What does SEO have in common with memes and the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish?
We’ll give you a few seconds to think about it…
The answer is that these two things just won’t die. No matter how many times technology, trends, or changing habits try to kill it, SEO’s survival is as persistent as a rabid whack-a-mole.
Famously, cats have nine lives. But it seems like SEOs have even more.
Maybe AI folk tales of the future will tell of a time when the Search Engine Optimization industry heroically survived encounters with its metaphorical dragons (Google updates), depicting the SERP as a futuristic Camelot.
But why is there so much doom-mongering regarding SEO?
Why Would SEO “Die”?
It all comes back to the industry’s chaotic nature. Every few months, something comes along that causes intense disruption, whether it’s an update from our Google overlords or a change in consumer tastes.
Whenever such events occur, there will be ‘experts’ that start morbidly trumpeting the dawn of a new era, and the whole industry panics. SEOs seem like they will go the way of horse farriers and the dodo.
Then, the dust settles, and things return to normal. Everyone forgets the predictions of doom and continues with their jobs, just with new techniques and priorities.
It’s almost funny just how many times the result of change has been the precise opposite of “death”. SEO has continuously grown during periods of challenge and uncertainty.
This post should be enlightening for those of you who are new to SEO, and a welcome reminder for doubtful stalwarts that regardless of the latest trends, SEO will merely adapt, evolve and survive as it always has.
We started by asking a variety of industry veterans to name the most significant death of SEO during their careers. Below we will run through some of the most memorable times SEO has died and how it came back from the dead, Lazarus-style.
Just here for the TLDR?
Google’s Panda Update – 2011
Google’s Panda Update was one of the first times SEO “died”, and was our most popular answer among experts in the industry!
The update forced webmasters to improve the quality of their content and avoid old-school keyword-spamming tactics used by content farms.
“The 2011 launch of Google’s “Panda” algorithm update … caused a lot of concern,” said Marco Genaro Palma, SEO Consultant at Genaro Palma. “But in the end … the update actually reinforced the importance of producing high-quality, original content and avoiding spam tactics.”
Ultimately, while this update did cause drops for a large number of sites and impacted almost 12% of queries in the US, it simply encouraged SEOs to evolve their approach.
“Many websites experienced a significant drop in their rankings and traffic, which led some to believe that SEO was no longer effective.” However, he says, “This update prompted a shift in my approach and the industry. I put effort into making content that was of high value and would help users, giving them a satisfactory experience.”
Hence, SEO survived by changing its approach – precisely what Google wanted.
The impact of Panda still reverberates through the industry today, with content quality still being a monumental focus for Google and SEOs alike. In December 2022, we had the Helpful Content Update, while E-E-A-T is the current content marketing priority in SEO.
Social Media Trends – 2012
Social media is another force that threatened (and still threatens) to kill SEO, according to some.
Trends on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all influenced user behavior dramatically and created alternatives to search engines for finding information.
The chief concern of social media trends from industry commentators was that users would remain within the confines of social media platforms, taking demand away from traditional search.
On the contrary, while social media usage has continuously increased so has search engine usage!
“I’ve seen SEO “die” many times … Social media is an important aspect of many marketing strategies, but it hasn’t replaced SEO.” according to Daniel Foley Carter.
“Social media and SEO can help businesses reach their target audience and increase website traffic,” “[It] shows the importance of keeping up with industry changes and innovations and … staying ahead of SEO’s constant changes.”
The ‘threat’ of social media trends towards SEO is still relevant today, with TikTok becoming the latest SEO “killer” on the horizon.
All in all, it’s true that search behaviors change as a result of new platforms. In some cases a query can be better answered within a social media thread than in a search engine, but from a publishing perspective, this simply means you should capitalize on the opportunity social media offers alongside your organic search strategies.
