While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves,
And still the man hears all, and only craves
He may not shame such tender love and stay.
“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”
SEO is dead.
It has died more times than Sean Bean.
Its pulse has gone silent, faded slowly into the night – experts say.
If you’re someone who’s interested in digital marketing and especially SEO – I’m willing to bet that you’ve read your fair share of similar claims and arguments.
The death of SEO is probably one of the oldest and most often revamped cliches on the Internet.
Every time Google rolls out another update (Groundhog, Panda update, Penguin 2.0, Hummingbird, etc.), people start freaking out and claiming how everything we ever knew about search engine optimization should be instantly forgotten. We should immediately throw our playbooks into the bin, ‘cause everything has changed. Every single thing that we used to do in order to improve our rankings and position our resources higher in SERP has now become completely irrelevant.
If you do a quick search for such keywords as “SEO is dead” or “death of SEO” – you will instantly come into contact with an insane number of links that claim search engine optimization is now a thing of the past.
There are hordes of people who desperately want it to be true.
Why It Probably Won’t Die
For you to understand our reasoning, first you need to know to whom and to what we would be willing to affix the covetous label “SEO”. You see, for us, an SEO expert in not just someone who optimizes your meta-tags, and SEO as a practice is not just blindly poaching links left and right.
Call it a grotesquely romanticized interpretation, but as far as we are concerned, we are surfers on the Everflux, and are only to stop when the current fades. We are translators from Human into Googlian, and since Human is a constantly expanding language, always growing and updating, we don’t think our job will ever be fully complete. The development of the semantic web does seem to emphasize the ticking of our Doomsday clock, but here’s why we think our pendulum will be swinging for some time yet to come.
In time, SEO has grown to encompass everything from content creation, syndication and audit; technical, UX and keyword optimization; social network management, PR, branding, conversion rate optimization, and a host of other practices that can help your business, regardless of the current mood of search engine algorithms.
As things are now, Google (and other search engines, of course) only sort through information, it is not really capable of confirming or creating it on its own. It relies on human input; human provided information, then evaluated by human behavior towards it. The veracity of any kind of data can only be confirmed or denied by people, and Google is trying to correlate the signals it can interpret with what people who are sending those signals actually feel. This is not something that can change easily. In this kind of a setup, SEOs are people who try to bridge that language gap – they are instructing people how to talk to Google if they want to fully and most effectively convey their message.
While a lot of SEOs will place themselves in some kind of opposition to Google, it is our efforts that are helping the search engine grow more sophisticated and accurate. This goes for white-hats and black-hats alike. White-hats will help through accurate markup, transparent and informative sitemaps, proper canonicalization, etc., while black-hats will educate through negative examples, for instance teaching Google that a keyword repeated a dozen times in a single sentence is not necessarily a sign of a page’s quality or relevance in search.
This reliance on human input is a limiting factor to the growth of search engines, but no one has ever said the input has to be voluntary and purposeful. Every query that any person enters is input. Every decision you make when presented with the search results page, or the destination page, is informative. Every mail you’ve sent in the recent past has been adding to the search engine’s knowledge base. Every university or organization which has adopted Google’s open source AI framework is doing the same, only on a much larger scale. We are constant sources of information, and as adept at collecting it as Google may grow to be, it still can’t conjure it out of thin air, and it is SEOs that are best equipped to understand how it gathers and interprets all that data.
You might think that as its algorithm grows more sophisticated, the search engine should become easier to communicate with, but, in fact, because of the always present potential for abuse and manipulation, it also grows less trusting as time goes by. This has led to a situation where it’s not enough for you to be honest and truthful, you need to know how to formulate that truth if you want to be noticed.
Why is this not something that any versatile webmaster can do on their own? Because tracking Google’s reaction to different kinds of input is a full-time job. SEO is one of the industries where your time is not measured in regular, but in paradigm shifts. Changes are coming at an exceedingly fast pace, so tracking and anticipating them is not something you can do recreationally. This is why the search engine’s growing capacity for interpreting input does not reduce the need for SEOs, but in fact, increases it.
Ultimately, as long as you view SEO as a way to help Google improve user experience, you don’t need to worry about your career going the way of switchboard operators or chimney sweeps.
