Disclaimer: I'm an SEO practitioner. I have an interest in arguing the point that SEO is still valuable.

Hear me out though and I'll explain why jumping on any variation of the 'SEO is dead' bandwagon is likely to cause major problems for your website’s visibility in organic search results.

Ever since Google started penalising manipulative link building practices with their Penguin algorithm in 2012, 'SEO is dead' type articles started to gain traction in the digital press.

I think in part the 'SEO is dead' rhetoric stems from people's misunderstanding of what SEO is in the first place.

To the layperson, SEO is multifaceted and complex. It's human nature to try to generalise and oversimplify complex topics to make sense of them.

It has been helpful for people's understanding over the years to make generalisations about what SEO is. Common responses to the "what is SEO?" question tend to fall into three categories. 

  • SEO is just about keywords in metadata
  • SEO is just about getting links
  • SEO is now just about good user experience 

Let's explore these generalisations...

“SEO is about keywords in metadata. Keywords aren't as important any more so SEO is dead, isn't it?”

There's been a noticeable shift in the interplay between on-page keyword usage and rankings, with semantic variations (synonyms and related terms) now important as Google becomes much better at understanding natural language.

On-page optimisation has grown up. It is more sophisticated (i.e. difficult and requires more effort). The keyword-stuffers no longer get results and therefore the 'SEO is dead' arguments are made. 

Well written copy using natural language is the domain of copywriters so you might conclude that SEO is not required as long as your copywriter is top notch. This is a dangerous conclusion to make.  

An SEO will ensure that the topics being written about on your pages will trigger visibility in the search listings for the most effective search queries.

These search queries have relevance to your product or services, good search volume and show evidence that they convert.

I'm yet to come across a content strategist or copywriter that sees this as their domain and so for the time being at least it's best to have an SEO work alongside them on your build projects.

“SEO is about getting links. Link building no longer works (and can get you penalised) so SEO is dead, isn't it?”

Google's war on manipulative link building practices is well documented (unnatural links penalties, Penguin updates) and this has fuelled a major shift.

Old link building practices (adding links to websites where you're in control of the link) has been replaced with new link building practices: offering quality product/service/content and telling people about it in order to earn links. 

Many of those offering the old type of link building see link earning as too much like hard work and have shut up shop. 

Additionally many argue that the content side of link earning is the domain of content marketing and PR, not SEO.

For anyone observing this shift who had previously generalised SEO as just being about obtaining links the 'SEO is dead' conclusion is a natural one.

Commonly people are foregoing SEO investment altogether and replacing it with content marketing. I can't press this point strongly enough: content marketing complements SEO, it does not replace it.

Even if your Content Marketing efforts are delivering links alongside the other good stuff that content marketing brings (brand awareness, social referral traffic) it's important to understand that SEO isn't just about links, there are many elements required for a successful SEO strategy and ignoring critical areas can mean your links are allowed little or no positive effect. 

“SEO is now more about user experience so SEO is dead now, isn't it?”

Google has repeatedly stressed that it is looking to reward the sites/pages that provide solid user experiences with good visibility in their search results. The Panda algorithm is based on removing poor quality sites from top search results and the recent Phantom update looks to be rewarding sites that deliver a good user experience.

Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals.

Google's message is clear. Its call for people to ignore ranking algorithms and signals is perhaps a little naive.

The SEO industry, which essentially looks to understand ranking algorithms and ranking signals is huge for good reason: there's a commercial benefit from doing so. However, With statements like this Google is certainly suggesting that there are benefits to focusing on user experience.

However, as with on page SEO and links, user experience is only part of the mix. To focus on UX and ignore all else would be foolish. 

Don't forget about technical SEO

Technical SEO (activity to ensure that a website can be indexed effectively and meets search engine guidelines) is one hugely important part of SEO that tends to be left out of people's generalisations about SEO. It falls outside of most people's responses to the "what is SEO?" question.

At least on-page SEO, link generation and UX generate some awareness, even if they are widely misunderstood. They are perhaps easier concepts to grasp than the complexities of technical setup (server response codes, search engine crawlers, robots directives).

Even if on-page SEO and link building were 'dead' and could be delivered effectively by other disciplines, technical SEO would still be required to ensure that your website did not drop off the face of the Google planet. It's really that important.

