The Golden Age Of SEO

I’m a fan of SEO. Search engine optimization. Ah, yes. Just writing it makes me happy. It’s what I do. It’s my calling. I can’t think of anything in the past decade that has kept me more enthralled and engaged… besides my wife of course.

golden age of seo

In the past few years, my interest in SEO has accelerated even more, as the SEO industry has expanded to include everything from social media and conversion optimization to reputation management and a myriad of specialized tools that seemingly measure every click ever made on the Internet.

To make things even more fun, we have gone from traditional SEO, which specifically looks at organic traffic, to inbound marketing, which involves driving free traffic from any and all possible sources. People can’t help but get mesmerized by ALL THE FREE TRAFFIC!

inbound marketing all the free traffic

While I still wake up every day and get super-duper excited about optimizing my clients’ sites/media/businesses, I often find myself reminiscing about the old days of SEO.

For me, the past 10 years will be remembered as the Golden Age of SEO. It really was an amazing era. Basically, everyone was following a simple, straightforward list of SEO best practices.

For most of my e-commerce clients, the 7 Keys to SEO success were:

  1. Write optimized title tags
  2. Write optimized meta description tags
  3. Write optimized H1 tags (page headers)
  4. Optimize internal navigation (main nav, breadcrumbs, sidebar nav, footer links, etc.)
  5. Optimize and utilize any content unique to the site (blogs, videos, PDFs, forums, etc.)
  6. Grow/buy some links (and be smart about it!)
  7. Over-communicate with your client(s)

Don’t get me wrong: there were a lot more than 7 steps in an SEO campaign.

But from 2000-2009ish, if you followed those 7 steps, you were probably very successful at whitehat SEO for e-commerce websites. It worked like a charm.

I reversed negative year-over-year organic search sales trends for several massive brands. I had numerous clients that experienced 100%+ year-over-year growth in organic search traffic during the holidays. I could pretty much take any e-commerce website to higher levels of organic traffic and revenue. In fact, it was not atypical to see ROI in the area of 50:1.

But, alas, these SEO strategies were not unique to me. These methods worked for a lot of SEOs. Back in those days, everyone could win at SEO. It truly was a golden age. And in my opinion, Google was begging for better SEO for all websites.

After all, better SEO makes things easier for Google, and it helps them find and return more relevant results. Even Google was enjoying the growth of marketing directors pumping more and more money in SEO.

During the Golden Age of SEO, you could go to any number of search conferences and listen to some of the world’s best SEOs publicly brag about whitehat and grayhat methods that worked. Bloggers were also posting about whitehat and grayhat SEO methods that worked.

At the same time, everyone was handing out new methods for free, the team at Google Analytics was really pushing hard to make their product competitive with the most popular third-party tracking software, such as Omniture and Coremetrics (both of whom were also taking tracking and analytics to new heights of customization and granularity). It was a time when successful methods were being shared freely, and it was getting progressively easier to provide extremely detailed reporting to clients.

It was also a great time to be an SEO account manager at a search agency. I could write an SEO audit, work with the client’s in-house development team or third-party design agency, schedule all my recommendations into their IT calendar, and communicate with clients via highly-detailed reports. Clients knew that SEO took time to deliver results, so it was perfectly fine to make small gains each month and keep my clients satisfied and happy.

Over the course of the campaign, all of those small wins would add up to big results! And as I worked with the various teams, I effectively taught the basics of SEO to everyone I worked with. Sometimes people get bored with their jobs, so learning new stuff was fun for them. And I like to teach, so it worked out really well for both parties.

Sure there were some difficult aspects of being an SEO during this time. For example, it was a pain having to fight for resources from the development teams to get my recommendations implemented. Another tough issue was working with clients who did not have accurate organic search data. But all in all, basic SEO strategies worked, new SEO methods were freely shared, and search data was getting more comprehensive and easier to obtain (and it was getting more granular!).

And Then… The SEO Game Changed

In 2009 (or so), I began to notice SEO going underground. Remember those SEO conference bragging sessions I mentioned earlier, where the experts would share their secret strategies? Well, those started turning into Q&A sessions and site reviews. And remember all those bloggers who were writing about whitehat methods that worked for SEO? Well, those wells dried up…and some of them just started going full-on blackhat.

Also, the market was getting more and more saturated with SEOs. Almost all notable e-commerce websites were now doing SEO. At the same time, Google was changing universal search to include local results, news results, shopping results, video results, image results – all of these results were now taking up prime spots in the SERPs.

Then, social media really hit, and the next thing we knew, we were seeing real-time results in the SERPs. It was complete and total convergence of all things Internet.

