What I Meant to say in Dublin

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I’ve just given a conference speech at Croke Park in Dublin for 3XE on 7 Signs That SEO is Dead.

Can’t claim it was my finest hour. I’ve spent months writing it and practicing it, but it seems that 20 minutes in an office in London is actually 25 minutes in front of 500 people in Ireland.

So here is what I should have said, complete with the scripted ad-libs, provided that I’d

  1. Learned it thoroughly and
  2. had at least another 10 minutes

I’ll leave the post-mortem for another day …

7 Signs That SEO is Dead

Slides available on SlideShare

Cast your mind back to the British riots of 2011. At the time I was working for Hilton, in Watford, just north of London, on the main line to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

But I was living in sunny Catford: that ivy-clad gothic-renaissance-styled South East London suburb, popularly known as the Gateway to Bromley. A bit like Cannabis is a gateway to Heroin.

Catford to Watford was one hell of a commute. It’s only 28 miles or so, but sometimes it used to take me three hours, depending on the weather, and the connections, and the strikes. Frankly, sometimes, it was easier to get to Hilton’s HQ in Washington DC than it was to the one in Watford

Anyway, the riots. Well, that humid Wednesday in August, it had been brewing all day, and there was live radio and TV coverage of rampaging mobs everywhere, looting and pillaging and posing for the cameras, so I thought it might be a good idea to head off home to see if they’d made it to my place.

Actually, my house at that time backed on to the South London Metropolitan Police Dog Kennels so … probably not.

Anyway as I passed the retail park on the Catford Gyratory, I could see all these “yoofs”, lugging around their JD sports carrier bags full of trainers and budget rice, so I picked up the pace a bit and made it home a few minutes later.

I sat down in front of the computer and surfed for news. I didn’t go to Google; I’d been trying that all day and all the stuff was way out of date. Even TV and Radio were a bit repetitive.

No, I turned to Twitter – using the hashtag “Catford” – and watched the apocalypse unfold in real time.

Locally, the news wasn’t good. The rioters had torn down the Catford Cat.

Apparently, this historic landmark, made of glass fibre as dating as far back as the redevelopment of the Catford Centre in that bitter winter of 1974, had been roughly manhandled, desecrated and generally afforded the respect due to a tax inspector. This was real news, on my doorstep!

Thanks to Twitter word of the atrocity soon flashed around the globe.

It wasn’t true of course. One thing social media should never be confused with is the truth.

But it did show me one thing: Google’s supremacy in search was dead. And perhaps that meant SEO – as we knew it – was dead too.

OK, so we’ve all been hearing that SEO has been dead for a while. If you Google that phrase, you’ll get as many as 20 MILLION results!

The man with the dubious honour of being the first person to say it was probably Richard Hoy – an online marketer who worked at ClickZ for many years before setting up a sort of super vanity publishing website.

In November 1997 he wrote on the Online Advertising Discussion List …

“I’m beginning to believe that search engines are a dead-end technology and fretting over where your site comes up is a big waste of time. I’m now advising clients that we create good Meta tags, submit the site and then forget it.”

Now, I’m guessing Mr Hoy revised his opinion at least once in the intervening 18 years, but perhaps his hunch is beginning to come right.

I’m here to say that I think SEO probably is dead, but not in the way that all the other doomsayers would have it.

So my first signal comes courtesy of the Catford Cat.

1. Not everyone uses “search engines” these days.

Even Google know this. I saw the Webmaster’s Hangout with John Mueller way back in January and amid all the fuss about him saying that sites could now rank without backlinks, there was an almost throwaway comment along the lines of “not everyone gets to your site via a search engine”.

I think this has crept up on us, almost unseen. Certainly, the “unseen” web has always been there; and I’m not just talking about the pervy Darkweb.

Most of the internet has always either been unindexible, or just too boring for any search engine.

No, what I’m talking about is more the ways in which people increasingly navigate around the internet without ever going to a search engine, the primary example being Social Media.

In truth, there are vast numbers who surf the internet independently.

They get links from friends, or via email, or off cards they pick up in the supermarket, or even pub toilets, or on a billboard or TV advert, or they simply go to sites they trust and use, time and time again.

It really does pay to keep existing customers sweet, rather than to concentrate solely on attracting new ones. Certainly on mobile; get a customer to go to your mobile site and then convert them to an app user: an app user is even more closely tied-in to your brand without the fuss of a search engine.

That’s my second signal:

2. Search Engines don’t have it all their own way on the major platform of the age.

This innocent device is the present, and the future. Actually, it was the one thing that science fiction writers – right up to the 1980s – never predicted.

One honourable exception is, of course, Star Trek where Gene Rodenberry dreamt up Captain Kirk’s communicator in the mid-Sixties.

