Will SEO Exist in 2015?

This is a guest post by Brad Shorr.

SEO used to be a self-standing marketing discipline, having a well defined, generally accepted set of activities and objectives. No more. Today, SEO is much more intertwined with other marketing activities, making it difficult to know where SEO ends and where social media, for example, begins.

Furthermore, recent developments at Google suggest that the search engine giant has embarked on a strategic campaign to change the nature of, and in many ways devalue, the practice of SEO.

Taking all of this into account, I’m really beginning to wonder if SEO as we know it will be around in 2015. This post will review several of these developments, and suggest possible outcomes. One thing is for sure: SEO practitioners and clients better be ready to make serious changes in the way they operate.

Google’s SEO Mindset

When trying to figure out what Google is up to, I like going to the source. Here’s a short video from Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, from August, 2011, in which he lays out Google’s definition of white hat SEO. He describes four activities that a good SEO agency should provide:

  1. Making sure the site is crawlable and communicates clearly with Google so that it’s content can be properly interpreted
  2. Selecting the appropriate keywords so that content is understandable to human readers
  3. Optimizing the usability of the site
  4. Improving the speed of the site, in terms of page loading time

Two crucial observations about this.

First, the latter two points about usability and speed loading fall into areas where things such as web design, conversion optimization and programming, strongly come into play — indicative of SEO’s growing reliance on other marketing disciplines.

Second, link building, traditionally the core of SEO, is not even on the list! Google clearly followed through on Cutts’ suggestions when it released the Penguin algorithm update, which was designed in large part as an assault on link spam. Certain commonly used link building techniques — using keywords repetitively in anchor text, for example — went from being effective to ineffective. And although Penguin takes aim at clear black hat abuses (devious efforts to game the system), directionally, Google wants to see backlinks sprout up naturally, rather than through the efforts of professional SEOs. What makes links sprout up naturally? Unique and relevant content, according to Google.

Impact of Content, Authors, and Personalized Search

Less emphasis on link building and more emphasis on usability and site speed are two things that chip away at SEO’s importance — but there’s much more going on. Three of the most important:

  1. The rise of quality content. Google has always been interested in rewarding quality content; only now, it is getting better at identifying it. Branding comes into play here (another marketing discipline with SEO impact), since branded search queries and strong on-page branding tell Google a given page of content is the “real deal.”
  2. The rise of authorship. Through its rel=author link, Google now associates content with its creator as well as the publishing site. A “branded” author with high influence in his/her niche may be able to outrank similar content published on a stronger domain. This is a developing trend, but the day may come when a powerful author could have more impact on search visibility than any amount of traditional SEO work.
  3. The rise of personalized search. Today, search results can be objective or subjective. By using personalized search, users can see content written and recommended by people in their extended social media communities, as well as content based on their own web history. Rankings for non-personalized search, a common SEO performance yardstick, have become incomplete and unreliable. Search visibility can take many forms, some of which are beyond the influence of traditional SEO.

Telegraphed Punches and Missing Metrics

Two final signals that the SEO industry may be heading for obsolescence.

First, Google is becoming noticeably more transparent in making its algorithm and strategy. Google is taking the guesswork out of SEO by making it pretty clear what its looking for. In the past, there was more room for SEO firms to cook up a secret sauce; today, there are fewer activities to do (because Google is chipping away at “manipulative” tactics) and fewer ways to do them.

Second, Google is hiding organic search data for users who are logged into Google. This “not provided” traffic makes it difficult to interpret the impact of SEO activity. It’s rather curious that Google is becoming more transparent with its rules and less transparent with its metrics. My interpretation: these moves lessen the appetite for organic search and increase the appetite for paid search. Since Google makes money on paid search, it would seem to be a smart business move. Great for investors … not so great for SEOs.

Where To from Here?

Our firm, which specialized in Internet marketing in Chicago, is smack dab in the middle of this swirl of strategic shifts. For many of our clients, companies in B2B niches such as small business merchant account processing, social media, content-drive or author-driven content, and personalized search visibility have never seemed particularly relevant. Are “old school” SEO techniques still going to be effective? If not, how will firms like these be able to gain organic search traction, given that there may not be a lot to discuss in social circles about industrial gloves and credit cards? Here are a couple of thoughts about the future.

