SEO is still a part of the work that I do and I don't believe that it is dead.

However, I can’t help but find that SEO is frustrating, which is probably why so many attempts on its life are made. 

Here are some of the main reasons why I find it’s such a difficult area to deal with.

The word

SEO, also known as 'search engine optimisation': these three words / letters used to be fairly respectable but now they look a little old and jarring.

Before even getting to the negative connotations, the words don’t really mean that much any more because the critical optimisation isn’t wholly about search engines: it’s hard to do search engine optimisation without also doing social media marketing, content marketing, etc.

Search engines are just a part of that process so SEO has become a side effect of what it claims to be as a whole.

‘Optimisation’ is also a pretentious and unclear word, although it has stuck over time. People who don’t work in the area (e.g. cousins, distant friends) generally look either amazed, confused or embarrassed when you mention it. A better alternative would probably be something like ‘development’ or maybe just the unpretentious 'boosting'. 

Now to the negative connotations, of which there are many, for sure, caused by the bad old days of buying backlinks, fluffy SEO waffling, hollow guest posts, awkward SEO advice in meetings, etc. And in turn these associations have led to prejudice towards the word and anyone using it in a related industry. That’s frustrating.

It’s too late to change the word now, though, which isn't so bad as the term's still meaningful and serviceable. It just means that if you choose to use it, you generally have to make excuses to justify its use, often involving an adjective: 'white hat SEO', 'modern SEO', 'integrated SEO' etc.

Example:

In 2013, SEOMoz felt the need to drop the SEO to become plain-old Moz, while many former SEO agencies have moved away from the term. 

 

2. SEO gobbledygook

If you work in digital marketing then you’ll undoubtedly have had to sit through some technical SEO gobbledygook. I’ve rattled off entire speeches of the stuff that listeners have agreed with, when I might as well have been talking about fireplace inserts.

In some ways the simplification of tools, CMSs and algorithms has led to the demise of this vague ranting because a lot of it isn’t so important anymore.

But in other ways it has made things worse because some SEOs - in a sort of stubborn show of defiance at the trajectory of things - have decided to get even more buried in the details while stopping just short of getting a web developer job.

And even then there’s a catch 22, because regardless of any of the above, while SEO is becoming harder to define, a new style of generalist SEO gobbledygook has emerged, focused on convergence and content marketing rather than gibberish about Google.

Which brings me onto the next point...

3. Convergence

SEO has become a bit like a hot sauce, nicely supplementing a main 'dish' but not so sensible on its own unless you're a real enthusiast.

I’ve alluded to this analogy a bit already: content marketing, social signals etc. have become so conjoined with SEO that it’s become a bit awkward to precisely define what SEO is, if not a supplementary part of a process. You’ve still got the SEO stalwarts: meta data, technical site audits, structured data, site migrations etc.…

But it’s frustrating to deal in a commodity that’s kind of ineffective on its own without a lot of collaboration. And if you disagree, thinking that SEO can predominantly be about going through a site and picking out problems like PageRank flow, still, then your work opportunities could become pretty limited.

Example:

There are plenty of diagrams that illustrate what SEO works alongside online, like this example from another 2012 Econsultancy post on The Convergence of SEO, Design & Content.

4. Personalisation

Personalisations are extremely frustrating, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you or a client wants to quickly check the rankings of a given search term then the website ranking of the site will probably be exaggerated because your interest in the site, naturally, logically, means that you should have already visited the site quite a few times and propelled it into an excellent position.

This can be deflating (as well as frustrating) as you momentarily punch the air thinking that your client's site is in 1st position for a prestige search term.

Reporting’s more difficult too, due to personalisation, and while there are some easy ways to get round the issue, the more it happens, and the more people this personalisation affects, then the more it brings into question the whole concept of ranking for a given search term. Really? For whom exactly? 

Example:

The rankings of a company that I work with, The Chalet Company, have been upped because I’ve visited the site a few times.

The unbiased position for this search is usually nine to ten but for me it’s in top position unless I remove the personalisation.

5. Link building, baiting etc.

I've covered why I think the word SEO is frustrating earlier but there are some even more annoying words in the underlying SEO lexicon. Two of the worst are linkbuilding and linkbait.