I have to say it looks distinctly prehistoric by modern standards.

In just 20 years, the mobile phone has completely reshaped our lives, and it will continue to do so, indefinitely. Google certainly thinks so.

Did you know that in 2014 14% of consumers in the UK and Ireland used their smartphone to make a purchase: that’s more than anywhere else in the world.

That figure rises to 3 in 5 for people using a smartphone as part of a multi-platform purchase.

And 60% is also the number of tech-savvy consumers who use the mobile Web before setting foot in a real store.

Surely, this is all the proof you need to know that in the British Isles, we need to be adapting to mobile more enthusiastically than anyone.

But adaptation is difficult.

I reckon it’s only blokes like me – with fat fingers and poor eyesight, who can’t touch-type and who feel better with a big keyboard — that’s holding up the march of the mobile.

So now we’re all being encouraged to say what we want instead of typing it in, and that’s also difficult to adapt to.

Okay, perhaps it’s an English thing – or a middle-aged thing – but it still feels funny to talk to a computer.

Actually, Google’s Pierre Farr said last week that 1 in 5 teenagers have used voice search in the bathroom, so I guess I’m not alone in being shy after all, and everyone’s reluctance will fade with time. It always does.

It’s like the bloke who wrote to the British Daily Mirror in 1969 urging the government to hold off Decimalisation “until all the old people die”.

Of course the thing about saying and not writing is that there are no spelling mistakes!

The power of Siri, or the Google Now App, or Windows Cortana – which will be built in to Windows 10 desktop – is to be able to recognise the difference between …

  • “write”,
  • “right”,
  • “wright” and
  • “rite”,

or

  • “hair”,
  • “hare”,
  • “air”,
  • “hayer” or
  • “Eire”!

Anyway, I reckon Siri has a way to go: I tried to ask her what was the best bar in Dublin, and she read it as …

What’s the best Tablet?

I think her answer is an example of “predictable text” …

The Apple iPad is the best Tablet and that’s not just my opinion

Speech recognition – and the fact that everybody has their own particular way of putting things – spells the very ned of keyword optimisation.

The big challenge for speech recognition is Mandarin Chinese, which has the most number of “homophones”. Ironically, it’s also probably one of the languages which would most benefit from accurate speech recognition.

I used to work as production editor on The Western Morning News in Plymouth. The South West has one of the UK’s largest populations of Chinese people.

So one year we got a brand new editorial input system which allowed us to move away from standard font sets, and when Chinese New Year came around, we thought it would be great to print “Gung Hay Fat Choi!” – Happy New Year in Mandarin – in big characters on the front page.

We had a Chinese reporter on staff and the night of publication he was holiday – it being Chinese New Year and all – but we published anyway.

And next day we got a deluge of calls from irate Mandarin readers saying we’d published it upside down!

Fact is though, search engines are now able to understand the nuances of speech about as well as any 10-year-old: a 10-year-old that can speak 123 languages and return 170 million results in less than a second.

By the way, do you know the most commonly searched for voice command…?

“Call Mum”

That leads me to my third signal:

3. Search Engines want to be human, so why try to game them like a machine?

They’re like Data out of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Aim at humans, and the search engines will happily follow.

So, I don’t want to bang on about this, but again, this means welcoming mobile with open arms. We’re living in a multiplatform world where people have their iPad in one hand and the TV remote in the other, but this is the preferred device.

Just two weeks ago Google announced that there are now more searches every day on Mobile than Desktop, which helps to explain their obsession with the “mobile-first” principle.

This is what people are CHOOSING to use now, and doesn’t it make sense to keep your customers happy anyway? Wherever they may be …

Remember, there are parts of the world where the mobile phone is the ONLY way of accessing the internet.

And some of them are a lot closer than you think.

I’m told that the average commute in Ireland is 90 minutes – about the same as London. Of course between Catford and Watford, it’s twice as long!

In all that time you can read a newspaper, send emails, complain about the lateness and/or overcrowding of the train or bus, play Candy Crush or even write and rehearse your conference speech. And whatever you’re using, it’s a mobile device.

In fact, the whole commute thing was the subject of a talk I gave to a bunch of start-ups back in 2013.

I traced my morning journey into the office and how many different mobile services and apps I used to inform me and keep me entertained, simply to show opportunities to reach out to new customers.

But it was only looking back on stuff for today that I realised that using a search app – any search app – was one of the things I least did.

That journey was all about content … and content marketing.

So, hands up everyone who is a Content Marketer?

Anyone whose hand isn’t up is fooling themselves: we’re ALL content marketers now.

It was Bill Gates who said, Content is King.

I’m not sure who said Social Media is his Queen, but it’s true because there are more women using Social Media than men, by almost three to one – four to one with Instagram and Pinterest!

