Is SEO Dead -- Or Decentralized?

At the risk of stating the obvious, SEO has become much more difficult to quantify in recent months. Many observers, myself included, have lamented Google’s introduction of keyword (not provided), which restricts the flow of organic keyword search terms to analytics tools when users are logged in to Google services. More recently, Google issued warning lettersto many vendors who scraped search results in order to report on SEO keyword rank position. Google is making life as an SEO professional more challenging by the day -- a shift that hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who cut checks for SEO services.

As organizations continue to accelerate investments in digital channels, paid search appears to be the biggest search beneficiary. Organic search, which topped the list of marketing investments in 2011 for online retailers, is now listed as the fifth most important investment. The declining interest stems from a perceived “difficult(y) to invest in that media.” This, though undoubtedly connected to the limited control over impressions and clicks originating from organic search, is due in part to our shrinking abilities to measure SEO influence and success.

Yesterday The Guardian ran an article titled, “SEO is dead. Long live social media optimisation,” which, despite its sensationalistic headline, does offer an intriguing glimpse at how online discovery and influence is shifting. The author cites the rise of social media, the increasing presence of ads on traditional search results pages, and content discovery through mobile applications (rather than traditional search engines) as leading contributors to the “death” of legacy SEO.

As I often do when I read and reflect on new information or op-ed contributions, I internalize what I’ve read and think about whether it mirrors my own experiences. In the case of the deceased (SEO), I don’t think it’s dead at all. The trend I have witnessed firsthand, the result of both difficult measurability and shrinking influence (last click – an argument for a robust attribution model can be made here too), is a decentralization of legacy SEO activities across functional roles. In today’s marketing communications organization, everyone is an SEO.

In the olden days of SEO, programs were sold as complete packages. “Have a website? Time to optimize it for search!” It was an inevitable afterthought to website design and development, and it drove us crazy. SEOs wanted a seat at the strategic table, as site experiences were being ideated and defined. SEO programs that were sold as bolt-on solutions likely meant a lot of reworking would be necessary. A site’s information architecture is more intuitive to users when keyword popularity intelligence is leveraged in its formation. Crawl budgets are maximized when a site’s supporting code base is lean and efficient.

The list goes on. And we griped about it all.

As SEO considerations became more complex and performance became more difficult to quantify, many organizations were finally awakening to the importance of SEO. Our years of griping started to pay off.  The result I’ve witnessed is that creative teams include content discoverability and SEO into their work streams; technologists are building sites and apps compliant with known onsite SEO best practices; and UX specialists are including keyword research before developing user personas and journeys.

None of these activities ladders up an SEO investment, per se. These individual activities have become accepted best-practice behaviors, and in turn, SEO has become decentralized.

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3 comments about "Is SEO Dead -- Or Decentralized?".
  1. Tom Pick from KC Associates , July 23, 2013 at 6:51 p.m.
    Hi Ryan - awesome post as usual. I'd tweak it just a bit though: instead of "everyone is an SEO" I'd phrase it as "everyone has a role in SEO," or more precisely, in web presence optimization (WPO). For example, "link building" as it was once known in the SEO community is pretty much dead, but it lives on in other roles: PR professionals, subject matter experts who write guest blog posts, and social media managers are all doing "link building" as part of their roles.
  2. Dan Ouellette from Kaspersky Lab , July 24, 2013 at 9:07 a.m.
    Nice post Ryan. In fact, many of the examples you used has played out throughout my career and I expect that the SEO evolution will continue. I believe you are spot on stating that SEO has become more decentralized but most likely to our expense by conditioning our colleagues or clients to integrate SEO in their activities. Regardless of decentralization or not, consistent SEO methodology, best practices, etc...still plays a role of informing teams, etc... Good read. -Dan O
  3. Ryan DeShazer from GSW Worldwide , July 24, 2013 at 11:09 a.m.
    Tom - Thanks and awesome adds, as usual. :) Dan - Thanks very much. In an earlier draft I was toying with the idea that perhaps SEOs were being disingenuous in the early days when we wished everyone "got" SEO. Now that so many others are doing their part, it cuts into our core set of activities. It was just a thought though. ;-)