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Richard J. Tofel: Someday, the sun will set on SEO — and the business of news will be better for it

Editor’s Note: Richard J. Tofel is general manager at ProPublica, a Wall Street Journal veteran, and author of a number of books, most recently Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition. Here he looks toward a future when search engine optimization has been rendered obsolete by advancing technology — and the implications for news.

The first time I saw the Google guys in action, one of them — I believe it was Larry Page — stunned the small crowd. It was long before the IPO, when Google was the Next New Thing, the search engine that the cool kids in the class, or the office, were knowingly mentioning to the rest of us. The interviewer was fawning over the young upstarts when Page said, “I’m glad you think Google is great, but I think it sucks.”

His point, he quickly added, is that the objective of a search engine is to enable the reader to find what he or she wants. Google, Page noted, rarely does this perfectly. Even the simplest searches retrieve pages of choices, many of them quite beside the point.

There is no question that search generally, and Google (the dominant search provider) specifically, are modern miracles. But it’s worth noting that Google provides a button labeled “I’m feeling lucky” to take users to just one page in response to their search — and that a few years ago it revealed that only about one search in one hundred takes advantage of this option. Why? Presumably because users have found that the page often won’t be the one they were looking for.

Supposedly in response to this problem, 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.

Some of these are innocent, like “tagging” content to indicate its subject. Some alter the content a bit, making it less variant and interesting, but probably not less valuable. Witty headlines are abandoned in favor of prosaic titles, returning headline practices to those of 19th-century newspapers. Sentences are shortened and standardized. But other effects are more troubling. “Content farms” grow up and harvest billion-dollar stock market capitalizations from creating content that search engines will serve up ahead of others — not, by definition, content that doesn’t already exist, but rather content that will enjoy a commercial advantage over other similar content that does exist but is less easily found. Websites profit and grow from appropriating content from other sites, and aggregating it in a way that will induce search engines to send traffic to the often superficial aggregator ahead of the more substantive original content creator.

But all of these practices and trends prove, more than anything, not that search rules the web, but rather that Larry Page was right, and that search engines remain deeply imperfect. That is because SEO, when reduced to its essence, is aimed at directing searchers not to the information they seek, but to where the publisher wants them to go; any overlap of the two is coincidental. Remember, it’s called “search engine optimization,” not “search optimization.”

And now a backlash is building that seems destined to have powerful effects. Three years ago, Jeff Jarvis titled a post “The end of SEO?” and asked if search was about to be overtaken by social media. Last year, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a column mocking SEO practices, the online version of which was headed “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga.” The Columbia Journalism Review recently followed with “CJR Column Mentions The Simpsons.” Without any sense of irony, the Huffington Post, on the day it announced its merger with AOL and with the Egyptian revolution raging, devoted a lead story (and headline) to a classic SEO gambit: “What time does the Super Bowl start?”

Amid all this fun, however, the folks at Google seem a bit concerned, and are actually trying to do something about it. They’ve announced a major revision of their search algorithm to downgrade low-quality sites and the worst SEO game-players (including some content farms and retail giants like JCPenney).

But this is likely just a small step in an inevitable direction, with the direction being the sunset of SEO.

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.

The types of content available to online users are growing — things can be done with data and with video that were not previously possible. But most of what people want to know at the moment they search is already known and has already been published. 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.

Perhaps such a solution will prove too costly to develop, or to deploy. But Google has hundreds of our brightest young minds working on this problem, and they are well aware that if they don’t continue to make progress on it, someone else will — maybe the hundreds working on the same problems at Microsoft, maybe two kids as old today as Larry Page and Sergey Brin used to be.

The Huffington Post/AOL deal may mark something of a watershed in this progression. Much of the $300-million-plus in value HuffPo has built has been in playing very smartly by the SEO rules of the first decade of this century. But if it is true that most entrepreneurs sell out near the top, and it is, then perhaps we have just been sent a signal by one of its masters that the dark arts of SEO have peaked and that the century’s second decade will see them fade, perhaps into near nothingness by the third decade. In other words, it seems increasingly likely that, when the history of this era is written, SEO will turn out to have been a transitional phenomenon.

