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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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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  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://www.csoonline.com Derek Slater

    Hello – excellent analysis. However (as all second sentences must begin!) I think this part deserves a bit more explanation:

    “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.”

    SEO can be used for things other than “bring me anyone and everyone”. The reason it’s been used that way is because that’s been the dominant business model of online publishing. Bad SEO is an effect, not the cause. When the advertisers pay more attention to whom they are reaching, more sites will look to SEO to help bring targeted audiences, not simply the biggest ones possible.

    On my B2B site, we look at bounce rates, pages per visit, and other “engagement” metrics, and focus search efforts on bringing in the audience that meets our desired profile. We have more success doing that with deeper, thorough content than with shallow junk.

  • http://twitter.com/crowdedfalafel tom

    The problem for journalism as usual is that it has been hand-in-glove with the Black hats. increasingly so as its business model withers. We need something like actual transparency, not this manipulative shite.

  • http://twitter.com/crowdedfalafel tom

    The problem for journalism as usual is that it has been hand-in-glove with the Black hats. increasingly so as its business model withers. We need something like actual transparency, not this manipulative shite.

  • http://twitter.com/crowdedfalafel tom

    The problem for journalism as usual is that it has been hand-in-glove with the Black hats. increasingly so as its business model withers. We need something like actual transparency, not this manipulative shite.

  • http://twitter.com/crowdedfalafel tom

    The problem for journalism as usual is that it has been hand-in-glove with the Black hats. increasingly so as its business model withers. We need something like actual transparency, not this manipulative shite.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    “Supposedly in response to this problem, search engine optimization (SEO) has grown up in the last decade as the dark art of online publishing.”

    That is absolute nonsense. Search engine optimization predates Google and it is anything but a dark art. It is a necessary and vital component of Web publishing AND searching for everyone. You cannot NOT optimize for search.

    You optimize for search by deliberately including provocative, false language like the above sentence in your article. You optimize for search when you change the query or try a different search engine because you didn’t find what you were looking for. You optimize for search by NOT clicking on “I’m Feeling Lucky”.

    “Witty headlines are abandoned in favor of prosaic titles, returning headline practices to those of 19th-century newspapers.”

    More nonsense. Witty headlines are used quite often on well-optimized Websites. “Someday the sun will set on SEO” is quite witty, though deliberately misleading.

    “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….”

    *sigh* Yet more nonsense. You know so little about the subject, so apparently you only chose to write on it in an attempt to evoke emotional responses, grab readers from Google News Search, and all in an effort to shore up a truly dying industry: the news industry.

    Whether *commercial* search engine optimization outlasts *commercial* news as an industry remains to be seen. I have no investment in that kind of race. But as long as there are search engines there will ALWAYS be search engine OPTIMIZATION because everyone optimizes for search.

    Including you. Try making your point WITHOUT relying on reaching new readers through search.

  • Chessman

    This article is quite well optimized for someone who hates SEO.

  • http://RozWolf@twitter.com Roz Wolf PR

    Dark Arts of SEO. Great class lecture. Very thoughtful.

  • http://twitter.com/rivenhomewood rivenhomewood

    I’m a reference librarian. Last week I tried using Google to find online material about American families during the 1950s-1960s that had originally been published during that time period. I was drowned in a swamp of junk – websites selling 1950s costumes, websites devoted to Leave It To Beaver, student papers analyzing Father Knows Best as if it were a totally accurate representation of a 1950s family, and a host of other things that were completely irrelevant to my search.

    I had a similar experience on google scholar – my searches turned up only links to google books that were still under copyright. Two or three years ago it would have turned up scholarly papers with reference lists that might have lead me to original documents.

    Remember, I’m a pro at this. Seven years ago I could have done this search on google and found good information — I know, because at that time I did many similar searches for people and found what they were looking for. This time I ended up back where I had started – recommending that the student use one of our library databases or come into the library to look at our old magazines.

    But of course, we all know that libraries are useless dinosaurs, right? It’s all out there on the internet, for anybody to find.

  • MikeTek

    “You know so little about the subject, so apparently you only chose to write on it in an attempt to evoke emotional responses, grab readers from Google News Search, and all in an effort to shore up a truly dying industry: the news industry.”

    I applaud you, Michael.

