More Rounds In The “Is SEO Overrated” Debate

The "Is SEO Overrated Or Rocket Science" debate continues. Sigh. OK, I give up. I guess we have to have this every two or three years. All the arguments I’m reading, I’ve read (or made before). But maybe that’s healthy in an industry where you always have new people coming in. I’ll give you the rundown on the latest leaders that are weighing in. And yes, it will be a kick-butt debate I’m also going to do for our first Search Marketing Expo this June. Kevin, Todd, Greg, Mike, Jeremy: I’ll be coming for you and others! For now, let’s see what they and others have been saying.

Yes Virginia, SEO Is Rocket Science – Defending Search Engine Optimization Once Again was my rundown from last month on how the current debate got started, along with many too long arguments from myself on the issue. Well, sometimes I like to rant.

Did-It’s Kevin Lee came back into the debate, which I covered in my Defending SEO, Yet Again! article. I was left pretty unconvinced but said I’d hang in there to see what his second part might do.

SEM and SEO: Rocket Science or Just Plain Science? Part2 at ClickZ from Kevin was that second part that came out last week, the one with the numbers. The numbers didn’t do that much for me. A higher percentage of people plan to outsource "more than half" PPC spending compared to "the majority" of organic spending. Already, we’re picking and choosing different numbers to compare, which concerns me. But I won’t drill down into them more now, since relatively few were cited. Instead, I’ll make time later to dig into some of these figures myself.

SEO: Art, Science, Bollocks Or What? at ClickZ from Mike Grehan has an organic guy next weighing in — and weighing in as Mike has done before that "textbook SEO" is dead. Mike and I have done this go around before. Textbook SEO is not useless when you consider how much traffic it can drive in tail terms. I’ve already covered how my site here doesn’t have the reputation to pull in for top terms. But I’ve also covered how "tail terms" – generated off textbook SEO — sent another 3,000 visits that I didn’t have to pay for.

I also keep coming back to the fact that what’s "textbook" or what’s simple seems textbook or simple to people WHO ALREADY KNOW! That’s a big chunk of my "Yes Virginia" article mentioned above, and Todd Friesen’s article that I’ll mention below goes even further.

The Bigger Question of SEO at came out this at SearchDay with John Tawadros of iPropsect — which does a big amount of organic work along with paid search — adding his voice. He’s mainly pointing out that a search marketing agency does a lot more than tweak a bunch of meta tags.

The SEO Debate Continues from Gord Hotckiss comes in on the side that SEO is going to get harder, less textbook, as personalized results arrive. Yes, I agree. I’ve written about it for years, with probably the most recent look the one I did on My Yahoo and trust networks here. Part of what I wrote:

We’ve had a generation of search engines that depended on on-the-page factors such as word location and frequency. We’ve had a current second generation that tapped into link analysis, looking at how people are linking and what they say in links.

Personal search is that third generational jump, and Yahoo’s flavor of personal search is a social network one that it hopes will improve relevancy in web wide results in the way that link analysis helped drive back spam and improve relevancy years ago.

And from my 2004 article on search personalization:

The data is irresistible because as I explained in my Eurekster Launches Personalized Social Search article, it opens hundreds if not millions of fronts in the search engine war against spam. It’s hard to spam a search engine when the relevancy may be different for each individual person.

And even from 2001 about Google:

It’s possible that Google could examine this datastream in the future, in order to further refine results en masse for all users, via Outride’s technology, or to deliver more personalized results to users who desire such customization.

Of course, Google does have personalized results now, if you enroll in them. And they can change the results people see, making the idea of a across the board SEO impact slightly harder. But by and large, people are still seeing pretty much the same stuff. After years of waiting for this to change, I think it’s still not going to make a radical change for at least a year or two.

