SEO’s story arch is a decade in the making. From the lofty heights of pre-2011’s SEO content mills to the dreary lows of many questioning its significance, SEO has faced a journey familiar to many of our fictional characters: heroes that become villains before they remerge draped in a redemptive light. SEO’s time isn’t done, but it’s facing an interlude of doubt: a suspicion that it isn’t, after all, the key to marketing growth.
Names once spoken with reverence become sources of suspicion. And this is especially true for marketing tools faced by the twin winds of change: those of the underlying technology and software algorithms, and those of customer trends and expectations.
Such is the case of SEO. It began in 2011, with the infamous algorithm change that was named, somewhat ironically for the lack of warm feelings it induced, Panda. It took time for marketers to adjust to the new SEO ruleset, and to emotionally forgive Google for swiping the proverbial rug from beneath their feet. Since then, the algorithm has been changed numerous times – the last was in December of 2020 – each change introducing new factors in determining which content best befits a user’s search criteria. Ranking is no longer a matter of frequency and quantity, but of myriad factors – including quality and relevance – rendering direct correlation more difficult. SEO has been cast from being an exact science to an inexact science as it has come to incorporate a greater degree of human wants: connection, meaning, relevance, emotion, engagement.
Over the past decade, SEO has pivoted from calculating what people are searching for, to what people want to find. SEO content is an answer to a question. Its optimisation is a process of improving the answer, both in quality and relevance.
How changes in audience behaviour have impacted SEO
How audiences access the information they desire has changed. More and more, users seek information from specific outlets. So aware are we of misinformation, or simply information that reflects a different viewpoint or reality to our own, that we intentionally search both for greater accuracy – from reputable newspapers, for example – and greater alignment. We’re happy to be challenged, but, for most, that challenge must still grow from a shared foundational view of the world. Most users have already found their home; they only occasionally go out to search for new ones.
We choose, or have chosen, our information sources; we search for agreement with them. That said, SEO is still relevant because organic search is still relevant. Early-growth organisations, in particular, benefit enormously from organic discovery; without an audience in waiting, they rely on good SEO performance and SEO-optimised content to take the conversation to their audience, and address the needs expressed in search. According to a study by Bright Edge, organic traffic is responsible for more than 51% of all visitors coming to websites.
SEO: suspicion and scepticism
From a marketer’s perspective – and especially from a writer’s – weariness of SEO came not necessarily from its ineffectiveness, but from its shout-to-convince focus. Up to a point, the modus operandi of SEO was volume; quantity superseded quality, and was proclaimed king of market penetration. Content was used as a megaphone; and the resulting sound, cacophonic and disjointed, was thought to be enough to start a conversation.
In this way, every change Google has made has been for the better. SEO now makes better decisions on the relevance and authority of content, and as such, a greater emphasis is placed on the quality of the piece: its persuasiveness, depth and ability to answer the question at hand.
For companies, the challenge of SEO comes largely from its ramp-up time: strategies are usually executed over six-month periods, at a minimum, and the ROI results of that strategy may not materialise for longer still. Compared to paid-per-click advertising, SEO is an act of faith. It is the building of strong foundations, the benefits of which take time to be felt. Organic ranking can also prove a winner-takes-all situation; and, if you’re in a competitive market and competing with established, brand-name companies, the winner will likely remain the dominant player with the bigger budget. This is because 75% of people never scroll past the first page.
Successful SEO necessitates a long runway. It’s a seed that requires nurturing and, above all else, patience.
Improving your page’s ranking has moderate gains, but the significant ROI is backloaded: it comes once your page is ranked on the first page of results. Not impossible, but it takes time. It’s likely that, because of this, there are more immediate ways to grow your brand audience, or product’s customer base: social media engagement, paid advertising, newsletters and email. But that doesn’t mean SEO shouldn’t be a priority; every effort spent on SEO today will be valuable in time, provided that the strategy is informed, up to date and ultimately effective.
A new take on SEO
To begin with, ignore the majority of the Internet’s content on SEO: it’s outdated, unhelpful, and mostly incorrect. It either relies on originally erroneous understanding, or a time-specific understanding. Only the very latest content should be taken notice of. If you start to read about keyword density, you’ve gone the wrong way. And generally, it’s better to spend your time reading Google’s algorithm updates, a comprehensive history of which can be found here.
SEO is an ongoing process. For those determining budgets, that makes it problematic. The best way to view it as a foundation; it’s the budding seed with an as-yet uncertain end. Audiences, like the rules of SEO, are continually changing. Content that ranks poorly today, or fails to answer today’s questions, may in fact answer tomorrow’s. The number of internet users is continually growing – and as is the range of questions posited to search engines.
But SEO isn’t a game of absolutes. It’s a field that requires adaptive positioning, and leniency in strategy. Keywords aren’t the most important thing to your brand’s content; they are, however, important, and can make a difference. Balance is essential. And to achieve balance, iteration is key. Changes over months should be used to inform the months ahead, and the strategy regularly visited to ensure the underpinning assumptions are still true, and the insight still accurate.
Whenever comparing SEO and PPC, you’ll be greeted with the same observation: one focuses on the long-term, and the other the short-term. SEO is a long-term effort, and must be viewed with a different set of expectations. It is still worth considering, but it isn’t practical to obsess over it. Many new organisations treat a particular approach – the one they’ve heard most about – as the key, and resent the key when it alone fails to unlock the door. SEO is part of the answer, but it isn’t the whole answer, nor should it be expected to be.