  • Anonymous

    Actually makes a LOT of sense when you think about it.

    http://www.privacy-tools.cz.tc

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

    Contrarian headlines are all the rage. “Sun Will Set on SEO”, “Marketing is for Bad Products”….what’s next “Communication Hurts Your Reputation”?

  • GeorgeBurns@youdevil.com

    What an appalling piece of nonsensical garbage. The only “voice” in this piece is that of Mr. Tofel attempting to best the late Ted Stevens in subject matter idiocy.

  • GeorgeBurns@youdevil.com

    What an appalling piece of nonsensical garbage. The only “voice” in this piece is that of Mr. Tofel attempting to best the late Ted Stevens in subject matter idiocy.

  • http://twitter.com/badams Barry Adams

    “the ‘game’ between searchers and content will likely one day largely end”

    No, it will not. Aside from your flawed understanding of what SEO is and what its goals are – Michael Martinez tackled that in his comment – you seem to believe that a perfect search engine, one hat solves all information retrieval issues, is even possible.

    It isn’t.

    Because no matter how good the search engine becomes – and some search engines out there are really, really good (and it’s not necessarily Google I’m talking about here) – these search engines will always have to crawl, index, and rank content produced by humans, for humans. And this will be flawed content, with flawed presentations, published on flawed websites.

    Thus a perfect search engine is impossible, and SEO will always be necessary to make that flawed content findable.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    “I had a similar experience on google scholar – my searches turned up only links to google books that were still under copyright. Two or three years ago it would have turned up scholarly papers with reference lists that might have lead me to original documents.”

    Don’t blame the SEO industry — all the “improvements” in Google Scholar’s results are due strictly to what is happening at Google.

  • http://twitter.com/Ebyline Ebyline

    Well done. I’m betting serendipity of newspaper wins out just in a digital format. Big “J” journalism is making a comeback.

  • http://twitter.com/stevebuttry Steve Buttry

    I’m glad to see others calling this out for the nonsense that it is. I’m surprised to see something this shallow published by the Nieman Lab, frankly. SEO will not end. It will evolve, as it always has. Efforts by content creators to attract eyeballs did not start with content farms. How long have we had sensational (or just informational headlines) in print? Or prime-time teases for the nightly local news? Heck, newsboys hawking newspapers on street corners were the forerunners of SEO, shouting out the headlines they thought were most likely to sell papers.

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  • Digital Dinosaur

    Incredible naivety displayed in this article.

    For instance; “I think. SEO has been, more than anything, about growing pageviews and unique visitors”.

    No, it’s about visibility between demand and supply through the broker of content that is the search engine. Ultimately those visitors must convert to repeat visitors; typed or bookmarked, or the whole exercise it strategically futile. Your editor should be able to explain in more detail.

    SEO is a play in Google’s algorithmic technology curve that is constantly moving, there is no end point. A lesson for you Richard J. Tofel – If you were slightly less concerned with self promotion in your headlines, you might be generating some SEO traffic for this site, using what’s known as, “Best Practice”.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hey Steve: While I personally don’t agree with everything he’s saying here, I *do* think it’s useful to think of the current form of SEO as a transitional technology — that, in five years, the ability of Google (or someone else) to judge our search intentions and to better serve up useful results will very likely be substantially increased, and that the tools used to optimize for search now may be less effective/ineffective/deleterious.

    Think of it this way: How do you search-optimize for Wolfram Alpha? You can’t, because it’s designed to generate answers rather than a series of options.

    Now, no one uses Wolfram Alpha because the current state of technology is such that it can only address a narrow set of defined questions — it’s useless for “best Italian restaurant in Cambridge,” for instance. But technology advances and I wouldn’t be at all shocked if, in five years, Google was more in the business of presenting “answers” than it is for presenting search results.

    That would obviously have a big impact on media companies — although I don’t know it would necessarily be the impact he’s talking about.

  • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

    Michael Martinez and Barry Adams do a fairly good job pointing out flaws in the premise of this article. I’ll add this – Walking into a library in the 20th century was always a crap-shoot. Perhaps the information I needed on any given topic was contained within one or more of the books on the shelves. Perhaps not.

    And how would I know if it was, had I not typically needed to comb through dozens of books – chapter by chapter, page by page much of the time? Because the traditional card catalog system for information retrieval was useful, yet limited in the extreme.

    You can only get just so many keywords on that little index card, right?

