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Is SEO dying a slow death?

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10 December 2009

It’s almost trite to say that you need to be found and ranked highly by Google. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is very important. Many of even the slowest moving parts of the traditional media and marketing sectors industries, like PR and advertising, now see that too.

But for some time now I have wondered about the added value of traditional SEO practices, and whether in fact SEO as a discipline is not in terminal decline.

SEO is being being replaced by another practice. Let me explain why SEO is in decline and what will replace it.

The SEOBOOK blog also recently wondered about the future of SEO:

SEO came about soon after the advent of the web crawler. The commercial imperative was obvious – where there was web traffic, there was money to be made. Positioning a page first in the engines was pretty much a licence to print money.

Still is, of course.

But they continued:

“In 2009, SEO plays fall into three distinct categories.

* Agency model: people offer services to others for a fee.
* Affiliate model: people gather traffic and funnel it somewhere else for a performance fee.
* Content model: people generate content and make money off advertising.

The last model is, I’m guessing, is one a lot of SEOs will pursue. Many do so now. “

That most SEOs will make their money from content may come as a startling prediction. But not if you consider these three developments killing traditional SEO:

  1. Many platforms and frameworks for web development currently come out of the box SEO primed;
  2. Some activity does not happen on the open web – take Facebook – and when it does, the page and the link is not its primary unit (yet). Take Twitter as another example.
  3. The most successful long term SEO technique is called Linkbait and it’s got little to do with SEO.

Many platforms and frameworks for web development currently come out of the box SEO primed

Are you doing eCommerce? Magento is one of the great new eCommerce platforms and it does what you would want SEO wise. Each product has its own page and link and the Title, Headings,… tags are sorted in accordance with SEO best practise.

Matt Cutts, head of search quality at Google reckons WordPress is the best search engine optimised blog platform and in a video he tells exactly why it is a fantastic SEO choice. WordPress is of course now the platform of choice for much more than just blogs.

What about other web publishing platforms? I’m no Joomla expert, but as far as I can tell it is also SEO-ready without too much additional effort.

Put frankly, anybody building such a CMS, blogging or eCommerce platform that does not integrate SEO best practice is foolish. See how the mighty Flash is struggling for survival today. There’s only one reason. Search engines can’t make sense of Flash in spite of lots of people trying to make it SEO friendly.

It is fair to say that only when building a completely bespoke website or when significant mods to existing frameworks are done that SEO expertise needs to be on hand.

Some activity does not happen on the open web and when it does, the page and the link is not its primary unit (yet)

Facebook is huge. Facebook wants its members to be more open and expose their users’ Walls, Status Updates and Photo Albums to the open Web.

Facebook - coaxing users to be more open

But it is a tall order to get users to change their habits when part of Facebook’s success was the exclusivity of interacting only with your crowd.

The majority of activity on Facebook is still hidden from Google and despite Facebook’s best intentions this is unlikely to change soon.

And outside Facebook there are other problems for search engines. Says the SEOBOOK:

Consider social media. Is a page the basic unit of Twitter? No, it’s the sentence. How about Youtube? The video. Social networks? The person. All can be extracted, re-purposed and dis-intermediated without losing meaning.

And then there’s the problem of the real time web.

When Michael Jackson died, Google was beaten to the punch by Twitter and Wikipedia for a couple of hours. So far the real time web remains out of SEO’s reach. Yes, Google now integrates Tweets into its results, but are they ranked? No. Then it’s outside the domain of SEO.

Conclusion? SEO is still very important but its reach does no longer cover everything.

The success of Linkbait – Linkbait is not SEO

The highly respected SEOMoz blog recently evaluated the continued significance of Linkbait as an SEO strategy even when other techniques are failing or changing.

There have been more than a few debates and suppositions over the years about the potential value of linkbait/viral content strategies and whether search engines will always reward these practices. Today (actually, it’s late at night here in Oslo), I wanted to tackle this debate and succinctly present reasons why I believe this methodology will remain powerful and effective in the long run.”

But hang on – what the hell is Linkbait? If you’re thinking it’s some uber-complicated strategy requiring sophisticated technical know-how you’re very wrong.

British SEO expert Patrick Altoft explains what Linkbait is:

Linkbait is the practise of adding content to websites with the aim of attracting links from other sites. The content can take various forms, from a unique tool, or a breaking news story, to a well written article to a controversial image.

This simple definition should send bells ringing. No, the definition is not wrong. But what kind of people do you want to hire to create so-called Linkbait? SEO experts?

A good journalist smells of Linkbait. A film director reeks of it. Calling Linkbait an SEO strategy is like calling war a kind of politics. Perhaps it is a kind of politics, but it does not describe the kind of things that happen in a war effectively. In a war you need a different set of skills and mindset than in vanilla politics.

Why does Google like Linkbait?

Because it follows the model of how Google’s search works. Namely that it’s a meritocratic selection engine, which treats links likes votes. Not unlike Digg if you think about it. In short, search is a social form of voting and good Linkbait respects that model.

In this video – which we have posted before – Matt Cutts, head of Search Quality at Google explains Linkbait and how effective and cheap it can be to use.

