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The Future of SEO: “It’s Complicated,” SEO Trends for 2014

I was at an eCommerce meetup this past week with some former colleagues, some of their clients, and some industry neophytes and vendors. As the night wore on, eventually the topic of conversation turned from the various aspects of building the stores and cataloging products, to how to drive more traffic and market the stores.

1.) The future will be shiny. And it will not build manual links. - SEO Trends

The future will be shiny. And it will not build manual links.

Naturally, being the “SEO guy” in the room, all eyes turned to me. I’m going to expand a bit on what I told them, and the message, basically, is that I don’t like to use the acronym “SEO”, because I think that SEO is pretty much dead.

Internet Marketing is the past, present, and the future.

Now, before the industry people get the pitchforks and rope, hear me out. I think SEO is pretty much dead as we know it, and returning to our marketing roots is what will sustain our industry in the future. So, why do I think SEO is dead?

Now is the absolute worst time to be an SEO:

1)      Google has turned hostile to the industry: Google’s been tightening the noose around the neck of SEOs for the past 30 months. More and more channels are being restricted and removed from our grasp – keyword data, article marketing, blog comments, profiles link, forum signatures, wheels and pyramids, “created by” links, press releases were recently shut down. Even blog guest posting and infographics are being preached against. Basically, if a link was created by a human being with your knowledge, that is not a good link in Google’s eyes. This makes it very, very dangerous to build manual links for clients, and in fact, we’ve seen many new clients come on board from other agencies that have been ruined by low quality links.

2)       Paid is where Google wants to be: The past year has seen tremendous growth in the display of paid placement in Google’s search results, ever since Larry Page’s return as CEO. From the switch from Google Shopping to PLAs, to large banners for Local listings, which push organic results further down the page, to the larger advertising displays on the new Maps layout. Google even played with the idea of display banners in search results, another subject they said they’d never do.

3)      Technical SEO is dying: On-site technical SEO is reaching a point of diminishing returns. The Internet is no longer the lawless Wild West of its youth. In its infancy, when browsers and portals dictated competing standards, technical SEO was very important. But today, the Internet is built upon standards and compliance. Platforms are consolidating, leaving only useable, SEO-friendly platforms standing. There will always be outliers who manage to completely screw up a site, but by and large, nailing on-page code is pretty much a non-issue even for beginners, and even Google’s programs have reached sophistication to the point that they’re not worried about it. This means that fixing existing code issues and upgrading SEO components should be a one-off job for most clients, taking a couple of months at most. Agencies that engage in monthly recurring charges to clients for “code fixes” are simply gouging naive clients needlessly.

4)      Building Links and Social shares is harder and more expensive than ever: As Google has outright stated that any links intended to increase a site’s PageRank or ranking in the SERPs is considered a spam link, search marketers have to be more cautious than ever about what links are pointing to their site. Linkbait articles and media like data visualization and videos, as well as coordinated media outreach, are becoming the norm in order to attract editorial links and social shares. These types of link building require far greater amounts of money and skilled labor (in the form of hours of research, design and coding, video editing, and ad campaigns for the media created in order to maximize its useful life) than the old link generation methods of manually building links through press releases, forum links, comment links, article marketing, etc.

So, what does the future hold for Internet Marketing companies and their clients?

For clients of SEM agencies:

