If you’re involved with your company’s web strategy you’ve probably heard at least a few shots fired these past few days in regard to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The opening salvo came from Chris Dixon’s post SEO is No Longer a Viable Marketing Strategy for Startups. Of the many that followed, the most notable is Danny Sullivan’s SEO Remains a Viable Marketing Strategy for Anyone.
Step away from the white hats, black hats & keywords and think about the big picture. If search engines are doing their job, they should be doing one thing only – delivering links to the most useful and usable content to the people who are searching for it. If search engines fail in that mission, those people will vote with their feet and quickly find a different one.
‘SEO’ as often defined and practiced, however, is not so much about figuring out what is useful to people and more about figuring out the algorithms and rule sets governing how search engines do their business and then gaming those algorithms – bumping up less useful content to ‘rank’ higher in the search engines. The byproduct is that SEO can and often does harm the usefulness of search engines - a situation that Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and any other search provider simply cannot allow to stand (and Google has made clear they won’t).
Dixon’s point is simply that, as the search engines get better, the opportunity to game them gets smaller, to the point where it’s a game no longer worth playing – and certainly not the core set of skills you want to build your marketing strategy around.
Google seems to be doing everything it can to improve its algorithms so that the best content rises to the top (the recent “panda” update seems to be a step forward). But there are many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people working to game SEO. And for now, at least, high-quality content seems to be losing. Until that changes, startups – who generally have small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics – should no longer consider SEO a viable marketing strategy.
Agreed, but at the same time, by all means you want to know what terms customers are searching for – what’s bringing them to your site, what’s keeping them there, and what’s causing them to convert. Knowledge is power, and you can call it ‘SEO’ if you like, but I would call it ‘content marketing’. Such a strategy is not about the search engine, however – it’s about the content – and that, by all means should be core to your strategy.
In defense of Danny Sullivan, this is well-aligned with his advice:
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.