Immortal, evolving: why SEO is anything but dead

New algorithms being employed by leading search engines mean traditional search engine optimisation tools are no longer effective. But that does not necessarily mean the life has gone out of the industry

Updates to algorithms, such as Google's Panda and Penguin, demonstrate that SEO is an evolving industry - and not dead

Updates to algorithms, such as Google's Panda and Penguin, demonstrate that SEO is an evolving industry - and not dead
Updates to algorithms, such as Google’s Panda and Penguin, demonstrate that SEO is an evolving industry – and not dead

When Jill Whalen, one of the most respected commentators in search engine optimisation (SEO), announced she was stepping away from SEO, it shocked many in the business. Whalen, a veteran of almost 20 years, had been one of the pioneers of SEO. She had previously self-identified as “the voice of reason” in the SEO industry, and had been one of its most active developers. And the reason this SEO behemoth decided to give it all up? “Google now works,” she said.

“When I first started writing and speaking about SEO back in the 20th century, there was no voice of reason in the industry,” she wrote in her “Leaving SEO” post on her blog What Did You Do with Jill?. “Everything written about SEO was based on the latest techniques for tricking the search engines into ranking your site above your competitors’.” Whalen has always maintained SEO was more than a business for her: it was a passion. She enjoyed finding ways around the problems posed by Google algorithms that stubbornly refused to cooperate. “Yet, I knew from experience that the real secret to SEO was not about tricks but about making your site the best it could be for your users while keeping the search engines in mind.”


Google searches affected by the Panda updates


Of businesses combine SEO with content marketing


Of businesses integrate SEO with social media marketing

According to Whalen, recent updates to Google mean link building and content marketing now work instinctively within the search engine, rendering external SEO pointless. “Google put their money where their mouth was with their Panda and Penguin updates,” she wrote. “At last the only real way to do SEO was what I had been espousing all along. Today’s SEO blogs and conferences are bursting with SEO consultants talking about how, when you create amazing websites and content for your users, the search engines will follow.”

Google steps up
Panda and Penguin work by filtering sites by their quality. The Panda algorithm, launched in 2011, prevents low quality sites ranking highly in search engine results, despite the employment of clever SEO tricks – and, in practice, sites with huge amounts of advertising tend to rank lower. On their Webmaster Central Blog, Google described the process of developing Panda as a fight against the “black hat webspam” often concealed within sites to boost search engine rankings. According to Search Engine Watch, these algorithms affect up to 90 percent of all online searches, which means you have to learn how to play their game in order to achieve results. “To that end, we’ve launched Panda changes that successfully returned higher quality sites in search results,” Google wrote on its blog at the time of Panda’s launch in 2011. “And earlier this year we launched a page layout algorithm that reduces rankings for sites that don’t make much content available ‘above the fold’. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.”

However, while most SEO experts agree Panda and Penguin have indeed revolutionised the industry, they have by no means killed it off. Since Whalen’s shocking step-down, however, SEO experts everywhere have been asking themselves again: ‘Is SEO dead?’

“The answer really depends on how you define SEO,” Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUDU Marketing and an outspoken proponent of SEO, told Forbes. “If, when you say ‘SEO’, what you really mean is manipulating search engines to place sites that don’t really deserve to rank well at the top of the SERPs [search engine ranking pages], then yes, I’d say that’s dead (or dying at least, as some manipulative tactics still work quite well).

“However, even though some SEOs work to game the system, I’ve never really felt like that was the correct definition of SEO. Because we so often use the SEO acronym, we forget sometimes that it stands for Search Engine Optimisation. SEO, at its heart, is the process of making websites more accessible and understandable to search engines. It shouldn’t be, and really doesn’t need to be, manipulative.”

A split discipline
Not everyone agrees with McRoberts, though. The industry has always been split between those who believed it was about ‘gaming’ the system in order to achieve high rankings, and others who believed it was about working with the tools Google provides. “SEO as it stands is dead and buried because it’s becoming impossible to ‘game’ the system,” Rhys Williams, Managing Partner of digital agency agenda21, told marketing magazine The Drum. “No longer can you simply implement tactics such as link buying, content distribution or buying low quality content and expect them to deliver results. Google has put an end to that, which means that many companies are struggling to adapt.”

A brief history of SEO

DMOZ, a directory of website links, is launched and its listings become an important cornerstone of early SEO. Also launched this year is plucky search startup ´Google´…

The first SEO conference, Search Engine Strategies (SES), is held. Multiple SES conferences are now held around the world every year.

Until now, search rankings have relied heavily on keyword ‘meta tags´, but these are easy to game and lose value as search engines refine their methods.

Google begins to penalise sites that ´sell links´ i.e. agree to host links to other sites in exchange for payment by lowering their positions in search results.

Google’s Florida update penalises websites it feels have been overly manipulated by SEO experts. Such hammer blows will reoccur over the next decade.

Google begins to work with SEOs, launching its Analytics platform and introducing the ´nofollow´ HTML value, which allows site owners to disown links they feel may hurt their rankings.

You’ll never guess what SEO experts are relying on now… Linkbait. As Twitter takes off, enticing, cryptic and quite often annoying headlines, designed to attract clicks, become a key strategy.

