Note: This article, originally titled "Debunking the Myth of the Long-Term Value of SEO," has been edited from its original version. I've taken some of the arguments in the comments into consideration, and upon reflection a lot of my points were unclear or misleading, and I've adjusted my language accordingly. Thanks to everyone for contributing to the debate. - Larry
One of the most common responses to my recent “War on Free Clicks ” study and yesterday’s article, “Why SEO’s Suck at PPC ,” was the notion that PPC stops the moment you stop spending, whereas SEO provides benefits forever.
It reminds me of the “better to buy than rent a home” advice that was all the rage in the days leading up to the housing meltdown. Millions of homeowners got completely wiped out listening to that advice.
Today, the SEO bubble is in a bit of a meltdown, yet SEO’s are still peddling the “SEO is forever” dream. So is it true? Does SEO value last forever?
It depends how you define SEO, but I think it's more complicated than it seems.
What Qualifies as "Good SEO" Changes Over Time
Here’s a screenshot of Google Analytics that I found for the Google Panda algorithm update:
And, here’s an example that I found for the Google Penguin Update:
Millions of websites have been impacted by the Panda and Penguin updates. Some of these businesses were so badly crushed  that they went out of business . Others have been advised by Google to delete their website and start a new one .
But were the sites that were hit by these updates weren’t doing “real SEO”? Probably not. These algorithm updates were intended to target webspam, not high-quality, legitimate sites.
Nonetheless, I believe that it’s excessively difficult for most small businesses to figure out the difference between completely white-hat tactics  and the gray- or black-hat  stuff that can get them fried in an algorithm update. Many businesses hire out and have no idea what their SEO agencies are doing to get them rankings. Others are unable to make white-hat tactics work for them.
The difference between "good SEO" and "bad SEO" is not black and white. There are certain techniques that were considered legitimate SEO a few years ago – such as keyword-optimized anchor text and PageRank sculpting – that Google is now using as examples of "over-optimization ." Obviously, there are some tactics that are just flat-out spammy (like buying massive quantities of links and churning out fake spun articles), but it's a spectrum rather than a binary.
SEO Requires Ongoing Maintenance
What happens to your SEO when you actually stop doing SEO?
Most SEO’s understand that when you do SEO, you’re basically getting traffic to your site as a result of obtaining and improving search engine rankings for different keyword searches – and that this traffic comes at the expense of the sites that were previously ranking for those keywords.
The flip side of this is that if you stop doing SEO, competitors can and will take back the traffic you acquired from them just as easily as you took it from them in the first place.
Meaning, when you stop spending on SEO, that flow of traffic begins to drop off.
To use a real-life example, there was a period in WordStream’s history when we were “between SEOs” for a few months, and during that time we were still producing content but no one was doing active link building, social media marketing, etc. Our traffic numbers started to decline, roughly at the same rate it used to be growing at, and didn’t recover until we had a full-time SEO back on the case.
To maintain and improve results over time, both SEO and PPC require ongoing time, effort, and budget.
SEO Costs More and More to Maintain Over Time
A final issue I have with the “SEO lives forever” claim is that it seems to imply that SEO can work as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of mode.
An often overlooked challenge with SEO is that the more SEO you do, the more SEO you have to do just to defend your existing keyword rankings and maintain your existing SEO numbers. As your SEO content expands to more and more keyword and content niches, the more territory you need to defend. The costs can quickly add up.
But SEO Still Works For My Site!
You might be thinking that your website is still getting SEO traffic, and doesn’t this prove that SEO lasts forever?
The truth is, we do SEO at WordStream. We spend money on it and it gets returns for us. But I try to be realistic about the costs and the challenges. We work exceptionally hard at it and we’re good at it – partly because we ARE a search marketing company! Can every small business get the same results? By design, no. And we worry that companies that don’t eat, sleep, and breathe Internet marketing can’t keep up with the changes.
In SEO, there are always winners and losers. For every site that gains traffic, another loses traffic. If you’re one of a few websites that somehow managed to maintain or grow your SEO traffic in the last 24 months, you’re probably in one of 2 camps:
- You haven’t been caught yet by the Google SEO police. Don’t get too comfortable. You could be in trouble when Google unleashes their next zoo creature upon you.
- You truly are awesome . SEO is part of your success, but not the whole story. Meaning, your SEO traffic is more of an effect of your awesomeness, rather than the cause of it.
If you’re lucky enough to be driving a ton of organic clicks to your site, I’m happy for you. But don’t be dependent on it, because SEO isn’t always forever – Google giveth and Google taketh away.
At the heart of every successful company is an effective, well thought out, proven sales and marketing process.
If you don't have a consistent and repeatable way for your team to sell, you’re in trouble. It's not that your business can’t succeed; it's that you’re unpredictable.
SEO is many things, but predictable and “forever” it is not. We don't depend fully on SEO and we don't think other businesses should either; as always a healthy mix of marketing activity is the best way to ensure your lead funnel doesn't collapse overnight.