Both words are still used but both should be moribund because they represent the irritating end of what SEO was and sometimes is.

And even if you still feel link building's a useful term I’d argue that these words at least patronising and tunnel-visioned: why would anyone create content of any value just to get (build, bait) links?

6. Google

Yep, guess what, one of the most frustrating things about SEO is Google itself. The life force of SEO, the search engine that’s symbiotic with the whole idea of search engine optimisation, is also engaged in a kind of passive-aggressive war with it.

This is frustrating because while some of Google’s changes are justified to reduce SPAM others appear to be petulant, pyrrhic victories. The not provided issue is just one example and there will be unnecessary changes in the future, no doubt.

Google’s naming conventions for its endless updates are also frustrating: it just adds a layer of mammals and birds to an area that’s already difficult to talk about.

Example:

This, according to not provided count, is how many search terms are obscured under the sweeping ‘not provided’ alias, within Google Analytics.

So what?

This article might read like I think SEO is dead. Wrong! As long as there are search engines then SEO is here to stay. There will be no demise of SEO as long as search engines exist. That’s just logic. So rather than being dead or even dying, SEO is probably one of the most persistent, resilient and immortal parts of marketing that there is.

But while SEO isn’t dead, it’s definitely frustrating and it’s only going to get more so.

And while we admit it, discuss it, and stop trying to murder it, then we’re at least trying to redress some of those issues in an uncomfortable area that should remaining standing for a long, long time. 

Does anyone else find SEO frustrating?

Michael Wilkins

Published 12 March, 2015 by Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins is a freelance Online Consultant and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.

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Brian Hennessy

Brian Hennessy, Founder at Founder, Thread | Cofounder, Talkoot

I believe--save for a brilliant few--the only chance any of us have at greatness in this world is to focus on one thing. When you're focused on SEO, you're not focused on helping people feel, think and interact. You just can't be great at both. I was a writer before SEO, I've been a writer throughout this whole SEO debacle, and I'm happy to see the concept of SEO mortally wounded and lying at the back of it's cave. I don't believe there is anything authentic, inspiring or socially beneficial to mastering the craft of tricking machines into thinking a website is more useful or interesting than it really is.

over 3 years ago

Ed Lamb

Ed Lamb, Client Services Director at Propellernet

It can be frustrating of course. But with progressive clients it can also be very rewarding to watch some fantastic creative ideas come to life and 3 or even 4 figure ROIs emerge at the end of the year. For me the issue is that people get confused about SEO which - when done well - has for many years included the other rings alongside "tech SEO" in the diagram you have above under Convergence. But many think of SEO as technical SEO only and associate it with small budgets, little customer understanding and no creative thinking as a result.

That's not how any decent SEO thinks but it will take time to evolve thinking and associate the term "SEO" with simply "great digital marketing" - we're getting there though. Until then some companies will continue to gain short-term acclaim for beautiful campaign microsites that have no longevity. But those that really understand digital marketing will integrate their great creative thinking effectively on their main site and gain long-term SEO benefits as well as all the other brand/reach benefits, financing the campaign costs many times over.

Final thought - my biggest frustration is when Board members don't front up to the problem of needing to change siloed thinking. Great SEO often requires some change management alongside it to bring legacy processes and siloed departments up to date, so it needs Board support to make that happen, and change/training budget to support it. It pays back many times over so any Board member focused on value rather than cost needs to support any necessary change programme.

But overall, digital marketing is getting there and SEO is becoming a standard part of any/all good digital marketing.

over 3 years ago

Ian Harris

Ian Harris, CEO at Search Laboratory

Google advocate 'great content' and industry specialists state that SEO is just about good online marketing now. However, many businesses do not know how to, or don't have the resource, to create great content, and don't know what to do with it when they create it in order to maximise it. It's like saying, write great articles, bind them into a magazine, and you'll rival Cosmopolitan because people will just want to read your content. There is more to getting noticed that churning out great content. You need to get that content in front of the right people, present it in the right way for it to get good engagement, and when it is noticed, it needs to leave an imprint that Google recognises as valuable. Generally people don't know how to engage with influencers, amplify their content, and present it for impact.

