Is SEO Dead? 1997 Prediction, Meet 2009 Reality

I shouldn’t take the bait — Robert Scoble’s latest missive that SEO isn’t important. But sometimes I can’t help myself for wanting to provide some perspective. I’ve covered the space going on 14 years now. I’ve heard the SEO is dead spiel over and over and over again. I feel like a revisit to the first major prediction of this back in 1997 is in order. Somehow, it has survived since then.

In that year, the Online Advertising Discussion List was one of the primary ways that internet marketers communicated with each other about trends and tactics. We didn’t have forums. We didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have AdWords. And we walked eight miles through the snow to even use a search engine.

Richard Hoy posted this to the list in November 1997. I’ll bold the key part, as well as key parts in other quotes further below:

I’m beginning to believe that search engines are a dead-end technology and fretting over where your site comes up is a big waste of time. I’m now advising clients that we create good META tags, submit the site and then forget it.

I base this newfound philosophy on a couple of things. First, I’ve noticed on the sites we manage that the percent of traffic from search engines drops as the investment in other types promotion increase.

For example, The Year 2000 Information Center ( ), a site we own and promote heavily through PR and co-promotional arrangements, had 6% of its traffic come from search engines last month. 94% came from sources such as online articles, co-promotion, and people using a bookmark.

I see the exact opposite situation in the traffic reports of sites that we do little promotion for. The bulk of their traffic comes from search engines. And that makes perfect sense because without promotion search engines are the only way people can find these sites…

How can such an unstable system survive? Moreover, how can you ever hope to be on top of it for long?

So in closing, I submit that search engines are dying. In fact, I would say they are dead already and just don’t know it yet – gone the way of the reciprocal link exchange and the “you have a cool page” award as an effective promotional tool. A victim of their own success.

Now compare that to what Robert Scoble wrote today in his “2010: the year SEO isn’t important anymore?” post:

I came away from this conversations thinking that SEO is getting dramatically less important and that SEM should be renamed to “OM” for “Online Marketing” since small businesses need to take a much more holistic approach to marketing than just worrying about search results.

So just over 12 years ago, we had someone saying pretty much the same thing that Scoble wrote today. You shouldn’t worrying about search, or that you should certainly be doing more than search.

Well, duh. I don’t know any search marketer worth their salt who suggests that anyone should fixate only on search marketing alone. As I responded to Scoble in my comment:

SEO, for the record, is the activity of ensuring you are well listed in any search results that are offered to a user for free. So small businesses don’t need to worry about SEO? Hey, the top box on Google is often taken up by a map with a “4 pack” or “10 pack” of listings.

Those listings are something that small businesses can claim. And if you claim them, adjusting things like your address (if not correct) or your business title (such as ensuring you are descriptive for important terms) can have dramatic effect on whether you get listed. And that, my friend, is also SEO….

As for renaming search marketing to online marketing. What on earth are you talking about? I mean seriously, where have you been since the internet broke out?

There’s always been online marketing, which is the umbrella term of marketing — well — online. It includes things like social media marketing, link building, email marketing, virtual worlds marketing and yes, search marketing. Some online marketers can do all these things. Many specialize, just as in the real world, someone might do outdoors advertising versus television ads.

The biggest issue for small businesses is one that we probably both agree on — that online can simply be overwhelming for them.

And if I go back to how I responded to Hoy in 1997:

People need to understand that they may not stay on top for a particular phrase, especially if its popular, for a long time. They certainly shouldn’t build all a site’s traffic around it. But they may still do very well for a variety of more obscure terms and topics. If they have meta tags and page titles relevant to the topic of their pages, this well help them capture this basically free traffic. But again, moderation, rather obsession, should be the rule.

They should have never been what people depending on for 100% of their traffic. But to invest a little time to pick up 10% or more of traffic? I’d hardly say they are dying. They certainly aren’t in the perspective of those who use them to find things. But those people who used to cruise along on traffic from search engines — and search engines only — certainly need to realize those happy days are over. They have to be part of a comprehensive publicity program.

You can read what others had to say back then here. But I think if SEO hasn’t died in the 12 years since it was first predicted, it isn’t going away any time soon.

SEO is more than ranking web pages.

SEO is not about tricking search engines.

SEO is not a complete online marketing plan, but…

SEO — and search marketing in general — isn’t something a smart marketer should ignore or just leave to chance.

If you’re a small business and don’t think search is worthwhile, I’d suggest reading Searching For Small Businesses, Coming Up Frustrated, a post from me about trying to find businesses like you and having huge problems. Simple changes could solve that and bring you more business. You do want more business, right? Also check out Lisa Barone’s response to Scoble, Ignore the Silly Man, SEO Still Matters For SMBs.

For those of you who assume SEO is all about trickery, Thoughts On Web Developers, SEO & Reputation Problems is a recent post from me that looks at that issue.

