SEO is Dead… (according to The Guardian)

Posted 24/07/2013

It’s not just the weather that has been hot and stormy this week in the UK;  thunderbolts and lightning have been flying about over the SEO is Dead article published on The Guardian website.

I had a chance to meet up with the author of the article, Tim Anderson, and over a cup of coffee had the chance to dig a bit deeper into his thinking and why he wrote the article.

Setting the Scene

If you haven’t seen it already, start by reading through his article published in The Guardian, Search Engine Optimisation is Dead. Long live social media optimisation.

My colleague Laura Hampton has already done a controlled demolition of the logic underpinning the article, and I recommend you read her post together with Martin McDonald’s excellent analysis of the data used in the article. 

The article has stirred deep controversy and quite a social media storm, primarily as a result of some of the provocative statements in the post:

"Search engine optimisation (SEO) was always a flawed concept."

"... Google search may display only 13% organic results; 'the rest is ads and junk'. "

".. how consumers found websites in 2012 shows that social media is catching up with search"

"Recommendations from friends count for more than a search engine algorithm will ever achieve."

Our Conversation

I had the chance to spend an hour with the article author, Tim Anderson, and we had the chance talk through some of the bigger issues the SEO is Dead article raises.

I had three questions I wanted to ask:

  1. Does Tim really think SEO is dead?
  2. Does his article fairly represent the importance of SEO for business owners?
  3. Is the article factually correct?

 

Does Tim Think SEO is Dead?

No.

He firmly points his finger at the editorial team for writing the “SEO is Dead” headline that stirs up the controversy.

As it turns out, that bit of editorial mischief ended up producing a keyword rich article that is more than likely, and most ironically, getting a huge amount of SEO traffic.

Tim may not think SEO is dead, but I suspect he wishes it were dead.  I detected in our conversation a certain antipathy towards Google  that is also signalled in the posts he writes on his personal blog. His own site has suffered a fall in organic Google traffic due to the Panda update.  Google has penalised one of his favourite technical support websites. He thinks the influence of artificial link building undermines quality search results, and is an algorithmic mess open to abuse.  He’s suspicious of Google’s attitude towards personalisation and privacy. And he hates the whole idea of optimising for the search engines robots rather than optimising for humans.

Nevertheless, the issue remains that the main point of the article is SEO is Dead. Perhaps he tried to address to complex a topic in too short piece? Was his definition of SEO lacking? It was here that I found a chink in Tim’s logical armour.  Yes, indeed, Tim admits that he doesn’t always get things right, and sometimes gets things wrong.

But he wasn’t offering an apology for writing the piece, and really we only got as far as agreeing the tone was wrong. Update:  please see Tim’s comment below where he does indeed apologise for causing any offense.

 

Does his article fairly represent the importance of SEO for business owners?

My main concern is that Guardian readers are going to trust this “SEO is Dead” nonsense, stop doing SEO for their businesses, and decide to put all their eggs into the social media marketing basket.

Tim’s recommendation could put businesses at huge risk, and dropping SEO as a strategy could severely impact some businesses viability.

Doesn’t Tim have a responsiblity to write about the topic fairly and objectively?  Given the authority of The Guardian website, should this kind of misleading content be published?

Tim made two important points:

First, his article appears in the Social Media section of The Guardian, where it is published as editorial designed to be opinionated and thought provoking. As an aside, this section is sponsored by Salesforce.com, who in addition to sponsoring the editorial also have a Partner Zone where they can put their own advertising content.  Tim’s article was written independently, and Salesforce did not come up either the topic or the  offending headline.

And secondly he made the point that if you read his article very carefully, in each of the paragraphs he does recommend what most of us consider to be good SEO practice:

  • good SEO is about making a high quality website destination
  • organic search traffic to many sites is still a large numbers but as a proportion is in decline
  • the new model of social media is about being customer centric

But the issue is about the spin on the article designed to be read by the general public.  The problem is with the spirit or original intention of the article.  I think the damage is done with the headline and opening paragraph.  Readers aren’t going to unpack these issues in detail. And with his conclusion of “SEO won’t be missed” (which wouldn’t have been written by the mischievous editorial team) I think he is laying his cards on the table.

Mike Essex from Koozai got in touch and wanted me to ask if Tim felt SEO was a force for good, or has it just made the web worse. Tim wasn’t really going to be drawn on the topic, saying both good and bad have happened, and we can draw from examples of both.