What We Might Need to Worry About
Most scenarios that would end up in SEO being made obsolete are so utterly dystopian that being out of a job probably wouldn’t be your most pressing problem. Why? Because, even if we don’t go to extremes like the development of some kind of AGI that (who?) has decided that we are just an inconvenient variables generator, it would mean that:
a) Search engines no longer need human help in validating and finding information
Big data is biggening, IoT is becoming more of a thing, and Google is already using SERPs to display direct answers (although still dependent on information supplied and vetted by people). Should they choose to do so, search engines are in an ideal position to actually start providing their own information. In this scenario, they don’t need someone to write about the average energy consumption in a certain period, they can just draw the data directly from the source.
Depending on the availability of the data gathered by the appliances in the Internet of Things, as well as that already being generated by countless sources – institutions, companies, people themselves – search engines just might become able to provide you with an accurate answer without first checking with us.
b) It’s no longer the people’s web
Another scenario that might tie in lovely with the previous one might start with the loss of anonymity on the web. We are already incredibly easy to find online, and there is little we do when logged on that isn’t tracked by one entity or another. After all, if they want to advertise to you, and later charge you, they need to know who you are. That’s why it’s hard to believe that the Internet will be quite as leisurely a place forever. This is to say that if the web gets more tightly regulated and people’s freedoms and their ability to easily publish content and interact with other sites or people online starts decreasing, it wouldn’t be unimaginable to assume that if search engine results continue being a thing at all, they might be decided on different basis than we are used to.
c) User-friendliness triumphs over freedom of speech
We already have SEO plugins, coddling CMS frameworks and other ways to ensure we’re in compliance with SE standards. As the Internet is still under construction, you still need an expert to tell you what is advisable and what isn’t. If the online real-estate commodities distribution goes the way it seems to be heading now, a future in which the dominant search engine provides complete templates for different kinds of websites, leaving minimal options for individuality and distinguishing yourself from the rest of your ‘category,’ doesn’t sound all that farfetched.
That being said, while some of these circumstances might actually eradicate the need for SEO, it is by no means certain that they would. Automated systems, especially ones working with this wide of a scope, are inherently inflexible, and finely tweaking them without human intervention is not easily done. Likewise, even if you took all the technical aspects out of it, SEOs will still know how to create content and where to distribute it, they’ll be able to tell you how your efforts are converting, how your competitors are doing, and what upcoming changes you should prepare yourself for.
In case you don’t agree that SEO is likely to exist as long as the Internet does, take a look at an article called ‘Is SEO Dead?’ we have scheduled for publishing in 2023, and try to find one thing you can call completely unfeasible.
Is SEO Dead? Another Arrow Taken from our Quiver
Constantly trying to choke independent enterprise, Bingle is once again on our case with its new ‘Boreas’ algorithm update. The update is focused on refrigeration tracking, and is expected by some to completely destroy what we knew as SEO. In order to better illustrate just what we stand to lose when it completely unrolls on, symbolically chosen, December 21st, first we need to cover some of the recent history related to this aspect of SEO.
Since just a few short years ago, data gathering appliances became more of a norm than an exception, storage SEO has been rapidly growing and developing sub-branches. Refrigeration optimization was one of the first to blossom.
At first it was simple. You buy a product, place it in your fridge, the appliance scans the bar-code, and sooner than you could say “I still can’t believe people used to eat fruit”, it knows when you’ll need to go to the store, adds the item to your shopping list, offers meal combinations based on other items in your fridge, and, of course, runs an ad for a related product (mishaps with people being presented with ballet tutu ads as soon as they placed a cup of low fat yogurt in the fridge were at first frowned upon, but we soon accepted them as one of the prices for convenience).
Naturally, it wasn’t long before the first attempts at manipulating the results were made. Since the data gathered from refrigerators from all over the world was hard to dispute as an objective measure of consumption, rather than staying a representation of reality, it became something building that reality.
After all, if the entire nation gave their trust to a particular brand of, for instance, water, there had to be a reason for it. The reason in this case was the fact that they’ve distributed their sales throughout the entire US, at a huge cost at times, willing to practically give it away if the buyer was prepared to pay for transport. This kind of explosion in the number of distribution locations (they’ve previously only been sold in three states) was the first obvious exploit of the storage algorithm.