  • Further investment in paid traffic
    • Retargeting, PPC, banner media, CPM, alternative traffic methods – for instance, traditional businesses may opt to offer lucrative affiliate programs (one of our very traditional offline clients offers an affiliate program) and allow their affiliate partners to drive traffic for them. Paid traffic to videos on YouTube to drive video views there and then siphon some of the video traffic back to the site. Paid campaigns on StumbleUpon and other crowd-sourced content sites when doing infographics. More campaigns on Facebook, split between bolstering FB presence and site traffic. Experiment, see what works best, put more money into it, but always have something going into the other buckets.
  • Closer relationships with referral partners – foster these to grow a steady stream of traffic. As we’ve seen already with a large national client, referral traffic from several state partners greatly outshone the traffic generated from both organic and paid sources. And when they needed to make some changes to their links and surrounding content on these partners’ pages, having a very close personal relationship with these partners allowed them flexibility their competitors simply weren’t afforded.
  • Return to real, actual marketing from the business owners or staff – podcasts, high quality video productions that engage viewers – answering questions, providing additional solutions and benefits, white papers, ads, email marketing, building and segmenting lists, marketing to people at different stages of the funnel, etc.
  • More involvement from business owners – previous SEO knowledge was largely mechanical in nature – the technical onsite, the technical for local, the knowledge of how/where to attain links, etc. and was largely autonomous from the business’ perspective. As mentioned above, content generation is going to be the key going forward, and that’s going to require specialized knowledge the client has.
  • Everything is more expensive, but SEO was never “Free” anyway. As David McInnis of Cranberry notes, “Anyone who works with SEO knows that this has never been true. You either pay someone for SEO services or put in the blood sweat and tears to get your site to rank. It has always been this way. Google traffic has never been “free”. Once we add up the direct and indirect costs associated with Google’s “free” traffic it is easier to make the case for paid traffic.”

What the Future holds for SEM Agencies:

  • New skillsets are required as old skills are fading out.
    • Retaining individuals with photography and videography skills on staff, or at competitive rates available quickly. Seeing these needs already with several clients and can see a huge difference in the positioning of their business and the reaction by their prospects and clients – One Specialty’s professionally-taken beautiful HDR photos vs. a home remodeling company’s obvious use of stock photos and low resolution iPhone 3G camera photos from their contractors. The first company has seen adoption by many home improvement publications and higher conversion rates because their work speaks for itself, while the second company was forced to add disclaimers to the photos that the work depicted is not their own and is instead representative of what they can do.
    • Technical skills dropping off. Most sites are built in competent CMSes these days, with pretty URLs, schema markup, rel=”canonical” links, 301 redirect capabilities, meta tags, image tags, properly-placed headings tags, etc. already included. No need for a full IT staff for most client projects. Most agencies could drop from a team of 3 technical specialists to 1, and hire in the other specialties, like copywriters, CRO specialists, designers, PR executives, etc.
  • Agencies must be more picky with clients
    • Agencies must very clearly explain the requirements of this new digital marketing shift and get client buy-in from the get-go and work closely with the client. Agencies must be willing to commit more time to c
    • lients – face to face for videos and photos, coordinating these things for the client, providing scripting (we’re the experts right? We know what messages we want to communicate. Often the client will know the technical details, but won’t be able to communicate a story. This is where we come in- find the human angle), etc. Agencies that take the removed, distant approach can’t possibly execute on the new standards, because they can’t maintain client feedback and buy in, projects take much larger to turn around, lots of yellow tape to cut through.
  • The demise of the “small business” client.
    • While WrightIMC already has an agency minimum that filters out many individual practitioners and businesses that are obviously too small to make a positive working relationship, the market of small businesses needing help is still vast and served by many different practitioners. However, if agencies are doing things completely above board, I think the market will quickly capsize. Patrick McKenzie of HyperInk drove this point home in a 2008 post that laid out the reasons why cheap SEO is a zero-sum game. Small business clients cannot afford to compete, via agencies, in these new avenues. The long and the short of it is that small businesses will need to adapt on their own, or will be relegated to working with grey/black hat low cost practitioners who will give them a short term boost that most likely will nuke their site later (causing a glass cannon).

As you can see, the industry is changing. Small businesses, which make up the bread and butter clientele for a great many agencies and individual SEOs, simply cannot afford the type of attention and talent required to sustain a proper marketing campaign in the new post-Hummingbird world of search. Agencies that cling to outmoded methods of doing the same repetitious work each month and grinding out links not only are going to see poor results, but any gains now will be supplanted by unrecoverable penalties down the line.

So, we’re left with medium and large businesses who have teams that can coordinate marketing efforts with their SEM agencies, and more expenses overall as low cost and “free” traffic sources dry up.

The future’s an interesting one, but agencies that embrace this change now will be far ahead of the curve in terms of processes and resources, than those that wait until the old methods absolutely backfire on them and force their change. Which side of the future are you on?

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