Organic search is a massive revenue driver for businesses that get it right, but dig deeper and you will see that those getting it right do not just write great content. They have a proven process around that content to make sure it gets noticed by Google.

It isn't about tricking Google into thinking a website is more useful or interesting than it really is, but instead it's about firstly making it as interesting and engaging as it needs to be, and then publicising that in a way that the target users and Google recognise it and put it in it's rightful place.

over 3 years ago

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Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

For me SEO was always about on page/on site optimisation via content, underlying code and information architecture.

When you start talking about off-site optimisation such as social media channels, that fits under the broader term of 'SEM' Search Engine Marketing, of which SEO is a subset (with ever weaking powers of influence, but still an important factor professional sites should not be ignoring). SEM for me is any technique that is used to deliberately improve your nature search rankings, and SEO is the 'on site' arm of that.

For me there's always been that important semantic difference between the onsite and offsite techniques, but maybe it's just me.

over 3 years ago

Duncan Wright

Duncan Wright, Director at BSA Marketing

Totally agree with Brian. Hopefully now a rockfall will seal the cave and the fate of SEO!

As the article points out the issue of SEO being seen in isolation. However in my experience the issue is one of perception, and the number of people still selling it as a magic wand.

I spend a significant amount of time talking clients out of taking up services offering to "get them to the top of page 1 Google for just £.... a month.

I know this probably won't deliver for the business, and it simply gives them another excuse not to invest in real marketing that will deliver real long term benefits, and which probably won't cost any more!

I agree with everything Michael says in his article, but if the professionals in the digital marketing industry would just agree once and for all the SEO is dead (at least in the way that clients (non experts) see it)., rather than redefining it in more and more complex ways that only those in the know understand. Then at least those selling the SEO Snake Oil would have to come up with a new story!

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Brian, I'm tempted to agree but, like you say, I think your opinion is biased by how focused your work is. I wouldn't class myself as an SEO per se but as someone working online it's a frustrating part of the work that I do, I have to deal with it, and I don't think it's going to go away either so this is my contribution to the debate. I do disagree about the use of 'tricking' though, I think that word is more appropriate to the way SEO used to work a few years ago.

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Thanks for the contribution Ed. I agree that a positive understanding (or even just an understanding) of the term are a long way off, I'm not sure if I fully get the meaning myself, but interesting to hear a point of view from within an agency - I haven't worked on that side for quite a while now but even then getting board support was difficult.

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Ian, this is why it's still a necessary part of the work that writers, creatives, etc. do - it can be a supplementary part of the process of creating valuable content, increasing its visibility rather than any sort of trickery, although I'm not sure if the term is actually viewed in this kind of light at the moment or always applied in such a way.

over 3 years ago

Brian Hennessy

Brian Hennessy, Founder at Founder, Thread | Cofounder, Talkoot

I think a large part of the problem is that the term SEO-itself is too loaded down with bad Ju-ju. I avoid using it at all costs because--even ignoring all it's black hat history--it naturally suggests an emphasis on optimizing for machines over people. Isn't it time that it be reframed as VO, Viewership Optimization? Or something like that anyway.

over 3 years ago

Ed Lamb

Ed Lamb, Client Services Director at Propellernet

I don't think any brand new terms are needed - SEO is just good digital marketing/customer engagement so let's just call it digital marketing. If we really need alternatives to show the influence of SEO on digital marketing how about "revenue-focused digital marketing", "revenue-based digital marketing", or "revenue-generating digital marketing"?

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

I'm in agreement with that Brian. The problem is coming up with an alternative that doesn't sound too contrived and then sticks - even though there are more accurate alternatives. My suggestions at the start of the piece were crap though, yours are better!

over 3 years ago

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Jordan Russell, Digital Marketing and E-commerce Consultant at Freelance

Re: The Word

It also implies we actually optimise search engines, like we're search engineers at Google or something. Instead we optimise websites for search, which is how I used to describe my job back in the day when I was simply an SEO, just avoiding mentioning the title at all .

over 3 years ago

Andrew Gloyns

Andrew Gloyns, SEO Director at FirstClick Consulting

Hey Michael,

Long time - hope Barcelona is treating you well? :)

Me reading this sounded like a scene from When Harry Met Sally.

