The Diminishing Value of the SEO Shop

My brain hurts. OK, with such a small brain, it can’t be a big pain. But it’s an aching pain nonetheless. I’ve just absorbed as much as my head can take from “Successes and New Directions in Data Mining.”

Mining patterns are a very active research area. Text mining and analysis of large collections of unstructured documents to extract interesting, relevant, and nontrivial knowledge are big. Multidimensional pattern mining has also been defined. If you consider social networks on the Web, it makes sense to better understand relationships and flows between people, groups, and organizations. What I managed to read was a hard slog, but well worth it.

The Web is rapidly changing. It’s becoming much more of a medium for real-time communication. Increasingly, information is produced by active discussions, not just static Web pages. Think about all the discussions going on in social networking sites, blogs, forums, and chat rooms.

Then consider the exciting changes we saw in search last year. Google’s universal search, with its blended results, including audio visual files, images, news, stock quotes, and local results, provides a rich end-user experience. The Web is changing. Search is changing. Search marketing is changing.

I read another book (scanned, actually) called “SEO: Search Engine Optimization Bible.” A pretty lofty title, so I thought it should be well worth a read.

It was the usual stuff: meta tags, header tags, alt tags, and so on. And a cursory mention of social media. In fact, in content, it’s very similar to a book I wrote on the subject…six years ago. And it had me asking myself: in a highly competitive search marketing environment, is this going to help me get the top rankings I need to compete? Probably not. Will it help me get my Web pages indexed? Probably. But that’s a different thing altogether.

I’m not knocking the book, the author, or the content. But I’m pondering why search engines seem to have taken a massive leap forward, and yet search engine optimization (whatever that means) seems to have got stuck in a time warp and can’t catch up.

Neither am I suggesting that reading a brain-busting book like “Success and New Directions” will get you top rankings. But you know what? Having a better indication of where information retrieval on the Web is going gives the industry a much better chance of being able to jog along side.

Recently I was talking to a former client (pitching for work, actually). It was an illuminating conversation. At the beginning of last year, I’d carried out the usual SEO (define) audit and provided a recommendations document. I also put him in touch with a few SEO shops to assist with carrying out the initial recommendations.

All had gone well with his chosen supplier and many, many pages were indexed. The SEO guys did the upfront heavy lifting and the usual round of directory submissions to get some linkage data going. The relationship then moved forward on what was agreed as a maintenance contract.

Internally, my former client absorbed every recommendation I made, and he and his team started rattling out niche advertising campaigns, press releases, and blog posts; getting involved in sponsorship and co-promotion — the works. He was very excited about the results he was getting. And then came the quarterly meeting with the SEO guys.

After evaluating what he and his team had achieved in-house by actively promoting the business online versus what the SEO guys had achieved in the same period, he decided to part company. The SEO guys had continued to provide technical advice whenever required and also shot a ranking report over each month. But beyond the initial burst of activity in the first three months, he felt the SEO shop provided limited input.

Once the original recommendations were in place, the in-house tech guys learned how to reduce URL parameters, insert title tags and meta data, and, generally speaking, get their template and Web site in SEO order.

Of course, in the initial burst of activity in house, they’d largely run out of promotional ideas. So having listened to the history since I had last worked with the client, I realized what he really wanted from me this time was a recommendation for a good, creative online marketing and PR company. This he was prepared to spend money on.

Now before I hear the usual sound of hollering to have me publicly flogged in Times Square for daring to suggest (again) that SEO is dead — stop and think.

The SEO shop was definitely doing its job. Its core business is based on its technical expertise in the field. But the problem arises when the client wants more input on the marketing side of search. This is when he seems unable to see the value of a sustainable relationship. And this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this.

I’ve been doing some research into Google AdWords. You can see it’s including maps and the plus box for some local results. Click the plus box and the organic results plummet below the fold.

It’s getting harder to obtain those top organic results and keep them in view. What used to work in the good old SEO days won’t cut it in the future.

Don’t fire your SEO shop just yet. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing if it’s still working. But be prepared for 2008 to develop or include a whole new skill set well beyond textbook SEO.

Meet Mike at SES London February 19-21.

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