SEO is Not Dead, It's Just Changing

Last week, Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint and former co-founder of Blue Nile, penned a byline titled "SEO is Dead, and the New King is 'SMO.'" (In case you were wondering, that's social media optimization, not the Seattle Mandolin Orchestra.)

As with any pundit who ever dared declare the death of SEO (or its lack of rocket science), Elowitz received quite a bit of backlash from the SEO community, including the requisite name-calling.

Elowitz points to the recent announcement from Microsoft that Bing is incorporating Facebook "likes" into its core search algorithm as evidence of the power of SMO. He says this new era of SMO "liberates publishers from the exercise of tricks, hacks and keywords."



For what it's worth, I think Elowitz is actually right -- but also totally wrong.

SMO is powerful. But SEO is not dead.  

Like it or Not 

Social media provides the strongest signals of personal relevance a search engine has ever been able to index.

But social media, and specifically Facebook "likes," are not nearly as ubiquitous as links and, therefore, no search engine can create a comprehensive index based solely on these signals. 

Furthermore, I'd argue that SMO is not a replacement for SEO. Rather, it is a subset.  

There will never come a day when any major search engine puts all the weight of its algorithm behind any one variable. That would just invite people to game the system. 

Imagine a search algo that gave all the juice to "likes." Now imagine all the cyber cafes (read: sweatshops) around the world artificially inflating "like" counts. There'd be more liking going on than Tiger Woods at a Miss Universe pageant.  

As long as there are multiple factors contributing to search engine rankings, the role of search engine optimization will remain intact.  

And, as long as Google controls 70%+ of the global search market and does not include "likes" in its algorithm, SMO won't really matter anyway.

That said, clearly Google is looking for ways to capture social signals to improve its search results -- likely (pun intended) the reason for the rumored Google Me social network. I wrote about this in my columns, "Why Google Me" and, "Link vs. Like and the Future of Web Ranking."

Search vs. Discovery

As Elowitz observes in his piece, more and more people are "discovering" relevant content through the social graph as opposed to searching explicitly for it.

And, in many cases, people turn to their social networks before search engines when it comes to answer-seeking.

What car should I buy? Where should I eat dinner tonight? What movie should I see? To date, the answer would have been, "Google it." But not anymore.

That said, by and large, the mindset of someone engaging with social media is not information-seeking. It's primarily communication and content consumption (read: farming).

Accordingly, social media is a less profitable aperture for marketers to reach people. Consumers will either tune out the message completely -- or see it,but not want to act immediately.

I touched on this and the other key differences between search and social in my last column, "Search and Social: Birds of a Feather or Different Flock?"

At the end of the day, both search and social have their role in the mix when it comes to information-seeking, content consumption, and marketing communications. To say one is dead is really just the stuff of link... er, like-bait.

A Matter of Like and Death

SMO is definitely something all marketers should consider. Whether or not it is part of SEO is really just semantics.

If your goal is to increase your search engine rankings, then SMO is a variable that must be taken into account. But, before you drop everything to start pining for "likes," consider that, today, you will only be rewarded by Bing  -- and it's unclear to what extent. 

If your goal is good old-fashioned branding -- awareness, consideration, preference, etc. -- then SMO may indeed be a separate and worthy endeavor. But I don't know that I'd call it SMO. SMM (Social Media Marketing) seems to be a fine acronym to cover the creation and management of Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts, etc.  

Over the years, I've learned a few things about digital marketing nomenclature:

1. People love their buzzwords.

2. Provocative titles generate readership.

3. It's futile to try and change the lexicon.

4. SEO never dies.

With this in mind, I encourage you to (re)read Elowitz' byline and share your thoughts. But keep it civil, willya? All you ornery bloggers are the reason people want SEO to die so badly.

4 comments about "SEO is Not Dead, It's Just Changing".
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  1. Rich Knapp from ROIonline, November 3, 2010 at 12:33 p.m.

    My clients are from the manufacturing industrial market and social media is a very small part of their internet marketing as engineers are not social media people.

    SEO is still the king with industrial companies, not SMO.

  2. Mai Kok from So What, November 3, 2010 at 12:48 p.m.

    Thank you. Leave it up to Aaron to be voice of reason. Too many people (aka Steve Rubel) want to be sensationalist and "predict" the death of SEO. They only make themselves look more like clowns.

    That said, I truly believe Rand Fishkin was onto something when he conjectured that social media, particularly Twitter, would have to be a factor in ranking algos, being that social media is cannibalizing the link..graph he called it.

    "Elowitz observes in his piece, more and more people are "discovering" relevant content through the social graph as opposed to searching explicitly for it." -- I say PROVE IT.

    Discovering what? I have friends who use social media to talk about the stupid grammies, who's a hot mess, go cowboys, or whatever. NONE of them talk or link to anything of interest to me.

    Now my Twitter audience and Twitter pack - the ones I follow - are more topically aligned with my interests: stocks, SEO, politics, cooking, acting, guns and adult entertainment (uh-huh).

    It's nice read some of the links these people uncover - but #1, I pay attention only to a few of the links posited by them and #2, if it's a link of value, I conduct a search to cross-reference and validate the data.

    And there in is another fundamental human behavior. If something is of value, say information on fibromyalgia, a social link within a social group may generate interest (buzz), but if the user is REALLY interested, it requires a search - of which the searcher wants REAL information, not what others "like".

    Another more fundamental argument against Elowitz is simply this: Facebook's platform is seriously flawed and pedestrian. To base or predicate any semblance of ranking relevancy on this flawed system is asinine. Very simply, it's Bing grasping at straws to find some kind of way to remain relevant in the shadow of Google.

    Blekko too is one that is grasping at straws, trying to do the same thing.

    What they both fail to understand is that the nature of search is migrating in 2 channels: desktop search and mobile search

    Mobile search is the quick, location relevant type of searches. As smartphone sales increase - and as companies depend on global markets for sustained sales - the mobile platform will grow (MUST grow). Already, China and India - the saviors of global commerce - have a huge population of mobile phone users. China's last count of mobile phone users number half of the US population. In India, Mumbai's 14 million residents (?), cellphones are more readily accessible than toilets.

    Many of the quick searches that we do as consumers will be taken over by mobile searches. The more "academic" searches that we do will be desktop searches.

    One could argue that THATs where Bing and Blekko can steal marketshare. But that's not how it works.

    If you hook'em on mobile search, you hook'em on desktop search - because Google is a media company, not a search engine.

    Bing and Blekko remain thinking that it's about search. It's not. It's about the search experience.

    Google founders envisioned a day when everything you needed to do on the web started with a search. That day has happened.

    The logical step is to take it to mobile where consumer internet behavior is moving.

    This is where search - the macro search industry - is going. This is why Apple is pushing the iPad - and why Google is on notice for that.

    Bing and Blekko do not see these changes coming.

    I simply dont see a day when search algos will predicate everything on "likes" or even the social graph.

  3. Alan Hamor from adworthy inc, November 3, 2010 at 2:10 p.m.

    Good article, Aaron, good insights and well-balanced.

    Interesting association for "likes", too: "...more liking going on than Tiger Woods at a Miss Universe pageant..."

    Tiger's even getting pummeled by the SEM crowd!

  4. Claire Hunter-smith from Bloom Media, November 5, 2010 at 5:35 a.m.

    A well written and well argued post, which I think makes the extremely important point: SMO is not going to take over completely, but compliment and support SEO strategies moving forward. As the Greeks said 'Everything in moderation'. I think brands need to be engaged in Social Media, and have an up to date and targeted SEO strategy as well.

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