SEO Has No Future? Think Again!

I am so weary of non-SEO types who have some measure of influence spouting off their opinion of what SEO is, what it isn’t, whether it is growing or declining and the like. It is no different then when celebrities use their clout and status to speak out of some subject like they are some kind of authority on the matter when in all actuality they are not.

There was Dave Pasternack whose is not a SEO but has a background in paid search. He made the controversial statement that “SEO is not rocket science” in an article he wrote for DMNews back in 2006. Not only did this fuel a war of words, it gave birth to a silly contest that tainted the good name of the famous chef Dave Pasternack’s. Then there was Jason Calacanis who stated in a SES keynote that “SEO is bullshit.” Again, Jason has no background as a SEO but because he is influential, people listened to what he had to say (even though what he had to say itself was bullshit).

The latest firestorm over the reputation of SEO came last week when Jeremy Shoemaker (Shoemoney) put out a post entitled “SEO Has No Future.” This was followed by a post published at Marketing Pilgrim by Greg Howlett entitled “SEO a Dying Industry?” Neither of these individuals is a professional SEO (a person who makes their living providing SEO-related services). However in Jeremy’s case, because has a lot of influence, people listened and responded. Greg Howlett I have never heard of before but Andy Beal’s Marketing Pilgrim, where the post was published, no doubt carries a great deal of influence as well.

Now, I have the utmost respect for Jeremy as an Internet marketer as well as a person and consider him a friend in the industry. However, I cannot completely agree with what he says in this statement:

My honest answer is there is no future in SEO. From my experiences I am seeing Google SERPS results strongly influenced by Google Toolbar data, Google User history, and Google Analytics data. Google’s combination of SEO and social voting via toolbar/history/analytics will continue to sway more in the realm of social voting. I feel this technology will only get better. I don’t think anyone can argue that core SEO has gotten less valuable over the years and I see that trend continuing.

I agree with the fact that search engines are taking social voting into consideration when deciding on how to rank sites in search results. However, traditional SEO is still a foundational piece of the equation, and it always will be. The whole social voting trend is simply another way for one site to link to and vote for another. This piece of the puzzle has always been there but now is in much broader use. In the pre-social media days, those in charge of web sites (webmasters) linked to other web sites. Now with sites like Digg, StumbleUpon,Mixx and others, not to mention blogs and sites that allow users to generate content, that power is in the hands of anyone. This will only continue to increase as more people become savvy to it.

Jeremy then goes on to almost stereotype what SEO is when he quotes Matt Cutt’s definition of spam and relates it to SEO.

If you read the spam as defined by Matt Cutts (Google Lead Spam Engineer) he says: “Web spam is when somebody tries to cheat or take shortcuts so that their Web site shows up higher [in search results rankings] than it deserves to show up,” That is most SEO at its core. Sure you add title tags and meta descriptions but then you have to incentivize people to link to it.

Wait a minute! When was SEO about cheating and taking shortcuts? I thought it was always about “optimizing” all the various elements search engines look at in a web page – title tags, meta description tags, content, the use of header tags, alt attributes, URL structure, internal linking practices, and anchor text in links to name a few. Sure there are people who “cheat and take shortcuts” but those are spammers, not true and tired SEOs. It is no different than Jason Calcanis saying that all SEOs are snake oil salesman only to later recant, recognizing that very few SEOs actually fit that description.

Now to Jeremy’s credit, he does end his post with the following statement:

Please keep in mind I am not a professional SEO and have never claimed to be. My opinions above are purely based on my experiences.

Everybody is entitled to their opinion but keep in mind that not everybody’s opinion is correct. ;)

Moving on to Greg’s post, he agrees with Shoemoney that SEO is going to continue its death spiral and tries to convince his readers that companies who effectively “brand” themselves will be the ones on top. He does not define what he means by “branding” in this article but to his credit does so in a follow-up article.

Before moving on to the follow-up article, I disagree with Greg’s definition of what SEO is in the first place. He uses the term “SEO snake oil salesmen” for those who try to sell him link trading services (even though link building is link building – not SEO). He says search engines “do not want to reward crummy companies that play SEO games–they want to give the top listings to the best companies.” He then in error says, “If you want a long term SEO strategy, guess where your focus should be? Yes, your branding.” When did branding have anything to do with the practice of SEO? Branding is more about how the public views your products and services or your company as a whole as opposed to optimizing and adjusting web page elements.