Some, starting from at least that Jeff Jarvis post of three long years ago, argue that social media will overtake SEO. Well, yes and no.

“Yes” in the sense that social media can provide a perfect search technique for some purposes. If you want a trusted recommendation on almost any commonly used product or service, your Facebook friends, if you have enough of them, can tautologically provide one. Tautologically, because you have presumably chosen them precisely because you trust them. And social media can provide a serendipity that search lacks, as your friends can identify answers to questions you hadn’t even formed yet.

But also “no” because, if the term “friend” is to remain meaningful (and, just as important, their number manageable), you don’t have enough friends for them to know the answers to all of the questions you may want to pose.

In any event, why does all of this matter? It matters most of all because the ability of content to attract readers is at the heart of nearly every web publishing model.

Web advertising was once heralded as a modern miracle, the answer to retailer John Wanamaker’s complaint that half of his (print) advertising dollars were wasted, but that he didn’t know which half. On the web, it was said, the wasted half was revealed to be more like 90 percent — but the advertiserdid know which part was wasted. To a significant extent, this has proved true, and online advertising has been a boon — to advertisers. But with the barriers to the production of content reduced nearly to zero, so much content has been produced, so much supply of places to advertise has been created, that, with demand for such space limited, online advertising prices have crashed. The result: For about five years now it has been increasingly clear that advertising will not be the linchpin of business models for publishing content in this century that it was in the last one. In one telling illustration, blogger Nate Silver recently calculated, to convincing effect, that the average Huffington Post blog post attracted about three or four dollars in advertising revenue.

Instead of advertising, content businesses, if they are to be successful at all online, will need to recover the cost of content creation increasingly from readers. (This is why the entire publishing world is about to hold its collective breath as The New York Times rolls out its metered pay plan.) And for the cost to be recovered from readers, the readers will have to be able to find the content. (Most publishers don’t begin with a brand like The New York Times.)

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.

But a focus on readers rather than advertisers as the heart of business model will, inevitably, create a more segmented dynamic, as the strongest appeals to readers tend to be in niches, and as, to venture an impolite reminder, some readers are a great deal more valuable than others. This is not only because some readers have more money to spend on content (as they do, admittedly, on the goods and services offered by advertisers), although that is true. But it is also, and ultimately more importantly true, that some readers are willing to spend more time, to develop greater loyalty to particular content, to value it more highly.

Improved search, and diminished SEO, should tend place a greater value on such readers, elevating content of higher value, higher quality and, therefore, higher cost.

That would matter a great deal.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    July 18, 2014
With $3.5 million in grant funding and an eye for collaboration, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX aim to bring deep investigations to radio and podcasting.
  • Cheekmonk

    I agree with Tofel. SEO as a profession is a joke to me. Any high school student with knowledge of Internet can learn the techniques of SEO. SEO is only successful if only one person/one company knows the techniques and do not share the knowledge with the masses. But when everyone is using the same SEO techniques, then we’re all back to square one.
    Search today is so difficult compare to 10 years ago. I don’t get what I want and have to weave through garbage return results. Searching use to be fun, now it’s more work and frustrates me.

  • http://helpmyseo.com/ David Amerland

    As a journalist I understand the direction you have taken here. As someone who understands SEO I need to point out that there are a number of false premises to this argument and more than one flaw.

    First the flaw: As you rightly point out SEO is a solution to a problem, the problem being that search engines cannot adequately read a site’s content. In a plain-vanilla HTML site of maybe around 20 pages that is never a problem. Search engines however do not just index plain-vanilla HTML sites. They index sites which are dynamic in nature, written using .php or .asp or even (Lord forgive) .cfm. They have to go through layers of Flash banner programming, AJAX menus and javascript command prompts and then they have to put all this together and assess it for relevancy and thematic validity and accuracy and freshness.

