It seems like every few months, somebody declares SEO dead. Its latest funeral was held yesterday.

This time around, its eulogy was written by Ben Elowitz, co-founder of
web publisher Wetpaint. According to Elowitz, it’s all about social.

He writes:

Search was critical when answers to questions were scarce. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) can find an answer to almost any keyword query from among the zillions of pages on the web. But at a time when such answers are abundant, it’s far more valuable to find the best content for me – and increasingly, find it before I’ve even asked for it. The sort algorithm that works best for that is more correlated to who’s doing the asking than how they would phrase the ask. For that level of personalized results, no abject algorithm can keep up without deep knowledge of its users. Advantage: Facebook.

In a response to a comment, he elaborates on the above:

…people are finding an answer at Facebook every minute to the very most important question in media: “what do I need to know?”

But search is about more than the kind of “media” Elowitz, and his company, is focused on. Most of us aren’t news and entertainment junkies who sit in front of the computer or television 24/7 waiting for breaking news, reading celebrity gossip blogs or perusing tweets. Search is about information at large. And information comes in all shapes and sizes.

I may very well be interested in the ‘latest and greatest‘, but that’s just one small part of my sphere of interests. When I want to find the best deal on a particular product I’m thinking about buying, I turn to Google. When I need to look up information about a medical condition, I turn to Google. When I’m interested in information about vacation destinations, I turn to Google. When I’m researching an investment, I turn to Google.

Why? Because as helpful as Facebook may be in keeping track of what my friends are doing and what they’re sharing online, chances are that the most efficient and effective way to get important information I want or need now is through search, not social. After all, if I’m looking to export products to the UK, I’m not simply going to wait around on Facebook hoping one of my friends will miraculously post a status update linking to, say, the page on the HM Revenue & Customs website that happens to contain answers to questions I have.

Despite the hype about social search, there’s no indication that social is cannibalizing search. Between December 2008 and December 2009, searches on Google properties grew 58%, to nearly 88 billion a month. While this figure includes searches outside of Google’s core search engine, it’s fair to say many, if not most, were ‘real‘ searches.

More important, of course, is the nature of those searches. Google searches frequently carry with them intent; individuals are constantly looking for information that has commercial value in some form. That’s why advertisers spend billions of dollars a year paying for clicks that come through ads displayed on Google’s SERPs. And it’s why publishers and businesses spend untold amounts on SEO in an effort to rank well organically.

Which leads us to the fatal flaw in Elowitz’s argument: the belief that if you build it, they will come. Elowitz has plenty of cool-sounding statements, like “audience values content, not keywords,” “the big opportunity is now once again creating and refining the most appealing content possible” and “publishers need to then reward their audiences with the full range of possibilities, including prestige, access, exclusive content and enhanced experiences,” but little of this provides a foundation for actionable strategy.

In effect, Elowitz preaches the following:

1. Create really good content.
2. Embrace “social media optimization.
3. ?
4. Profit.

The missing piece, of course, is distribution. Sure, Facebook has a massive audience, but that doesn’t mean that there’s always a good way to get your content — no matter how great it is — into the hands of the people who need and want it most.

If you’re publishing information about products, laws, medicines, etc. — information which individuals often place a high value on and proactively seek out — chances are your target audience is turning to Google for help. Quality content is obviously a must no matter what, but if you’re not doing everything you can to make sure your content is accessible to individuals performing relevant searches (read: SEO), you’re shooting yourself in the foot. 

Is Google perfect? Of course not. And it’s clear that Google and other search engines will incorporate social signals, where appropriate, to boost the relevance of their SERPs. But the next time you’re interested in diabetes, the corporate tax rate in Ireland, or the weather in Tahiti, chances are Google is your best friend.

Photo credit: Mrs Logic via Flickr.