Much hubbub has been made about search engine optimization being in its death throes and its practices amounting to nothing more than chicanery. Both assertions are based on outmoded conceptions of SEO, though, and a lot of things have changed – evolved – in the last few years.
People who label SEO “spamming,” tend to point to practices like keyword stuffing, link farming, and related practices. They argue that its underhandedness has been exploited and posit that it is being phased out in favor of more praiseworthy digital business strategies like social media and content marketing.
What these pundits fail to realize is that such emergent digital marketing practices are themselves elements of SEO, and that shady practices meant to game search engines have been denounced wholesale by the majority of the industry. SEO continually assimilates new and socially-embraced tactics while eschewing those that have lost legitimacy. It is not a dead industry—merely an evolving one.
The given denigrating claims would have been more valid in 2010. That year fell squarely in the apex of SEO industry reliance on practices like article spinning and unnatural inbound link-building. Though these tactics seem inherently unethical, they were (then) not exactly in violation of Google guidelines and, therefore, were fair game for SEO professionals. But Google, always on a quest to return the most relevant and helpful sites possible to users, famously released a series of algorithmic updates that devalued these practices and left the industry scrambling to redefine itself.
The first of these updates—Google Panda—was released in 2011. It took aim at sites with shallow content that employed practices now widely-recognized as manipulative (i.e. keyword stuffing). Numerous sites saw their rankings plummet in Panda’s wake. Their runners’ woes were only exacerbated by Google’s subsequent update.
In 2012, Google rolled out its Penguin update, which targeted sites with unnaturally inflated link profiles. SEOs who had been aggressively and indiscriminately accruing as many links as possible saw their work amount almost to naught after this release. The industry reeled once again and was forced to contemplate its identity.
Google’s third major update—Hummingbird—further eroded the salience of traditional SEO practices, but also provided guidance to the industry in its confused, rebuilding scrum. It placed Google closer to its ultimate goal of semantic search than it had ever been by incorporating elements like synonyms and word context in its algorithms. Google search, post-Hummingbird, is incredibly proficient at ferreting out thin pages and rewarding those with rich content. The update’s release signaled SEOs to shift their focus to the production of quality content and to forget about trying to boost the rankings of content-poor sites by other means.
The Google update trio forever altered SEO, but it didn’t render all of its old practices taboo. Carryovers include certain site optimization practices (fluid internal link structuring, using descriptive header tags, etc.) and natural forms of link building. Though the consensus is that “content is king,” its production is not the entirety of what constitutes SEO.
Those who proclaim SEO dead look to Google’s three major updates for justification. While manipulative SEO practices that did not improve user experience are borderline dead as a result of the Google updates, the industry as a whole is anything but. It has redefined itself as an amalgam of site optimization processes, natural link-building efforts, and content production/promotion for social media, internal site pages, blogs, and the like, and is incredibly vibrant.
SEO is certainly not dead. Google’s updates did not kill it. Agencies reliant on delegitimized practices may have kicked the bucket, but those who were able to swim with the current have reinvented themselves and soared. These transformed survivors, alongside Google and other search engines, continue to evolve.
As a result, the SEO industry has ceased to be an attempt to game the system and has become a harmonious (in tandem with search engines themselves) effort to create and reward sites with quality and helpful content. When viewed in this light, it’s hard not to agree that SEO is thriving, even if its DNA has been altered as a result of digital natural selection.