Is the article factually correct?

This is where Tim and I fundamentally have to disagree.

Even after spending a very pleasant and engaging hour with Tim and seeing how engaged he is with search marketing, I feel he has written an  article that is misleading and sensational, and really not worthy of publication in The Guardian.  It’s not just the headline, it’s the whole spirit of the article.

And it is for this reason I think the article shouldn’t have been published.

What a shame, because The Guardian has been doing such a good job educating its readers about digital marketing  and more specifically SEO, and this one article  has just blown a large chunk of credibility.

It is not just not the spirit of article;  the facts used as a supporting argument just don’t hold water.

SEO isn’t dying.  Year on year search engine traffic has gone up 18% (Hitwise data)

It is simply not true that only 13% of the Google search results contain organic results. I know Tim included the magic “may” word, but…

SEO isn’t just about text and links.  The fundamental definition of SEO in this article is flawed.

It is not a simple choice of SEO or Social.  Social has been in the SEO algorithmic mix for years. They are converging. Business do not have the choice of doing either one or the other.

 

 

 

 

Comments
  1. Laura Hampton

    Thank you for sharing this, Susan. It’s great to have been able to question Tim further and thank you to everyone who submitted questions yesterday on Twitter and Google Plus.

    I can’t say the interview has clarified too much for me. As far as I can tell, Tim’s response to the negative feedback has been to blame the editorial team and attempt to repurpose statements in the article which are, in my opinion, clearly meant in a detrimental way. This is very disappointing.

    It’s a real shame that this article has appeared on The Guardian – as you say Susan, it’s clear they provide a lot of good SEO advice and get a lot of search traffic. Never bite the hand that feeds you and all that…

    It will be interesting to see Tim’s follow up article, if he does indeed write one. My hope is that he can rectify the potential damage he’s done to all of those who take his advice as truth, and appease all of us in the SEO community who have spoken so intelligently and articulately to defend our work.

    Laura Hampton

  2. Hi Susan

    It was great to meet you, thanks for the chat.

    Just to be clear, I do not blame the editorial team and thought I’d made that clear. I did note that the wording of the heading was different to what I supplied in the final copy, and that I didn’t write the bit immediately underneath either. That’s normal. I do think that the heading was unfortunate but of course take responsibility for what I write.

    Second, I’m happy to apologise for any offence caused by what was published. I’m not sure why you say I am “not apologising” as I don’t recall this being mentioned?

    Thank you though for spelling out some of what I intended to communicate.

    I think the definition of SEO is critical. In the broadest definition SEO even encompasses social, but that is a long way from its original meaning of optimising for search engines. Clearly best-practice SEO along with genuine customer interaction via social are both beneficial.

    Tim

    Tim Anderson

  3. Hi all,

    It’s great to see that Tim was willing to openly discuss the article, and I’m even more pleased to see Tim offering a public apology as I believe the article was misleading and factually incorrect.

    My concern is that the damage has already been done. The article remains published on the Guardian website misleading readers. Who knows how many readers have read the article and taken Tim’s opinions (yes opinions, not facts) as gospel?

    In my opinion the Guardian should offer a retraction (never going to happen!) or a least amend the article to include links to your posts to ensure readers have direct access to all of the information, thus allowing them to make an informed judgement regarding their SEO efforts.

    I think the main problem however resides with terminology. SEO in its traditional sense is often thought of as on-page optimisation technique combined with manual link building – that’s the core of SEO! But everyone in the industry knows that SEO has evolved into much more than that, in fact into a broad range of digital marketing techniques which do include social activity; however the terminology remains the same and therefore the perception of SEO remains the same.

    The core concepts of SEO still exist, and I believe always will exists to a certain extent; but as search engine technology evolves and becomes more complex the practices surrounding SEO also evolve. So SEO isn’t dead, it’s just evolved into a different process.

    Thanks to Susan and Laura for taking the time to highlight and discuss these issues.

    Chris

    Chris Ainsworth

  4. Laura Hampton

    Great comment Chris, you make some really good points.

    I’m particularly interested in your discussion of the terminology around SEO. Of course, we all know that SEOMoz recently dropped the ‘SEO’ in order to expand their offering, but it sparked some debate around how relevant ‘SEO’ as a term is today.

    I saw someone comment on Google Plus yesterday (apologies, I forget who), and they suggested ‘Search Experience Optimisation’ as a potential replacement. What are your thoughts?