For sure, piling up backlinks for the sake of numbers won’t accomplish much. Quality will more decidedly trump quantity, which means that SEOs will have to be much more strategic and clients will need to place a higher value on one spectacular link than 100 mediocre ones.

Organic search visibility will gain ground in the sense that many other types of Internet marketing, from social media to conversion optimization, will need to factor SEO into their strategic and tactical equations. Even if SEO melts away as an independent discipline or department, SEO expertise and SEO experts will be indispensable members of every marketing team, regardless of how it is organized.

Over to You

What do you think — what will SEO look like in the year 2015?

Brad Shorr is Director of Content & Social Media for Straight North. His articles on SEO and social media have appeared on many industry-leading blogs.

41 Comments

  • aaron wall says:

    The keyword anchor deep links for the firm and client embedded in the post tell you more about the author’s views than the rest of the post does.

    • nick huhn says:

      now that’s damn funny… “make hay while the sun’s shining” right? :)

    • Tim Aldiss says:

      Ha – agree with Aaron on this on. Not a great piece of content in Straight North’s content strategy!

    • Lisa Barone says:

      game, set, match

    • Brad Shorr says:

      Sigh. I’m not sure what links in a post published last week tell you about my views of 2015, but setting that issue aside, I actually welcome the opportunity to share my views on linking.

      From the agency perspective, we’ve been reviewing our SEO procedures on a monthly basis — sometimes even more frequently than that — to figure out how to serve our SEO clients, doing things that are legitimate and that work. As we’ve eliminated linking techniques that have fallen into disfavor, we settled on this approach. In the last couple of months especially, we’ve seen signs that this is probably not going to be terribly effective, either. Creating natural, relevant, high authority links for middle market B2Bs is a challenge; we’re doing the best we can. In addition to criticism, we welcome constructive ideas from Tamar’s community!

      On the personal side, I’ll admit that incorporating links with a business purpose into my posts gives me a bit of angst — this type of post in particular. I work hard to write posts that provide useful information, and when my work is undermined or diminished because of links, it bothers me. I’d much prefer to have discussion about the ideas and issues in a post topic, because I think that’s where the greatest value is for marketers. However I understand client links leave the door wide open for a discussion along altogether different lines, so I’d like to try and make it a constructive conversation.

      Those are my views.

      We’ve been discussing this post in connection with our ongoing link strategy discussions, and partly as a result of the conversation, have asked Tamar to remove the client links. Strategically I’m not sure what we’re going to do going forward, but we’ll continue to make modifications, for sure.

  • Raj says:

    Totally disagree with the previous comment. Nor is it objective to the point.

    As far as the post, Brad, I disagree with you about fewer SEO activities to do today. I would argue there are more activities today are required from an SEO than ever before. Regardless of the fact that Cutts only gave 4 recommendations. The secret sauce is still there. Although to people who want to do SEO right, there’s no secrets and no shortcuts. The truth is SEO is hard work. Maybe Cutts didn’t mention linkbuilding, because it’s actually about relationship building. Like you said, with linkbuilding, there’s more room to be lured into padding stats, going for quantity over quality.

    I totally agree about high quality content. That’s the heart of SEO that earns trust of web users & customers. As long as people demand quality content, there will be a need for unique, organic content, as opposed to paid methods. As long as content producers are cranking out great content that people enjoy reading, SEO won’t die.

  • Jeff Ogden says:

    I used to head marketing for search marketing firm in London. Life was simple – keyword optimization and link building.

    Those days are over and I think SEO firms are headed for the dust bin of history. It was always a business subject to the whims of Google.

    Now it is about recency of content, site speed and social media, as well as content. All of the short cuts are gone.

    Forget the SEO firms. They cannot help any longer.

    Jeff Ogden
    Host of Marketing Made Simple TV
    http://www.marketingmadesimple.tv

    • Brad Shorr says:

      SEO can still be helpful – actually very helpful depending on the situation, especially with regard to site architecture. To me, it seems more of a case where, over time, helpful SEO activities will be rolled into a broader discipline.

  • The era of “let’s only focus on this marketing channel and forget the impact of it and other channels on it for a second… lalala that isn’t possible” has been over for years now and is not some moment in the future. Multichannel internet marketing is the way to go.

    That does not mean SEO will be dead in 2015, though, but that it’s part of a bigger whole… a business model… and that’s what it should have always been. SEO won’t die, because do you really think people will gladly Google if ALL search results are paid and thus not based on quality but on money? Guess again. The role it will play in the larger multichannel marketing approach, perhaps, will change, but dying is a big word.