    They have to do this for every site in their index and then they have to give you the results in 0.2 seconds otherwise, you (and I) as end-users will get bored and leave the search page.

    It is that complexity which causes the issue and which requires SEO to facilitate the process. Obviously any kind of ‘facilitation’ also implies that you can give it a boost, short-circuit the length of time it takes to get something online, or how high it is served, and the degree of that ‘boost’ becomes the cat-and-mouse game between SEOs and Search Engines.

    Will it end? Only if we get the semantic web where search engines perfectly understand content and can overcome the obstacles posed by website structure and programming language.

    Until that happens SEO will continue to play a pivotal part in online marketing, without which any website will die.

    The quote given by Larry Page is now of no value. The Google of 2004 is as similar to Google today as the bicycle is to the Shuttle Discovery. The quote that “SEO has been, more than anything, about growing pageviews and unique visitors — any pageviews, and any unique visitors, the more the merrier.” is so generic that its inclusion here can only be considered as response-bait (it worked with me). SEO is a business. When you hire someone to optimize your website (or if you do it yourself) you are basically buying a service the success of which hinges on providing back value – more sales, more sign ups, more phone calls, more of something important to your business. Traffic which is meaningless is akin to the kind of advertising you would get if you threw a million dollars out the window. Many more would get to hear about it than if you put an ad in your local paper, but not many would actually buy. This means that search engine optimisation targets relevant traffic. If it doesn’t you’re wasting time and money.

    The ‘I am feeling Lucky’ button on Google is not used 1% of the time because end-users mistrust the results – these are the same end-users who use Google day-in, day-out for searches, but because using specific keywords or search terms without the ‘wild card’ of ‘I am feeling Lucky’ is perceived to be faster and, unfortunately, speed is what tells in today’s online world. We can hardly wait 0.2 seconds to carry out one search and more than seven out of ten of us do not even get past the third page of results on Google, never mind having time to experiment with others.

    JCPenney’s drop from a first page position on Google to last the third page for dozens of keywords is not the result of Google’s upgrade of its search algorithm. JCPenney and Overstock were punished in the same week for using questionable (though not illegal by any stretch of the word) SEO techniques to game the Google algorithm. The correction was manual and it was publicised as a penalty.

    As a journalist I know that our industry is still in the dark about SEO and journalists still struggle to maintain some kind of identity in a web full of bloggers, user-generated content and copy-and-paste ‘publishers’. The answer is not to think that somehow things will be OK if we wait long enough and stick to our guns.

    Technology is meant to be empowering. The central engine of SEO is still text (and content has truly become King again this year) and an awareness of reference-driven interconnections.

    If we feel that journalism and journalists are truly a cut above the rest we need to put our money where our mouth is.

  • Cryptblade

    And in the mean time – the sun has set on “JOURNALISTS”

    Die, boy, die.

    Meanwhile – those who get SEO will flourish. You – when I see you in the unemployment line, I will laugh at you.

  • Ryjoe

    I fully agree that changes must be done. Neither I, nor many searchers, can truly tell the mis leads a search has brought. I look for a particular item, and get a couple pages of everything but, including dating services from who knows?? I enjoyed the post and am now wondering .. what is the next search mode? I know in my business, a search for an item brings everything but what is searched for. More often than not, SEX is becoming the result of keywords that they put in just to get on page #1. Thanks for the information and keep up the good work. Harry http://www.thehunterswishbook.com

  • http://www.staffingtalk.com Gregg Dourgarian

    Ryjoe
    Fancying myself a boolean black belt, I’m curious. What you are searching for and what search terms you are trying?

    With the variety of wildcards, irregular expressions and search engines out there, I’d bet some syntactic sugar would go a long ways.

    If not, if what you are saying is true and there is no searchable resource out there for your field, then you might very well have an interesting business idea on your hands. That’s what I’ve found for my industry vertical.