My 2 cents...In a sea full of sharks it can be difficult to differentiate and convince that you're not 'one of those' and this essentially comes down to continually educating clients and prospects as to the modern state of SEO and how to dominate tomorrow, not just today. And yes, I did think of Bruce of Finding Nemo as I wrote that sentence.

I really like, and regular cite, Will Critchlow's great soundbite that SEO isn't something you 'do', it's an outcome of being excellent at everything else. No need to change the label, just how it's communicated.

SEO's built the bad 'ju-ju' and are responsible for changing that rather than the name. Changing the name of SEO won't fool anyone.

over 3 years ago

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Mark Hammersley, Director of Smartebusiness at smartebusiness

Yes I find it frustrating indeed! In fact I have totally stopped offering SEO to clients and only do SEO audits and really technical stuff on large brands. The problem I find that content marketing to be done well needs to come from the business itself and therefore the business suddenly has to have another skill set that might not be very important to their core business. For example a light bulb manufacturer might be the best in the world at what it does but it does not have the time to basically write its own magazine and I don't think it should have to. Also social media linking and sharing is very skewed to certain demographics and I know a lot of friends that don't use social media at all and will have certain products that they buy which. The products will then be in pockets that will not naturally rise to the top if they are good sites.

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

All good in Barcelona Andrew - and a lovely sunny day today to boot. Thanks for the contribution and hope Melbourne's treating you well. Personally, I agree that SEO has become more like an outcome, a side-effect of being good at everything else, but it's usually a starting point as a service and that's a bit difficult for me to get my head around. Like you say, how the area's communicated now is more important than what the words used to stand for - and even though I think there are problems with the title and its connotations, it's too embedded to be changed now anyway.

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Mark, you've hit on a point there that I've thought about quite a lot recently with that bulb analogy: why should being good at 'content marketing' actually mean that you should be rewarded with more business by virtue of being perceived as a better brand by search engines - when it might actually mean you're being worse at your core business by focusing on content marketing?

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Jordan, yes, that's a problem with the word. It implies that Google is being optimised and I'm sure someone at Google would have something to say about that. In fairness, Google could improve some of its own content with some better 'SEO' though, and then that interpretation might be more accurate.

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Tony, most of the complexities and ambiguities are resolved if you take away the off-site component, like you say but I think, in reality, SEO is offered as a service that is mainly about integrated marketing because those are the activities that really make a difference to SEO. So it's a confusing term in the industry even though you can think about it differently. Duncan, agree that there's a distinction between the waffling about semantics by people like me and the way that the term is understood by others who're buying it. I completely avoid use the term myself when speaking to clients - I usually focus on goals rather than labels - but that doesn't stop me getting hit with lots of questions about SEO in reverse so I think the term is still far from crushed.

over 3 years ago

Charity Stebbins

Charity Stebbins, Content Strategist at Conductor

Really enjoyed this article, other than the fact that you kept spelling optimization wrong... (j/k j/k... 'mericuh)

Anyway, I work for one of the "legacy" enterprise SEO platforms, Conductor, so this conversation is a fascinating and continual one. In the last year, we've moved away from talking solely about SEO to talking about Web Presence Management -- trying to capitalize on the proliferation of organic channels (people search on more than just Google, they're using YouTube, Pinterest, etc., and "SEO" should evolve to incorporate those hugely important channels. And it should get better at identifying and servicing personas and where they are along the buyer's journey.)

Anyway, you've really hit the nail on the head in terms of the importance and staying power of SEO as a practice, but the slow demise/drying out of the term.

over 3 years ago

Charity Stebbins

Charity Stebbins, Content Strategist at Conductor

Also -- post script -- I really enjoyed your writing! This piece was fun to read.

over 3 years ago

Michael Wilkins

Michael Wilkins, Freelance Digital & Content Marketing at Freelance

Glad you enjoyed Charity - always nice to hear that someone has found my writing entertaining. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what nail I was aiming for with this, I just sort of hammered a load of thoughts down but I think you've kind of hit the nail on the head about what I was writing about in your first comment. Thanks!

over 3 years ago

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