Linkbait encourages creativity

What kind of Linkbait has proven to be successful? A recent SEOMoz study asked this question in the context of blogs. This is what they found:

* Content is the most important thing to a post, but posts with extra visual content attract extra links.
* Adding simple visual content, like lists and images, can increase the number of (Independent Linking Domains) ILDs by good percent.
* Posts with videos will attract almost 3 times more ILDs than a plain text post.
* Posts with all three media types (videos, images, and lists) will attract almost 6 times more ILDs than a plain text post.
* Contrary to common beliefs, large posts seem to attract more links than posts with 900 words or less.
* Posts with between 1800 and 3000 words will attract more than 15 times more ILDs than a post with less than 600 words.

To summarise it. Content attracts links. And content that’s well organized attracts even more links.

If you want to play the Linkbait game really well you’re going to look to hire copywriters, journalists, photographers, editors, animators, videographers and yes even media-savvy programmers – the so-called creative technologists. (The New York Times recently laid off staff and hired two dozen programmers.)

In short, Linkbait requires content skills, not search engine optimization skills.

But is SEO’d content itself really all it is cracked up to be?

I’m going to – reluctantly – drive one more stake through SEO’s heart. Pay special attention if you are in the business of publishing.

The Guardian recently featured an interesting article on why SEO should not be the only driver in site design. It featured the opinion of Matt Kelly, the associate editor of the Mirror, responsible for their recent successful forays online.

According to Kelly, “users” are people who discover content through Google, devour it, and then return to their search engine to look for more elsewhere.

“Often they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. Result? Users don’t care about the websites they visit, and as a consequence, advertisers are less willing to spend their cash to be associated with our content.

“We are to blame for allowing ourselves to be talked into believing that search engine optimisation is the be-all and end-all of successful website design.”

But, said Kelly, accumulating increasing numbers of unique users is of no long-term value. It is an “absurd metric that values one visit from one random Google News user as highly as daily visits, for an hour a time, from someone who treasures the content we produce.”

He argued that the “quest for a gazillion unique users from wherever, and for however little engagement, has been responsible for denuding many of our newspaper sites of the great brand and value and character that actually differentiates what we do, from all the aggregators and cheap, worthless news sites out there.”

Yes, an SEO’d site can drive users that don’t know your service or business. But you need to make sure they love what they find.

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  • Posted by Adriaan Pelzer
    December 11, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Well said!

    Search have always been about comfort. The comfort not to have to find everything yourself by traversing the entire link tree that is the Internet, and the comfort of not having to save your useful links in some way or another. When you need it, just Google it.

    There is, however, a level of comfort that traditional search do not provide, namely search term creativity. In traditional search, a search’s usefulness is directly proportional to the relevance of your search terms. On the contrary, by following the right people on social networks, you just have to filter. Information find its way to you without any input on your behalf.

  • Posted by Harvey Webb
    December 11, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t worry too much about Facebook.

    Users are leaving, the site is doomed and used only by internet beginners, schoolchildren and older people who don’t understand the internet.

    It’s quickly becoming the Myspace/Hotmail of social networking.

    Don’t worry at all :) It will fail

  • December 18, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    interesting read and although you do make some points i feel that you are not getting the whole picture.

    first off SEO has had its demise predicted as early as 1997, and yet we as an industry have been going from strength to strength. i think what ALOT of people don’t get about SEO is that at the end of the day it is a function of a greater marketing strategy. let me repeat that again of a greater marketing strategy!

    googles integration of tweets into the SERPs was done by google as they don’t want to be seen being outdone by bing as they were the first SE to integrate twitter results with their SE. also i’m of the belief that twitters results are going to start being throttled back simply because of how easy it is game it and spam the hell out of it – which also surprises me because after all of the efforts of the google spam team to lessen the effects of “black hat” techniques they’ve gone and created a whole new industry in one swoop. it is very nonsensical

    i also find it amusing that you define SEO solely on a CMSs ability to produce SE friendly URLs – if that were true then i would be out of a job.

    * what about crawlability
    * and getting your site indexed,
    * getting the crawlers to come back more often,
    * correctly handling moved content and handling 404 errors?

    the list is endless. especially when you looking at 10k+ page sites

    one thing i do agree with you is linkbait. yes at the end of the day linkbait is primarily in the hands of the content producers, but once again this why i say SEO should be part of a greater strategy.

    WRT to the guardian. if they aren’t happy with their number or visitors and ergo the “quality” of that traffic then you have to ask yourself the questions:

    * is the traffic quality correct, are we getting the right sort of reader
    * is a business model / conversion process correct.

    i’ve always looked at facebook/twitter/myspace and other social media efforts from an seo perspective as providing the following:

    * trust signaling
    * social proof
    * possible secondary links

    all of which ultimately helps more with conversion process.

    at the end of teh day it depends on your business and conversion model. if you are a blogger who likes to talk about your fluffy cat you don’t need to worry about SEO as ultimately you want to connect within the community of fluffy cat lovers. BUT as you start to look at commercial interests and you start moving up the monetary chain, and start moving into more and more competitive verticals and eventually within hyper competitive verticals like gambling, pharma goods, porn that sort of thing then every bit helps. especially since SEO has the highest ROI than any other marketing medium!

    in closing i will say the following: where ever there is a SE there will be people trying to position their sites at the top of those sites.

  • October 25, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    well, everyone can be an SEO Expert themselves if we just learn and practice all those SEO stuffs that we are reading’:*

  • Posted by Ashton Cox
    December 22, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    i admire top seo experts because they earn top dollars in just a matter of hours ,.~

  • Posted by Pet Bounce
    August 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m happy, I have to admit. Seriously not often does one come across a blog that’s together educative as well as amusing, and also without a doubt, you have got click the actual nail over the brain

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