This article originally appeared in the April 2014 BrightonSEO newspaper.
“SEO is dead!” – the rallying cry of literally tens of people who know what good linkbait looks like.
The word “SEO” is being dropped by more and more agencies and tool providers, but search engine optimisation isn’t dropping from their attitudes.
We work in an industry where the KPIs of content marketing and PR are links and rankings. Social media should drive conversions and creative should be measurable. Thankfully we’re all SEOs and this is the kind of thing we do in our sleep.
We are creative
In another time, and another life, links cost $15 each – plus another Fiverr to pay the copywriter you were using. And the exchange rate used to be excellent. Being “good at outreach” meant convincing the site owner to field the PayPal fees.
Now if you want to build links your “link building team” has to be capable of PR, copywriting, designing and often developing. Or you have to pay an agency to do that and somebody is going to have to see an invoice. Now it matters if nobody sees your links because an arbitrary output of “search visibility” doesn’t impress the C-Suite.
As a result SEO agencies are delivering creative campaigns that many media agencies would be proud of. As an industry we’re capitalising on the fact that people have to see our output faster than the creative industries are learning how to do the things that we’ve known for years: who holds the keys to the internet, and how do we measure success once the door is open? It’s like Bill Bernbach said (not about SEO), “if nobody notices your advertising everything else is academic.”
The output of SEO is visibility. Good job really.
We are channel hoppers
Despite the fact that we’ve been basically ignoring Bing and Yahoo! for years we’ve suddenly become extremely proficient at channel hopping (2018 note: stop ignoring Bing). We drove the social revolution; now we’re driving the demand for content marketing as brand marketers are realising that link building is dead (link building – not building links).
Any SEO worth his salt is fluent in Google Analytics, and as a consequence we find it laughable how difficult traditional agencies find it to track the ROI of content and social. To us it’s available in a few clicks, and it comes in the form of traffic and transactions – not abstract concepts like “brand awareness” (we drive that too).
We’re the ones driving mobile (because we know it’s good for SEO), and we learned a long time ago that “because Google likes it” isn’t a good enough business case, so we developed robust ways to project traffic (without even a single drop of keyword data), suggest how it might impact conversion rate, and how quickly we can pay off the investment. We can do this because we know where customers come from.
We understand that Facebook runs on an algorithm, and therefore what makes it into people’s feeds must be chosen based on some sort of signal. We can work with that. Marketing on Facebook and Twitter is impossible without great content…but Matt Cutts taught us that years ago.
If you’ve been doing SEO for a year or two you’ll no doubt have realised that our livelihoods are mostly reliant on a single website we have absolutely no control over. If Google shut down tomorrow (not likely) – or went completely paid like Facebook is probably about to (more likely) – the SEO industry would survive. Every single day, when we come to work, something has changed and we have to do things slightly differently.
We survived Penguin, Panda, manual actions. The guy who lost eBay $200million got another job just fine. Google has been conditioning us to keep up with the digital revolution for the best part of a decade.
Rankings don’t come from being good at SEO. They come from knowing how to leverage PR, platform, content, creative, data, development teams, social, paying Google lots of money…we have the broadest skill set of any marketers. Google could go down at any second and we’d know roughly what we could do with our lives – 17 (now 21) years of SEO and nobody outside of the industry has much clue how Google works.
PR died so search could live
As the 00s progressed PR agencies frequently failed to retain their creative talent and – understanding that this wasn’t strictly required to deliver coverage for their clients – increasingly hired people who could “smile and dial”, according to Applied Futurist Tom Cheesewright.
“This is why SEO agencies turned up in the late noughties and kicked their asses” he says. Now link building has become PR the race is on between PR agencies who want to convince brands that they’re good at SEO, and SEO agencies who want to convince brands that they’re good at PR. But the infrastructure required to deliver a great search campaign has changed substantially. PR agencies are building better links than we were a decade ago, but are they doing better SEO than we are now?
“SEO is dead” is dead
Articles declaring that SEO is no more seem to be getting less and less frequent, and more and more pretentious. Now “search is just a layer of social media” – or “traditional SEO is dead” and there’s a new way of doing it.
Search isn’t dead. Google is a shopping channel and we help you sell more stuff. Google is also an information centre, and we help convince your customers that they need to buy your stuff. Search has become marketing, and marketing has become something much less useful as the numbers of listicles and syndicated press releases explodes (2018 note: same, but “with AI”).
The SEO industry stopped syndicating press releases years ago. The internet complains that we ruined it for everyone, along with directories and blog comments. They questioned how we could sleep at night, knowing that we just weren’t adding value to people’s lives.
In reality we knew exactly what value we were adding. And we knew that it was often more than they were. The company’s SEO guy knew that X goes in and Y comes out – and that there was nobody else in the company that could prove, without ambiguity, what value they were adding.
When a person searches Google for something they’ve shown intent that they want to see something come out. SEO is the purest form of permission marketing. We’re giving the people what they want. In our decade of spamming the internet we provided more value – and inconvenienced fewer people – than 100 brands with flash mobs.
Marketers of all disciplines have done plenty of crap stuff over the years. The only difference is that our crap stuff worked.
The good old days never ended
Far from yearning for the “good old days”, the SEO industry has just found new ways to add value. For us, X will always go in and Y will always come out – the difference is that X looks a lot nicer than it used to. It’s probably interactive, it’s probably multi-channel, it’s probably disruptive – it’s probably a lot easier to get buy in from the key stakeholders so that we can do it in the first place.
…and instead of SEO budgets going to Content Marketing agencies, SEO budgets are going to SEO agencies who know Content Marketing. That might have shrunk, but brands have become convinced that they need a Content Marketing budget as well – and that goes to the SEO agencies that know Content Marketing too. As an industry we’re taking up more and more PR budgets. SEO budgets haven’t shrunk at all. The SEO team/agency (delete as appropriate) feeds into everything, and brands with sense are letting us get at the other pots.
The world needs SEO to drive marketing forwards. We come from a mindset where we optimise everything. We have never just provided rankings – we provide introductions between businesses and customers. The big budgets are still in TV but the scattergun approach is becoming less and less effective.
There’s a myth that Google hates SEO, but in reality the search engine knows we’re making life easier for millions of people (and Google employees). The sad fact of the matter is that the only people who really write “SEO is dead” articles are people who work in SEO, desperate either for clicks, or to set themselves apart from other consultants, agencies and professionals who have taken the churn and burn approach in the past. It’s a safe bet that they don’t believe a word they’re writing, and that regardless of whether they sign off their article with “Content Marketing Guru” or “Inbound Marketing Manager” (or worse – “Social Media Strategist”), what they’re really doing – day in, day out – is search engine optimisation.
There’s only one thing that has really changed. It’s harder. It’s a damn good job we’re good.