SEO 2.0: Marketing, Analytics and the Evolution of the Industry

By Scott Woodard

In the beginning there were rankings – and rankings were good. Later, there was revenue – and revenue was better. Over the last few years search engine optimization (SEO) has undergone a dramatic, yet subtle change. A change not just in the tactical details of how it’s performed, but more importantly, a change in the overall industry. Rather than a singular event, the shift of the industry has been a gradual series of events and changes whose overall impact is rarely noticed. Despite the overuse of the 2.0 moniker, SEO has reached a point where it is justified – the industry, the strategies and the tools have evolved to a point where I believe we can draw a line in the sand and say, “that is where we were, but this is where we are.�?

When I think of the early days, for me around the time of the Florida update, and the work that many talented firms and consultants now offer, one of the most significant changes has been the increased integration of traditional marketing. What evolved from the technical changes a webmaster would implement to improve rankings has now become a highly-scrutinized marketing channel. Rankings and traffic, while still obviously important, have become secondary to revenue growth. Many of the same companies who used to only care about being number one on Google for their top keyword now understand how to leverage the long tail. Organic keyword referrals are often tracked just as closely as paid search campaigns, with companies now focusing on each keyword’s revenue value and not just referral count. The methods of on-page optimization have evolved to where they now support and enhance conversion and click-through rates, rather than looking out of place or keyword heavy. Overall, marketing has begun to drive the traditionally technical field of SEO. While many of the industry’s best have been including a heavy dose of marketing for some time, the degree and extent has radically shifted over the past three years. Instead of rankings and traffic, conversations now start with discussions of leads, sales, and conversions.

The second real differentiating factor of this newer incarnation of SEO, and one of the changes that has facilitated the advent of traditional marketing, is the advancement and availability of analytics packages. While many larger companies have had access to advanced data for a long time, the introduction of Google Analytics has directly lead to broad adoption of more advanced metrics. Three years ago anyone who couldn’t afford a tool like Coremetrics had to rely on in-house programming, or often even Excel, to correlate various metrics. The cost or legwork required was often too much for many and they relied simply on rough estimates or infrequent analysis. Today Google Analytics allows even the most modest website owner access to great marketing data and analytics. As more and more people have gained access to better data, more and more are also contributing to the industry through forums and blogs. More importantly, the level and tone of the overall conversation has changed as the number of new SEO’s with good data, and the occasional insight derived from it, has grown. The adoption of improved analytics packages, and Google Analytics in particular, has lead to a broad base of well-informed SEO’s and a fundamental change in the quantity and quality of contributions to the industry’s communal knowledge.

Ultimately the increased importance of marketing and the explosion of analytics are contributing factors to the real change in the industry. What’s truly different now is the community that has evolved around the industry. Three years ago few successful SEO’s were willing to share their insight and the search engines were far less transparent in their operations. Folks like Rand Fishkin and Jeremy Schoemaker would have never released their traffic stats. And what about Matt Cutt’s videos? I remember how excited I used to get from just a little confirmation of a theory by GoogleGuy in WebmasterWorld. Countless great tools that once would have been highly guarded secrets are now flooding the web as link bait. Search engines now recognize the importance of transparency – Google, Yahoo and MSN each now offer some great tools for SEO’s. There are now scores of outstanding SEO conversations going on everyday and the community continues to foster and promote knowledge growth. Quite simply we are all helping each other become better at our jobs.

SEO 2.0, just like Web 2.0, draws its strength from the contributions of many. It’s a change in approach that focuses on actual revenue growth and detailed analytics and a shift in the way the industry shares lessons and experiences. While it would be impossible to say exactly when it happened, the cumulative effects of marketing, analytics and the growth of the SEO community have lead to a point where SEO can be correctly labeled 2.0. What a long strange trip it’s been.

[The above article is a submission for Marketing Pilgrim’s Search Engine Marketing Scholarship Contest. Each Monday in October, entries will be published and the most popular article of the week will qualify for the $5,000 grand prize. If you’d like to submit an entry, please view the contest entry-requirements and guidelines.]