    I think search engine optimization will be about making sure your found in FACEBOOK’s search engine and mobile search engines (because Google and the like are ports to mobiles, they were not CREATED for it) instead of Google. The face will change and the name, perhaps, but the game remains the same: using organic search results to attract more customers.

    • Brad Shorr says:

      This is a good point. Search visibility means more than rankings on standard Google SERPs. Personalized search brings social media into the equation, something that is starting to blur the line between SEO and social marketing.

  • Brad:

    This is an important conversation for SEOs and other marketers to be having. Comments like Aaron’s above just muddy up the conversation. Your observations are spot on.

    Here’s why honest posts like yours often get attacked – SEO is moving from a math problem to a people problem. The old-school math-types that focus on the algorithm and its attributes are frightened by this.

    I, like you, have written about the issues you bring up above because the writing is clearly on the wall. I had one of my designers whip up this series of Venn diagrams that visually articulate some of the ideas you mention above: http://www.kunocreative.com/Portals/32387/images/SEO_Yesterday_Today_Tomorrow.jpg

    SEO will always be around. It just might look like content marketing or social media marketing. . .

    Looking forward to your next post!

    @CPollittIU

    • Brad Shorr says:

      Hi Chad, That graphic is very interesting – your designer gets the point across well. A heavily mathematical approach to SEO had the advantage of being very measurable, which was an advantage. So what do you make of Google’s new policy of hiding “not provided” data? As I said in the post, I see this is as a way to nudge people into paid search programs. But is there more to it?

      • Brad:

        We’re 100% in agreement on the PPC nudging. However, I don’t believe it’s mutually exclusive to Google’s desire to reward quality content by trying to eliminate those factors that don’t truly measure the quality of content – i.e. most on-page factors and unnatural link building (here’s some detailed thoughts on that (http://www.kunocreative.com/blog/bid/74670/What-Google-s-Over-Optimization-Penalty-Really-Means).

        Rewarding quality content has been their mantra for as long as I can remember (it even says so in their Webmaster Guidelines). IMO – they are two sides of the same coin for Google. A true “have your cake and eat it too.”

        Anyway, keep fighting the good fight and don’t let the mathematician trolls get you down. . . :)

        @CPollittIU

        • Brad Shorr says:

          Hi, Thanks for the support, Chad. :) There’s no doubt in my mind that Google has always and will always want to give users the highest quality content possible. Otherwise, who would use Google search? Still, it still seems to me that hiding upwards of 30% of the search data makes keyword research a bit difficult … and without keyword research you can believe in, how do you continually improve your SEO/content/conversion tactics?

          • Great question Brad! I actually ignore keywords and focus instead on how many keyword phrases drive traffic each month to include the unknown ones (I realize the unknowns could be duplicates). I don’t care where they rank or what the keywords are. I track the growth or contraction from month to month. This metric can be manipulated by robust content marketing. In fact, it’s the number one KPI in content marketing regarding organic search (besides conversions, leads, customers and their associated ratios). There are other KPIs I track for organic that ignore rankings, too. (http://www.kunocreative.com/blog/bid/73459/Content-Marketing-Math-Which-Organic-Search-Metrics-Count).

            Interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

  • Bill Slawski says:

    Will auto mechanics still be employed in 2015?

    If you look carefully, cars just aren’t built with manual chokes anymore, and those have been mostly replaced with sensors.

    The very expensive “tune up” machines that you would hook up to someone’s engine to monitor compression and other features have been replaced by laptop computers.

    The internal combustion engine is being attacked by electric motors and hybrids.

    And on the horizon are cars that don’t even need drivers.

    Will car repair as we know it still be around in 2015?

    • Bill, that is a profound explanation how every industry evolves. If you don’t evolve with it, you will be left behind.

    • +1

      Like

      etc etc.

      Love the analogy, Bill.

    • Brad Shorr says:

      Good analogy, and I think we’re really in agreement that businesses evolve. Today’s car repair technicians have a much different skill set today than they did 10 or 20 years ago. SEO skill sets will change, and whether or not it will be called SEO, “optimization,” however it is defined, will take expertise.

    • John J Curtis says:

      Thank you, Bill.

