How to Tell if SEO is, in Fact, Dead.

If you’re reading this, you may have recently been informed that SEO is dead.  This document is intended to provide you with the tools and background necessary to determine for yourself whether or not this is the case.  Last Updated: January 2013.

The claim “SEO is Dead” has been made hundreds of times since the invention of modern search engines.

Wait, did I say hundreds?  Scratch that.
I meant thousands. Thousands upon thousands.

In fact, at the time of this writing, there are no fewer than 175,000 pages on the web containing the words “SEO is dead,” dating back as early as 2003 (or 1997 if you count variations).  But despite more than a decade of these claims, the practice of SEO has continued to flourish, reaching increasing levels of complexity, sophistication, and (dare I say it) acceptance.

However, I think it’s a mistake to say that SEO will never die, that SEO is somehow exempt from the rolling wheel of time, that it will never grow irrelevant or fade away.  Like the switchboard operators and typewriter repairmen of yesteryear, SEO practitioners may one day awake in a world that no longer requires our services.

Although this day isn’t likely to come any time soon, its possibility begs important questions:

  • What circumstances can bring about the death of SEO?
  • How will we know if it’s happened?
  • What would the death of SEO look like?

To narrow it down a bit, let’s start by taking a look at ways that SEO is not likely to die, beginning with a closer look at the terminology itself.

Search Engine Optimization, in its elemental form, does not actually contain a set of best practices.  This is because best practices in SEO are, by their very nature, transient.  The factors that made a website rank well in 1997 are almost mutually exclusive with the factors that matter in 2013, and who can say for sure what will affect how pages rank in another 15 years?

But in the argument of whether SEO’s metaphorical heart continues to beat, the individual practices do not matter.  SEO best practices will continue to change, and [Important!] the death of an SEO best practice does not mean the death of the discipline.

Algorithms change, optimization practices die, and new ones are born.  This is the misunderstanding inherent in so many articles claiming the death of SEO: change is a natural part of the SEO life cycle, and so long as search engines continue to rank web pages based on any set of factors, there will be the potential for some form of Search Engine Optimization.

That said, the real purpose of this post is to help folks diagnose the circumstances under which SEO may someday die, so let’s dig in.

Scenario 1: Search engines are no longer being used to find websites

If the day has come when search engines have a) been dethroned as the dominant method of finding web content, and b) are no longer being used by the population at large, then we may indeed be facing the death of SEO.  After all, if no one’s using search engines and they’ve lost all ability to drive any sort of traffic, what’s the point in optimizing for them?

How to tell if it’s happening:

  • ComScore provides monthly “Search Engine Rankings” amongst their various press releases, which summarize how the search engines are competing with each other for the given month. These reports include statistics for the total number of monthly searches performed in the U.S. for each search engine.  If you were to look at the reports for the same month in two consecutive years (such as September in 2011 and 2012) you can determine whether the monthly number of searches is increasing or decreasing year over year. As long as those numbers are relatively steady or increasing, SEO is likely alive and well.  But, if those numbers are in steep decline, then SEO may be headed the way of the dinosaur.
  • An annual summary of these numbers can also be found at Statistic Brain, for those less inclined to do the calculations themselves.

** If Google is no longer in the search engine game but other search engines are still around, I’m afraid you’ll have to go dig up some current stats on your own (my apologies).

Worthy of Note:
Although there has been a lot of discussion of social media displacing search as the web’s dominant form of website discovery, so far this does not appear to be the case.  On the contrary, as of January 2013 search and social appear to be growing nicely side-by-side, with neither showing signs of bumping the other off in the near future.

Scenario 2: Search results have achieved a state of near-perfection

Perhaps the search engines have begun using biological computing to replicate human perceptions, or Google has simply discovered the master key to ranking web content, but the arrival of “perfect” search results would definitely mean the end of SEO as we know it.

Let’s imagine it for a moment…
– Website made entirely in Flash with no title tags? Doesn’t matter to the search engines.
– Text badly translated from another language, but filled with invaluable insight? No problem.
– Incredibly well written article that is ultimately giving terrible advice? Algorithm can tell.

If the search engines can measure the most minute/imperceptible of factors, delivering even the most obscure-but-brilliant content to its proper audience, then the days of meddling in the search results may at last have come to a blissful end.

How to tell if it’s happening:

  • Poor quality/spammy websites have been all but expunged from search results.
  • The top results for every search you perform are virtually always what you’re looking for.
  • Paid search advertising is on the decline, as paid results are becoming dramatically less relevant to search queries than the organic results.

Worthy of Note:
Although the world may one day have a search engine that delivers profoundly accurate results with astounding consistency, this ideal is still a long way off.  In fact, there are several competing concepts in how to build the next generation of search results, ranging developing ‘authorship rank’ to engines powered by daily social interaction, to explicit human voting, and of course, more good o’l machine learning. One thing’s for certain though, we’ve got several paradigm shifts in the dominant search technology to go before we near anything like a ‘perfect’ search result.

Scenario 3: Organic search has been utterly compromised by paid search

There has been a trend since ~2006 of ever-increasing prominence of paid search ads in search results.  From a financial perspective this makes perfect sense: Google and the other search engines earn the majority of their profits by selling ads that appear in search results, and growing those profits requires selling more ads and more clicks.

This has meant that the visual real estate taken up by paid ads in search results has swelled and swelled!  At the time of this writing, some Google search results have reached three paid search ads (complete with sitelinks), plus Google’s new paid inclusion product ads, pushing organic search results further and further down the results page, consuming more than half of the area above the fold.  The resulting drop in click-through rate for organic search has been felt across the web, as websites that are still dominating search results see decreasing results for their rankings.

If this trend of paid search expansion continues unabated, there may come a day when the payout of ranking well in organic search results is no longer worth the cost and effort associated with optimization.  In such a way, SEO could meet its end — not with a bang, but with a whimper.

How to tell if it’s happening:

  • It’s becoming rare to see a search results page with an organic search result above the fold.
  • Search Engine owned services akin to Google’s Compare Credit Cards and Car Inventory are ever present in search results.
  • Annual Google searches (discussed earlier) continue to increase, but year-over-year organic traffic is continuously declining for sites across the web.

Worthy of Note:
Should paid search results begin to truly smother organic search results, this will begin to undermine the value proposition of the search engines — that is, providing useful and trustworthy content based on a search query.  It is likely that if the dominant search engines reach such a point, a new competitor will arise to seize the opportunity to claim disillusioned searchers, much as Google once did.  Whether this competitor will succeed, or merely succeed in forcing search engines to reconsider their offerings is unknown — but either outcome will hold the amount of advertising in search results to some form of self regulation and equilibrium, making total paid search dominance unlikely.

*Bonus* Scenario 4: We’ve moved beyond the web

Needless to say, if we’re no longer using the web at all, and have moved on to something better (Metaverse anyone?) then it’s safe to assume that SEO, along with the search engines themselves, will be a thing of the past.

(If this is already the case, thanks for slumming your way back to the Internet just to read this post!)

In Conclusion:

If none of these four scenarios has occurred, chances are SEO is still alive and evolving.  Even if those in the SEO trade are currently rebuilding in the wake of some profoundly game-changing algorithm update, so long as there’s still search traffic to be had and ranking factors to be investigated, then you can bet your fancy hat that they’ll be back at it.

If, however, one or more of these scenarios has come to pass, then let us take a quiet moment to reflect on the toils of a bygone era.  Goodbye, SEO, it was a pleasure knowing you.

P.S. If you’ve thought of another plausible doomsday scenario for SEO, drop it in comments below.  If it’s legit, I’ll come back and add it to the article (citing you as the source of course).