    Now take the common library of the 20th century, and think of how much content it contained. A raindrops worth in comparison to the Noah’s flood worth that exists on the Internet.

    With proper SEO, you increase the size of your content index cards.

    The commercialization factor is what threw all of this into a deeper tail-spin because greed breeds unethical methods of index card manipulation. But be not mistaken – eliminate all the commercialization and you’re still left with the issues Barry brought up about imperfection in humans.

    Now this is not to say that SEO won’t one day be replaced. It surely will. Only when search engines themselves are sunsetted. I expect that won’t happen for at least another couple decades. More like several.

    And when both search engines and SEO are supplanted, the same problems will exist as they have since the invention of the card catalog system.

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  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/ jonathanmendez

    Are advertisers not buying print newspaper ads essentially by CPM? Of course they are. So despite that your (flawed) premise the SEO is only about pageviews and unique eyeballs industry’s success has always been predicated on the very same metrics – ad pages, circulation rates and CPM. If anything you might want to blame the industry for transferring old pre-digital success metrics to a new medium where native metrics (PPC) have created the very behemoth you are so afraid of. Shame on you.

    The second point I’ll make is that digital news organizations (and I’ve worked with most of the major ones in one digital capacity or another) are technology laggards. Think about technology underpinnings of a company like Amazon, eBay or Yahoo with that of Hearst, NYT, Gannett. There are stark differences in data collection and use, optimization technology and use, metrics driven strategies and executions. Not to mention business models. News sites have been pissing in the wind while native digital companies have only been getting smarter and more dynamic with one key goal – to meet the needs of their audience. This is after all a user controlled medium but that’s a hard pill to swallow from businesses that have spent a lifetime telling people what they should know about.

    Last point is Search is a human behavior it is not a channel. People will always search for information and the need to optimize for that will always be present in one for or another. The sun is not setting on SEO. The sun is setting on old pre-digital business models. Good riddance.

  • Anonymous

    Troll.
    Karma: bad

  • http://twitter.com/SeoLair Seo Lair

    As long as Google commands huge market share (they will) and uses an algorithm to rank web pages for various search terms (they will), there will always be SEO.

    SEOs reverse engineer the algorithm and change websites in order to rank higher for relevant terms. The #1 organic spot in Google gets roughly 30-32% of the traffic. With such revenue potential, you will always have companies paying SEO agencies to capitalize on and monetize that traffic.

    How you optimize sites, set strategies, and achieve that goal will change over time – that’s obvious.

    Everything that is algorithmically based and has huge revenue potential will have smart people out there “gaming” the system.

    It all comes down to relevance. What JC Penny did, for example, was taking that philosophy a little too far. I pose this question though:

    Google wants to show websites relevant to user search terms. Is JC Penny not a relevant site for “girls dresses”? In reality, did it harm Google that they ranked for those terms?

    I think not, Google simply didn’t like the method they chose to use. It showcased vulnerabilities in their methodology of rankings sites that isn’t helping their PR battle with Bing.

  • http://halte.ro Ioana

    When you say witty headlines I suppose you mean the sensationalist headlines used by journalists? Such as the title you used for this article? Yes, we know, lots of people practice SEO disregarding the users. It’s just as true as the fact that most journalists are people who don’t know anything about anything but they write about it anyway.

  • Jmullinax

    It looks like the writer has his head in the sand and doesn’t have a clue what SEO really is.

  • http://twitter.com/SenderOK Allen MacCannell

    This is fun stuff to read.

    I’m from the largest desktop SEO software company Web CEO. While Google will not necessarily remain the best way for people to search, the direction things are going is that individuals will still have their own algorithms running “searches” of content that unknown others may have just provided, and hopefully with tags that help categorize it (that are easier to update than Meta Tags).

    With the exception of some content farms, content providers who want to be found are probably producing better quality content than average.

    I looked at video content from Mahalo last week (Mahalo was punished in the recent Farmer Update from Google).

    I found a number of their videos quite helpful and professionally made (example: How to Survive in the Wilderness).

    So, IMO, those who conduct SEO are mostly doing everyone a favor, not just themselves. They’re saying “I consider my content worthwhile and want others to find it and consume it”.

    Artificial intelligence devices may bypass Google somehow, but we don’t want to go back to a world where a famous name newspaper will be our defacto source for information.