About Search Engine Optimization (SEO) These Days

Barry Schwartz over at Search Engine RoundTable is running an interesting poll with the question of “SEO As A Career In The Future?“.

The poll was prompted by a discussion thread at WebmasterWorld entitled “Beyond Google SEO – is it time for a Career Change?“.

For the uninitiated: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of optimizing a Website so that it ranks high in search engines — such as Google — for crucial keywords related to said Website. For example, if your Website happens to sell blue shoes, then you want to be one of the top ranking results in Google for “blue shoes”, “blue sneakers”, “blue dress shoes”, etc.

Also for the uninitiated (or the more recently initiated): I happened to be something of an early pioneer in the SEO industry. My initial claim to fame was something called the “Google Dance Tool” circa 2002 and, soon thereafter, a community forum I started known as SEOChat, which to this day continues to be a vibrant community of search marketing professionals. As a consequence thereof, I was something of a “public figure” in the early SEO industry, speaking at conferences, engaging in public forums, working with large corporations, etc.

Barry’s poll evokes some emotion for me since, given the results as they currently stand, there are many people in the SEO community that feel as though their livelihoods are in jeopardy (see below). Moreover, in reading some of the comments it’s clear that many find SEO to be overly difficult these days, with the fruits of labor uncertain and too slow to come.

That it is more difficult to generate revenue also appears to be a theme, with one commenter stating that “My hourly rate (from the website) is 1/3rd of what my 12-year-old son earns on his paper round.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

In casting my mind back to the “golden era” of SEO — which I consider to be about 2000 – 2005 or so — it was incredibly easy to rank Websites high in Google for competitive keywords. And it was also significantly easier to find clients willing to pay $15,000-$20,000 per month or more for that service; Have a few of those clients on your roster and BOOM – you have it made!

However, the (un)fortunate reality is that times change.

The current landscape is such that it is generally far more difficult to find rank for keywords and to find larger clients.

SEO has evolved beyond merely organic search into a broad spectrum Internet marketing service with things like social media, PPC, email marketing, user experience, app development,  etc. all playing a role.

And search engines too have evolved far beyond the simple “ten blue links” that can be easily gamed by tweaking links and content.

Companies also have evolved, becoming far smarter about tracking their bottom lines and their Return-On-Investment (ROI), which has forced marketers to more accurately quantify success and justify their service costs on an ongoing basis.

As the SEO industry became popular more SEO “professionals” were drawn into the industry and competition, thus, became fierce. We all know of the $99/month “complete SEO packages” offered by companies that can leverage cheap labor or automated processes.

Sure, expectations from such a cheap service should be practically zero, yet a business manager researching SEO might see that low price tag and they don’t know the difference between high-quality and low-price; They’re only concerned with minimizing expenses. (As an aside, I should mention that cheaper services can often be detrimental, as they sometimes use “black hat” tactics that can get a site permanently penalized.)

Yet, I can’t help but think that to some degree the SEO community has itself to blame for it being more difficult to acquire good clients these days. I’m specifically thinking of: 1) The lack of general hierarchy, certifications, etc. in the industry, and 2) The fact that not much is/was done to prevent people from getting burned by the fake SEO snake-oil salespeople, who sell SEO as a service without having a clue as to what they are doing.

Having seen the industry develop over nearly 20 years, I do feel as though I can offer some interesting insights and perspectives on how the dynamics of the SEO industry have changed over time, for both the better and worse. Alas, if I open that Pandora’s box I will be here typing forever, so I shall leave those for another time.

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