The Long-Term Value of SEO: Does SEO Value Last Forever?



Does SEO Last Forever?

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:

Panda Update

And, here’s an example that I found for the Google Penguin Update:

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

About the Author

Larry Kim is the Founder/CTO of WordStream, Inc., provider of the 20 Minute PPC Work Week and the AdWords Grader. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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John Carcutt
Aug 09, 2012

WOW .. Its amazing to me to watch people who obviously only know part of a story, write an article without including all the relevent information.Both the Panda and Penguin updates targeted sites and pages which were doing SEO wrong or using outdated techniques. There were tons of examples of sites which did better after those updartes or where not impacted at all becasue they are doinig SEO right. Would be helpful if you included the whole picture.But I do agree with your unintended premise, SEO is something you should not stop doing as the search environment is in constant flux. However, the residual value of SEO lasts much much longer than the total lack of residual value with paid search. That is a fact that can not be argued.

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 09, 2012

Hi John,I don't necessarily agree with everything Larry has said here, but I do think there is a piece that people are missing, and that's the difficulty for the average small business of doing SEO "the right way" -- it has become exponentially more complicated because the competition is so thick and Google keeps changing in order to keep up. Yes, professional SEOs are able to keep their heads above water with hard work and integrity, but what about SMB marketers trying to do this on their own? I think Larry is arguing that PPC is easier to those businesses, not that SEO is worthless for everyone. (As he noted, we spend a lot of time and effort on SEO ourselves.)Best,Elisa

Oct 09, 2012

John - we spent 6 months doing SEO "right" and even Google "bionic" webmasters couldn't explain why we didn't recover losses as a result of Panda. When we finally did, Penguin came and made sure that all those gains were wiped away in a day. Now you can run all your criticism about "right and wrong" of SEO. But until the day comes when you get paid for results instead of by the hour or by the job, you're still then running a business based upon pure speculation -- and that is a fact that cannot be argued with.

Aug 09, 2012

So 2 charts showing your crappy results debunks a myth? Maybe low quality posts like this are why your traffic took a dive.

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 09, 2012

Rick, those images weren't from our site. We weren't affected by Panda or Penguin. They're just examples of sites that were.

Larry Kim
Aug 09, 2012

Hi Rick, thanks for this note. i included a few links in the article, including to stories written up in SEO Book and the Wall St. Journal that talked in greater detail about sites being hit hard or going out of business.

Kieran Flanagan
Aug 09, 2012

You guys really have it in for SEO at the moment :) I actually think you make some good points in this post but it's packaged up in some really poor misinformation.

You are comparing images of sites who have been hit by Googles updates to combat spam and using it to make a kind of self serving point about SEO vs PPC. That to me doesn't sit right. For all those sites that were hit, millions weren't and gained traffic of the back of these updates (winners and losers). There are winners and losers in PPC too, the losers usually cant afford to compete after a certain time period. The web is a competitive space.

I do agree SEO has become less reliable, especially if you are not an established brand. Longeitivity is an issue, but to what scale is very much industry specific. You can dominate certain niches very easily after putting in some initial leg work. Even if your costs are going up in competive segments to protect improved positions, no doubt you are making more in sales. Just like PPC you make a call on acceptable ROI.

All in all the last couple of posts have been real baity and weak on a lot of fronts. For me good SEO and PPc should be part of an overall digital marketing strategy.

Forgive any spelling mistakes on the iPad

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 10, 2012

Thanks for your two cents Kieran. By the way, Larry doesn't speak for everyone in the marketing department

Tom Andrews
Aug 10, 2012

Their is some long term value for SEO, but like with PPC, the positive effects of each can vary for each site,less competitive keywords once ranked organically can hold position long term with limited maintenance.Also for those sites with strong branded keywords, SEO can provide much better value for money as holding SEOrank for branded terms going to be easier. Personally call myself an online marketing professional, the most successful projects need to utilise both SEO+ PPC concurrently long term for best results. Also find that some methods work for some clients but not others whilst others using Adwords are very expensivecost per click.

Alexander B.
Aug 10, 2012

Great post and unfortunately it is very true SEO may have been very easy to do a few years ago, but now it's difficult, expensive and also doesn't last. So you might wonder if it worths doing in the first place? P.S: I really like the editor from this comment box! I haven't seen anything like this on any other website so far!