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

  • http://www.staffingtalk.com Gregg Dourgarian

    Ryjoe
    Fancying myself a boolean black belt, I’m curious. What you are searching for and what search terms you are trying?

    With the variety of wildcards, irregular expressions and search engines out there, I’d bet some syntactic sugar would go a long ways.

    If not, if what you are saying is true and there is no searchable resource out there for your field, then you might very well have an interesting business idea on your hands. That’s what I’ve found for my industry vertical.

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.moran Mark Moran

    Good researchers can already can “find the content they actually want, quickly, easily, correctly.” Their search universe goes beyond the first five results on Google, and their experience and wisdom enables them to recognize “false answers or copycat answers or answers in drag.” They use multiple tools for every research project, including other search engines, such as SweetSearch, which only searches a white list of 35,000 sites approved by research experts; Wolfram Alpha, which enables computations Google can’t touch; other specialty search engines and databases, and even other Google engines, such as Google News and Google Scholar. No one will ever create a tool that is all things to all people; the needs of searchers are as varied as the searchers themselves. Fortunately, we don’t have to dream of such a magical answer machine; we just have to learn how to use effectively the wide array of amazing tools that already exist. Unfortunately, this skill is not effectively taught in the vast majority of schools in the U.S., which are still focused on mastery of multiple choice exams and rote memorization of state capitals, Presidents and elements in the periodic table.

  • http://www.karmalynx.com Dave Ferrara

    The “Business of News will be better for it!” This article is exactly what SEO is all about. The business of news since the beginning of time has been about distribution. This article will certainly be well distributed. Especially since you have carefully crafted this article from title to tempo. We call it optimized. You call it an editorial.

    Newspapers used to care about positioning in the racks, rack locations, neighborhoods, which grocery stores, which street corners to peddle from.

    Our location is the SERP’s. You already knew that though.

    SEO was here for you today. You leveraged links and names to other articles like a real pro. Even linked JC Penney to the times. I am sure you have already been patting yourself on the back for this one. If not let me be the first with a !

    Regardless of the hat your wearing its clear you are after the same thing- distribution.

    I think you really meant, if SEO techniques were avoided by your competition the “Business of News would be more lucrative.” You are certainly right. For centuries the masses couldn’t distribute their message. Now thanks to Mullenweg (a free blog for all those that want one), & Buytaert (even the angel of them all the Economist.com is built on an open source platform that’s optimized) the masses can publish just like the papers.

    If the article is hot one like this SEO has and will certainly be involved.

    It’s competition baby and quality optimized content on the web moves faster than the average suit or middle aged professor jockeying for subscription fees and network ad dollars!

  • http://twitter.com/xboxkinecthub XBOX Kinect

    Professional analysis, but I think seo will never die.

    Regards,
    Ditro
    http://xboxkinecthub.com

  • http://twitter.com/xboxkinecthub XBOX Kinect

    Professional analysis, but I think seo will never die.

    Regards,
    Ditro
    http://xboxkinecthub.com

  • http://twitter.com/seolixcorp SEOLIX Corporation

    As long as Google uses an algorithm SEO will never die. For those who don’t know SEO it’s always “something illegal” but the concept is nothing different from what you do to attract people to TV stations. Including this post, everything is a form of marketing on the Internet :)

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  • http://www.ntouchmarketing.com Ryan

    Very interesting read, although I tend to disagree on one fact. Yes, I do help companies with their SEO goals, and I will be up front and honest about that. Our goal is to work with small local companies to make sure that they are found on the search engines. You can say their is gaming going, but it is no different than hiring someone to help you with a marketing campaign to make sure it is seen but the largest amount of people for the least money. I would agree on the fact that things need to change. Changing a site to help the way it is crawled, or indexed does not mess with the content or make the site any less relevant to the person searching that keyword. Does this mean that there is a lot of trash out there, yes, because people do it that way. It is an unfortunate part of the way the internet works. Even if SEO died tomorrow, you would still have the amount of spam sites out there, and those that run them would find a way to continue doing so. It is just part of the price we pay for doing business in this new modern age. Even though I disagree, your article did bring to light the things that I worry about in my field, and I must say it was a very interesting read. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.ntouchmarketing.com Ryan

