Past, Present, and Future: Why SEO Might Transform, but Will Never Disappear
Search engine optimization (SEO) has been around for as long as search engines have been popular, but the constantly evolving complexity of search algorithms have digital marketers wondering what’s next for their ranking strategies and if they’ll even be relevant in the next decade. Certainly, search marketing has come a long way from the link spamming and keyword-hiding practices of the past, but is it true that SEO may one day become completely obsolete?
I don’t think so. I prefer to think of Google’s changing algorithms and search marketers’ changing strategies as a dance, rather than a race. In a race, there is only one clear winner, and the participants are working against each other to get ahead. Google would be dashing to the lead, and for many SEO pessimists, this would mean search marketers would be left behind. But in a dance, both participants stay close and mimic each other’s movements. Google has the lead, so it might take us to strange areas of the dance floor, but if we match it step-for-step, the dance can continue.
You’ll have to pardon the metaphor, but my point is this: SEO has changed significantly since its inception and will continue to change significantly in the years to come, but it will never fully disappear.
Google’s Early Stages and the Birth of SEO
When Google first started out, it was a clunky, fault-ridden engine that populated results based on only a handful of factors. It was still the best thing on the Internet, allowing it to skyrocket in popularity, but the combination of its mainstream use and its straightforward ranking algorithms presented the perfect opportunity for marketers and coders to take advantage of the system.
SEO arose not as a marketing strategy, per se, but as a kind of cheat code for the Internet. By adopting a handful of practices that artificially enhance a quality that Google deemed to be worthy of rank, cheaters were able to get whatever sites they wanted to the top of the SERPs. It was something you didn’t have to think about because it was based in pure logic; if Google ranks the site with the most instances of a given keyword, all you have to do is repeat that keyword on your site as many times as possible.
Fortunately, Google caught on to these manipulative practices, and started implementing a series of code revisions and algorithm updates to fight back against them. Starting in around 2003, Google started pushing regular updates that added new, more complex factors for ranking (such as authoritative inbound links), and started adding new mechanics to penalize sites with practices it deemed to be unethical (such as repeating keywords multiple times or duplicating content across the Web).
The Current State of SEO (and What Google’s Got on the Horizon)
By 2010, SEO had reached a point of stability; Google’s algorithms were more complex, but still somewhat predictable. With enough time, anybody could initiate a steady rise in rankings for a given set of keywords and keyword phrases. But 2011’s Panda update and 2012’s Penguin update turned the SEO world on its head yet again. The Panda update unleashed hell on sites which tried to use filler content, duplicate content, or keyword-stuffed material to boost their ranks. The Penguin update, as a tactical counterpart, introduced some intelligent new ways of analyzing at inbound links, rewarding sites with natural inbound links, and penalizing those with links posted for the sole purpose of building rankings.
Google has also introduced a range of new factors that influence a site’s rankings, including signals from social media sites and, more recently, SSL encryption. For now, the two biggest factors for high rankings seem to be high volumes of high-quality, well-written content, and an inbound link profile that’s both natural and authoritative. SEO, therefore, is no longer a “cheat code for the Internet,” and instead is a series of best practices that can eventually lead you to higher rankings.
Every Google algorithm update has one primary goal: to improve user experience by generating the most relevant results. It’s no longer possible to hack your way to the top; if you want high rankings, your site needs to provide genuine value to its users. That being said, SEO still exists and is a measurable, competitive strategy; we know what Google looks for in websites (or, at least we have a general idea), and can implement practices to take advantage of those qualities. We just have to do so in a qualitative way rather than quantitative, focusing on quality rather than quantity.
If you’re wondering what makes content “good” according to Google, check out some of my other articles:
Why Some Speculate SEO Is Dying
Looking at Google’s history and the current state of SEO, it’s no surprise why so many people have speculated that SEO is dying — or even that it’s already dead. Since the days of easy spamming and stuffing, SEO has gotten extraordinarily complex, and there are no signs of Google slowing down. New factors for rankings are added on a daily basis, and the search engine’s quality standards are becoming even stricter. That’s not even mentioning the fact that almost every field is so saturated with competitors, ranking for a short, popular keyword phrase with a new site is virtually impossible.
There may soon come a day when Google’s algorithm has become so complex that it’s virtually impossible to employ a strategy to take advantage of it. For some marketers, that means the complete eradication of that “cheat code” aspect and therefore, the death of SEO. But to me, that’s just another step in SEO’s evolution. SEO isn’t going to die; it’s just going to continue changing. If you define SEO as the ability to manipulate your way to the top of search rankings, then SEO will die. But if you define SEO as the practice of improving a website’s visibility in search results, then SEO will never die; it will only continue to evolve.
The Long Future of SEO
Today, SEO is much more complicated than that “cheat code” style of manipulation. Like my gaudy metaphor at the beginning of the article suggests, as Google’s algorithms become more complicated, so must SEO. So what does that mean for search marketers?
Google is focusing on user experience above all else. They’re no longer worried about finding a perfect mathematical formula for the “most relevant” site on the web — instead, they’re focused on giving users exactly what they’re looking for. So in order for SEO to survive and continue to be a relevant strategy for marketers, its intentions must evolve to match Google’s grand intentions. Instead of meeting Google beat-for-beat with algorithm changes and small strategy changes, search marketers have to look at the big picture.
SEO will one day become a simple matter of giving users the best web experience. Marketers won’t need to focus on keywords, or a number of posts per week, or a number of backlinks. Instead, SEO will be a blanket term that covers any efforts you make to give your customers a valuable, memorable, shareable experience. That’s what Google ultimately wants to see, and any gimmicks you use to boost your rank in the meantime are just asking for a penalty (sooner or later).
Keep this in mind as you continue to refine your SEO strategy and fear not — there will always be an opportunity to leverage the power of search engines. But instead of studying Google’s ranking factors, you’ll need to put more emphasis on studying your users’ experience.