Trends start on TikTok. This platform reveals emerging keywords that you’ll never find in SEO tools
– “horrortok” = books
– “cluttercore” = interior design
– “hair theory” = beauty
– “wall mopping” = cleaning
Keyword👏 research👏 gold👏 pic.twitter.com/JvbiVReliQ
— Abby Gleason (Reimer) (@abbysuegleason) April 24, 2023
Google’s Penguin Update – 2012
Google’s Penguin algorithm update – launched in 2012 and made part of the core algorithm in 2016 – also caused panic in the SEO industry. It reduced the influence of low-quality and manipulative link schemes on the rankings of websites.
“Penguin was a large Google update to fight link spam and to ensure high-quality search results for users. While SEO has never died … [It] changed. ”
“When people use the phrase “SEO is dead” they usually mean that “the spammy attempts to cheat the Google algorithm don’t work anymore.” If you are in SEO and creating an excellent website with great content and working on the brand, you are fine.”
SEO wasn’t under attack per se, but Penguin was a significant attempt to stamp out crummy strategies that reduced the quality of search results. Most SEOs simply adapted to the changes and improved their methods.
SEO agency Founder Freddie Chatt talked to us about how the update changed his approach.
“[Penguin] had an enormous impact on link schemes. It was the first step on the journey from quantity to quality. I now focus my link building on the highest quality and relevance to ensure a clean and natural backlink profile.”
Again, SEO simply adapted to the changes. It didn’t die as many people predicted. Link quality, along with content quality are continuous focal points of the Google algorithm. As recently as last December, Google released another Link Spam Update, a decade after the Penguin update, as backlinks remain as one of the most essential ranking factors.
Google’s Hummingbird Update – 2013
Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update also threatened to kill SEO (at least at the time) because of its focus on user intent. Instead of forwarding users to sites containing keywords in search terms, the platform also took the intent of the search into account.
For instance, Google started differentiating between users looking for products and services and those looking for information and entertainment.
Hummingbird supposedly killed SEO because it made traditional keyword optimization “obsolete”.
Websites that relied on stuffing keywords and creating thin content offering little benefit to the user could not rank as well as they used to on Google.
Instead, they had to offer useful, well-researched content to provide the search giant’s users with the information they were seeking.
“I still recall Google’s 2013 Hummingbird algorithm update, which sought to enhance search results by better comprehending the motivation behind a user’s inquiry,” SEO Consultant Jeff Romero, told us.
“Members of the SEO community frequently predicted the “death of SEO,” as well as the failure of established strategies like keyword stuffing and linking.”
But, of course, that didn’t happen. Jeff and others simply changed how they approached SEO to create more thorough and valuable content, differentiating their strategic focus between “money” keywords and long-tail keywords.
The result was more relevant, helpful results for users, and improved visibility for clients.
Featured Snippets – 2014
Featured snippets were another “SEO killer.” This update saw Google displaying answers to users’ questions within search results pages instead of requiring them to click through to the page containing the text. As such, SEOs and their clients worried that Google may have just killed website traffic altogether.
“Many SEOs, including myself, felt it would kill SEO as a viable marketing channel.”
But things weren’t as bad as expected.
“Data showed that these snippets actually sent more organic traffic to sites that attained them,” Joe told us. “Also, many users still scroll further down the results to other listings, increasing overall engagement.”
Yet again, SEO adapted, survived, and thrived as a result.
The RankBrain Algorithm – 2015
The RankBrain algorithm arrived in 2015 and immediately began causing jitters in the SEO community. The update made it harder for SEO experts to manipulate or predict Google’s rankings using keywords, links, or other traditional signals.
RankBrain was a kind of AI that could evaluate the meaning and relevance of web pages beyond literally matching keywords and adjust ranking accordingly. It was scary stuff at the time.
“In my 20 years in SEO, one instance where SEO was declared “dead” that I will never forget was when Google introduced its RankBrain algorithm in 2015.”
He says it caused a lot of panic in the SEO community because the “old ways” of doing things weren’t working anymore. However, David simply adapted.
“It changed my approach to SEO from one that focused on tricks and hacks to one that valued relationships with readers.”
For him, providing world-class SEO meant understanding the user journey and offering content that provided real value.