    Very interesting read, although I tend to disagree on one fact. Yes, I do help companies with their SEO goals, and I will be up front and honest about that. Our goal is to work with small local companies to make sure that they are found on the search engines. You can say their is gaming going, but it is no different than hiring someone to help you with a marketing campaign to make sure it is seen but the largest amount of people for the least money. I would agree on the fact that things need to change. Changing a site to help the way it is crawled, or indexed does not mess with the content or make the site any less relevant to the person searching that keyword. Does this mean that there is a lot of trash out there, yes, because people do it that way. It is an unfortunate part of the way the internet works. Even if SEO died tomorrow, you would still have the amount of spam sites out there, and those that run them would find a way to continue doing so. It is just part of the price we pay for doing business in this new modern age. Even though I disagree, your article did bring to light the things that I worry about in my field, and I must say it was a very interesting read. Keep up the good work.

  • Ian Lurie

    Michael, once again you hit it on the head. Richard, you’ve completely missed the boat. You do present, however, an excellent argument for why, while SEO is going to survive, traditional news and journalism is doomed. You guys just don’t get it.

  • http://steveplunkett.com @steveplunkett

    Another person who doesn’t really understand SEO, writing an article about how it’s dead. @mediapost, really?

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  • http://ezinearticles.com/?expert=Sam_Rosenberg Sam Rosenberg

    SEO is not thought in universities as standard Bachelor degree, it is some kind of hands-on learning subject, any journalist can write about seo with some research.

  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual office assistant

    Hi,
    Michael indeed a great analysis and posted things about SEO which i never knew before. Thanks for throwing some light on this topic.

  • http://www.springboardseo.com Springboard SEO

    There is a lot of garbage on the Internet. Sharing that same garbage heap—you know, that one with the shady, spammy Internet hustlers—are members of the media that sniff out current news items, take them out of context (usually without understanding the subject matter) and run with them around their pathetic little sensationalist race track. This is even more damaging than black-hat, spammy snake oil SEO, because at least the stench of the latter is obvious, unlike FUD disguised as fact.

    More here: http://bit.ly/hSRGT5

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  • http://www.husdal.com/ Jan Husdal

    Excellent argumentation. I think that in the long run, improved search engines will be able to outrun most SEO techniques, and SEO will hence become less and less important. I’ve had my site online for more than 12 years and never spent even a dime on SEO, but slowly and surely built my authority and reputability on content alone. Sure, it takes more time, but I consider that a better strategy providing stronger and longer lasting results than the short time effects that SEO can generate.

  • http://lairigmarketing.typepad.com Kevin

    As Confucious say: “you have spoken (or have written hundred and hundreds of SEO-friendly words), but have said nothing.”

  • nepalliontreks

    Dear sir/madam
    wel com to http://www.nepalliontreks.com.the world from the highest mountain in the world invites to visit nepal.

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  • http://buysexualenhancers.com/penis-extenders/ Dick

    i have been doing SEO for over five years i dont see it as any different from offline marketing! Unless google develops a mind reading tool no one is going to get perfect search results!

    If google handpicks websites to be in their firstpage then that can also result in direct lobbying from business heads to be on the first page..SEO is going to stay in on form or the other..it may be totally different from the ways we use to manipulate results today but its going to stay..i dont see the sun setting anytime soon!

    You built a mall in order for it to have maximum footfalls so why not built a website to have maximum exposure to Search engine traffic!

    On the contray i see its getting brighter with more research and data from our SEO experiments.SEO is now a field of study either you are in it or out!

    SEO also has no colour..black,blue or grey its all the same

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