Google unleashes its deadly Panda update, penalising sites that offer a poor user experience – those with ´thin´ content, or which host an excessive amount of advertising.

Google Penguin is released, penalising websites engaged in ´black hat´ SEO tactics, particularly link bombing i.e. causing a website to rank highly by creating a large number of low value links to it .

For McRoberts, Panda and Penguin have changed the way SEO experts should face Google, rather than eliminate the need for experts altogether. However, it is true that certain techniques, such as article spinning (“the process of automatically generating ‘rewritten’ versions of an article and submitting them to as many low quality article directories as possible,” according to search expert Pratik Dholakiya), are dead. Other techniques, such as link buying, might still work, but have become costly and inefficient. “The fact of the matter is Google’s algorithms just aren’t smart enough to identify link buying in every single circumstance. How could [they] be? Not even humans are that smart,” wrote Dholakiya. “The real reason this isn’t worth it for brands is because it’s actually more costly to buy links than to attract them naturally. The content has to be just as good as if you were doing it completely above-board, or over time it will become obvious that you are buying the links.”

Though this not the first time industry leaders have suggested traditional SEO techniques are dead, Whalen’s decision to back out of the industry has added some gravitas to the claim. However, what is more likely is that SEO has just evolved beyond its original capabilities, to include practices that achieve a much broader set of competencies. It is vital to remember that achieving high rankings is still a worthy and worthwhile goal for businesses of any type – but it is also important to note that SEO as we have practiced it in the past will no longer be effective. It is important for businesses and SEO experts to shed their former approach, and even their old definitions of what SEO should stand for, and start afresh. The death of SEO is “an eye-catching headline that has been churned out with regularity for years. And it’s deliberately misleading,” explains Joel Coppersmith, Head of Search and Affiliates at digital marketing firm Profero. “Achieving high rankings in search engines for business-critical searches remains a worthwhile goal because it still provides a long-term boost to the bottom line. The methods (and practitioners) involved in achieving this have changed to cover a far broader set of competencies, but the goal remains the same. Maybe the term ‘SEO’ has its own associations that no longer quite match the current skills and activities being employed, but there’s enough there that someone calling themselves an SEO five years ago would recognise.”

Optimisation v marketing
With the success of the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates, the industry has evolved to push SEO experts and media marketers closer together. Recent research by Econsultancy has found that up to 88 percent of businesses now combine SEO with content marketing in a bid to streamline processes, and 74 percent actively integrate SEO with social media marketing strategies. However, this has posed new challenges for SEO experts. “Social media requires a human touch, something that a lot of SEO professionals aren’t equipped to deal with,” Dane Cobin, a social media specialist at FST Group, told The Guardian. “SEO has always been tied to the performance of metrics, but you can’t carry out a social media campaign if you look at people as numbers instead of individuals.”

Alex Postance, Head of Earned Media at Epiphany agrees SEO and marketing are no longer mutually exclusive and should not be treated as individual disciplines: “SEO described as a process is dead. When we say ‘search engine optimisation’, what we really mean is the improvement in search engine rankings of our websites; this is an outcome, not a process. And to achieve this outcome, you do not ‘do’ SEO. You do marketing, lots of different types of marketing.”

One thing is clear: SEO will never truly ‘die’. It will just continue to morph into a new discipline that will eventually be utterly different from its original format. Dholakiya thinks companies will be forced to redefine content – as they are already doing by uniting SEO and digital marketing – in order to successfully target users. “The top sites on the web like Facebook, Amazon and YouTube aren’t what we typically think of as content sites,” he says. “Yet sites like these completely dominate top-notch content sites like Mashable or The New York Times. The most successful sites on the web are built on a foundation of applications, tools and communities. Most people can go without ‘content’ as we currently define it. Most of us can’t go without online tools and communities.

“Certainly, we can expect more traditional forms of content like blog posts, videos, infographics, ebooks and whitepapers to continue to play a huge role in content marketing. In fact, these can only be expected to grow over the next several years. Just be warned, it’s going to be harder to shine through. Interactive experiences, on the other hand, attract attention like nothing else.”

Search engines will always have to identify certain factors on a page in order to rank it appropriately, and, as such, will always be manoeuvred by content experts. However, increasingly, short cut and black hat techniques – such as hidden links, link spinning and the like – fail to yield results. SEO remains fundamentally about earning exposure, but SEO specialists and digital marketers will have to diversify their skills in order to achieve results in an increasingly competitive online environment. For McRoberts, this is a good thing, as it has led to the democratisation of what was once an expert field: “SEO, the art of making content more accessible and understandable to search engines, will exist and thrive for as long as search engines exist,” he told Forbes. “That said, SEO is no longer a silo. It has massive dependencies in other departments, from social and content to PR and advertising. If anything, I’d say that the role of [a search engine optimiser] has changed from specialist or technician to more of a project manager and strategist role. Search engine optimisers are exceptional at understanding how all the pieces of the online marketing puzzle fit together.”

These are exciting times in the industry, despite Whalen’s assertions SEO has evolved beyond needing to be managed manually. Search engines, equally, will continue to evolve in order to remain one step ahead of malicious SEOs who employ questionable techniques in order to raise their meritless pages in the rankings. Change is the nature of the business and the foundation upon which SEO as a concept was created.