The First Existential Threat to SEO

There have been thousands of articles over the years proclaiming the “Death of SEO.” The topic is usually just a punching bag for page-view hungry publications with no interest in facts. But, this past week, with Google’s indications that keyword (not provided) would be headed to 100%, I wondered whether the next “SEO is Dead” article might actually have some ground to stand on.


I’ll be honest – I don’t think SEO will die. But I think this move is the first truly existential threat our industry has faced. I’ll talk about why, and then about how we can mitigate and, ultimately, overcome it.

So why might (not provided) cause SEO to die?

Because organic search investments don’t come from faith – they come from data, and critical parts of that data have gone missing. I’ll illustrate with some made-up conversations. The SEO process often works like this:

Marketing exec/client: “Some of the SEO traffic we get is really valuable. I wonder if we could get more.”

SEO: “I can help!”

Marketing exec/client: “Great. Here’s some budget/resources. Get to work.”

SEO: “I’m on it!”

Marketing exec/client: “Whoa. It’s working! We’re getting more traffic for the keywords as you help us improve rankings, optimize our listings, and target content.”

SEO: “Let’s invest more.”

Marketing exec/client: “Agreed!”

Yes, I’ve created a highly simplistic version of what happens, but it’s not a ludicrous distilliation. Let’s imagine the scenario again, but in a world without keyword referral data:

Marketing exec/client: “I’ve heard good things about SEO, and even though I can’t tell what’s helping us, it seems like organic search is a good channel. Let’s try making an investment.”

SEO: “I can help!”

Marketing exec/client: “Great. Here’s some budget/resources. Get to work.”

SEO: “I’m on it!”

Marketing exec/client: “OK, here’s the deal. The CEO can see that organic search is sending more traffic, but we really can’t tell whether your efforts are the ones driving value, or if the keywords you’re optimizing for are even helping us.”

SEO: “But the rankings are clearly going up, and we can see that organic search is an important part of the funnel!”

Marketing exec/client: “Yeah, but we think a lot of that is probably just branded search for our name.”

SEO: “But a lot of it is going to pages that aren’t ranking for branded terms alone – some of that has to be coming from the non-branded keywords that I’ve helped us to drive traffic from.”

Marketing exec/client: “Well, that could be personalization, or localization, or something else we don’t know about. I’m sorry, but we need to invest our budget in places where we have solid data, not just data fragments. Can you help us increase our Facebook likes?”

SEO: “You’re making a terrible mistake.”

SEO garners active investment, and supports an industry of professionals, because it prove-ably drives high volumes of extremely valuable traffic. A search query expresses intent, and intent plus visibility yields conversions. But, in a world where keyword referral data disappears, it’s not impossible to imagine shrinking budgets for SEO. In fact, I’d bet money that there will be a large number of companies over the next 2-5 years who take dollars and people that would have gone to SEO and put them elsewhere because the ROI is too hard to calculate and show.

Google is almost certainly hoping that much of those repurposed dollars will go to paid search, and sadly, they’re probably right. Keyword referral data is still available in AdWords (proving that the data loss has nothing whatsoever to do with consumer privacy), making that channel’s ROI reliably proveable compared to organic.

But while Google can almost certainly count on a short-term boost in ad revenue, no one should count SEO out.  If Google had tried this 8 years ago, they likely would have succeeded in removing a much larger swath of the field, but the past decade has shown marketers and businesses too many data points about the tremendous value SEO can drive. Removal of keyword data may be the toughest threat our industry has faced, but it’s an industry filled with creative, passionate, driven individuals who’ve seen how long-term investments in an arena with hard-to-find data can result in a goldmine.

I believe that in the long run, smart SEOs will find workarounds (many of which I talked about in this recent video) to backfill for keyword data. I also believe that for every company that shifts their SEO budget elsewhere, another will find that despite the difficulties in perfectly calculating ROI, there is both measurable return and a harder-to-measure increase in serendipitous value. After all, TV advertising has never been perfectly measurable, and it still garners many times the investment total of SEO.

As for Moz, I can tell you what we’ve been considering for our recently launched Moz Analytics platform:

  • Using Bing+Yahoo!+Other engines as a proxy, and showing estimated keyword volumes sent by Google in proportion to the percent of referring search traffic from keywords that rank in both engines (e.g. if Bing+Yahoo+Others are 10% of your site’s search referrals and sent 10 visits for keyword XYZ last week, we’d estimate that Google sent 90 visits for keyword XYZ assuming that the ranking positions are similar)
  • Moving to a pages-receiving-search-visits-centric model for Google search traffic, then showing the keywords those pages rank for that have measurable search volume (based on an algorithm we’re developing to approximate search demand)
  • Using predictive analytics based on previous referrals from Google to given pages (though eventually, this model will give out)
  • Combining the data from paid search visits when both paid and organic listings reference the same page and are listed together on a SERP
  • If Google Webmaster Tools launches an open API for keyword data, we’ll try to layer that on top of these others (especially if that data becomes more accurate – the current quality isn’t great)

I expect that other providers of analytics software to professional SEOs (Raven, GinzaMetrics, SearchMetrics, Conductor, Woorank, etc) will make investments on these fronts as well.

Here’s to the challenges ahead, and to the resiliency of SEO.