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An Ivy League Call for the Sunset of SEO




If there is any subject that riles up the readership of Marketing Pilgrim or any other Internet marketing news outlet it’s the occasional ‘death of SEO’ call to arms. It’s the time when those with the most vitriol like to come out and defend the practice and call the person writing about it an idiot and many other sundry terms. It’s a time for release and anger by the SEO community at those who ‘don’t know anything’ about the practice. In short, it’s great theater that produces nothing of substance.

The latest version of this ‘SEO is a black art and ruins the online world for the common man (and journalist)’ mantra comes from the Ivy League of all places. Richard J. Tofel has written an article for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation entitled, “Someday the sun will set on SEO – and the business of news will be better for it”. Pretty provocative title for a guy who is writing for the art rather than the traffic, huh?

Here is a quick sample of some quotes from the article. Of course, to see them in full context would be the best way to understand the author’s point (or according to the comments the lack thereof and the lack of several other things as well) but, hey, who’s really interested in the truth in the online space, right? Here’s some fodder for the angry SEO to jump on.

Supposedly in response to this problem {search results losing quality}, search engine optimization (SEO) has grown up in the last decade as the dark art of online publishing. Sites hire SEO experts, divine new SEO practices, invest ever greater resources in SEO. SEO is composed of a number of techniques, some simple, others devilishly complex, for attracting the attention of search engines to content.

Meanwhile, SEO experts debate endlessly among themselves the differences between “white hat” SEO (manipulating content to make it more machine-readable) and “black hat” SEO (which tries to mislead the search engine with stunts such as thousands of links from sites that themselves offer nothing of value). What this entire debate misses, of course, is that SEO itself is an inefficiency, a transaction cost rather than a value-creator — it is a technique designed entirely to compensate for the failure of the search engine to correctly analyze site content, searcher desire, or both. Over time, economics teaches us, inefficiencies tend to be wrung out, and transaction costs reduced.

Unlike other “games” between an “offense” and “defense” — such as military technology or football formations, where each new development in “offense” can beget one in “defense” — the “game” between searchers and content will likely one day largely end. Technology will be developed so that searchers can find the content they actually want, quickly, easily, correctly — and at the highest level of quality available at whatever cost the user is willing to pay, maybe nothing, maybe something — without thousands of false answers or copycat answers or answers in drag.

What does this have to do with the decline of SEO? A great deal, I think. SEO has been, more than anything, about growing pageviews and unique visitors — any pageviews, and any unique visitors, the more the merrier. It is a force, therefore, for lowest-common-denominator publishing. And after a decade of SEO, a lot of lowest common denominator is what we have.

Well, well. Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the algorithm, huh? The comment section is just as provocative as everyone from SEOs to reference librarians take sides. As you can probably guess, the angry ones are the SEOs. They are never hard to pick out from a crowd are they?

So the debate rages on and now the intellectual elite are poking the beast that is the SEO community. As these attacks on SEO increase in frequency, I wonder if they will simply become the opinions of the ‘outsider who cried wolf’ or if there will be any impact on the ‘art’ of SEO?

Honestly, it all seems pretty funny because calls for the death of SEO have been made for as long as the commercial Internet has been in existence. As we all know, there are some serious issues in the SEO space due to unscrupulous techniques. That happens in every industry (can I get a shout out for the financial world?!) .

There are also many benefits to the practice when done ‘by the rules’ but the trouble is that the rules aren’t like the rulebook for baseball where a change is made, written in the book and it becomes the rule with little room for interpretation. No, SEO has no real rulebook because the rules of those running the show are trade secrets and can’t be published for the world to know. Instead everyone is left trying to figure out what works and that kind of ‘structure’ in an industry will simply lead to people doing whatever they can to gain advantage until they get their hand slapped. That’s human nature and the Internet brings out the absolute best and worst of it all day every day.

So whether you like engaging in these ‘SEO is a dying, black, devilish art’ scuffles is entirely your call. I find them more amusing than anything else because in the end, SEO will continue to exist and evolve as the search engines do. That’s my street level take on this. The intellectuals who try to poke holes in the practice only give a place for SEO’s to vent and pour out their venom with nothing being solved. All in all it makes for interesting content at least.

So SEO’s of the world unite! Go waste your time jumping on someone who is trying to pee on your cornflakes and would otherwise get no attention at all if the SEO community weren’t so defensive. I’ll just sit back and watch and know that nothing will change because of any of it.

  • http://www.bigpictureweb.com Josh

    You’re right, Frank. My first reaction was to accuse this guy of being naive and having a nasty sense of self-entitlement. Just because you write something, you think you deserve search traffic above and beyond the people that write great content AND take the time to figure out how search engines work? Ridiculous.

    But perhaps the best thing to do is just let folks like this guy just continue to spin the tires and create confusion for those that have yet to embrace SEO. It just means more opportunity for us that employ SEO as part of an overall online marketing strategy.

    I’ll take my deep breath and be on my merry, traffic-getting way.

  • http://www.stanleyoppenheimer.com searchengineman

    Ok class todays project is: “Testing if SEO is dead”:

    Hypothesis: Because SEO has no value!

    Method:
    Richard J. Tofel (Search Term One)
    Harvard’s Nieman Foundation (Search Term Two)

    Sub-Terms
    “Richard J. Tofel SEO is dead”, or
    “Richard J. Tofel SEO never works!” or
    “Richard J. Tofel SEO is a money waster”
    etc..etc.

    Goal: To Rank Richard J. Tofel crown prince (zombie?) “SEO is dead” champion.

    Mr. Tofel should understand it’s not a good idea to target the SEO industry as transaction parasites & inefficiency purveyors.

    Yes in the future, that perfect world of magical machines, will most definitely put us all out of business (Watson?), I can’t wait for the blogging machine, I’ll buy it with my welfare cheque!

    Ultimately the guy with the better megaphone will get his voice heard, and frame the conversation. But is it a good idea to get into a shouting match against 100’s of megaphones! No matter how much cotton wool you put in your ears.

    Searchengineman

  • http://www.zakgeldnodig.nl Sander K

    Well, I totally agree with @Josh. When you only focus on writing good content, it would be totally ridiculous when you end up on better positions than somebody who is writing good content AND is focussing on SEO.

    Only focussing on SEO and not focussing on good content isn’t good aswell.. Just do both!

  • http://www.dsptn.com Trump Network

    I hate reading all these articles about SEO being dead. No matter how good the engines get, people will always need to know how to publish and organize their sites.