SEO is dead because we’re not Optimising for Search Engines any more. Or we shouldn’t be.

We should be optimising for people. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the search engines but anyone who is just optimising for Google, or Bing, or Yahoo, or Yandex is simply wasting their time.

So my fourth signal is that:

4. As far as the algorithm goes – to quote the Borg – “resistance is futile”.

The algorithm – bless its little subset-evaluation functions – is already being actively updated by Google at least once a day, possibly twice. A few years back I heard tell that Yandex had a special routine built in so that if any site looked like it was coming close to ticking all the boxes, the algorithm AUTOMATICALLY rewrote itself to throw in a little something extra to muddy the waters.

Now Google is releasing its own algorithms that learn. The latest, dubbed “DQN,” is learning and mastering Old School Atari games.

So, even if you had reactions quicker than a (metaphor TK), you could never hope to keep up – you’ll always be more than a few changes behind, whatever you do.

And we’re lucky on this side of the Pond, because we usually get to preview the updates: it’s those poor SOBs in the US that usually feel the pain before everyone else.

Of course, updates like “Mobilegeddon” could all be a bit of double bluff on the part of Google. How many times have we been promised the update to make our eyes water, and it’s been business as usual…?

You can also add to that the fact that there are so many parts to search engine algorithms that no-one knows how they work or what the effect will be, not even the search engines!

The last man who probably knew for certain, said as much three years ago! When Amit Singhal arrived at Google to head up the Core Ranking Team, he rewrote the algorithm from scratch.

I was in the audience at his keynote at SMX London when he revealed that ongoing development work was now split over different teams, and they didn’t talk to each other that much.

This is probably deliberate. It means that no-one can leave Google and start up a meaningful rival. In fact, when Googlers leave they often end up starting companies that go nowhere.

I found a list on Mashable dating back to 2010 of 15 companies started up by ex-Google employees (http://mashable.com/2010/08/26/ex-googler-startups/) and I don’t think I’d heard of any of them.

Okay, so now I realise someone is going to Tweet a list of great Google start-ups including Guinness and sliced bread and oxygen, but anyways.

My fifth signal is:

5. Google’s outright hostility to Organic Search.

It wasn’t long ago that one new Googler posted this on an open forum (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3535153):

It’s a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug.

Incidentally, if you search Duck Duck Go for the phrase “SEO Is A Bug, And Google Is Trying To Fix It”, it comes up as the top result. On Google it’s number 9.

Fact is, Google simply tolerates SEOs.

We help them to sell advertising, nothing more, nothing less. I mean, no-one in their right mind ever went to Google simply to click on a PPC ad, did they?

The numbers show 85% of people *never* click on Paid Search, and just 6% of all clicks are on PPC, which shows that even the 15% of people who *do* click on PPC are also using organic search results. How Google must hate that!? No, people use search engines to find things. To ask questions. The answers to those questions are what Google is supplying in the SERPs, courtesy of our clients’ websites.

And sadly, they’re not really that interested in directing people to our clients’ websites at all. If possible Google will scrape the relevant info and present it in a neat package via the Google Knowledge Graph or Vault, so the user’s question is answered on Google, not on your client’s website.

In fact, for certain terms, Google won’t even let you out of the search box!

As early as 2010, the effect of instant search results and scraped content on the Long Tail and click-thru rates was being already commented on, and five years later, organic search CTRs are still going down.

Interestingly, there may still be hope for the Long Tail, because spoken queries on Siri, Cortana or Google Now tend to be much longer than the usual two-word typed-in search phrase.

In late February, New Scientist magazine published an article called “Google wants to rank websites based on facts not links” saying that Big G was going to give preferential treatment to websites which carried more truthful information. Basically, liars won’t prosper.

Of course the answer to that is: What is Truth? Wikipedia is full of facts!

Google is doing all this to make Google popular. The go-to place for all your knowledge needs; another reason for stressing facts not lies. People who have been lied to – even by proxy – remember that and feel bad about where they were duped.

Since Google wants people to come back time and again, so that they will click on something monetizing, they need Organic Search. It’s the bait that catches the fish that helps them to earn $130,000 a SECOND!

The relationship between SEOs and Search Engines in the second decade of the 21st Century is a marketing Cold War.

Now, in any battle, you probably don’t know exactly what the other guy is doing. What you might know is what his objective is, but that’s likely to be all you need. If you reach the objective before he does, then he comes to you!

Okay, so what people like me do – let’s call it SEO – is all about convergence. We know what the Search Engine is looking for – the BEST search result – even if we don’t exactly know how it makes its judgement of what that is.

But we should be actively looking to provide that BEST search result. And we do that not by beating the Search Engines, but by satisfying the end user.

