What's Next For SEO?
I spent a good chunk of this past weekend thinking about SEO, and specifically the data that SEOs rely on to quantify success and identify next steps in the optimization continuum. Fueling my curiosity (this time) was an article by Vanessa Fox that appeared in Search Engine Land on Friday, “Will [Not Provided] Ever Reach 100% In Web Analytics?”
Fox’s piece noted the recent decision by Google to make secure search the default on its Chrome browser, thereby preventing the flow of organic keyword data through to analytics tools as part of the referral information. Add Chrome to the growing number of avenues that have become shut off to SEOs looking to optimize site experiences based on the keywords used by inbound visitors (Chrome now joins Firefox and authenticated Google users).
It was even discovered recently that Google is looking to hire marketing managers who would be tasked with encouraging users to “search on Google, search more often, and search while signed-in.”
This trend is especially worrisome when considering other recent news. This past November, Google began to crack down on SEO analytics tools that provided scraped data to users (in this case, SEO “rank” data), by revoking API access to some of its products. Essentially, Google sent a very clear message to software companies that if they scrape search rank data from its results pages, they would lose access to other crucial data channels.
Bottom line is that keyword [not provided] will continue to account for a greater share of inbound organic keyword referrals from Google, and Google doesn’t want you tracking rank data of any kind if it involves scraping its results set. As a result, there should be an increasing reliance on Webmaster Tools and the search query details it provides -- and those details are limited relative to what we’re used to.
We’re slowing approaching an operating environment where keyword rank and visit data, once the embodiment of SEO performance, are no more. Thinking ahead to that day has me wrestling with the question, “So where does SEO go from there?”
The honest answer I can share today is: I have no idea. But I do have a few beliefs.
Let me begin with an acknowledgement that there have already been a plethora of articles written that provide practical, “replace this report with that one” perspectives. Frankly, I’m more interested intellectually in the aggregate evolutionary arc we’re observing.
SEO is not dead
As Raven CEO Patrick Keeble noted in his company’s announcement that it was eliminating rank data (generated by scraping search results pages), “Abandoning your comfort zone for the sake of growth and stability” can be a positive in the long-term, even if painful in the near-term. I like that line of thinking.
Though rank data has been lauded for years as being a misguided key performance indicator of SEO success, most of us still provided that data in summary reports. It was the tangible among a set of largely intangible services. The SEO world’s equivalent to the print ad, rank data was understood by both clients and bosses.
Keyword queries. on the other hand, seem more difficult to let go of. Ever since John Battelle embedded this notion of “database of intentions” into our brains, we’ve built entire businesses and even industries by optimizing against those set of self-reported intentions. Now we have to do without.
Remaining positive though, and embracing Keeble’s spirit of evolution in the pursuit of “growth and stability,” I believe this signals an end to SEO functioning as a silo’d activity. SEO itself is not dead. Rather, the days of search “optimizing” a website may be numbered. Content marketing, and brand storytelling through digital communications channels, appear to be the heir to legacy SEO. The confluence of previously disparate tactics (for some) will support content distribution across search, social, and even more explicit advertising channels (display, broadcast media).
And we’re not wanting for supporting performance metrics. Social in particular has produced a tremendous number of additional data points to investigate and optimize for, all criticisms of social channel performance aside.
That’s where I believe SEO is headed: a place where everyone acknowledges it as a best-practice content marketing tactic supporting broader digital communications. We’ll judge individual Web pages, PDFs and other pieces of digital content relative to their contribution to the goals established by the organization. Keyword-specific performance seems destined to become secondary to content-specific performance.
That’s what I believe is next for SEO.