Let’s say that does alter, however. SEO hardly dies. We’ve got local SEO, mobile SEO, video SEO — you name the vertical, search is spreading everywhere. But hey, it’s not rocket science to figure out all these places and determine how they gather and rank content. Just a few hours reading and you’re set :)

OnPage SEO Is Garbage Clarification On Rockstars from Jeremy Schoemaker over at Shoemoney has him getting in on the debate action, seemingly to take the "it’s bull" view at first but really diving into the reputation problem:

I just feel like whitehat SEO’s are like 21st century car salesmen. Lets cut the bullshit for a minute. I find it funny when a whitehat seo tries to engage me in a debate about seo morals…If blackhat seo is trying to alter the search engines ranking of your website from what would naturally be then your spammy ass urls are definatly not whitehat. Now I am not saying this is wrong but I am saying in my opinion its suspect gray area.

Anyway if you want a real SEO ask them how many blackhat forums or sites they read. If they tell you none then move on. They at least need to be educated in the dark arts even if not practicing.

People are so scared to talk about this in the open for fear they will be associated with “black hats

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | 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 Martinez

    I’m too interested in this debate but it is, as you point out, very hard to miss. So I’ve read a few posts other than yours (I have ignored most of them).

    I think John Tawadros wrote a nice counterpoint over at SEW.

  • pittfall


    SEO is changing, as this is it’s nature. SEO is still relevant, otherwise there would not be such a debate. It is a marketing tool that should be understood, however, it should not be the only focus of a successful marketer. SEO is not the end-all be-all, but it is still as relevant as it ever was. The only difference between now and then, is that manipulation techniques are not as easy to come by. In my opinion, SEO should play an important role in the design, development and maintenance of any website. So, it should become old hat, but put it in your spent bank at your own peril.

  • Craig Danuloff

    I weighed in with my thoughts in a three-part blog post: Part 1, Part II, and Part III.

  • ★ ★ SearcH EngineS WeB ★ ★


    Perhaps it is the term ‘SEO (SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION) that is confusing everyone.

    Like everything else, the field will evolve as technology evolves.

    We could make ‘SEO’ the umbrella term – or- define a NEW hybrid term that reflects the newest tech trends and complete goals. WE DO NOT have to continue using the same term

    Were we the first to use it in a marketing sense?

    If so, perhaps a broader term should have been created – but social sites, personalization, search marketing and Web 2.0 did not exist (widely) when that term was first coined.

    However, a couple of years ago, the need for a reinvention was urged….

    The GOALS will always still be the same:

    * Getting Websites to the attention of likely prospects …..via Search Engine Organics – Sponsor Links, Directories, – and now, Social Sites and viral marketing.

    But that effort is now more complex and unveils more options to manipulate.

    So, perhaps it IS time for a Name and Concept Change.

    One could future topic could be coming up with a new term

  • egain

    Been following the thread on SEW on this, and its a topic that seems to go on on and on.

    Superb overview of the market as you see it Danny, with a good smattering of your own viewpoints thrown in.

    I have to agree wholeheartedly with a couple of your viewpoints, namely

    “As for the reputation problem, I’ve had Jason Calacanis exchanging IMs with me recently — Jason of the “seo is bullshit” line from when I talked with him last month (and hear it here). Jason was hammering at me. All the big companies hate this stuff. They think you’re all slime. You need to dump the name SEO and come up with something new.”

    Personally I am finding a lot of companies embracing SEO, and freeing themselves from the cautious approach that seems to have been prevalent in the past. Whilst their is still some work to do, I can’t help thinking that people like yourself spreading the message as you have been can only raise the profile more and more.

  • searchenginefriend

    Right on Danny. For those that know- it’s not rocket science. To my new clients and friends who are asking what I do in my new job- the first questions they ask are: “Oh! I never heard of that! How do you do it? I never heard of this field.”

  • Brokerblogger

    How does all this affect the reputation of the overall Search Marketing Industry? Can “A house divided against itself will fall” be applied to any extent here, from the perspective of an “outsider” marketer looking in for the first time at Search Marketing?

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