Nick Ker
Aug 10, 2012

One would think that by now anyone who is writing about anything related to search would know the difference between SEO and webspam, or at least would make some effort to differentiate between the two.  Yes, it is difficult for smaller businesses to know what is OK to do, or find someone who really knows what they are doing.  Articles like this that lump webspam and scammers in with the legitimate SEO industry only make matters worse.  On your recap bullet points:

  • Has a tende n cy to self-destruct- Only if you don't know what you are doing. By that I mean, if you follow the rules which have been clearly defined, then the risk is very minimal. Where the risk increases is when webmasters think they know what is acceptable because they see their competition doing it or got bad second-hand info, so they go and do something dumb like buying a bunch of spam links all with the same anchor texts or any number of other ridiculous things.  Like the guy in the WSJ article who had to shut down - not because the Penguin got him, but because he didn't do anything to clean up his site after Panda, ignored the unnatural link warnings, bought links - and then cried foul when Google caught up with him.
  • Starts dying the moment you stop doing it- If you are doing SEO right this only has a grain of truth. The optimization of the site itself never goes away unless someone changes it (titles, navigation, drastic content changes, meta robots, etc).  The grain of truth is that when you start outranking other sites, they will step up their efforts. So additional off-site promotion may be be needed in the event that your competitiors are able to create better content, and get better links than you. Does that mean when a page is brought from 100 up to #1 that all 99 of the competitors that are going to be able to push it back down? Not likely.
  • Costs more and more t o maintain over time- This almost sounds like a pitch from the bogus SEO link building email spams everyone gets. You know - the ones who try to scare uninformed webmasters about having to build dozens of links every day for the rest of their lives. Good links normally don't just disappear or lose value. Some will go away over time as websites change or shut down, but not at a rate that would require constant maintenance.  Good SEO will increase the visibility of the site so that more users will see it, like the good content they find there, tell others by linking or sharing and the popularity and search engine position will grow organically. Think of it as planting a forest. Plant healthy seeds and saplings that will grow and eventually spread into more trees. Trees in a forest do die off periodically, but a healthy forest replenishes itself.  Real SEO and inbound marketing can do that.  Comment spamming, buying links, article marketing, spamblog networks and other silly crap doesn't do anything like that.Where long-term SEO does start to cost more time and money is when keyword-obsessed site owners decide that being #1 or 2 for a bunch of things and #3-10 for several others isn't enough, and they want it all RIGHT NOW! 

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 10, 2012

Hi Nick, agreed that SEO does not equal webspam. I think Larry conflates the two here because he assumes people outside the industry can't tell the difference or can easily get duped (see JC Penney).

Nick Ker
Aug 10, 2012

Part of the reason people outside the industry can't tell the difference is because of articles like this that are too loose with terminology and the facts. Imagine if PPC marketers had to deal with people writing articles about runaway popup ads from porn sites, but making it seem like that is the largest part of the PPC industry. 

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 10, 2012

We agree that the post was too loose with terminology. We've apologized for that and updated it to try to be more even-handed.We categorically do NOT believe that all SEO is spam or that SEO practitioners are snake oil salesmen.At the same time, we do think SEO has gotten more complicated and that the line between good SEO and bad SEO is fuzzy. For example Google just announced that they are taking steps to ding sites with a lot of copyright infringement reports. Does any site on the Internet have as many copyright infringement reports as YouTube? I somehow doubt Google is going to apply that rule to its own property (which has made them billions).There have definitely been some "Do as we say, not as we do" mixed messages coming from Google over the past few years. It seems fair to acknowledge that. But SEO is not dead, and there's no excuse for not following basic best practices in Google's webmaster guidelines.Thanks for reading.

Larry Kim
Aug 10, 2012

Hi Nick,Thanks for your comment. Regarding the difference between SEO and Webspam, or "doing SEO right" as others have pointed out.I think that sometimes, it's hard to know exactly know where the line between SEO spam and Good SEO is. Take for example, optimized anchor text, or pagerank sculpting - these are 2 tactics which were once considered advanced SEO techniques, but now may be consisidered over optimization. This isn't to say that there aren't ovbious good SEO tactics (like writing great content) and bad SEO tactics (like buying links), I'm merely saying its hard to know exactly where the line is, as it is constantly changing. Who is to say what is today's Good SEO won't end up on the Bad SEO list a year from now? And if hard for us to know that, how are the non-search marketing folks supposed to know.Let me know  what you think. Thanks. Larry

