The SEO Debate Continues

My earlier post about the future of SEO caught Jason Lee Miller’s attention over at Webpronews. So far, Jason is one of the few to grasp the Richter Scale implications of this shift in the SEM landscape. Danny Sullivan saw the danger signs some time ago. I traded a few emails with Danny on this and his response was:

“I did a lot of writing about personalized search about two years ago sounding the same alarm. Then it never really happened, the personal results that is. They’ll come, of course.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Lee continues to poke away at the SEM-SEO controversy that his partner David Pasternack started. There are those suggesting that this is an elaborate link baiting scheme on Kevin’s part. While his speculating on the future of SEO is certainly generating lots of controversy, and hence, links out there in the blogosphere, the cynics are missing the point that all those links are pointing to Kevin’s Clickz column, not his corporate online properties. No, I suspect Kevin’s motivation in this case is his self professed tendency to be a intellectual shit disturber. He likes to stir up polarized discussion, because if you know Kevin, there’s nothing he likes better than a good debate.

As you know from the previous post, I have a slightly different take (and I use the word slightly deliberately, I happen to agree with a lot of what Kevin said in his last column) on the debate than does Kevin. His point is that SEO can be brought in-house because for a lot of websites, you just have to do the basics right and they’ll get a huge lift. Couple this with the desire, expressed in the latest SEMPO survey, of a lot of companies to handle all this SEO in-house because there’s a lack of a recognized and trusted leader in the SEO Marketplace and it’s not that hard to see Kevin’s point. To be fair, Kevin also pointed out that a lot of companies want to bring their paid search in-house as well.

But here’s the thing. SEO is going to get a lot harder, not easier. And that increasing difficulty is going to be in area that today’s crop of SEO’s have next to no experience in: knowing the end user. And that get’s back to Jason’s story in Webpronews. He states:

“While focus on keywords has been the law of the searchland, SEO professionals will have to more diligently and acutely focus on the end user – every unique end user – mulling scenarios, personalities, and motivations, which makes SEO more akin to traditional marketing, where a firm grasp of psychological concepts is as necessary as the technical acuity of keyword targeting.”

Exactly, but in that paragraph lies a world of adjustment, and I’m not sure most SEO’s are up to the challenge.

Here are some things to think about:

As results become more personalized, the work ranking ceases to have meaning. Just a few months ago the question of ranking reporting came up in an analytics session I was participating in. This has been part of SEO since the beginning and has been an ongoing sore spot between the engines and the SEO community. I mentioned that ranking reporting might soon become irrelevant, expecting it to generate a bit of controversy (in that, I do share Kevin’s delight in stirring the pot sometimes). To my surprise, nobody picked up on it. Fellow SEO’s on the panel even failed to take the bait. I felt like screaming “The whole world is about to change as you know it!” but I chose instead to go to the exhibit hall for the free drink. It was the end of the day and I was tired.

SEO’s are all about controlled experimentation. We live to tally up suspected algorithmic factors and test, tweak and twiddle. We reverse engineer the algorithms. Say what you want, that’s basically what SEO is. It’s all about tactical maneuvering. I’ve been bemoaning the lack of strategic thinking, based on what users are actually doing, for years now, but the industry hasn’t changed much. To reverse engineer, you need a control to test against. You need at least one fixed target. Up to now, the universal page of results was that fixed target. How do you reverse engineer when you have nothing to set your bearings against?

As Jason so rightly points out, this new world of SEO is much more about marketing than it is a technical skill set. It’s about knowing your user intimately and where they tend to hang out, given a specific intent. It’s about staking out the most traveled intersections and gaining some presence there. It’s about knowing how they’ll use the new version of search to navigate the online landscape. And it’s about accepting, once and for all, that you really can’t control your presence on the search results page, however it appears.

And it’s here where Kevin’s view and mine coincide. In a lot of cases, it will be about doing the fundamentals right. If you have a site that has an established presence, then this is often enough. Make sure you connect the spider with the content. Make sure the content and your target customer share the same vocabulary. Make sure you’re not throwing any road blocks between your site and the search index. Do that, and accept the fact that your control pretty much ends there. That’s not to downplay the importance of this knowledge. I agree with Danny Sullivan that SEO skills are not nearly as common as David Pasternack seems to indicate. But I believe the days of the SEO hacker/hired gun are numbered. Personalized search may be what finally kills black hat SEO.

With that, organic optimization returns to its roots, and what the word organic should have meant in the first place. It’s about working with the client to help them understand how consumers use online to research and to help them turn their organization into an organic content factory. Help them use online to provide multiple and useful touchpoints for the potential consumer. Extend your presence into the well travelled online intersections. Establish best practices for SEO, and let the rest take care of itself. As Kevin rightly points out in his column:

“Alternatively, one could simply focus on producing great content and take whatever links occur naturally (the way Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page intended in the original PageRank system).”

It’s here where SEO’s have their biggest challenge. Can they transition from a technical experimenter to a trusted guide to online traffic patterns? I have my doubts. I have seen little evidence of this in the past. SEM’s tend to be further ahead in this regard, because of the targeting opportunities that the back end platforms provide. Ironically, this is where interactive and traditional agencies could regain a foothold, but in the later case at least, they’re still struggling with the whole concept of an empowered online consumer, and until this paradigm shifts for them, they have a huge blind spot when it comes to online strategy.

SEO’s have to reinvent themselves, and soon. Some of the skills will be transferrable, but many new ones have to be acquired, and these are not usually skills that are found in the same place. I expect a shakeout, and soon. A lot of SEO’s have been doing this for a long time, and they’re getting a little tired. Reinventing themselves is probably the last thing they want to do. Cashing out was probably more in their anticipated plans.

So, how soon is this going to happen. Let’s get back to Danny’s point. Personalization is nothing new, but I think 2007 is the year where it will make a noticeable difference. There are a couple of indicators of that:

Google is already experimenting with Geo-targeting results based on IP identification. Those of you in the States probably haven’t noticed, because the online world is very US-centric, but those of us who live on the outside are already dealing with the effects. In Canada, there is a significant difference in results seen in the main Google index depending on whether the query is coming from the US or Canada. It’s a constant bain of our existence, being based in Canada but working primarily with US clients. So even in North America right now, there is no such thing as a universal set of Google results.

Personalized search that users opt in for is finally gaining significant traction. All the 3 engines offer this, and often the fact that you’re signed in is completely missed by the user. As adoption of other functionality offered by the engines increases, the odds of being signed in when you launch a search rises dramatically. And for the engines, search history is enough additional information to make them confident in presenting personalized results. It gives them another reference point in addition to the original query. The difficulty in disambiguating intent for a query was the sole reason results weren’t personalized up to now.

What does the future hold for SEO? Well, as long as users continue to want organic results (and I think personalization will make this more true, not less) there is a need to gain presence there. But the rules of the game are being rewritten. For those willing to retrench, there’s a golden opportunity to redefine marketing as we know it. But it requires looking at a big picture, and, more importantly, using a customer-centric lens to look at that picture. It means changing our approach dramatically. It means drawing back from some highly specialized skills that some have developed, and taking a more balanced approach. Personally, I’m very excited about the possibilities. A little tired, a little burnt out, but up for the challenge. But perhaps that’s because I saw it coming.

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