SEO is Dead, Long Live SEO!

And now for a session that is very near and dear to me – the nomenclature of SEO. I got into a twitter chat with a friend about this recently, in fact. The bottom line is that SEO has always been such a poor descriptor of what we do – I mean, we don’t optimize search engines! In truth, a white hat SEO doesn’t even optimize for search engines, or they shouldn’t. So the question is, is SEO as we know it dead, or does it just need to be renamed and expanded? Let’s see what the panel has to say… no PPTs in this session.

Richard Zwicky, Blueglass is our fearless moderator. On the panel we have: Thom Craver, Bruce Clay, Kris Jones, and Marcus Tandler.

Zwicky asks the panel what they think of Google’s rumored “over-optimization penalty”.

Clay: says the word is “over seo’d”. Google is a signal based company. You can do a lot of little things, but eventually you will tip the balance.

Jones: says he thinks the filter already existed and that they’re just now admitting it. He says it’s really about being natural and preserving the natural flow of content. He recalls the days that nothing was natural; it was all about stuffing keywords to rank. But it’s not that way anymore. No one is surprised that Google is looking to rank sites that aren’t aggressive or unnatural with SEO – “pushing the envelope”.

Tandler: SEO has become a real big business, and with enough money, you can basically buy great results. But the problem is that Google doesn’t want to rank the page that does the best SEO, they want to rank the page that is best for the user. We have to adapt to the way that people are using the web now, we can’t go back to the 10 blue links. The flip side of this is that if you have a great site that people want to link to, you will do well. And that is fair.

Bruce: the definition of SEO from the old days to today has changed dramatically. He names some common spam tactics like same color text and background, keyword stuffing, etc. Google says they like SEOs because if it’s done properly, it improves the overall quality of the website.

(Ed. Note) They’re basically just restating what’s already been said.

Bruce polls the audience – how many do SEO for a living (about half the room). How many believe SEO is dead? (No one).

Jones says it’s just Google saying ooh, be very afraid.

Zwicky: Will this algo change roll out as examples (black sheep?) or will it be something that will affect a lot of people.

Craver: when has @mattcutts ever said anything useful? It’s usually just “cover your ass”.

Clay: I think Matt didn’t realize he was making such a bold statement. He was on Skype. (Ed. Note) but there is an article over on Nine by Blue now where he’s quoted specifically.

Craver: we also have heard “don’t buy links”, but we know plenty of examples of where that still works.

Jones: I think it was a planned statement. We all watched Demand Media go public, and then get hit by Panda. And their stock tanked. This suggests that Google might be willing to give us a little more information before they roll it out to everyone. In other words, someone will be the example.

Jones waxing philosophical: If it’s true that all of our experiences will be personalized, then SEO may be dead.

Tandler disagrees. There are a lot of topics that aren’t social, like hemorrhoids. So Google can’t make social or personalized search the standard across the board. Also, it’s extremely important for Google to get Google Plus up and running. Tandler is not a fan of G+, and that’s putting it mildly.

Question from the audience: How do you think search is changing based on personalization? I have a client that is putting a lot of stock in ranking reports.

Craver: why does your client care about ranking? Shouldn’t they worry about revenue and dollars?

Clay: you really need analytics data to tell you how you’re doing. The major problem is that analytics isn’t accurate due to non-referrer data, attribution, etc. We look at ranking, but it’s only a signal. SEOs use it (don’t agree), but ultimately it’s about traffic (agree).

Question: how is keyword not-provided data impacting your business? Do people still want to invest in SEO when you can’t get that data?

Craver: it’s been 20% or more in my experience. That’s a problem if you’re doing optimization of a newer site, but with an older site, it’s important to look at trends, not absolutes. Webmaster tools still counts the clickthroughs, but again, it’s just an estimate. So look for trends. But it updates weekly, so you have to scrape it out and save it yourself.

Clay: I’m running over 30% blocked, but I get enough traffic that it’s statistically significant enough to see the trend. But I can’t get that keyword specific conversion data now. Plus with the limit of 1000 keywords, it’s just not enough.

Question: Do you think that Google is being fair? Are they really looking for relevance, or is it just about big brands?

Jones: we’re talking about computers and algorithms. I believe that there’s an honest intention to practice what they preach, but you can find so many examples where it just doesn’t seem to work the way it should. Likens it to 1000 customers, where 999 love something and one doesn’t. The one is the loudest voice. We’ve done that to Google.

Jones says, I think Google is really frustrated right now. Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest are winning right now, and I think that losing that social part is really bothering them.

Clay: I think that what we’re dealing with is perception. I can look at my own site and say I have better quality than everyone else, but can you honestly say you’re better than 10 million other sites?

Tandler: elaborating on that… there’s so much stuff that we don’t see, from Doubleclick, from the toolbar, from Chrome, from Click through rate… and we have no idea what data Google is getting from those sources. Google always does a pretty good job, but come on, Search Plus Your World? Who actually likes this? But it’s Google! So you have to do it.

Jones: the game has changed, and if Google loses social, all I have to say is MySpace.

Clay: we have to think about how to extend our perception of community and social, because the real action is happening before search.

Craver: Google wants in on everything that people do. They built their whole company on search, and search is not king anymore. And they have to evolve.

Clay: This is maybe the first time in 15 years that Google has not been the bright shiny object at a conference. Here we are talking about what they’re doing wrong. I think Google is panicky. Google has tied 25% of compensation for employees to Google Plus success.

Question: do you think it’s possible to over optimize your link profile? What stops my competitors from doing that to me?

Clay: a year ago, I proposed to mattcutts that he add to webmaster tools the ability to disavow a link if we don’t want to accept it. He emailed me last week and said they’re going to implement it. So I think that kills the attack capability.

Tandler: I don’t think they’re going to implement that. What I would do is buy all the shitty links I could find, and if any of them got in trouble, I’d just disavow the link. So the potential for abuse on this would be HUGE. So I don’t think they’ll do it, and it doesn’t make sense to me.

Clay: I think I already have the ability to test and measure this.

Tandler: are you saying you’d create a link farm to test this?

Clay: the statement was that if I would have done that anyhow, I might as well prove it works. (Ed note: this doesn’t really answer the question) Google is changing link rules on us every single day. You have to earn it.

Jones: even though Google wants it to be science, it’s actually art. It’s not perfect, and there will always be these extreme examples. And even if you link bombed your competitor, Google might not get it right. And then you’re helping them.

Tandler: So really you’re missing the point – the links get devalued. They just either count or they don’t count. You don’t need anyone to tell you this is a bad link, Google will just take care of it.

Zwicky: I was at Google a couple of years ago, and they told me your job is to explain to customers why when Google is wrong, they are right to be wrong.

Craver: Google is asking us to curate content all the time. Take that little “do you want to block this” link that you get when you bounce back from a click on a SERP.

Craver: Since we’ve been bashing Google a lot here, let’s talk about all this nice stuff they’re doing – you can use rich snippets, and we can add your pictures… (Ed. Note) I think this is just another example of them asking us to do their jobs for them.

Jokes about privacy and Zwicky says maybe we could retitle the session:

Is Google Dead?