Nick Ker
Aug 10, 2012

If you find it hard to know the difference between spam and optimization, then maybe you should have written about something you do know about. "It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt".Yet you keep going.  Sensible use of optimized anchor text in itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem when people use the same keywords in most of their anchor text, and on low quality sites like link farms or spam blogs. That pretty much screams out "These links are not natural and I am trying to manipulate the search results for these keywords".  Overusing anchor text was never on a "good" list.  And it really is not hard to tell where the line is. Just read Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines and SEO Startup Guide.  Both of which do a pretty good job of making it clear what Google considers right and wrong.  It really isn't a big mystery. Just a big case of RTFM and FUD when the snake oil salesmen keep saying "Google keeps changing the rules - we will help you beat them", or when people like you make essentially the same claim for whatever reason.The rules really have not changed much, if at all. Google is now doing a much better job of enforcing them.  For example, the optimized anchor text you mentioned. Prior to Penguin, sites have been held down in SERPs either algoritmically or manually for specific over-optimized keywords. Some called it the 30 50 penalty. It wasn't common, but in dealing with many do it yourselfers and people who went with the cheapest SEO they could find, I saw enough of it to know it existed.  When Matt Cutts announced the webspam algo update (before it was called penguin), I was a little confused because I thought he was talking about 30/50. So overused keywords were a problem before, but not penalized or filtered as strictly as it is now.It is like the police set up a speed trap where they know people "always" speed.  Breaking the speed limit has been illegal for years, but now more people are getting tickets. Would "everyone else speeds and said I could get away with it" work as an excuse to get you out of a speeding ticket when you are pulled over right next to the speed limit sign?How are non-search marketing folks supposed to know?  By reading Google's guidelines BEFORE they start doing things they don't understand. If they still don't know, hire a credible, reputable expert - just like a smart business owner would do for other complicated things that can destroy a business like accounting, taxes, legal issues, traditional advertising, etc.  

Stuart Wooster
Aug 14, 2012

I have a joke I make with my work colleagues now since all the latest updates, which is inline with your comment on what is good/bad SEO.Here is what I shared recently..."In the not too distant future…Year 2017, post Killer Whale update - If the majority of your content is over 600 words you will be penalised. Google has found waffle to be of no value to their users and are slapping website owners with a BIG smelly fish.Later in year 2017, Post Ring Tailed Lemur update - Run for the hills and up the trees as all backlinks are devalued across the web"

Barry Adams
Aug 10, 2012

 Rarely have I seen such horrendously misinformed and manipulative propaganda peddled. Seriously Larry, you've sunk to a desperate low here. It's not even a matter of ignorance. You know better, Larry. You just don't care. You don't care about presenting an accurate, realistic picture of the value of SEO vs PPC. All you want to do is toot PPC's horn as loudly as you can in the hope that somewhere down the line it translates to some business benefit for you. Facts are optional, you're just serving a deceptive narrative for your own personal benefit without any thought for the repercussions it may have for others who engage in SEO, either as businesses who can benefit from it or professionals who sell SEO services to make a living. It is cynical, deceitful, and utterly depraved. Congratulations.

Larry Kim
Aug 10, 2012

Hi Barry, thank you for your comment.This article is less about SEO vs. PPC, and more about the old adage that SEO lives on forever, which was certainly more true 2 years ago than it  is today.It raises legitimate questions about the residual value of SEO, and the SEO workflow being not a one-off thing, but rather an effort that requires increasing resources over time. These are legitimate arguments that i don't see being brought up anywhere else.I welcome a thoughtful discussions on the points raised, and I would appreciate if we could tone down the personal attacks a notch.Sincerely,Larry

Barry Adams
Aug 10, 2012

Sorry Larry but you gave up your right to a thoughtful discussion when you threw all sense of nuance overboard and went in to a full head-on attack on SEO. You know fine well that your blog post is deceptive and based on deeply misleading cherry-picking of examples, and an unforgivable lack of distinction between spam tactics and actual proper SEO.The irony is, of course, that Wordstream itself engages in good SEO practices, as is evident almost daily here on the blog. The content you piublish here - including this horrendous piece - will deliver lasting long term SEO value for your site long after you stop doing any SEO.Seriously Larry, it's been a very long time since I read such an obviously two-faced self-congratulatory piece of deceitful propaganda. If ytou want a 'thoughtful discussion', how about you retract this blog post, start anew with a more subtle and informed piece based on actual facts, and try not to spread disinformation that helps create an atmosphere od distrust and disinformation that threatens other people's livelyhoods.Because, yes, I do SEO for a living, and while I am more than willing to discuss its genuine flaws and merits (and have done so on many occassions), I will never abide by such blatant backhanded attacks on my craft.

