Over the past two years we’ve seen a major shift in the search engine optimisation industry. Many SEO agencies are rebranding, and SEO practitioners are changing their job titles. So what’s causing this shift, and does it matter?
At the end of every year, industry experts start predicting the future of SEO. Most of the time, I find these expert predictions to be fairly consistent across the board (which is probably a good thing).
This year is no different, with many experts seemingly singing from the same song sheet. But there is one prediction that caught my eye – one that I believe has huge implications on the future of SEO.
I think Jayson DeMers puts it best:
“SEO will no longer be an isolated department, but become fully integrated with other aspects of marketing.”
I couldn’t agree more. SEO has traditionally been a siloed discipline (as have ‘social media marketing’ and ‘content creation’). Companies have outsourced their SEO requirements to SEO agencies or hired in-house SEO specialists to work in dedicated SEO departments.
In 2015, this is going to change. SEO can no longer exist as a standalone activity. Neither can social media marketing. And neither can content creation. As Jayson explains:
“…as SEO, social media and content marketing all converge to achieve the same goals, the three will need to be fully integrated in order to succeed.”
Wait… isn’t this is already happening?
In short, yes.
It is no surprise that industry experts are predicting this trend. In fact, it’s nothing new – this trend has been happening for the past few years. Experts seem to believe it will accelerate through 2015. If that’s the case, I agree with them.
There is plenty of evidence supporting this trend. In early May of 2013, Rand Fishkin posted a video to his company’s ‘Whiteboard Friday’ series entitled ‘Why We Can’t Just Be SEO’s Anymore‘. Rand’s video was well-timed – about four weeks later, he announced that his company, SEOMoz, had rebranded to just Moz (dropping the ‘SEO’).
Individuals have also been changing their job titles. ‘SEO specialists’ are now calling themselves ‘content marketing specialists’, ‘inbound marketing experts’, ‘digital marketing consultants’, ‘online strategists’, ‘growth hackers’ and more, sometimes to the dismay of people who actually work in those roles.
It seems the SEO industry has been having a bit of an identity crisis.
But what about an outside-in perspective? If the SEO industry is struggling with the term ‘SEO’, what do people outside the industry think? For me, there’s three pieces of evidence I think are worth sharing.
1) Google Trends
As shown in the graph above, searches in Google for the term ‘SEO’ grew significantly from 2005, reaching a peak in early 2012. But since then, that growth has plateaued, and may even be showing a slight decline. While you would argue that the term ‘SEO’ is still far more searched for than a term like ‘content marketing’, (and that Google Trends data should be taken with a grain of salt), this trend shouldn’t be ignored completely.
2) Mainstream ‘marketing’ publishers
Take a look at some of the more mainstream marketing publishers and you’ll find a serious lack of SEO articles. This is especially prevalent here in Australia, with sites like Bandt.com.au, Marketingmag.com.au and CMO.com.au almost entirely bereft of articles about SEO.
Is this because their contributors are stuck in the old ways of talking about marketing? I don’t think so. I just think they don’t see SEO as a topic that warrants any discussion, at least not on its own. That’s not to say SEO isn’t important – it is. Perhaps it’s just a topic they feel their readers won’t be interested in. (Note that not all mainstream marketing publishers neglect SEO. But many do.)
3) Meeting new people
This piece of evidence is entirely anecdotal, but I think it’s the strongest. When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do for a living, about 9 out of 10 times, the conversation goes something like this:
Them: “What do you do for a living?”
Me: “I work in SEO.”
Them: [confused look on face] “…huh?”
Me: “I help websites get more exposure in search engines.”
Them: “Oh, CEO, yeah I’ve heard of that.”
Me: “It’s SEO. It stands for Search Engine Optimisation.”
Them: “Oh right.” [Changes subject]
That conversation made sense to me five years ago, but it is 2015, and many people outside the digital marketing industry still don’t seem to know what ‘SEO’ means. Worse still, they’ve heard of it, but think you’re a spammer. That’s a problem our industry hasn’t been able to overcome. For many people working in SEO, that’s a problem they believe we’ll never be able to overcome.
Why this trend is happening
Why is it that SEO agencies are rebranding, SEO specialists are changing their job titles, and external interest in ‘SEO’ (the term, not the industry) seems to be in decline? And why is it that industry experts believe that SEO will disappear as a standalone activity and that marketing channels will become even more connected?
