The State of SEO

At least once a month, someone writes an “SEO is dead” post. While SEO is far from dead, and these sorts of posts usually make me laugh, these doomsayers are actually partially correct…you see, SEO as a discipline is far from dead, but it has transformed so much in the last few years that it’s almost unrecognizable as the SEO of yesteryear.

Google, the most dominant search engine on the planet, is sitting on a throne worth $50 billion plus in revenue, every year (and increasing), and that throne is built on the concept of providing the best possible search result for any given query. You can bet your bottom dollar that with $50b+ on the line, this is something that Google takes VERY seriously.

SEOs, historically, have operated by making things easier for search engines to find and process, while simultaneously finding ways to manipulate various search signals to increase rankings. Many SEOs take offense at the term “manipulate”, but it is what it is.

One of the great weaknesses with machine learning is that it must adhere to programmable logic, and where there are programmable rules, there are always loopholes. Google doesn’t like this one bit, and in the last few years they’ve engaged in a very personal war against SEOs everywhere.

What does and doesn’t work has changed so dramatically in the last 5 years that SEO today is almost totally different from what it was then (other than basic on-site optimization). In fact, it looks a lot more like branding, PR and traditional advertising than it does “SEO” as we’ve come to know it. SEO, instead of being it’s own marketing silo, is now just one part of a much larger overall picture.

SEO as Inbound Marketing

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Once upon a time, there was an entire range of SEO tactics, from the pearly white to the darkest black, and things worked across the entire spectrum. As Google has made changes, they’ve targeted their efforts towards the chunky middle of this spectrum, the grey area.

What qualifies as grey? Manipulating links and anchor text ratios through non-editorial link building (think blog networks, buying links, low quality guest posts, comment spam, forum spam, etc.), spinning content, manipulating search and social signals…things of this nature.

None of these things are particularly dark or devious (certainly not when compared to true black hat tactics, many of which would leave you with your jaw on the floor), and they’ve worked spectacularly well for a very long time, but those days are coming to a swift end. Many of these tactics still work (to some degree), but they are providing a diminishing return, and the risk of using them is growing constantly as Google releases more and more algorithm updates that target and penalize these sorts of SEO tactics.

What Google has done, essentially, is eliminate the middle ground for SEOs. True black hat tactics still work spectacularly well, but their lifespan is limited and those tactics are designed for quickly achieved, short-term wins. Sparkly white hat tactics also work spectacularly well, but they can take a very long time to show a positive ROI, and they can be quite costly to implement.

Google has effectively limited the playing field of organic search, because only certain classes of businesses are willing to engage in black hat SEO, and only certain classes of businesses can afford to engage in SEO the right way.

For small and many medium sized businesses, this is a huge blow, because it is becoming infinitely more difficult to rank organically, and more costly to even try. Most small businesses just can’t afford to play in the SEO space any longer, at least not doing it the right way.

To sum it up: if you aren’t a brand, and aren’t willing or able to turn your business into a brand, organic search is probably out of your reach (or will be in the not too distant future).

Now, brand doesn’t have to mean Coke, or Apple, or Starbucks. We’re not talking corporate behemoth here. A “brand”, in the eyes of a search engine, is an entity composed of a certain set of “brand” signals: social activity (likes, shares, comments), branded search queries (growing over time), a cohesive brand presence across numerous websites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, etc.), media mentions, links from trusted sites, an advertising presence, etc.

From Google’s perspective, if you walk like a brand, and quack like a brand, you’re a brand…and that’s what you need to become if you want a slice of the organic traffic in your space going forward. Traditional SEO, just trying to “rank better” without integrating your SEO efforts into numerous other online marketing channels and tactics, actually is dead.

I’ll say it one more time: If you want to do SEO, but you can’t or aren’t willing to integrate that SEO effort into your social media, PR, brand marketing and other on and offline advertising channels (not to mention your web design and development) then you’re probably not going to see a positive ROI from SEO. You might get lucky, but it isn’t likely.

The good news is this: if you’re willing to engage in the right types of brand activities, and to integrate SEO into those efforts, then SEO can still be marvelously effective; and we can help you to make this happen. Over 80% of all searchers click on organic results, so if you aren’t visible in that space, you’re missing out on an enormous pool of customers.


Our clients have seen great results from engaging in content marketing and online branding activities designed to increase their organic traffic, and we would love the opportunity to help your company do the same!

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  • I really enjoyed this article Sam. As brand designers, we have been fighting for this moment for over 20 years! I have stubbornly stood against the SEO snake oil and supported great branding, content and user experiences in the face of a huge body of work that aimed at tricky tactics and static goals. Our sites have great organic rankings because they have a meaningful information architecture and they are beautifully designed, well written and easy to use and navigate. The point of search engine algorithms was always to get the great, interesting stuff to the top level and force the junk down. This is the next step.

    July 31, 2013 at 12:33 pm
    • Sam McRoberts

      Thanks Robert! As an SEO, I’ve always tried to encourage clients to make themselves worthy of the ranking positions that they want, but that can be a tough conversation to have (“so sorry, you’re just not worthy of ranking #1”). Even if you have that conversation, it then becomes an uphill battle for internal resources and buy-in to actually get things done.

      Far too often, SEO becomes about doing what you have to do to show results quickly, in the first few months of a contract so the client will say on-board. Which is sad really, because SEO is more like Warren Buffett style long-term investing, and less like day trading. If someone is looking for fast results, paid search or conversion optimization are probably safer bets.

      SEO is, or rather should be, only for those who are willing to invest in a long-term strategy aimed at becoming the absolute best in their space. As an agency that offers SEO, we’d much rather be a trusted, long-term partner, helping a client to dominate their space the right way 🙂

      July 31, 2013 at 12:44 pm
  • Hi McRoberts, I searched your name and found this post, I know your name from one of the interview by Jayson DeMers at Forbes site, Is SEO dead? Out of so many answered this question, I love yours the most. I have added you in my plus circle, hope you can add me too.

    March 4, 2014 at 5:40 pm

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