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SEO Is Not Dead, Just Changing: What This Means

"SEO is dead." Making a statement like that is a great way to generate lots of traffic, and comments, as Micah Baldwin and Mike McDonald have recently demonstrated. But it's still nonsense. As I noted in my comment to comment Michah's post on Learn to Duck, articles like this have been appearing since at least 2003, so if SEO is dying, it's an awfully slow death.

It is changing, however, as Google's plans for search personalization are rolled out. Using factors such as geographic location, "preferences" as indicated by your search history, and even integration of tools like SearchWiki and Google Friend Connect (nicely explained by TechCrunch), Google will customize search results for each user.

This means that, very soon, your site may show up at #1, #5, #12 or some other spot for any given search term depending on who is doing the searching. Already, automated position-checking tools like Rank Checker and SEO Chat produce erroneous results with Google; that soon won't matter as there will no "right" answer as to where your site appears on Google for a specific search phrase anyway, other than "it depends."

But again, none of this means that SEO is dead, only that it is changing (as it constantly does). Considering Google's move to make more of universal search and personalized search, here are some important points to keep in mind:
  • The basic principles of good SEO (proper use of on-page factors like title, meta tags, headlines and quality content with sufficient keyword density, along with building high-quality external links) principles still apply. Although your precise search position will vary depend on the searcher's location, demographics and other factors, it won't rank highly for anyone if it isn't well-optimized.

  • The changes may help local businesses. With more of an emphasis on location, even small company sites may appear more prominently in searches on broad, highly competitive phrases such as CRM consulting services in their local area. In the b2b realm, this could raise the profile of value-added resellers, systems integrators and managed service providers relative to software developers and hardware manufacturers, making strong channel relations more important than ever.

  • If Google's changes actually succeed in making search results more relevant, it could help both searchers and site owners. If you're the owner of Ace Dry Cleaners, for example, you really don't want traffic from people who are searching for Ace Insurance or Ace Hardware any more than those searchers want to find you. So, the end result could be less traffic, but more relevant traffic.

  • Google's moves are likely to have the greatest impact on broad, highly competitive, ambiguous words and phrases. There will be much less variation in search results between users for long tail and specific niche phrases—which is, again, why SEO is far from dead.

  • Since there will no longer be a reliable measure of search engine position for any individual site and search phrase, other metrics will become more important: overall search traffic, quality measures such as bounce rate, and SEO page grade as measured by tools such as HubSpot's Website Grader, the search engine optimization analysis tool from SEO Workers, or Traffic Travis. There will also likely be more emphasis on search-driven conversions, though this is, strictly speaking, more of a website optimization than an SEO issue.

  • SEO requires a mix of skills—coding, design, copywriting, link building, PR, social media optimization—that most organizations don't have in-house. Larger companies may be able to form internal SEO teams, but SMBs will still need to rely on outside agencies that can provide this mix of skills on an affordable, as-needed basis.

  • Search algorithms are constantly changing. One day the meta keywords tag is critical, the next it doesn't matter. First you should get linked in as many online directories as possible, then you needn't bother. A tactic that is white hat one day becomes gray hat, or even black hat, the next. Only specialists can keep on top of the constant change and assure that current best practices are being utilized.
Finally, SEO will gradually morph into web presence optimization (WPO)—a term so important I'm giving it its own category. There will be more to come on this soon. For now, rest assured that reports of the death of SEO have been greatly exaggerated.


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Dave J. said…
Good reminder as we head into 2009. I'll be looking to see if WPO shows up elsewhere in the blogosphere. Heard it here first!
Tom said…
Thanks for the kind words Dave.

I may be absolutely the first to use "web presence optimization," but Googling it with quotes produces only 45 results (two of which are this blog post). So, the term certainly hasn't gained wide currency -- yet.
Tom said…
Oops, meant to write "may not be" obviously.

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