Troll food: SEO is still not dead

“SEO is dead” articles are common. Like many other bloggers, I don’t usually bother responding to them. It’s less common to see a digital savvy site like The Guardian wasting space on such articles or for the author to work in Search. Maybe, this time, there should be a response.

The typical heralds of “SEO is dead” tend to be developers or creative minds who believe we have returned to the “if you build it – they will come” era of the internet or those who understand SEO only in the context to a brief encounter they had with it in 2006.

SEO evolves.

I’ve been practising SEO for over a decade and have seen plenty of changes. There’s a trend; each year SEO gets bigger, harder, better and more rewarding.

SEO straddles across ‘owned’, ‘bought’ and ‘earned’ media. Many of the recent changes shake up requirements in the earned media aspect, moving SEO firmly away from the risk of becoming a commoditised product and safely back towards the expert service. In that sense the future demand of the SEO skill set is bright, not bleak.

Let’s take apart the Guardian’s article. It’s easy to do.

The kick-off is all wrong; a strange argument that SEO was, apparently, once predictable. Rubbish.

In the early days we had the Google Dance to deal with. SERPs were updated occasionally rather than in the permaflux we have today. This became known as the “Google Dance” when, after months of static, the SERPs would heave around for a day or two before settling into their new positions. Only Google knew when it would happen. It was utterly unpredictable.

SEO has never been predictable. There has been no change.

The language of the kick-off paragraph is incredible. I’ll quote and put some emphasis in.

Websites were created, stuffed full of keywords, cloaked with supporting content and – hey presto! – excellent rankings ensued.

The words “stuffed” and “cloaked” are loaded. Keyword stuffing and cloaking are spam techniques (as are hiding links in banners).

The article then moves on to suggest that the combination of the Panda and Penguin updates have killed off the traditional low-cost/low-value approach to SEO.

Low cost SEO is still around. However, it’s certainly true that big brands will not be able to move the needle with the 2006 style of directory submission and article writing and now face greater risk than reward by trying to buy links.

Successful low cost SEO is the natural blend of creating good content, being widely accessible online and providing great customer service. This is ideal for SMEs, start-ups or even big brands who wish to restrict their marketing spend to bought media.

If brands want to be more direct with their SEO, if they want to tackle issues like personalised and local results, growing their natural search exposure and earning more from online then they need bigger SEO. They need to adopt a multi-signal approach and, yes, this is far harder and more expensive than earlier forms of SEO.

The difference between a good SEO strategy in 2012 than a good SEO strategy in 2010 is about the same as the difference between a good SEO strategy in 2010 as one in 2008.

This section of the article devolves into a pitch for PPC.

Given the choice between a mid to high-risk punt on investing in SEO over a sustained period, versus the relative certainty of PPC, where entry costs can be low, learnings are rapidly acquired and audience targeting is becoming more and more sophisticated, marketers could be tempted to opt for the safer paid media option.

I’m sure that pitch finds some traction.

I spend as much time on PPC campaigns as I do in SEO. I’m not here to promote one form of Search over the other but I would like to see PPC done right.

Google’s social extensions are pretty important. These are what connect Google’s AdWords into the earned media space of Google+. The screen grab below shows an ad for Lastminute.com which not only includes review stars but the +1s and follows for the travel brand’s Google+ page.

How do brands earn those followers and +1s? These are earned through good content, connecting with their communities and good customer service which was the recipe for good, low cost, SEO.

PPC is more attractive when predictions matter more but let’s not pretend good PPC hasn’t evolved as much as good SEO or that the service is somehow immune to the growth of earned media. The solution seems clear to me – coordinate both.

Here on in the claims just get weird.

Now for the killer blow to SEO – mobile

What? Really? Sites don’t get natural traffic from mobile? Rubbish. The very first public comment on the article casually lists some attractive keywords do in terms of PPC ads versus SEO listings. You don’t need to be one of those searchers who prefer natural results; some keywords simply don’t return PPC ads at all.

Why not? It’s that predictability of PPC! If advertisers know it’s not worth bidding on term in mobile search then they won’t do it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any mobile searches.

If your analytics suggests your site is getting no natural search traffic from mobile then it is time to run an audit of your analytics setup.

What about smartphones versus tablets? My Google Nexus, with its 7 inch screen, shows me search results in a different format to my smartphone. Plenty of room to access the natural search results in there. iPads are much bigger.

It is true to say that Google (and Bing) are getting pretty good at showing searches what they need to see. If a search result needs to be a map then that’s what tends to get shown. This can push the blue link text results down. However, I’d consider getting into Local Search and appearing on the maps in the first place to be a form of the evolved SEO.

Mobile search makes SEO even more important.

Mobile results for [last minute flights] on the HTC Sensation. No room for SEO?

The article gets interesting when it starts talking about Google Now. This is very much the evolution of Search and the personalisation of the Cloud. Google Now tells you what you need to know when you need to know it. For example, this weekend my Nexus 7 prompted me that if I was going to make my brother’s birthday on time via bus that I had better leave in the next five minutes as the traffic in central Edinburgh was heavier than normal. Impressive.

You can’t buy your way into Google Now. You need to earn it. You need to have done some SEO on your Local results to, for example, make sure Google knows where you are.

Google Now is just one of the examples of the changing ways people content with content and information. There are plenty more and I expect 2013 will be an exciting year for the trend too.

I particularly like the way Bing integrates with Facebook to make socially connected suggestions in response to searches. Okay, it’s hugely personalised, real and therefore rather unpredictable but it also represents a very good opportunity for local businesses who have done their SEO basics; providing good content, connecting with their clients and providing good customer service.

I’m very happy to have the debate that Google Now is something new and not Search. That’s the same debate that says Google’s Display Network is not paid search and is now something new – or newish, from the world of ad exchanges, DSPs and display. After all; where’s the search?

That’s the rub, isn’t it – SEO evolves in response to the web, and while it may be hard to predict at times it’ll always be valuable and worthy of attention while it benefits searchers and companies alike.