    • The analogy of the Auto industry is interesting, but can not be compared to SEO Tactics.

      The underlining differences are the unique underhanded attempts often made in the SEO industry are not the same as purely offering a real service such as Tune ups.

      Industry’s have come and gone, industries have also adapted.

  • Jeff said it; the SEO companies are dust! I continue to be baffled by business owners who tell me they are paying someone to get them on page 1. How in the heck is that even possible? Start talking about creating content and these guys glaze over and start moaning ‘that sounds like sooo much work.’ Well, it is. That’s why those guys that do it get page 1.

    Im surprised you didnt mention social results in search here. Can the SEO company of the future adapt like PR agencies have? Start incorporating social strategies and content marketing to reach acceptable results? Something’s gotta give because meta tags and all that already went.

    • Brad Shorr says:

      You’re right: social search is another big issue that I certainly should have mentioned, although I’ve written about it a lot elsewhere. Google’s authorship program is an interesting bridge between social and SEO, in that it’s a way to quantify quality based on an author’s authority, which is in part a function of his/her social media authority.

  • Bill:

    Your analogy is intellectually dishonest. Only mechanics who learn how to work on the new flying vehicles with magnets instead of engines will be employed.

    The fact is that where a website ranks DOESN’T MATTER anymore for maximizing search visibility. How many keyword phrases drive traffic DOES. It doesn’t take an SEO to do that. It takes good writers.

    @CPollittIU

  • Jeff Reed says:

    As long as search listings appear in a specific order based on an underlying algorithm, SEO will exist. Think about it, there will always be signals that determine whether or not your site will appear, where and for what. Unless Google determines that randomized listings are the way to go, SEO exists. Every time a new listing type is added (local listings, social listings, personalized, etc), a new optimizable component of search is born.

    • Jeff:

      You’re assuming that being number one on a search engine is the goal of SEO – It’s not.

      It’s “the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural,” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”), search results.” – Wikipedia

      Improving the visibility of a website doesn’t require ranking high. It can be accomplished by increasing the number of keywords driving traffic regardless of where they rank.

      You accomplish this by publishing lots of content not by technical SEO. I got 79 visitors for the phrase “Facebook Like” last month. I don’t rank in the top 100 for that phrase. Take that one phrase and multiply it by 14,000. That’s the type of organic visibility I’m talking about.

      While the mathematicians are are busy chasing 20, 50 or 100+ phrases, I’m cleaning house with much more organic visibility. Not to mention, the resources spent on all of the chasing would be better used to create more content.

      A very respected industry blog (MarketingTechBlog.com) credits 72% of their organic traffic from phrases that don’t even rank on the first page. The receive over 120,000 uniques/mo.

      The point is three years ago this wasn’t possible. It is today. That’s why SEO has changed. Most still want to focus on rank, but it’s not necessary anymore.

      Aggressive content marketing delivers better organic visibility than link building and technical SEO.

      @CPollittIU

      • Jeff Reed says:

        Improving visibility is the same thing as improving rank, you’re just choosing to obtain success by generating mass amounts of content and chasing the long tail. Whether you measure success based on rank (which you shouldn’t) or based on traffic is up to you…it’s still SEO. If this were an article about how linkbuilding or technical SEO is going to die, I’d agree. Whether you choose content marketing as your weapon of choice or something else, it’s still SEO if you’re doing it to increase visibility and traffic.

        Also, you’re undoubtedly ranking for those keywords driving traffic it’s just harder to replicate now due to personalized/local/social/universal search. Nobody is clicking 5 pages into the results and going to your site, that doesn’t drive traffic no matter how many keywords you’re targeting. It may not rank if you personally search for it, but it is for someone elsewhere and that’s the point.

        Ranking is not a success metric, I agree, but you’re receiving traffic as a result of it regardless.

  • Great. Another SEO is dead link bait article.

  • I felt Goosebumps when I read the title of this post!lol! Well, seo is always there until the end of the world for those who are doing the right seo techniques.. For online marketers who are doing same thing like balck hat seo, it surely the end of seo for them. On-page is part of seo, so it is always on the run and never ends..