Harry Boxhall, a Freelance SEO Consultant, recalls similar panic in the industry.
“RankBrain understood the intent behind queries, and Google would serve up the most relevant page regardless of the “SEO” optimization that went into that page, and, [therefore], “SEO was dead.”
But what actually happened was different. SEO professionals adapted by learning to further understand searchers’ queries and providing them with the content they are seeking more accurately.
“Ultimately, SEO dying with the launch of RankBrain was a misconception; instead, it simply shifted the way SEO professionals approached their work.”
Following this new “things, not strings” approach from Google, SEOs learned to scratch the surface of keywords; thus, shiny new jargon was introduced to the industry.
Concepts like ‘Topical Authority’ and ‘Entity SEO’ have become increasingly popular trends for strategy and implementation as a result.
RankBrain is an algorithm used to understand search intent. It is one of the most important factors affecting ranking.
That said, you should have understood that focusing on single words or keywords is super useless.
Intent, entities and order are your new friends.
— Marco Giordano (@GiordMarco96) March 4, 2022
Voice Search Technology – 2016
Google launched its first version of voice search in 2008 without much fanfare. However, conversations regarding the topic peaked in 2016 and 2017, just when voice assistants were having their time in the sun.
“Some experts predicted that the rise of voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant would lead to the end of traditional keyword-based SEO, as users would ask questions in natural language rather than typing in keywords,” Harsh Verma, Codedesign’s CEO, told us.
However, this prediction was false. “While voice search introduced new challenges for SEO, such as optimizing for long-tail conversational queries and featured snippets, it did not render traditional keyword-based SEO obsolete.”
“In 2017, there was a lot of talk about how the increasing use of voice search and virtual assistants would lead to the death of SEO. Some experts predicted people would no longer use traditional search engines like Google to find information.”
But voice assistants never fully displaced traditional search. As Nick points out, “People use voice assistants for very specific tasks: playing music, asking for the weather, answering simple questions, etc.” They don’t use it for high-value activities, such as shopping, where SEOs add value.
Again, SEO survived. Voice search is still here, but it hasn’t become the competing technology many believed it would be.
Hey, I just realized…. no one talks about voice search anymore.
Remember when that was supposed to dominate search forever? pic.twitter.com/pztIhxSWlu
— Mordy Oberstein *winner of laser tag* (@MordyOberstein) March 9, 2021
The BERT Update Shakeup – 2019
The BERT Update Shakeup was another time when SEO allegedly died. The algorithm used a deep learning model called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) to analyze the context and intent of search terms.
Like previous Google updates, it made it harder for websites to rank well by using keyword stuffing, low-quality content, or irrelevant information. Websites using unethical or outdated tactics saw their rankings drop significantly.
“Many in the industry believed that by introducing BERT, traditional keyword-focused SEO strategies would become obsolete. This led to the idea that SEO had died.”
However, that’s not what happened in practice. As Yasheen puts it: “The update only showed the value of well-crafted content, which has always been a core principle of SEO.”
Similar to the previous Panda and Hummingbird updates, BERT simply evolved the way content should be crafted for search engines. While old tactics became more ineffective, more new techniques were brought to fruition, such as developments in NLP content analysis.
Again, SEO lived on.
Just checking that BERT is working OK. Says he’s good. pic.twitter.com/qUSzQxpfLD
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) November 1, 2019
Rand Fishkin’s Zero Click Searches Research – 2020
Another death knell for the SEO industry came in 2020 when Moz founder Rand Fishkin discovered that most Google searches do not result in a click to another web property. Thanks to Google’s approach, nearly 65% of Google searches in 2020 were zero-click, up from 50% in 2019.
This finding had massive implications for the SEO industry. Suddenly, doubts arose as to what value SEOs offered, and previous fears from updates such as featured snippets and voice search were given some validity.
Freelance SEO Specialist Aleksandra Jovicic recounts the event.
“I remember really well when one of Rand Fishkin’s Zero Click Searches research papers came out, and it stated that two-thirds of all searches end without a click because of featured snippets.”
