Hey, Journalists: Don’t Hate the Game, Hate the Player!

August 8, 2017

Death of SEO

One cross for each time SEO has died

In his keynote address at SES this week, Danny Sullivan (as live-blogged by Lisa Barone) said we should “just ignore” the so-called pundits claiming SEO is dead: “Nothing’s going to kill SEO. Danny’s exhausted by the conversations … When ignorant people are talking about what SEO is and isn’t, why give them that time to respond? They’ve sucked up enough of our life.”

But journalists and other media blowhards continue to blame the SEO industry as a whole (if not the very concept of SEO) rather than individual scammers and spammers. I know we’re not supposed to feed the trolls, but what if the trolls are getting air time on high-authority sites like the New York Times and Business Insider? People who don't know any better are likely to assume these sources can be trusted. They can't.

Take this piece on Business Insider by Chris Dixon, co-founder of Hunch, titled “SEO Is No Longer a Viable Marketing Strategy for Startups.” It is not at all clear to me how Dixon comes to this conclusion. He says, “I talk to lots of startups and almost none that I know of post-2008 have gained significant traction through SEO.” Well, Hi! WordStream is a startup that has gained significant traction through SEO in a post-2008 world. I guess it’s possible we’re the only one, like Earth might be the only planet in the whole wide universe with the capacity to support intelligent life, but I’m guessing there are other startups out there like us.

Dixon notes that an “ad-riddled” TripAdvisor page ranks more highly than a “cleaner” page from the newer site Oyster.com. He then concludes that “startups are incentivized to clutter their pages with ads and use aggressive tactics to increase their SEO when they should just be focused on creating great user experiences.”

He totally misses the point here – TripAdvisor doesn’t rank higher than Oyster because it has more ads, it ranks higher because it’s an older domain with more authority and more links! If a business owner or marketer at a startup concludes that the way to move up in the rankings is by littering the site up with ads, then what they really need is to hire a good SEO to get their heads in the right place! (By the way, the main difference I see between the two pages in this example? Oyster has a bigger picture – it takes up 75% of the real estate above the fold. Maybe the real  issue is that their pages lack searchable, keyword-rich text?) Dixon claims that “high-quality content” is losing the SEO battle, but the example he chose just doesn’t support his argument.

Another “SEO sucks” article comes at us from Neiman Journalism Lab, where Richard J. Tofel says “Someday, the sun will set on SEO — and the business of news will be better for it.” Tofel claims that “SEO, when reduced to its essence, is aimed at directing searchers not to the information they seek, but to where the publisher wants them to go; any overlap of the two is coincidental.” I would love for Tofel to explain to me how this is different from traditional journalism – haven’t newspaper and magazine editors always wanted readers to come to their content, not that of their rivals? Whether you’re publishing content online or in print, you’ve got no business model without readers, and you need a strategy to get them.

Tofel, of course, predicts “the sunset of SEO” and says that someday, “Technology will be developed so that searchers can find the content they actually want, quickly, easily, correctly.” Um, guess what Tofel? That technology is search engines! Google is a multi-bajillion-dollar company precisely because most people do use it to find what they want, quickly and easily! And as the technology changes, SEO will change with it, but it won’t die until the “technology” becomes sentient and instead of using a search engine, nanobots deliver what we need before we’ve even realized we need it. (And yes, I too look forward to that day.)

As with any technique, from lawn mowing to business accounting to pizza making, some people will always be doing it wrong. But a logical person, after getting a bad pizza from Domino’s, doesn’t declare that “Pizza is dead” – they just go on Yelp and complain about Domino’s. Everyone in the SEO industry will happily admit that some people suck at SEO. But we also know the science (not magic) itself is alive, well, and absolutely crucial for any business that wants to survive on the web.

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.