  • Soumya S. says:

    This is one of those posts which compels us to think over our SEO methods or methods which SEOs have so far have been able to comfortably pulling off. I personally do not think SEO might exist in 2015. But that said, the basics of maintaining your site, ensuring crawlability, following search-engine friendly practices would still have to be followed, thats for sure. Perhaps, SEO wouldn’t be called SEO anymore. It would evolve into an integrated approach along with social-media engagement, actual informational content (not just any random article written by content writers anymore) and more of a branding initiative. In short, standalone SEO would simply fail, it has already started weakening.

  • Dave Ross says:

    My presentation at WordCamp Boston this weekend was all about the future of SEO, specifically the growing importance of schema.org microdata and other signals to Google about the nature of your content. Their increasing use of “rich snippets” points to a future where all the information anyone could be after is available in their search results, without having to click through to someone’s web site. The growth of mobile (already 40% of web traffic in some areas) points to a future where search rankings can be influenced by location, time, your contacts’ recommendations and other factors and deliver more relevant results than the “old school” Pagerank algorithm.

    Ultimately, I think SEO is facing a big shake-up, but an exciting one. By 2015, search engines will become the main way people find information, and local search will be really important. SEO will be about meeting Google’s standards for quality, signaling important data and metadata on a page for the search engines to index, and building a large number of positive organic reviews on reputable sites like Yelp so Google features you above lesser competitors.

    In short, it wont be “search engine optimization” anymore. It will be about reputation management, quality content, and working with search engines to deliver the kind of machine-readable information they need to make your pages shine in their search results.

    • Brad Shorr says:

      Hi Dave, Your technical insights are extremely helpful, making it easier to visualize what SEO is going to look like. Given the big role of search in the future, how do you see mobile search playing into all of this?

    • Reputation management, or what I like to call Reputation Marketing.. Here in lies another problem… It can be easily gamed…

      I read reviews that I can tell you instantly are fake reviews, and are providing poor services to the consumers who with out knowledge are making decisions based on someones false review…

      Often times theses are provided for by not only fake reviews, but they are fake profiles, and someone has taken the time to optimize the post…

      Yelp and Google claim to have good filtering systems, yet I see the problems pooping up ever day.

  • Meg E. Cox says:

    Anyway you slice it with SEO, informational content is becoming more important, but I still run into people wanting to pay $40 per scramble-and-spit post. What changes are you seeing in the business of content writing?

    • Brad Shorr says:

      Hi Meg, Google states point-blank that it wants to reward content that is relevant, useful and authoritative, so that’s what we strive for. Google Authorship (rel=author links) is starting to become part of the equation as well. High quality content on relevant and authoritative sites written by credible authors has the biggest SEO impact. We’re trying to be more selective in picking our spots; even at $40 a pop I think it’s a waste of money to carpet bomb Google with garbage.

  • james says:

    Here’s why honest posts like yours often get attacked – SEO is moving from a math problem to a people problem. The old-school math-types that focus on the algorithm and its attributes are frightened by this.

  • Personally, I’m excited with the direction Google is going. A transparent algorithm that focuses on quality content is essential for a level playing field.

  • Jared D says:

    Funny. Author talks about how “linking isnt important” even though the piece itself is a linking effort to his Chicago internet marketing firm. I love this “SEO is dead” nonsense. Yeah, bad SEO is dead. And while the SEO landscape has changed, search exposure (which is what SEO is) ISNT GOING ANYWHERE. The BS spewed by “SEO experts” isn’t to be believed!

  • Google in all there Glory,their money,their high paid employees, and very smart engineers, had it handed to them by $59.00 dollar software’s for years.

    How many times have they started a service only to see it come to an end.

    How did they let SEO get so out of hand before they were able to do something about it.

    I would like to see Google do a better Job at managing their efforts, and establish long term solutions that everyone who relies on them can count on for long term relationships…

    I think the problem lies in the management and the decision processors.

    Regarding Pay per clicks, it is not a good business model for them as it does nothing to establish the differences between good content and not so good content that was paid for… If that is the new direction, which I doubt, they may as well go back to back linking, it would be at least fun and entertaining for everyone…

  • IMO SEO will continue to exist as long as google does. Every time google shuts down a way that we use to manipulate it, anther path appears. SEO might be completely different, but it will always be possible and can always be gamed.

  • Travis’s boldness in the previous statement was a bit shocking. I do believe SEO will exist in 2016 because some companies can’t use adwords or don’t have the clout that bigger brands do. I believe that SEO will be more fine tuned in the next few years and will encompass on-site, off-site and social media.

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