Suddenly, her clients began complaining. Why would they invest in SEO if no one visited their websites?
“They eventually changed their minds,” Jovicic continued, “and I started working on learning more about featured snippets, and how to get the content I was writing featured in them”
This is yet another example of SEOs adapting to the landscape they operate in. While we cannot control users’ behavior on the SERP, we can always find new ways to engage searchers by finding creative methods and new techniques to optimize for new SERP features.
In response to this research, Google’s Search Liaison published a statement explaining why the increase in zero-click searches is to be expected due to the varying kinds of queries.
Furthermore, the panic surrounding this finding can be somewhat suppressed by the fact that website traffic from Google has increased year-on-year consistently since the search engine’s inception.
Each year since Google Search began, we’ve increasingly sent more traffic to the open web. Billions of visits each day. Our post shares more about this & why some recent “zero click” discussions don’t capture the reality of how search works. https://t.co/e1nHFKxZwh
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) March 24, 2021
The Release Of ChatGPT – 2022
And of course, the latest death of SEO.
The release of ChatGPT last year was undoubtedly a game-changer. Less than a year later the developments that have ensued are continuously astounding.
From its integration with Bing to GPT-4, AutoGPT, and an influx of AI-Powered Tools, ChatGPT is unique in that it poses a variety of ‘threats’ to SEO.
- It can complete tasks like keyword research and content writing in seconds.
- It can respond to some queries more effectively than a search engine.
- It’s the kind of development that forces Google to shake things up.
All of the above are valid concerns, but none of them spell oblivion for the SEO industry by any means.
- ChatGPT cannot conduct research or complete tasks with nuance or originality.
- Some informational queries may be better answered by a chatbot, but search engines will remain the best option for transactional queries.
- Google already has plans to adapt to conversational search; this will be yet another challenge for SEOs that will encourage innovation and drive the industry forward.
Ultimately, SEO will benefit from ChatGPT and similar AI developments by helping to automate and improve our processes.
“ChatGPT is definitely the more recent instance where SEO had apparently died. It didn’t really change much in terms of how I approached SEO other than utilizing it for our clients’ content (we still write the content ourselves, but we use it to find out information about a topic we’re writing about).” said Danny Browne, Director, Found at One.
Is AI The Latest “Death” Of SEO?
Despite the trials and tribulations of the past, SEO is still alive and well.
That hasn’t stopped commentators from worrying about the future. Even if SEO isn’t dead yet, it’s natural to worry about how search engines as we know them may change as a result of AI developments.
Elon Musk says it could make humanity go extinct (which would make the death of SEO rather trivial), so there is a valid reason to find some concern in the future of AI and the technology’s impact on what we currently perceive as ‘normal’.
Will SEO Die?
No. It will evolve. At best, things won’t change all that much and we will continue to battle for a spot in the 10 blue links. At worst, SEO may end up with a new moniker, like AEO, SEO 2.0, or something completely unpredictable, like X Æ A-Xii.
Is There Hard Work Ahead Of Us?
Yes! No matter what happens to SERPs and the techniques involved to feature in them, understanding how users search the web, enhancing brand visibility through content marketing, and building a website’s off-page authority are essential practices for attaining success in the digital landscape.
Is SEO Going To Change?
Certainly. Just like it did last year, and the year before, and the year before, and the year before, and the y-….
This is actually brilliant news for SEO agencies and consultants.
25-30% less real estate on SERPS mean a winner takes all’ environment. Top 3 will be more important than ever.
This means better SEO is needed. Better links, better content, better technical. https://t.co/UhslldViRI
— Joe Davies (@fatjoedavies) April 17, 2023
SEO is a constantly updating landscape – it’s part of why we all love it so much. It’s treacherous, sure, but the rewards are there for those bold and innovative enough to really capitalize on the changes to (not death of) SEO.
Stick with us here at FATJOE as we chart the ups and downs of the SEO industry. After all as Game of Thrones taught us, “what is dead may never die”.
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