    Ironically, if Tim had followed his/his editor’s headline with a piece which intelligently explored the use of SEO as a term to describe an activity, this debate may have been very different.

    Laura Hampton

  5. Hi Laura,

    I’m not a fan of the term ‘Search Experience Optimisation’. I’ve heard that used before and it’s always sounded a bit too vague; but perhaps that’s because I too am used to the term ‘Search Engine Optimisation’.

    I think what we as SEO’s do now is ultimately digital marketing and that’s the term that should be used to describe it. Digital marketing encompasses traditional SEO, vertical search methods, social media, PR, content, paid search, conversion rate optimisation and so forth, so we, as SEO’s, are actually digital marketing experts!

    That’s certainly the way we’re moving in my opinion.

    Chris

    Chris Ainsworth

  6. Chris,

    Agree entirely with your comments.

    In exchanging tweets this morning directly with Tim, it would seem that a rebuttal, in the scale (and national coverage) of the 1st post, is unfortunately not forthcoming, but watch this space.

    Although apologies in interview responses and tweets are “public”, the official Guardian post really needs to be amended to include this (or altogether removed), to set the record straight for all parties concerned..

    SEO has indeed evolved, as have search engines (thank goodness!).

    Whatever terminology is banded around, in my opnion “website” or “digital” marketing is exactly what it is. No spin required ;)

    Laura, again thank you for taking the bull by the horns regarding your response to the original post and the interview :)

    Tony

    Tony Dimmock

  7. Laura Hampton

    Thanks for your feedback both.

    Much as I agree that there is potentially damage being done by the article, I do understand that leaving it open for debate is healthy. That said, a link perhaps to opposing blogs (like mine and Martin Maddonald’s) would be a good way of helping readers to see other opinions too.

    It would be great to get a comment from The Guardian on this.

    Laura Hampton

  8. There’s no doubt the practice of SEO has changed significantly in the past year or two. Because there’s now so much overlap in SEO, content marketing and social media, these terms are losing their meaning — but not necessarily their underlying value. Much depends on the nature of the business being marketed. Our agency toils away in unsexy industrial niches, and there’s no doubt SEO continues to have extraordinary value. There aren’t a lot of people having conversations on Twitter about industrial welding supplies, but there are plenty of people with large budgets looking for welding suppliers via Google search.

    Brad Shorr

  9. Reading Tim’s article again, I don’t disagree with everything he says – Susan has been heralding the Social Media revolution for years, so there is synergy there. But to suggest that it is outside of SEO is just fundamentally wrong.

    And while Social Media is established in the retail domain, many of our industrial clients haven’t yet grasped it and neither have their customers, so why would they be bothered?

    SEO is evolving and growing up; as its definition changes it could be called something else in a few years time, (I am thinking here of Rand Fishkin’s lead as to why he changed his branding from SEOMOz to just MOZ.com, see his article here: http://moz.com/blog/goodbye-seomoz-hello-moz).

    To suggest that SEO (or whatever it may be called in the future) can be disregarded in favour of Social Media sends the wrong message to UK businesses fighting for every website visitor. Its horses for courses; the digital marketing strategy will differ from business to business, which is why we always talk to clients and understand their business first, and may include social media to a greater or lesser degree in our digital marketing plan, according to their business model.

    Chris Gage

  10. Susan Hallam

    The SEO is Dead debate has been raging for years and years. Take a look at Danny Sullivan’s excellent article written in 2009, looking back on the very same predictions made in 1997. Ain’t nothing new under the sun…

    http://searchengineland.com/is-seo-dead-1997-prediction-meet-2009-reality-32113

    Susan Hallam

  11. I have written a lengthy article on SEO is Dead which actually addresses reasons why it is dead, it never really existed! Tim’s first reason for seo being dead isn’t even a reason! reaching an audience through organic search results is a challenge because ‘to reach your audience is becoming increasingly futile’ isn’t a reason for that method being dead. I think Tim is confused and how this article ever was considered to be published is shameful, wait a minute! The reason this article was written was for seo purposes, how naive of me…!

    Andrew Maynes

  12. Regardless of whether the headline is sensationalist, the whole article is misleading. Social media optimisation actually has a large element of SEO about it, so to say SMO replaces SEO is ridiculous. SEO evolves. It always has and it always will.

    Steve Masters

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