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R.I.P: Search Engine Optimization is Dead!

April 3, 2015

There's been a lot of talk recently about how "SEO is dead." The claim is based largely on the specter of mounting algorithmic complexities, rising barriers to entry, the advent of personalized search, integration of social usage data signals, global warming, the Tea Party movement, blah, blah, blah, (insert your own fatalistic theory).

There was one post in particular that I read a few months back where a blogger used a pretty compelling graph from Google Trends to make the case that SEO is on life support due to a steady decline in query popularity juxtaposed against a meteoric rise in social media query activity.

SEO is dead!!!

Going by this graph, it appears that SEO is in fact "on the back nine." So if you make your living as an SEO, or if, like us, you just launched a line of SEO tools for search marketers, including our slick SEO for Firefox plugin (shameless plug alert!!!), then you're probably getting the cold sweats, thinking there goes my livelihood, time to polish up my resume.

But fear not. The data is skewed.

It's true that search engine optimization is "dying," that is to say the query popularity for the phrase is waning. But to me, that's more a byproduct of SEO's growing pervasiveness. You see, as SEO is becoming a staple of many marketing plans and more embraced and more familiar to more and more business owners, the formal "search engine optimization" has been cast aside for the colloquial "SEO" shorthand.

Wait a minute...SEO is NOT dead!!!

So according to this chart, it's clear that SEO is NOT dead. In fact, the term's popularity is trending higher and continuing to gain momentum. But is the popularity of SEO (in search terms) an accurate gauge of the relative health of the SEO marketplace?

I think so. IMO, query strength is a valid barometer. Even before seeing this Google Trends chart, I would have predicted the same outcome. I see it every day. Client activity for SEO marketing services continues to flourish. At WordStream, we're seeing stronger demand for our new SEO products. In addition, SEO-related keyword searches in the WordStream analytics data continue to trend higher, week-over-week.Heck, even my Dad said he saw something about SEO on CNBC the other night. So no, SEO is NOT dead. Quite the contrary. It's blossoming and hitting on all cylinders.

How Does SEO Compare to Other Channels?

So this got me thinking about examining more query trend activity to see how well SEO fares against other online marketing channels, like PPC marketing, for instance. Since, I moonlight as a search consultant and work full-time for WordStream (where we sell both SEO and PPC tools), I have my own theories about how SEO fares against PPC in the marketplace. And in my experience, PPC's popularity is waning.

In fact, we conducted a recent survey of a few hundred business owners and marketers who said  that they plan to spend more on search marketing advertising in 2010, but the bulk of that spend is allocated for SEO.

SEO seen as having more online growth

What's more, nearly 70% of participants we surveyed say they see SEO as more instrumental in their businesses growth this year. But what does Google Trends tell us about the popularity of SEO vs PPC with searchers? Is this growing disparity between paid and organic bearing out in the SERPs too? Let's take a look.

PPC is dead, baby.

Wow. That's not a good chart for query activity for the term "PPC." If this were an equity chart, you're talking about some truly bearish technicals. So it appears what's really dying (in terms of query popularity) are searches around PPC.

SEO also slaughters PPC for raw search data and estimated cost-per-click (how much someone is willing to pay for the traffic), according to the Google keyword tool:

SEO trounces PPC in search volume

Given my experience, this is really no surprise. Clients typically start with PPC (because of the ability to land on page one instantly and evaluate the profitability of a vertical), but ultimately they reduce spend on PPC as their SEO campaigns begin to bear fruit, and in many cases they want to turn off PPC entirely. So contrary to popular belief, SEO is NOT dead. PPC however appears to be in a death spiral.

Social Media is On Fire

So back to the original thesis that kicked this post off: that social media is surging while SEO is dying. Certainly, half that statement is true. The popularity of search queries for "social media" is on an absolute tear, with no signs of slowing.
 

Social media is on a trending tear

In comparison, here's a more accurate portrayal of how SEO fares against social media in a head-to-head Google Trends chart.

Social media search queries are surging

Social media query popularity looks to be on course to supplant SEO volume very soon. And where SEO is enjoying nice, steady growth, social media looks to be shot out of a cannon. That's great news for social media marketers and enthusiasts, but keep in mind charts like the one for social media, with hyper growth, are impossible to sustain. I expect the pace to level off at some point. When that happens, though, is anybody's guess.

Finally, let's look at how SEO, social media and PPC all look together on the same chart in Google Trends.

SEO and social media are kicking ass, while PPC is in a death spiral

Now if I were a gambling man (which coincidentally I am), I would bet that these current trends with SEO, PPC and social media continue (there's certainly no reason to believe otherwise). Concerning marketplace opportunity, social media shows much more potential for short-term growth than SEO and definitely more that PPC. After all, there are still millions of users who are still not onboard the social media bandwagon yet— like my Mom, for instance, who asked me what Facebook was the other day — which means millions more in growth opportunity.