Larry Kim
Aug 10, 2012

Barry,I've taken these 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. I’ve also issued an apology here.Sincerely,Larry 

Aug 10, 2012

I've never read such rubbish. Do you actually know what SEO is? I've had clients for several years who have made thousands of actual sales worth millions purely thanks to SEO - they don't get hit by algorithm changes because I don't do anything stupid with them (I did something stupid with one of my own sites and it DID get hit).So maybe you were doing something stupid.Which means you know nothing about SEO.So don't write about it.Thanks!

Aug 10, 2012

Larry,Unless you provide metrics of "leads" on your sites, the decrease in traffic alone is an insignificant metric. As much as everyone loves to believe that SEO's job is to bring as many visitors to a website as possible, the opposite is true: sites should be bringing relevant traffic to one's site. If you hadn't been attempting that before the major algo updates, then you're going to get burned. Old SEO was foolish and pretty irrational. New SEO should be attempting to generate as many quality leads within your site as possible.As long as Search Engines exist, SEO shall exist. But how you see SEO operating, whether in a vaccuum or in a noble, curatorial ideal, is what really matters.Greg

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 10, 2012

Great point Greg. We have certain older posts that bring in lots of SEO traffic but very few leads. This may be a problem that comes from the business end -- executives are looking to see certain traffic goals met, so marketers resort to grayish SEO tactics to boost traffic numbers, making up the difference with poor quality traffic.

Richard Kraneis
Aug 11, 2012

Larry,It takes a balanced individual to admit he made a mistake and adapts to that mistake.You are that kind of person, and WordStream is that kind of company.I am not qualified to weigh in on the pros and cons of your article nor am I qualified to measure the balance or extremism of the comments your initial blog post generated.  But I am qualified to comment on the contrast between writing blog posts and writing comments.When we write a blog post, clearly we are making a statement.  We are asserting a position.  And then the commenters come sometimes with anonymous names but always with the anonymity of Internet distance.  People will write some strident things in comments that they would never say to your face at a business conference or social gathering.I recently sent an email broadcast to 2000 people offering to give away an ebook for free to anyone who couldn't afford my ebook.  And then I received email complaints for offering to give away an ebook for charity.  How strange is that?So commenters can become a little edgey in their comments when they aren't speaking to you in person.So thanks for being adaptive to criticism (both constructive and destructive) on your blog post.  It takes a well rounded business person and grown-up to alter his/her written views so eloquently when under stress and criticism.Best wishes Larry.  Learn and move onward.Richard   

Oct 09, 2012

Sites like ours had virtually no ads, all quality content and no worries for years. Suddenly Google changes one thing and a good site is pandalized and the fault is because every webmaster didn't suddenly hire an SEO specialist for thousands a month to "fix" the problem? The problem is that Google doesn't put enough value in the human element and thinks the algorithm is absolute. We took care of all the "mistakes" meaning had to rearrange our website using subdirectories (as if that made any practical difference) and Panda and Penguin didn't care. Penguin was a disaster. There is no recovery for most sites once you've been targeted. You can hire an SEO 'specialist' and at the end of the day it's no different than paying someone to write copy for you on websites all over the Internet with reasoanble and diverse backlinks. Those who report success stories can be met with others who report little or insufficient success after paying an SEO expert, who guarantee nothing but doing some work and a result being unknown but stated with confidence. If anyone believes success is a guarantee, let me know and I'm glad to pay them upon the success. :)

Website Marketing
Nov 01, 2012

Arguing against the claim "SEO is forever" seems like a bit of a straw man to me. No one says SEO lasts forever. What has been said is that the effects of SEO last longer than the effects of PPC, and the reasons for that are obvious. I would be careful to discount the entire SEO industry based on your observation that it needs improvement. Good website marketing will include elements of SEO and other principles.

Spook SEO
Aug 14, 2013

At first glance, this "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" seems like a valid argument but when you think about it, SEO just like other mode of marketing works almost the same way. If you stop marketing, you're competitors will take your place and your customers will most likely go to them. As with SEO.

Abir Mahmud
Nov 30, 2013

Actually, Will SEO wuill be creating values in comming days or not, Honestly, the answer really depends on how you define SEO. If, when you say SEO, what you really mean is manipulating search engines to place sites that don’t really deserve to rank well at the top of the SERPs…then yes, I’d say that’s not going to work (or dying at least, as some manipulative tactics still work quite well). So, if you go ahead with the advance techniques and with natural approaches then you will be on the tarck, for sure. Because we so often use the SEO acronym, we forget sometimes that it stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO, at its heart, is the process of making websites more accessible and understandable to search engines. It shouldn’t be, and really doesn’t need to be, manipulative. Now a days, that SEO is no longer an independent discipline. You will need to alrounder to acheive good result from SEO. And that what I mean.

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