And for anyone who cares, I just remain puzzled after all these years how anyone could think the answer is only think about search or don’t think about search at all. Why these extremes? Why an either/or?

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Search Marketing: General | SEM Industry: General | SEO: General


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Michael Martin

    A rehash of Jasan Calacanis argument from years previous –

    ,Michael Martin

  • SpeedyPin

    If SEO is dead then clearly those running America’s major corporations are idiots. And SMX, SES, PUBCON, and like-minded conferences are clearly a huge waste of time because nobody in their right mind would ever attend just to learn about something that won’t work sometime in the future, right?

    Clearly, I am being facetious. But Mr. Scoble, if you think for one second that the power of your brand came to be without SEO, you sir better take a closer look.

    p.s. I see you use the Thesis theme for your blog. Interesting choice… (:

  • Andrew Shotland

    Emperor Scoble please locate your clothes. Thanks for setting the world straight as always Danny

  • webmama

    Let’s call it search visibility with the theory that the more visible you are for relevant, converting words the more quality traffic, the more leads, the more sales. Basic right. Ok, now expand it to Real-time search. If you aren’t visible in real-time search then you aren’t getting traffic. If you aren’t paying attention you may never be visible. If your attention doesn’t include a thought to ‘how’ to show up in real-time search, or video search, or news search, twitter search, facebook serach or shopping search, then you aren’t making the most of the opportunity; you aren’t visible enough. Making the most of the opportunity is what SEO is all about. Certainly not dead. It has an expanded role.

  • leeodden

    Obviously, some of the premises in Robert’s post about SEO are “off” and are marketingspeak presented by the guys in the video to distinguish their new project.

    However, what’s wrong with, “small businesses need to take a much more holistic approach to marketing than just worrying about search results”.

    Our small business clients get far more buying visitors from social and link channels than they did a year or two ago. Search is still the majority of referred traffic, but it’s not the only one by far.

    The bottom line is of course, to connect customers/buyers with small businesses and their solutions. Fish where the fish are. If that means search, great. If that means social, great. If that means, email, PR, advertising, etc. great!

    It really comes down to understanding where/how customers connect with small businesses or businesses of any kind. How anyone could go wrong with a holistic approach is beyond me. Single channel SEO tactics are as limited as relying solely on email or tradeshows.

    What good SEO’s rely solely on standard for their marketing anyway? If something can be searched on, it can be optimized for better performance in search. That means on as well as the search functions within social networks, media specific sites, mobile, local, and so on.

    I think the statement to make is that good SEO has evolved (compared to SEO hacks making crazy promises) as a holistic discipline touching many marketing and communication channels.

    Best practices for small business marketing comes down to strategies that best serve the objectives of the business and not promoting a single tactic (like SEO) just because that’s what a consultant knows best.

  • DavidSH

    Search as a stand alone medium is dead, search as research, search as part of an integrated marketing plan, search as a part of people’s lifestyle and search as a darn good (and important) sales channel is alive and well. Long live search!

  • Sebastian Fiedler

    Great points, Danny. I personally think that SEO will be alive for years to come. But since it’s such an emerging, ever-changing, and interesting industry to work in, the priorities will certainly change. But that’s the fun part of it, right?

  • George Revutsky

    Dear Lee –

    I wanted to respond to your statement that, “obviously, some of the premises in Robert’s post about SEO are “off” and are marketingspeak presented by the guys in the video to distinguish their new project.”

    As one of the 2 guys in that video, I must tell you – he never got ANY of that from us, and never quoted us once. But I understand why you might think so, since our interview was somehow roped into his post.

    Let me be totally clear: the video interview had nothing whatsoever to do with his headline or blog post. The whole idea was to have a general talk about search and SMBs, and let folks know MyNextCustomer is coming soon. That’s it.

    We never expressed anything even remotely in support of “SEO is dead” or “SEO is not needed”.

    In fact, we said the opposite right in the interview. We said folks today need to hire a good search consultant who can keep up with a lot of change.

    Another important point: There’s no way any of our interview (we actually try to avoid marketing speak, to the point of over-simplification) could have made its way into Robert’s post. Robert NEVER, EVER quotes us in his post.

    Most of the video is us criticizing some of the mass PPC providers for a lack of transparency, giving a few SEO tips for SMBs, and talking informally about what its like to work your ass off for 2 years on a product.

    The whole exercise was an effective demonstration of linkbait on his part, and had little to do with us.

    Needless to say, we’ll be doing some media training before the next interview :)

    I agree about your statement re: a holistic approach and the evolution of what being an SEO can mean.



  • ronabop

    Map “10 pack”? Did google roll back a few months, or was this written a few months ago?

  • coolboy113u

    wow thats great…..! SEO will be alive for several more years…..!

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