I’ve been asked many times about whether or not my company offers search engine optimization (SEO) services. Thinking carefully about it, I’m reminded that, in fact, the correct answer is more like a Zen koan. By that I mean the correct answer involves “un-asking” the question.
And saying that, I’m guessing some readers are even more confused. So indulge me while I share a story, about not-so-long-ago, and not-so-far-away.
Once upon a time, the world was full of printed books, housed in libraries large and small. These libraries were everywhere, and kept growing larger and larger. Over time, the libraries evolved into machines, and the books into websites containing many, many pages. Some clever people figured out they could use other powerful machines to look into every one of these machine libraries, and keep lists locating every bit of knowledge, indexing every page in all the websites of the world.
The makers of these machines (which came to be known as Search Engines) had a wonderful goal: their Engines would help everyone, anywhere in the world, who was searching for knowledge to locate their answers, no matter where the relevant pages were located. The Engine makers taught their machines how to deliver better and better answers to searchers. This would make the searchers happy, and earn their loyalty to the best of the searching Engines — the machines that were best at finding answers to their questions.
At the start, the Search Engines were not terribly clever. They didn’t always understand the questions asked of them. So, they might direct a searcher asking about say, “shingles,” to a list of pages that held information about a disease called shingles, when the person was actually looking for stores that sold roofing supplies. And more specifically, even if someone looked for “roofing shingles,” and many, many stores sold roofing materials, which of the many would show up first in line?
In response, the makers of the Engines created rules, called algorithms, that helped decide which stores would come up first, and which would be put way down in the list. And, to reduce the tendency to “cheat,” these rules were mostly kept secret.
In return, people who sold things hired smart people to figure out how they could be listed first, or as close to the front of the list as possible. Then, these smart people found a way to profit even more from all this. They invented something they called SEO — Search Engine Optimization. These smart people used kinds of word games to trick the Search Engines into listing certain sellers first, because being listed first would mean more people would find their company and would order more of what they were selling.
Thus began a battle of wits, with the makers of the Search Engines improving and changing their algorithms, and the SEO people resorting to more and more complicated tricks and techniques, some honest and some dishonest, to help their customers appear closer to the front of the returned search answers.
After the seasons turned a few more times, something else changed.
The people who made the Search Engines decided to try something new. They made the Search Engines even smarter. They taught the Search Engines to think more like people. They put pages first that actually held the answers to the questions people were seeking. They learned which pages were written by trustworthy authors. The Engines looked to see which pages people shared with others, and, since people tend to share things they like or find useful, the Engines trusted and promoted pages that were shared more often. The word games and tricks of the SEO advisors stopped working so well. Because searchers could trust the Search Engines’ answers, SEO experts lost the battle; companies realized that SEO simply didn’t work the way it had.
That was how SEO died — simply by becoming less and less effective. And now, something has replaced SEO, something called Content Marketing.
Content Marketing is what now causes a page show up close to the front of the list of results, which means the prominently listed pages are filled with useful, helpful, and sharable information. This tells the Search Engines that these pages are important, because they will be helpful to the searcher.
Content Marketing also makes the Search Engines less important to a page being found by a searcher. Because if people share pages they like with their friends, then more and more people can find the page directly, without even asking a Search Engine. Searchers can look to their friends for recommendations, they can see what their friends like, and will visit pages that are useful, that are just what they were searching for all along.
That’s the end of my story.
My answer to the question at the start of this article, if you’re still interested, is this: yes and no.
We help our clients to be found by searchers. We tell our clients not to worry about Search Engines and algorithms. Instead, we help them use Content Marketing to create interesting, sharable, useful information that causes our clients to be found by both search engines and by the people who use them. We guide our clients to understand and learn from their customers, to engage in conversations with them, to answer their questions, and — as a result and most importantly — to earn their customers’ trust.
Our clients are able to focus on their customers and those who will become customers. So, yes, SEO is dead. And something better has replaced it.