SEO Remains A Viable Marketing Strategy For Anyone

Ah, another SEO is dead post from a non-SEO to get the blood rushing on an otherwise calm weekend. I’ve been ignoring these more and more lately, but in the wake of Google’s Farmer Update, it looks like everyone could use some history lessons. Don’t depend solely on SEO, but don’t neglect it, either.

SEO Is Not The Only Way

Let me quote someone I know really well, some sage words about SEO, from 1996. That’s 15 years ago, from before anyone was even saying “search engine optimization” widely.

This person had written one of the first guides on how webmasters and site owners should ensure their content was friendly to both search engines and human beings:

Search engines are a primary way people look for web sites, but they are not the only way.
People also find sites through word-of-mouth, traditional advertising, the traditional media, newsgroup postings, web directories and links from other sites. Many times, these alternative forms are far more effective draws than are search engines. The audience you want may be visiting to a site that you can partner with, or reading a magazine that you’ve never informed of your site.
Do the simple things to best make your site relevant to search engines, then concentrate on the other areas.

That was me, in my very first edition of “A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines” (see one of the archives here), which grew into the career of writing about search, SEO and search marketing that I’ve continued on today.

The Cycle Of Overdependency

Along that career, I’ve seen the cycle of people who ignore the advice I first gave, that search engines shouldn’t be the sole source of how people gain traffic. I’ve written several times about search engines being fickle creatures that no one should build a business around.

The slides I’m scattering around as illustrations to this post? From a keynote talk I gave in 2003, after Google’s Florida Update swept across the web, raising concerns. But I guess there’s always a new generation that needs reminding.

The traffic that some sites have lost in the wake of Google’s Farmer Update (also called Panda) is not a new thing in general. Google has made major changes to its algorithm many times before that has caused some to lose traffic. And before Google (yes, there was a before Google), players like Excite and Infoseek and Lycos and AltaVista would make changes that cause some sites to lose traffic and wonder how they’d stay in business.

Is SEO Dead?

Meanwhile, despite Google being praised in some quarters for its most recent update that’s designed to reward quality content, investor Chris Dixon declares yesterday that “high quality” content is continuing to lose, apparently due to black hat SEO plus Google’s inadaquacies, and therefore SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for start-ups.

Just start-ups? Because why? Because only start-ups have “small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics” that can’t compete with established companies which apparently have big teams, big budgets and no scruples that let them win?

SEO Continues To Work For Big & Small

The reality is that there are plenty of sites, big and small, start-up and well-established, that have done just fine with SEO. They gain a good chunk of visitors to their web sites because of SEO; they come through the various algorithm updates unscathed.

I gather in the start-up world, perhaps SEO was seen as some type of super-juice that could jump-start a new business. It should have never been seen that way, any more than ANY NEW business or ANY business at all should have relied on it so much. It should have been part of an overall marketing mix — not the primary marketing means.

The Social Slice

One of the nice things over the years is that social has grown to rival search as a “free” traffic source. It’s not that the “traffic pie” has gotten smaller, and search has become less of it. It’s that the traffic pie has enlarged, and social media offers a potentially big new slice that wasn’t available before.

Some sites these days report they get more traffic from social than from search. That’s great! But the same risk applies — if you’re depending on social as your primary marketing channel, you’re depending on a medium over which you can’t directly control. Factors outside your influence could bring a crash. Do don’t put all your eggs in the social basket, any more than you would in the search basket. Be diverse.

Link Authority Is Dated, But Still

I do agree with Dixon view that Google has tended to reward older sites and has also still allowed link spamming to work. My How The “Focus On First” Helps Hide Google’s Relevancy Problems post from last year covers this more. Maybe that will improve, as Google continues with the series of updates it has been doing.

Maybe it will improve as Google continues to add more signals into the mix, like social. But even now, pick a month, and 20% to 40% of our visits come from search. That’s a lot of visits.

Good SEO & Good Content Works

SEO doesn’t work for quality content? We’ve got quality content out of our ears here, and we get thousands of visitors per day coming in from search. It’s not black hat SEO that’s doing it, nor a link scheming, nor having a domain that dates back to when Tim Berners-Lee first walked across the web. It’s still the things that anyone should be doing. Is your site accessible to search engines? Are you paying attention to your title tags? Are you thinking about the copy you write? And most of all — do you have good content?

If you’re a start-up, do take Dixon’s advice not to expect that SEO will propel you to IPO heaven on a rush of traffic. Let’s face it — for a lot of start-ups, nothing is going to do that, because you’re pitching a new, unproven product that might not be the awesomesauce you believe.

But don’t ignore SEO. That’s just crazy. If you really don’t want the free traffic it provides, then please — put up a robots.txt file blocking search engines from your site. Leave room for the rest of us.

More About SEO

For more about SEO and why it’s useful to anyone, see these posts below:

More About The Farmer Update

For more about Google’s most recent update, see these posts below:

And hey, next week is our SMX West search marketing conference in San Jose. Come on by — I’ve got an entire keynote I’ve been working on that touches on some of these issue and the major “searchquake” that we’ve been going through in the past few months.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | Magazine | SEM Industry: General | SEO: General | Weekender

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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.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.dropdigger.com/ Carl Eisenstein

    I actually agree with everything you say. But I think it’s been a valuable debate between you and Chris Dixon simply because so many startups and investors did think – and still do think – that SEO is the magic sauce that will make their business fly. And some did succeed with that mentality for a time – at least long enough to sell it!