Today, we are surfing an Internet where nearly everyone is doing SEO. When I look at the Top 30 results for pretty much any keyword, I see 30 websites that are doing SEO with some level of expertise. I see shopping results, news results, social results, image results, and social results that have all been optimized for that keyword. It’s very competitive out there.

Furthermore, companies that design platforms and content management systems have also embraced SEO. Most modern CMS and platform backends have areas dedicated to SEO settings and features, meaning that most new websites come with standard SEO best practices out of the box. This means that a lot of companies who are not actively “doing SEO” now have websites with basic SEO strategies in place.

Also, e-commerce VPs and marketing directors are more knowledgeable about SEO, as many of them have experience with SEO agencies. It’s not out-of-the-ordinary for new clients to bring up rel-canonical tags, rel-author tags, the open graph, and 301 redirect strategies – during our campaign kickoff calls. The times really have changed!

And how about today’s data? On one hand, we have lost some data. Yahoo shut down SiteExplorer. Google Analytics is now withholding organic search keyword data from logged-in visitors. (see, 2011: The Year Google & Bing Took Away From SEOs & Publishers).

But on the other hand, there are so many great resources for SEO-related data: SEOmoz, SEMrush, MajesticSEO, RavenTools, AHREFs, AuthorityLabs…the list goes on and on. Sure, these are paid tools and services, but so what?

Data-based decision making makes the SEO world go ’round. So we’ve got to have data. Those services are very helpful for competitive analysis, link building, checking rankings in the SERPs, site monitoring, etc. – I would have loved to have all of these tools 10 years ago!

On the social media optimization side of things, there are social media analytics and monitoring services popping up left and right.

getting free traffic

So here we are in 2012: Everyone is doing SEO. Every market is competitive. Google and Yahoo are taking data away from us while new SEO tools and softwares are launching every day. And for most SEOs, the role of an SEO has expanded to that of an inbound marketer. It’s not enough to only know about strategies that drive traffic from search engines.

Nowadays, if you want to compete as an SEO expert, you need to stay up-to-date with local SEO, mobile SEO, social SEO, and anything new on the horizon.

Further, the economy of the past 4-5 years has changed the demands of clients. Showing small wins every month is not enough. Cash-strapped clients are cutting marketing budgets, and many of them are all looking at SEO as a way to get the best bang for the buck. And they want awesome results in the first month. As an SEO in 2012, I’ve got to deliver big results – yesterday!

The Golden Age of SEO

It really is a fascinating time to be in the SEO business. There have never been so many different ways to drive free traffic to your websites. Perhaps I misstated before.

Perhaps *this* is the Golden Age of SEO. We’re smarter as marketers. Our clients are smarter with their budgets. We’ve been around the block a few times. We know what works, and the Internet seems to be changing faster than ever before (Google SPYworld, Twitter Brand Pages, Pinterest, etc..). It’s challenging. It’s always required effort and a smart approach. It’s not easy. But SEO is still SEO. It’s about content. It’s about links. It’s about connectedness. It’s about data and, most importantly, about driving results.

Let’s enjoy this age!

Featured image from istockphoto, used under license.

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Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is Chief Traffic Officer at PMG, a full-service digital agency, where he directs all technical operations for the company, including the company’s SEO, social media, local search, reputation management, website architecture and usability, analytics and Wordpress practices. Follow him on Twitter @kerrydean.

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  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Kerry-

    Interesting read. This is my take on SEO. I think there are plenty of average SEOs but not very many great ones.

    There is a foundation for SEO. I don’t think most SEO professionals know the foundation and fully implement it. (The difference between site navigation from an SEO and site navigation from a qualified information architect…ugh.) I think most people still believe that SEO is optimizing for search engines only. I think that SEOs tout usability but don’t know what it really is.

    Some of the companies you named in your article don’t know what usability is (or information architecture) yet still write about and promote these things in regards to SEO. Good to promote effective usability and IA. Bad if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    I’ll believe there will a Golden Age of SEO when the “average” SEO is more knowledgeable than what we have now. We’ve come a long way. We also have a long way to go.

    Not everyone has SEO aptitude.

  • Brad Neelan

    Nice Article Kerry and very good read. One of the features I have always loved about SEO is the inherent creativity involved in finding a solution. I completely agree that the SEO landscape has become more and more competitive, and the ways and means of earning position have grown quite complex.

    Despite this, even as search evolves and social signals become more relevant to SEO I will bet the veterans will be out there constructing innovative approaches to help sites win well into the future. After all, doesn’t every business want to be found by its customers?

  • Derrick Wheeler

    SEO = Search Everything Optimization

  • Jamie Low

    @Kerry I agree, in terms of educating clients, that was definitely the Golden Age of SEO. I’ve used that exact phrase to explain how things have evolved over the years. There was a time when a good rank would stick based on simple fundamentals which were easy to share with others (and not bad for business either.) But the wild rides of gaming Infoseek and AltaVista are over, as are the years of rock solid stability in “set it and forget it” in Google. And that’s (mostly) a good thing for everyone.