Bingle naturally kept up, adding quantity and consistency checks to prevent this kind of abuse, which, of course, in turn resulted in a response from black-hats. Independent refrigeration facilities were organized into networks, each facility holding dozens of refrigeration units. Products were being rotated between different facilities, simulating an increase in consumption in a given region. This worked until Bingle decided to start devaluing product signals after several end location changes.
The algorithm started distinguishing between private homes and different storage facilities, mostly thanks to the peoples’ constantly growing willingness to exchange privacy for convenience. In order to be able to use calorie tracking, shopping schedulers and reminders, expiration date alerts, and benefit from all too useful similar product suggestions, they gladly supplied household information that the search engine didn’t already have, and confirmed or corrected the data it did.
That’s when Bingle started being suspicious if it saw that you are storing a certain quantity of a particular product longer than you usually do. It started calculating the plausible number of tracker activation i.e. taking the product out of the fridge and placing it back – with the number being determined based on the size, general average consumption rate, your household average consumption rate, number of household members, and who knows what else. Once you exceeded the expected number by large enough a margin, your entire trust rating as a signal would go down.
Another metric they started actively tracking was time of purchase and time of consumption. Aside from making the data available to distributors interested in the exact times certain products were consumed (if most people open a beer between 10 and 11 PM, seeing a timely ad might persuade them to open a particular one), search engines looked for patterns which implied manipulation.
That’s when we came to the most intrusive way of black-hat manipulation yet. There was one product that was cheap, purchased by everyone, taken out of the fridge at varying times during the day, could last for years, and generally, represented a blank unit for SEO value. To make things easier, there was a complete monopoly on its production and distribution, all of it being handled by the same company. So how was it that cans of that highly nutritious ham derivative known as Spam came to be misused?
Their omnipresence, made possible by the low price and desperate populace was well exploited, and they soon stopped needing extra promotion from search engines. At that point, they became ideal vessels for barcodes of other types of groceries. In other words, cans of Spam were used to simulate other products. At first they were only used for products with the same expected refrigeration duration (a twelve-ounce can was used to replace a standard jar of pickles, half a pound of cheese, and any number of popular items). There were allegations that this couldn’t be pulled off without the cooperation of the distribution company, the NSA (North-American Spam Association), but since every inquiry into the matter was, by definition, ham-fisted, nothing truly incriminating was ever found.
What was so disruptive about this strategy was the way in which Spam was distributed. People organized giveaways, raffles and competitions where they distributed either individual cans, or, by managing to convince people that getting a yearly supply of the stuff was actually a prize, they managed to find long-term hosts for their cuckoo’s egg. Another aspect that made Spam a perfect delivery method was, of course, its price, which means that this kind of inception was as far from expensive as it was from honest.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The most brazen Scam (Spam Cans Allocation Management) artists didn’t wait for you to come to them, they came to you. Posing as electricians, plumbers and different kinds of inspectors, they would go through one home after another, seeking opportunities to replace your cans of Spam with modified ones, or simply hide one in your fridge and hope you don’t remove it right away.
While some claimed that this horrible intrusion into people’s homes was, if a bit deceitful, still relatively harmless, there was a darker side to it. For one, people coming into your home may have introduced themselves as plumbers, but they knew about plumbing as much as they did about real, white-hat product promotion, i.e. nothing. Their job was to get in and out as quickly as possible. Sometimes, this meant giving bad advice, making false repairs, and generally, glossing over a still existing issue. While this caused more inconveniences than actual problems, there was another, far more sinister kind of negligence in this industry.
Seeing how the difference between severely, toxically spoiled and perfectly edible Spam is not discernible by naked eye or taste buds, some of the least conscientious black-hatters actually used cans that were well past their expiration date. After the first couple of deaths attributed to this practice, it wasn’t just Bingle that started hunting Scammers, everyone took part. Soon enough, regular electricians, plumbers etc. stopped buying and carrying Spam with them, afraid of being labeled (no pun intended) a Scammer and promptly lynched. So, is SEO dying along with unconscientious, self-proclaimed SEOs and the introduction of Boreas?
Of course not. It is as alive as ever, it just stopped relying on Spam. If you’ve been forward-thinking and you know how any kind of attempted SE manipulation eventually turned out in the past, you’ve never even come close to using any of these techniques. In hopes that you continue to be as discerning, we wish you a happy Ascension Day tomorrow, and hope that neither you or any of your loved ones are chosen.