Search engine optimization (SEO) has been a field of its own in the marketing community for the past two decades. But in a world where most industries are constantly responding to new cycles of innovation, and in a field with a technological focus, SEO can seem almost stagnant by comparison.
Sure, there are often new Google updates and new software platforms to consider, but the basic strategies are very similar to what they were a decade ago.
So how much innovation is there, really, in SEO?
What Counts as “Innovation?”
This is the most important question to ask first. What really counts as “innovation?”
SEO is an industry that has already gone through many changes in its short 20-ish years of existence. On a large scale, there are near-constant tweaks to Google’s ranking algorithm that we have to look at. On a small scale, we have to make strategic adjustments on a client by client basis — partially because every client is different and partially because any single client could see significant ranking volatility at an unpredictable pace.
But these stand as mere tweaks to an existing system, or as responses to an external stimulus. For there to be “true” innovation, there needs to be a new idea, a new approach, or an entirely new methodology.
The Fundamental Principles
You can view SEO through multiple different lenses. At the lowest, most specific level, you can think about individual tactics or processes required for your campaign. At the highest, almost conceptual level, you can think of SEO in terms of general underlying principles — and these SEO fundamentals haven’t changed much.
· Search indexing and tech specs. If you want to be listed in Google’s search rankings, you first need to make sure you’re in its index. The search indexing process hasn’t changed much over the years, and is still the first step to getting seen in the SERPs.
· High-quality content. High-quality content gives Google more pages to index, giving you more opportunities to rank for various relevant keywords. This hasn’t changed.
· Link building. Despite advancements in link evaluation, link building is still the best way to build authority — and it’s a practical necessity if you want to rank higher, just as it was a decade ago.
These have been the gold standards for a successful SEO campaign for many years, and conceptually, they haven’t changed.
Responses to New Updates
What has changed is the way that Google fields and responds to search queries. Google is still the dominant search engine, and it’s constantly rolling out updates that change how its ranking algorithm works — although usually, in small ways. A tweak to the SERP layout or better semantic support don’t qualify as large-scale, game-changing plays.
Major updates, like Panda and Penguin, did result in major shakeups to organic search rankings, but I don’t know that you can call them innovations. Google has always prioritized quality content; Panda just made its quality evaluation abilities a little bit better.
It has also always prioritized the quality of links; Penguin just made its evaluation better. These weren’t new ideas, though they did force many businesses to reevaluate their tactics and strategies. Rather than innovations, these merely cleared the field of questionable practitioners.
So let’s look at the new techniques that have been developed for SEO. In the field of medicine, there are constant breakthroughs to introduce new surgical techniques and treatment methods — so does SEO have the same pattern of development?
With one categorical exception (which I’ll explain shortly), the answer is no. You still need to create new pieces of content to support your site’s domain authority and engage your audience. The best ways to build links (through guest posts and link attraction through high quality content publication & promotion) are still the best.
Keyword research and selection still has the fundamental steps it did in the beginning. And even your approach to troubleshooting index problems is much the same as it was a few years ago.
The exception I mentioned? It has to do with the technology we use to employ these techniques.
The real source of innovation in the SEO industry isn’t with the tactics you use or the high-level strategies you employ, but rather the technologies you use to employ them.
· Google Search Console. Originally called Webmaster Tools, Google Search Console continues to add new features and upgrades to make it easier to determine how your website is viewed.
· Keyword research. You’re still looking for high-volume, low-competition keywords, but you can do it faster and with more information thanks to tools like Moz’s Keyword Explorer.
· Analytics. Google Analytics and other analytics tools are constantly becoming more user-friendly and offering more types of data you can use to evaluate your campaign.
· Automation. Marketing automation is taking basic marketing tasks and making them more streamlined and automatic, from scheduling social media posts to coordinating email blasts.
These aren’t necessarily changing what SEO is, but they are changing how SEO can be executed.
How Much Innovation Is There, Really?
So let’s return to the initial question. How much innovation is there in the SEO field?
In terms of high-level concepts, direction, and technique, there’s very little innovation. Google works the same as it used to (with aesthetic and functional improvements, but no radical departures), and the same guiding principles from last decade work just as well today.
The innovation arises from tech companies who create and distribute new ways to use those techniques, or measure your ability to achieve that high-level direction. They aren’t changing the industry in terms of your goals or tasks, but in terms of how you can set those goals and execute those tasks.
SEO is getting more accessible, more automated, and easier to understand, but its core principles remain the same.
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