In the beginning, there was chaos. It was vast and empty, with darkness over the surface of the Web.
And Vint Cerf (or perhaps Al Gore) said, "Let there be light," and there was light from the darkness, and the public logged on with 1200 baud modems to the Internet.
And Tim Berners-Lee said, "Let there be order to the Internet so that there may be websites," and there was evening and there was morning and there was the World Wide Web.
And Netscape said, "Let there be a way to view these websites so easily that your three-year-old niece could do it," and there was a Web browser.
And Yahoo! said, "Let the Websites be arranged in an orderly fashion so that you can search them," and there was a search engine, and there was natural search, and it was very good.
Even before Yahoo! and the birth of the Web, there was Archie, which is considered the first search engine (credit goes to Aaron Wall's "History of Search Engines & Web History" at search-marketing info., found, of course, via a search engine).
Natural search is what Internet users have been doing for over a decade. Various reports have come out showing over 95 percent of Internet users regularly use search engines. What the minority is doing online is mind-boggling. Just try going online one day and not using a search engine, and you'll see how hard it is to avoid.
Without search engines, one could even argue that the rest of the Web is pointless. Yahoo! first tried organizing sites in a directory. While that still exists, it's practically become a novelty instead of a utility. The way to find anything on the Web is via search. To underscore this, entries such as "google" and "yahoo" are among the most searched phrases in search engines, according to Wordtracker.com. It's funny because it's true.
A select few among search industry executives and media cynics who quote them have recently cited paid search as the one and only way to market a business via search engines. It's like saying that the only way to attract attention in a newspaper is via advertising, as opposed to public relations.
Readers will blissfully keep reading The New York Times even if the advertising were to disappear entirely. Likewise, while paid ads on search engines may have been an inevitable development, and while they tend to serve a useful role in connecting consumers to the businesses and information people seek, ads are by no means a necessity to the end user. If we're willing to be perfectly honest, paid search meets search engines' needs first and consumers' needs as a secondary priority.
So now, we come to search engine optimization. It's a practice that ensures businesses' Websites, which are either their primary or one of their most important marketing vehicles, can be found by the people looking for those sites. There are no promises, no guarantees, but respectable search optimization companies can be very effective, showing their clients a strong return on investment in the process. Recalling the newspaper example, natural search is akin to public relations for the Web; the best among optimization companies know what editors are looking for and deliver it in a manner they are comfortable with.
The question should really be, "How does a business function without search engine optimization?" Consider spending a small fortune on a direct mail campaign. Hire a copywriter, designer, and printer. Establish buy-in from top management. Then print out a postcard and tape it to a nearby telephone poll or lamppost. Sure, some people will see it, but it's essentially useless without the final step of duplicating the postcard and getting it out to your customer base. Online with search, it's much more enticing, as customers are actually looking for your business. They're coming to you, a concept one company calls Reverse Direct Marketing.
Seth Godin, a nearly universally admired author and marketing pundit, posted an entry on his blog calling search engine optimization a "black art," and further stipulating that the way to be successful online is via paid search and good site design. To Mr. Godin's first point, it's hardly a black art. Clients of reputable companies engaging in optimization know exactly what's going on. The clients' tech teams need to know the specifics so they can implement the recommendations. For those passionate about the business, it's a thrilling blend of many a science and discipline, covering linguistics, psychology, marketing, technology, and others. Any art is hardly "black."
As for paid search and site design, those are of growing importance, but why rule out the way customers are accustomed to finding your business? There's a reason the term "natural search" has caught on. The primary way for businesses to connect with consumers online is the one that was there in the beginning, and it will be there in the end.