In his follow-up article where Greg says branding will replace SEO, he defines what he means by “building your brand.”

  1. He tells the reader to “develop a USP (unique selling position)” but does not provide any insight as to how to accomplish that.
  2. He suggests that a company should “improve every part of their business to the point at which customers are loyal and refer others to you. Phone calls, emails, packaging, products, and such are all touchpoints that need to be in a constant state of improvement.” Okay, so this helps build loyalty,
    earn repeat business and gain word of mouth referrals but how does it work to attract customers who do not know you exist or do not know people who know you exist?
  3. Finally he suggests that you “incentivize customers to talk about you and your USP. You can call this viral marketing or word of mouth marketing or any number of things.”

This is good advice in a “post click scenario” or in other words, after someone lands on your site. However, how do you get them there in the first place? Branding as Greg defines it is going to accomplish that and replace tried and true SEO techniques? I don’t think so.

Enough of picking these three articles apart. I guess it really boils down to what one’s definition of SEO is and if they see it as a continually evolving practice. Personally, I view SEO as a “foundation” to online marketing, one that will always be needed no matter how the online world evolves around us. Take
title tags for example – they are still the most important “on-page” factor that engines look at and yet I continue to come across sites all the time that are not optimizing these. It is one of the simplest things to adjust and yet very often overlooked.

Let’s look at basic HTML which has evolved quite nicely from the mid nineties to what we are able to do with web sites today. We now have Flash, JavaScript, database driven sites, and even AJAX functions that will blow the mind. And yet, the fundamental aspects of html are still there – head tags, body tags, href tags, image tags, table elements or where CSS controls the look of site, div tags. If these are not coded correctly, the html breaks.

How about something offline – home construction. This has most definitely has evolved over time. It is amazing to see some of the environmentally elements that can be built into a house these days not to mention “smart home” features such as automation, security and the like. No matter how advanced the construction of a home, it still has to have a foundation, a frame and some kind of roof. If those elements are not in place, it doesn’t matter how “advanced” the rest of the home is as it will not be supported long term.

Traditional SEO is like these examples. You will always have to optimize title tags, make sure content includes key phrases for which you want to rank well for, make sure search engine crawlers can reach all the important pages of the site, make sure graphical images that link to other pages use the alt attribute to describe those pages or in scenarios where images are not hyperlinked, make sure the alt attribute describes the image, make sure anchor text in html links is descriptive of the page it is linking to, make sure URLs are search friendly… I could go on but I think you get the point.

Sure this is not all you have to do anymore to market successfully online. There is social media, mobile and local search, viral marketing, brand building, usability, PR, conversions and so much more that are part of the overall success (or failure) of any online marketing campaign. SEO is a necessary foundation and without a good foundation, all other efforts are a waste for many sites.

Even if Google were to someday award what it considers top recognized brands the top positions, what about all the possibilities for local search – dentists, attorneys, contractors, movers, real estate agents, service professionals, restaurants, etc.? Is “Mike’s Moving Company” located in some city, USA going to be a search engine recognized brand name? Searchers looking for a local mover for example are not going to necessarily search for a “brand” name either. Rather they are going to search for “moving” related terms along with their specific geographical region. Branding is not going to help companies gain visibility here, but SEO will.

I have also seen several scenarios over the years where a successful SEO campaign has helped a company earn such great organic search visibility that they eventually became a recognized brand name. Had they not laid their foundation with SEO, they would have remained anonymous.

So, is SEO a dying art? Will it eventually fade from existence? No sir! Just as advertising is not going away; just as basic html lays the foundation for some incredible web applications, just as a microprocessor and some type of storage device is necessary for computing, traditional SEO techniques are here to stay.

So please stop trying to stereotype SEOs as “spammers” and “snake oil” salesmen. Sure there are bad ones but the same could be said for any industry – contractors, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, car salesmen and the list goes on. There are bad eggs in every industry- doesn’t mean the whole industry is bad.

Furthermore, if you are not a professional SEO, please keep your mouth shut! Sorry but I cannot find any easier way to say it. I could easily write a post saying that the affiliate marketing industry is going to the crapper but I’m not an affiliate marketer. I could put together an article stating that independent companies selling vitamins and supplements online will eventually fall prey to government regulation but I know next to nothing about that subject. I write about what I know because looking stupid is a fear of mine. If you have influence, great. Just watch how you use it. ;)

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses. Follow +David Wallace on Google + as well as Twitter.

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