    I think that was the core part of Chris’ argument, which I think is probably correct. Even if we in the SEO world knew that this has never been correct.

    SEO should be a part of every startups marketing mix, but personally I believe that the core focus should be on exactly the topics you listed at the start of your article – social media, PR. If executed correctly they’ll both help your SEO far more than ‘pure’ SEO techniques will anyway.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    I have sensed the Big Panda/Farmer Update is more like the Black Monday Update from Altavista (October 25, 1999) when millions of doorway pages dropped out of the index. People woke up and shouted, “What just happened?”

    The reaction is similar to an old man shaking the cobwebs out of his head after sleeping for a long time. Rip Van Winkle has woken up and realized that the world is changed (once again).

  • http://about.me/jim_shook Jim Shook

    I actually don’t think theres a debate here. Chris argues that an SEO play isn’t a sustainable business. And Danny seems to agree. I think we can all agree that there’s no reason NOT to construct your website in a way that makes it visible to search engines, and that the real best “marketing strategy” is to be an authority in your space and create an awesome product.

  • http://bryankail.com Bryan

    I think the title of Dixon’s article is the problem. In reading his comments on his own post, he clarifies that his point is a ‘pure SEO’ approach doesn’t work.

    I think he inadvertently cites another reason why a ‘pure SEO’ plan hasn’t been working since 2008:
    “I talk to lots of startups and almost none that I know of post-2008 have gained significant traction through SEO (the rare exceptions tend to be focused on content areas that were previously un-monetizable).”

    Why are there these exceptions? Maybe it is because there are so few really good, new and unique ideas. The problem is probably with the business or the content itself and not SEO.

    To prove this hypothesis, it would be interesting to see a study comparing the ratio of return visitors to first time visitors and apply the same ratio to failures as the successes.

  • Jordan Kerr

    Amen… But did “pure SEO” ever work? There was a time (when I first started SEOing) where you could play around with pages and send a bunch of traffic to just about any site. Doesn’t mean they bought anything. You ranked No1 sure, but the page didn’t sell anything.

    Maybe SEO is a bad name for what we do (in 2011). Often, I don’t feel like I’m optimizing for Search Engines. I’m optimizing for people. With increasing importance of social networks for search, I’m thinking less and less about Google’s algorithm and more and more about psychology, about content with a hook, about how people use search engines and share information. So maybe I’m not an SEO so much as a HSBO (Human Search Behavior Optimizer)

    At any rate, the only people who say “SEO is dead” are the people who can’t adapt to an industry that doesn’t let you rest.

    People are using search more not less. People spend more time online, not less. As mobile becomes more popular, search and information at all times in all places will grow not shrink. And, as ever, there will be people like me (and Danny) working out ways to leverage human thirst for information.

  • EJ Campbell

    Obviously, all sites should be doing SEO, but as Dixon’s TripAdvisor example shows, a startup can offer a clearly better experience for a search engine click, yet it will rank lower than TripAdvisor for reasons such as longevity and Google’s historical trust in a site.

    That is why a pure-play SEO focused startup does not work anymore. Established players have corned the market for certain terms, and google does not do a good enough job differentiating good content from bad, putting startups at a tremendous disadvantage.

    Another good example is eHow. They started with really good content (that was invariably linked to a lot), and thus their domain has a high level of trust in Google’s algorithm. However, a lot of the newer stuff is crap, yet Google has a hard time telling the difference.

  • PVRK

    I want to comment from a slightly diffrent personal angle. I am finding this repeated chest thumping by Danny about how he is there from beginning very annoying. I saw an earlier article also where he said Microsoft is not serious earlier about search as they never talked to him before!

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    In Chris Dixon’s article, he talked about his views on what SEO has allowed since what he’s seen since 2001. I thought it was worthwhile to stress that I’ve seen it over an even longer period of time. I think that’s especially helpful because I’ve seen plenty of people talk about things as if this has been something that only happens with Google or how “SEO has always been” in some way. I think adding some history is helpful — and I’ve been around long enough to see that history.

    The article about Microsoft is here:
    http://searchengineland.com/tough-love-for-microsoft-search-15968

    That was over two years ago. It wasn’t that they’d never talked to me. They’ve talked to me since 1998, when they first launched MSN Search. I was making the point that I didn’t think the company was that serious about search because among a number of other things, I’d never had a chance to tall with Ballmer himself on the topic nor had he ever addressed a search topic.

    I’ll try to keep the chest thumping to a minimum, for time when I think it makes sense. I already thought I did that, but point taken.

    Carl, Jim, Bryan, agreed, I think Dixon is right to help investors understand that SEO isn’t some magic fairy dust. My main issue is that others might read it as if SEO is just worthless. That’s not the case. I’m just trying to bring some balance. Chris was writing from what was primary in his mind — that investors and start-ups might focus too much on that area, and probably not thinking they’d take it the other way, abandoning it altogether. I’m looking at it from the other side, is all.

  • Vijay Chand

    How is it that every ‘SEO is dead’ countered has invariably had commonly understood ‘SEO’ redefined!

  • samueljames

    Pure SEO has it’s limitations. You still have to have something worth seeing or selling for it to have any value. I can employ dozens of techniques to rank high, but if I am creating any new sales from that position, then it is meaningless. It is hard for the small guy to compete anymore since big companies have become aware that this is indeed the peanut butter to their jelly.

  • http://www.incredibleindia.cc Dharamvir Bhandari

    I am greatful to you for posting this article. This is amazing and I am glad i found your SEO article on google but would like another article on google penguin/panda update. Cheers!!

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