    @Shari It seems to me that your interpretation of the state of our industry doesn’t really address what Kerry is writing about here. There are a wide variety of talents and skill sets that different people bring to the table within the realm of SEO; I really don’t see how trashing “most people”, “average SEO’s” or what reads as a wholesale judgement against everyone in the industry for being incompetent adds any value to this article.

  • Vania

    Change is constant, everything evolves or dies, this is the Golden age of SEO.

  • Devon Butler

    “I think there are plenty of average SEOs but not very many great ones.”

    So it’s like every other industry then?

  • almorton2

    Entertaining, but by the time I got to the end, I realized that I had not learned anything. It is a bit like reading about the golden age of steam trains. Knowing about it is not going to make public transport any more efficient! The internet is changing and quickly, but who does not already know that? Everything changes, everything evolves! The comments show the extent of the problem in the SEO industry. Platitudes such as “there are good SEO’ s and there are great SEO’s” are just meaningless. Practically everyone I meet these days thinks they are an SEO expert, they want to tell me how to do my job better. No problem, but I can already hear the laughter from the Googleplex right now! We were all taken in by it. The only thing that matters is results. Tons of traffic is just fine, but if your website is trying to sell doughnuts, what is the point of having a ton of traffic interested in weight loss. Instead of reminiscing about the good old days, let’s start learning better ways to deliver focused, real value effective inbound marketing campaigns and for once do the job our clients are actually paying us to do!

  • Andrew Betts

    Nice post Kerry,

    I have had similar thoughts myself – more from a marketing perspective than a technical one

    I see 3 trends

    Clients are demanding more openness and transparency from agencies and SEO’s alike
    Clients wants to learn more and the convergence of social and content media strategies foster collaboration
    Innovative SEO tools and Enterprise platforms act as further enablers to this collaboration

    Totally agree about the ‘Golden Age’ – those that enter have to adapt and incorporate multiple skill sets into their SEO strategies. Those that don’t, well….stay stuck in a dark age

    Once again – great post

  • Robby

    This is a good post – I think now that it is clear: there is not a separate discipline for SEO which can be completely successful. To truly grow an online presence – It is all amalgamated under one umbrella. In order to be successful you have to position your client across the entire spectrum of online marketing.

  • http://davidviniker davidviniker

    Firstly, congratulations to Kerry on a well presented and relevant article. I agree that great content is crucial in SEO.
    At first, I was surprised that “Grow/buy some links” is given 6th position in the list of 7 keys to SEO success. Most optimisers agree that the value of incoming links is more important than content. As a result, there is an industry of optimisers and programs that disseminate ‘hundreds’ of backlinks around the net on the premise that a link is a link. Whilst that is true, a cheque for $100 is a cheque for $100 but it does not guarantee the bank will recognise it. Most artificially placed backlinks do not register in the Google bank!
    The key to SEO and keyword research is determining KEYWORD DIFFICULTY for each targeted keyword. In a recent article”Domain Authority: The Top Two Factors On Google: A Study of 50,000 Webpages in 5 Countries” it was shown that 94% of the top webpages were on websites with HomePage PageRank of 4 or more or the top webpage was itself the HomePage. This provides a realistic means to evaluate keyword difficulty and to target your best keywords that can achieve top positioning.

  • Lachlan

    Great article, but massive props for the Transformers “Golden age of Cybertron” image reference! Yes I did pick it up :)

  • Shari Thurow


    Hmm…Kerry is stating that there is a Golden Age of SEO in the 2000s, the time that is was popularized (my paraphrase and interpretation).

    I don’t agree with the “underground” comment, and I certainly would not label it a “Golden Age” when the industry still has a really bad reputation. I agree that SEO has been popularized. As for “Golden”? Nope, don’t agree with that label.

    My post is very relevant…because if you still believe that our industry doesn’t have a reputation and talent problem…well, I’d say that you might be living in an SEO bubble. I gave 2 examples to illustrate my point. And that point arose this weekend at World IA Day. Man, do SEOs have a bad reputation in other industries…really bad.

    I’ll believe in the label Golden Age when the reputation problem and skill levels are better addressed. But in the past 10 years? Nope. Didn’t happen then. Maybe in the next 10 years.

  • Kerry Dean

    Hey everyone! Thanks for the comments! I still can’t believe how much attention this article received. What started off as a walk down memory lane turned into a conversation starter. I noticed that this post got a lot of old school SEOs tweeting and remembering the past 10-15 years in the SEO industry. It’s been a fun ride, and I think it’s only going to get more intense and exciting as the Internet changes even more. Cheers!


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