that social media has taken the place of SEO link building. That is simply not true.  While social media would ideally provide a better opportunity for marketers to reach site owners and their target markets for traffic and visibility, part of that reach is to acquire links as well.

Matt Cutts (Google Director of Web Spam) has already gone on record to indicate that backlinks are still an important and significant driver for the ranking algorithm. Will social media have an impact? Certainly. But it’s far too early to predict how social media alone will dictate search engine visibility.

It’s Simply Too Hard to Fake Social Media

The notion that social media cannot be faked (or gamed) as SEO strategies were manipulated is naive. About a year ago a Popular Mechanics article highlighted a PeekYou report on fake, or “dummy,” accounts set up by an agency hired to boost follower numbers for Newt Gingrich. Their analysis was that only 8 percent of Gingrich’s 1.3 million followers were real human beings.

According to a ZDNet article citing Facebook itself, as many as 50 million profiles (6% of all accounts at its IPO filing) are fake. Will the algorithm eventually change and focus much more on social networking? Perhaps. But there is something scary about that as well.

The Evolution of Search and Social

SEO can benefit greatly from a good social media strategy. However, a social network is only one aspect of the way people want to search. In a recent TechCrunch interview, Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang provided perspective on the idea that the social graph is one aspect of search, but so is user behavior, history, location, etc.

Search Evolves—and So Do Search Engine Marketing Strategies

I will give the Forbes contributor credit for one key point: One good SEO tactic is “writing, designing, recording, or videoing real and relevant content that benefits those who search.” What he fails to acknowledge is that content cannot sit on an island waiting to be found. Keyword strategy needs to be defined. Target audiences need to be identified and their needs (for content) understood and executed effectively.

Relationships need to be built and attention acquired and those variables are connected via links, social media sharing, etc. In my opinion, there has always been little doubt that ill-advised SEO shortcuts will get caught (they should) and building links may take as much energy as building real relationships (they should).

Good SEOs are and will continue to make good returns on their tactical strategies. That is why SEO has evolved into search engine marketing. Successful search engine marketers learn and adjust as the algorithm dictates and seek to better understand the needs of  the marketplace in relation to the demands of the searcher. Instead of relying on the low valued tactics hit by updates like Google Penguin, search engine marketers are working on “what’s next” to maintain a successful SEM program.

Social media certainly will have a place in search but Forbes has it wrong and is making critical errors in conclusions about SEO and its place in an internet marketing strategy.

Note: The contributor for Forbes made adjustments to their article since originally published and also made final comments in a blog post found here. There are still arguments for consideration but he’s right to acknowledge that there always is a point of diminishing returns in any discussion.

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