Ignore it and your website will not be indexed and ranked effectively, leaving large amounts of traffic and sales on the table.

Search engine guidelines are published and freely available for non-SEO disciplines (designers, developers) to follow. However until all technical disciplines are strongly versed in search engine guidelines and work strictly to these guidelines then website projects will need SEO input.

Conclusion

You'll notice a common thread to what has been discussed here. SEO is no longer a standalone activity but rather a cross-discipline activity.

I think the important thing here is to realise that despite this you can't (currently) expect each discipline to have absorbed SEO into their roles and so just dispense with the services of an SEO specialist.

In my experience content strategists, copywriters, PR experts, developers, user experience specialists and others don't currently have a keen eye on SEO. Indeed if you were to ask them if they saw SEO as their responsibility most of them would say no. 

Maybe things will change but for the time being dispensing with the services of SEO specialists is a very risky thing to do.

Chris Ebbs

Published 7 September, 2015 by Chris Ebbs

Chris Ebbs is Head of SEO at Quba and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with Chris on LinkedIn or Twitter.

2 more posts from this author

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Gillian Ivory

Gillian Ivory, Director at Ivory Content

Great article Chris, I always explain to clients how SEO is cross functional to a degree, but the most successful projects include a vertical/specialist in the area.

almost 2 years ago

Chris Ebbs

Chris Ebbs, Head of SEO at Quba

Thanks Gillian!
Agree... responsibility taken for SEO within each discipline with the need for a specialist to tie things up and ensure people have done things properly... more of a QA role if you will.

almost 2 years ago

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Angela Moore, President at Six Degrees Digital Media

This sums it up perfectly "SEO is no longer a standalone activity but rather a cross-discipline activity." Loved that line. I'd like to create a social graphic with that an quote you if you don't mind.

Educating clients can be a challenge. Some think they just need links. Others will say no SEO. We believe in an umbrella approach and ultimately go after more exposure for the client with the intention of more traffic and more business. The biggest issue is that not everyone defines SEO the same way. We just educate accordingly.
Great article Chris.

almost 2 years ago

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Martin Crutchley, Senior Digital Strategist at Return On Digital

Good post!

I have worked to move away from the term "SEO", simply due to the mountain of negative connotations this brings up. This includes client perceptions that keyword ranking is the single greatest KPI that has ever existed. We take the approach that "Organic" is simply a part of the marketing mix and includes elements of technical optimization, keyword research, content, outreach and elements of CRO/UX.

Part of the issue is the fact that most agencies no-longer have an "SEO" team, most are separated into content/PR/Tech/Strategy, the more experienced production guys remember the "old days" when we needed to be masters of everything, it's these individuals who now more than likely sit within strategy, whilst grads and juniors will likely never develop a skillset outside their pre-defined roles of content production or outreach.

It's a shame that SEO is such a dirty word these days, because for a lot of us, we wouldn't be where we are now without it. It certainly gave us opportunities to learn that just aren't as readily available to those coming into the industry.

almost 2 years ago

Chris Ebbs

Chris Ebbs, Head of SEO at Quba

Angela,
Feel free to steal that line. Flattered it resonated much!

Agree about educating the client being the challenge. Most come with preconceived ideas that you need to unpick and then rebuild.

almost 2 years ago

Chris Ebbs

Chris Ebbs, Head of SEO at Quba

Martin,
Certainly seeing a move to agencies devolving their silos and instead offering a more holistic approach centred on the right mix rather than selling in particular channels.

That said some clients come with pre-conceived ideas as to what service they need and their search for an agency is based on that. This is what makes many nervous of ditching the SEO tag. ...

Get clients into a discussion unpick their pre-conception of what that think they need and put forward a rounded strategy for what's going to bring best and most cost effective results.

almost 2 years ago

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Dorine Kennebeck, SEO analyst at seo companies ny

These points are sum up very intelligently. I think the main point to understand is that you can’t expect each and every discipline and features to be performed SEO. Editors, writers web content writers; article writers and Blog writers all must have a keen eye on SEO. It is their responsibility but none of them bother to do it.

almost 2 years ago

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