That’s why we must optimise for end users – people – NOT Google or Bing, or Yahoo, or Yandex, or Baidu, or Naver, or Bottlenose Search, or even Duck Duck Go!

Following on from that is number six in my list:

6. Organic search has been utterly compromised by Paid.

This goes far beyond all the efforts by Google to push organic search results below the fold. That’s been going on for years.

It used to be the case that every search result returned 10 results (or 20, or 50 or 100), but you can’t count on that any more. Depending on platform or search term you’ll get perhaps seven organic results and only one of those may appear above the fold. As I’ve already pointed out it’s not always certain that people will click through to a result anyway once the information is scraped and regurgitated as the Google Vault.

But it’s also the assistance that “biddable” media gets over and above that given to SEOs.

They really want you to click on an ad or go to a Google property like Local or Shopping or Hotels. They do everything they can to blur the distinction of paid placements so that users don’t KNOW they’re being sold something. Bing does it too.

If this trend carries on, there may come a day when ranking well in organic search for certain keywords and markets simply isn’t worth the effort.

And it’s not just Google. Every player today is pushing paid promotion: Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and biggest of all, Facebook.

Facebook is a bit like Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Facebook is inward looking. Everything you need is in Facebook; why should you want to go anywhere else?

It used to be possible to run a perfectly reasonable organic strategy within Facebook, but not anymore. Paid promotion is an inevitable element of any attempt to leverage social presence there.

Actually, I read somewhere that 1 in 4 divorce cases in the UK now cite Facebook.

It all poses the question: what’s the point of traditional SEO when you could spend cash and be sure your site gets seen in search results?

So, to my seventh and FINAL signal that SEO is dead:

7. We shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place!

All of this Content Marketing malarkey we’re talking about didn’t just happen because Matt Cutts needed something to do after he left university.

Content Marketing isn’t just an acceptable term for vanity publishing.

All the stuff we now call SEO is all the things that we should have been doing in the first place to make people come to our websites.

It’s not even if the rules of content are all that new either.

There are features of the book of Kells which wouldn’t look out of place on any website today and might go some way to increasing your conversion rate.

I’ve been lucky enough to make a career out of the things I was taught as a junior reporter and a down-table sub, and some of the stuff being taught now as new and exciting was old when Brendan O’Carroll was a little girl in pigtails.

Your website is meant to be full of interesting stuff which shows you care passionately about your subject and that everybody thinks you’re someone to be listened to.

You should be providing something novel and unique and interesting and useful and answering all the questions that people ask search engines.

You should be building your site in the best way possible, with well-written code and all the tags in the right places.

And you should be doing semantic keyword analysis, and Schema mark-up, and Local Optimisation, and JSON-LD, and TF-IDF, and Time to First-Byte, and worrying about Dwell Time, and all the other great technologies available now or in the future…

But not because Google wants you to.

You should do them because they make PEOPLES’ lives easier.

Ultimately, that’s how websites attract and hold on to customers and develop a relationship with them, by servicing their needs and wants, and giving them an enjoyable ride, not by pissing them off with crappy content and painful download times and confusing signposts and links that don’t go anywhere.

There are lots of sites out there that don’t do ANY traditional SEO; and we all know who they are and we use them all the time.

And they also appear in the top results on Google and Bing and Yandex and Naver and Baidu and Bottlenose Search and even Duck Duck Go!

Your website’s purpose is not to “rank well”, it is to meet a need, and to meet it fully.

Okay, that’s it. Traditional SEO is dead. And buried.

***

So what do we put on our business cards now?

I promised to try to answer the question: What should SEO professionals call themselves in a post-SEO world?

I did a search, on Google of course, and came up with some other valiant attempts.

  • Complex web-site promotion management
  • Onsite, Onpage & Offpage Optimization
  • Editorial Optimization
  • Web promotion
  • Marketing for websites
  • Blackbox Marketing
  • The Dark Arts

Well, I don’t know about you, but in my humble opinion, none of these are satisfactory, so I thought I’d go back to first principles.

An SEO must be …

  • Prepared to go to work any time, 24/7
  • Dedicated to ensuring a clean supply of traffic
  • Know how to test for leaks of authority
  • Be able to handle hot water situations
  • And always by ready to roll up their sleeves and delve around in the crap

So, ladies and gentlemen, by my reckoning, that means we’re all PLUMBERS!

Think of the fun we can have …

First, we can charge €400 a day, even if we only do five minutes work!

Then, if we take over a client from another agency, we can legitimately suck air over our teeth and complain that the previous lot were a bunch of cowboys!

…and how much it’s going to cost to fix all of the problems they’ve caused!

And we all know what happens when they take it “in-house” … DIY is always a disaster!

And, finally, if they start complaining that they’re not seeing results fast enough you can tell them, with all sincerity: “We’re waiting for the parts to arrive!”