The question of whether SEO is dead or not is a misleading one. In the same way that the legal profession will be around as long as there are laws in our society, search engine optimization will be around as long as there are people searching for things online. As former SEO director at Moz, Cyrus Sheppard, puts it:
“It’s like asking ‘Will high school kids stop wanting to be popular?’ or ‘Is marketing dead?’ The answer is always no.”
But saying SEO isn’t dead, doesn’t answer the question of why this idea is being banded around so much in the first place. It’s not enough to just say that SEO is evolving. From day one, Google’s algorithm has been evolving, but why all the commotion now? What is causing all this unprecedented hyperbole?
If SEO’s death is, in fact, a byword for rapid and unprecedented change, then a more pertinent question to ask might be ‘what has changed and why?’ A further examination of this might lead to another question – ‘are these changes the result of internal or external influences?’
In this article, I want to delve into the evolution of SEO and explore the why’s, the how’s, the when’s and the what next’s.
Revolution not Evolution
It could be argued that any argument to do with SEO is down to mere evolution. And yet, the term ‘evolution’ could be seen as misleading in this context.
Evolution implies a slow and steady change that is a natural reaction to shifting external influences. What we’re seeing is something more akin to a revolution and that’s something else entirely. Unlike evolution which is reactive, revolution is a proactive force, usually resulting from the build-up of discontent, culminating in a sudden backlash against the established status quo.
There are of course views that run counter to this. Writing for Forbes in April 2018, Rob Dana of ITA Group, summed up SEO’s twenty-year evolution in somewhat unequivocal terms:
“SEO epitomized the excitement that a new website instilled through its potential for higher incremental revenue. Google, in its hyper-efficient drive to deliver a high-quality product/service to its users, effectively killed that dream.”
In Dana’s view, SEO is in, or is approaching, a natural end state; what he refers to as “a stalemate chess game that cannot be won and can only be lost by the non-experts.” Google’s own mantra of serving up the best results for its users has effectively cut out so much of the competition from established niches for Dana to conclude that, “SEO isn’t completely dead, but it is on life support.”
And yet, the idea of SEO being healthy or not healthy is always based on a moral judgement. For those companies benefiting from the rapidly shifting search landscape (and there are plenty), SEO looks in better shape than ever. I’d also argue that many small companies can benefit from local SEO, without having to take on the big corporates in their industry. It is surely remiss to think that every company wants to take on the big corporates.
Image Source: Search Engine Journal
Besides, SEO has never been solely credited as putting the big brands of today where they are; traditional marketing and PR has always played more of a leading role in this respect. A dominant search presence in competitive industries is almost never the result of SEO strategy alone. This may have been the case fifteen years ago, but the fact it isn’t today doesn’t mean SEO is on life support.
The wider point here is that Google is not killing SEO but changing and obscuring its algorithm in such a way as to force it through a series of such fundamental behavioural shifts, that it is becoming almost unrecognizable from what it was before. These shifts are killing off old lazy offsite and onsite optimization practices, whilst forcing SEO to converge with other established disciplines such as content marketing, PR and social media.
So just how is Google changing the face of SEO and where will this end?
Obfuscation and colonization
There are arguably two methods that Google has employed to fundamentally change the SEO landscape over the last five years or so.
One is through obfuscation, which has seen the search giant embark on a policy of making its search algorithm more opaque. One way it has done this is by withholding keyword data (a policy shift that dates back to 2014). Another is in it becoming increasingly ambiguous and evasive in its communications with the SEO community.
For the Google optimists out there, it could be argued that this policy of increasing opaqueness is partly the result of the company trying to stamp out bad SEO practice and make search better for everyone. This is the idea that if you’re thinking about SEO, then you’re not focusing on creating great and relevant content for real humans. For the cynics in the room, it is a concerted attempt to drive more ad revenue by making AdWords the only show in town that delivers reliable keyword and ROI data.
The other way Google is causing shifts in SEO practice is through colonization of the SERPs. It’s harder to remain optimistic about Google’s intentions here and this policy has put it on a collision course with the EU on more than one occasion (most recently over a ruling on Android antitrust violations that has landed it with an eye-watering €4.34bn fine).
Image Source: Moz.com
Research from Moz shows the clear shift in the SERPs policy in 2012 resulting in fewer search results and more Google features – a trend that continues to this day.