There are a few answers to these questions.
A more sophisticated Google algorithm
Google’s algorithm has come a long way. Over the past few years there have been radical advancements to the way in which Google ranks websites. As a result, ‘old school’ SEO tactics are given less time by SEO practitioners, while they focus on ‘new’ ranking factors, such as social signals, brand signals and user experience.
Link building has also changed. As Google and other search engines get better at handling link spam, many SEO practitioners have been turning to content marketing as a way of attracting natural, editorial links.
In short, SEO has become far more complex, and that trend is only going to continue.
The pertinent question is this: if an SEO specialist is responsible for things such as social media, brand signals, UX, conversion, content marketing and more, are they still considered an SEO?
If there’s one important lesson I’ve learned in my time in the SEO industry it is this: client expectations never go down, they only go up. Clients used to only care about rankings. Then they started caring about organic traffic. Then all traffic. Then conversions. Then revenue. Then profit.
Is it realistic that clients should expect their SEO agency to be responsible for their profit? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is sure: agencies need to be able to handle that conversation, because it will almost certainly come up at some point. SEO practitioners, therefore, need to understand a much bigger picture than just ‘SEO’ – at least SEO as we’ve known it for the past few years.
Marketing activities all affect one another
These days, it is hard to do SEO without creating regular content. When you create content, you need to promote it. When you promote content, you need to manage feedback from your community. Those signals affect rankings. And so it goes.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
Businesses are starting to understand that integrated, end-to-end, holistic digital marketing strategies are essential. Almost every activity affects another in some way and it no longer makes sense to keep things siloed. Think about an orchestra playing together, with each section of the orchestra being a different marketing channel or tactic. If every section is playing out of sync, or even playing a different song all together, it’s going to be pretty horrible to listen to.
What this means…
Ditch the siloed tactics and short-term campaigns. Move forward with integration now. Think strategically; long-term. Your competitors are going to do it soon, so get in before them.
If you have an in-house SEO department, start working on integrating that department with other marketing functions, e.g. copywriting, social, design. If you use an SEO agency, start talking to them about creating more integrated, long-term strategies that incorporate social, content, UX etc. all in one.
If you want to (or have to) stick with specialised agencies for different channels, that’s fine. But at the very least, get your agencies talking to each other, so they are all playing the same harmonious tune.
The outcome for your business? Competitive differentiation and better results.
For SEO agencies
Just because other agencies are rebranding, that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. There is certainly still a case for specialisation. Many SEO agencies will continue to call themselves SEO agencies, and that’s okay. But many will rebrand in a bid to be seen as a more ‘full-service’ agency.
You have a choice: specialise, or diversify. Think about how this trend may affect your business model and your future plans. Just don’t do nothing, or you’ll be left somewhere in the middle, in no-man’s land.
For SEO practitioners
As with the previous point, there is still a case for specialisation. SEO has become more complex and it is important for those working in SEO to understand this changing landscape and what it means for their career.
Just because other SEOs are changing their job titles and becoming more diverse digital marketers, that doesn’t mean you should too. The old saying, jack of all trades, master of none comes to mind. While it does help to diversify, you can’t be an expert at everything.
My advice: figure out where your strengths are and go from there. A technical SEO specialist may take an entirely different path to someone who is strong in SEO strategy.
Don’t get the coffin ready just yet…
At risk of being lynched for using a cliché, SEO isn’t dead, it’s just changing. As the experts are predicting, SEO isn’t going away, it’s just going to become more integrated with other marketing activities. The SEO department will likely disappear, and we’ll no doubt see more and more agencies dropping ‘SEO’ from their brand name.
But this is in no way bad news. We think this change is healthy. At the end of the day, what matters is clients and their customers. Integration can only be a good thing, and we’re happy to see this trend accelerating in 2015.
If you’re a business, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic and how you feel this may change your approach going forward. But to everyone working in the SEO industry, our question to you is this: what will you be in 2015?
UPDATE 28 Jan 2015: I’ve recently learned that the Google Trends graph represents a *percentage* of total searches in Google, not a raw quantity. So, if total searches across all queries go up, the graph for ‘SEO’ will appear to have plateaued or be in decline, even though the number of searches for that term may have increased. That evidence should be ignored; the Google Trends data is quite misleading. More here.