Generally speaking, it is a good time for search and for those who work in the sector. Many agencies are bucking the economic climate, budgets for SEO continue to grow and pretty much every decision maker on the client-side understands and appreciates the value of natural search.

The SEO industry, however, is not immortal. There are times when I genuinely worry whether it will shoot itself in the foot.

On that cheerful note, let’s look at four ways the sector could kill itself…

1) Become illegal

The most horrible and flagrant examples of SEO leading to fully fledged law breaking is the matter of black hat hacking.

These SEO scum look for insecure websites, often blogs, and hack into them in order to hide links to their clients. The problem is so bad that Google has invested time and money into webmaster alerts that urge bloggers to upgrade their WordPress installs should they fall behind the latest version.

The other area of legal concern for SEO is around disclosure, or lack of it. The FCC in the States and OFT in the UK are both keen that adverts do not fly under the radar to appear online in the form of apparently genuine and spontaneous blog posts, comments, tweets or other UGC.

As SEO agencies push harder into social media marketing strategies then there’s a greater risk of crossing this line. Some link acquisition techniques may also create content that the OFT and FCC would frown at, such as apparent reviews or links appearing as recommendations.

2) Become a commodity

There are two streams of SEO being practised today; old school SEO and modern SEO.

Modern SEO does well at appealing to recent updates, like Panda and Freshness, and copes with the competitive requirements of Universal search results. Traditional SEO covers the basics; titles, keywords in the content, links and the ability of spiders to crawl the site.

Understanding of traditional SEO is more widespread in Design & Build agencies and in-house build and marketing teams than ever before. Sometimes SEO tenders are raised simply because the brand, satisfied with its understanding of old school SEO, simply wants help with the off-page aspects of the campaign.

It can be pretty easy for procurement led pitches to devolve into something like “Agency A says they’ll generate X quantity, at suitable quality, for budget Y, can you beat that?” Once SEO agencies start pitching on that level, trying to bid lower on cost or higher on links, then the only way is down.

SEO is not just about grabbing links; especially not modern SEO which needs to work very hard on click through optimisation, creative content, multi-signals and developing a voice or reach effective enough to show that engaging content to authority makers and communities.

Also, this sort of bid war simply hurts the revenues and commoditises the service.

3) Fail to provide basic SEO services

Modern SEO is more expensive to provide than traditional, old school, SEO. It’s not surprising that selling and serving the old model for as long as possible is an attractive business solution to many.

A significant problem with that approach is that it speeds the SEO service to a pitiful position as a commoditised product rather than a specialist service. It will also harm the industry’s reputation.

After Panda (about 10% of all searches), after Freshness (about 30% of all searches), with Google Direct, +1s as a ranking factor and now that almost search result personalised, SEO is very different.

Even boutique agencies need to have ways to create (or have created) engaging content for their clients or for distribution, they need to have expertise in outreach, they need to be able to work with mobile sites and help optimise apps for web and app-store discovery. Even if there is a will to do so there may not be the ability to do so.

Unless SEO freelancers and agencies can provide these services then we’ll see more online PR agencies, Social Media agencies and even Design & Build agencies push back into the sector.

4) Wage Wars

It can be hard securing good SEO staff. This is a marketing discipline that needs good communication and client coping skills. It can also be very technical, geeky and require OCD-like dedication to experimentation and research.

SEO is as much a culture as it is a job and agencies with the wrong culture are simply less attractive than others.

As a result, agencies are sometimes forced into upping wage expectations in order to attract staff whom may see themselves as rock stars but who many only have a few years of experience and an on-off again relationship with reading a few popular blogs.

Wage wars are clearly harmful for agencies and clients who pick up the increased costs. They’re not all that helpful for staff in the long term either who may find themselves with mortgages or rents that suddenly come under stress if the salary bubble bursts or if their own demands make their companies, their own careers, less successful.

There’s always a silver lining and with these challenges the good news is that we can all see them. There should not be any surprises lurking to catch the unwary out. They do mean that 2012 will be a year of change as well as a year of growth.

Picture credit: Joelk75