One effect of Google’s colonization policy is to dramatically alter the search results pages and how users interact with them. Whether these changes are to genuinely improve user experience or just force Google products down your throat is largely a political question. Suffice to say though, from knowledge graphs to shopping carousels, preferential treatment of YouTube videos to local packs and featured snippets, the organic listing real estate is shrinking, forcing SEOs to rethink tactics. Google’s 10 blue links are certainly a thing of the past.
Whilst these changes present some opportunities, they do present significant challenges. Arguably, this is only the tip of the iceberg though.
Machine Learning and the Internet of Things
Looking to the future, AI and machine learning will continue to radically alter the search environment. The influence machine learning is having on Google’s algorithm, notably through RankBrain and semantic search, shows its potential to understand how we interact across platforms and devices.
The traditional model of search was to optimize for desktop devices, with mobile devices branching off to become a distinct group of platforms and devices that need optimizing for. With the growing ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IoT), we are now witnessing the birth of a third group of devices and platforms, something Jayson DeMers calls ‘residential’. As he puts it back in 2014:
“Once enough people have smart devices in their homes, mobile and desktop will no longer be the only two SEO realms that marketers will need to worry about.”
The predicted proliferation of IoT connected devices is certainly coming to fruition and this creates as many challenges as it does opportunities for the SEO industry. We can expect AI to take a leading role in how this new ‘realm’ integrates into Google’s algorithm and wider ecosystem, helping the search giant understand how we interact across devices in order to serve us up even more relevant content.
As search evolves in this new residential realm, we shouldn’t be surprised if new ranking signals emerge. With rumblings that Google may even begin including apps in in its search results, this new world might be here sooner than you think.
Machine learning may be changing the landscape, but it’s also having a detrimental effect on the level playing field, according to Rob Dana:
“We may also have effectively eliminated positive ROI through increased SEO implementation. In other words, while you can continue to fix negative SEO attributes, your rank will likely not move in the near future. Part of this is due to the relative sophistication of machine learning, gamed by the very software meant to help you.”
The ‘end state’ theory posits that machine learning has filled the gaps (in the B2C sphere at least) that previously allowed tenacious smaller companies, willing to bend the SEO rules a bit, from getting a foothold in the SERPs alongside the big players. In other words, machine learning is creating an increasingly sophisticated yet inflexible algorithm that is doing exactly the opposite of Google’s stated aim and stifling competition and favoring the big players.
To what extent this is true or not is, again, a matter of debate. The search landscape may not be a scorched earth, but it’s arguably no level playing field either.
Let’s end with some practical advice then.
How to future-proof your SEO in an uncertain world
Building an SEO strategy in these times of rapid change is a challenge for any digital marketer. The SEO paradigm is shifting and knowing where the pieces will fall is akin to having a crystal ball.
There are some real no-brainers that will set you up for the future though, so let’s look at some of these now.
- Optimizing for RankBrain. Ever since Hummingbird was first introduced, semantic indexing has become a buzzword in SEO. RankBrain continues this trend towards intelligent ranking by analyzing the context of language in websites and comparing similar searches in order to serve up the best results in the SERPs. RankBrain is constantly evolving through machine learning and optimizing for it means creating hyper-relevant content that isn’t fixated on keywords.
- Optimize for voice search. With 55% of teens using voice search daily, this technology is changing the way we search and thus can’t be ignored. There are a host of tools out there to analyze rankings and do keyword research but thinking about how people search using voice search is as much about a shifting mindset.
- Schema Markup. Structured data is not new but it is increasingly playing a bigger role in the evolving face of the SERPs. Implementing schema into your HTML is becoming an absolute must.
- Optimize app content. Mobile is huge and having an app is a cornerstone of many startups business model nowadays. As AI begins to integrate the way we use apps, expect apps to become part of the search landscape. With rumors of app content appearing in the SERPs as well, optimizing your app content on day one could put you way ahead of the competition in the future.
- Stay educated. Perhaps the most important advice of all is to stay informed. Now more than ever, strategies and tactics are shifting. Whilst there are some principles that are unlikely to ever change (great content will always trump poor content, quality beats quantity in link building, etc) any diligent SEO strategy needs to be agile and be able to adapt to change.
Guest author: Joe Cox is Content Director at Bristol SEO Agency, Superb Digital. He has written on SEO, social media marketing and content marketing for the likes of Smart Insights, Ad Age, Marketing Profs and Search Engine People.