2022: An SEO’s Odyssey

This is my entry into the SEO Chicks competition – SEO the next generation

How do you even begin to predict where an entire industry will be in 10 years time…especially an industry that is already as flexible, changeable and temperamental as a Hollywood starlet? The fact is, nobody really knows, and nobody can really predict the future.

I was planning to just outline what I think the landscape will be in ten years, but that seems a little dry, so I figured I need to up my game a little.

But how? I asked around for some advice, and was told to “stick to what you’re good at”.  This seems like pretty good advice on the face of it, but since my skills mainly revolve around getting drunk and having arguments, I wasn’t sure how this would help. But, I thought it was worth a try. A bottle of Scotch and a 2am phone call to my ex-girlfriend later, I was still fresh out of ideas.

But then I remembered this amazing post by Rob Ousbey over at Distilled, which despite being almost a year old, is still amazingly thought-provoking. Well worth a read to any SEOs, new or otherwise.

So I decided to….adapt it.

Anyway, enough preamble. Hope you enjoy!

2022: An SEO’s Odyssey

As the fireworks burst over the River Thames, heralding the start of the year 2022, the CEO of a major digital and SEO agency was sat alone in his office, drafting a number of letters that would get the year off to a terrible start for some of his employees. They were about to get fired.

The agency was big, it had many high-profile clients, and had some of the biggest industry names working for it. Their expertise and experience was unrivaled, the breadth of their service offering was peerless…and yet all was not well. SEO had become a quick, cheap and cost-effective marketing ploy for any business, large or small. This had attracted hundreds, if not thousands of smart marketers to its fertile lands. The agency found themselves competing on all fronts with smaller, more nimble businesses.

The word “scalability” became a key part of the SEO vocabulary, as many SEOs devised ways to manipulate the search engines’ algorithms in ever more creative and devious ways. The “scalability” of any strategy became key, as “black hat” manipulators and “white hat” marketers went to war.

But meanwhile, the search engine giant, Google, was not idle. It quickly became the biggest recruiter of technical whiz-kids around, and soon boasted a higher PhD per capita ratio than anywhere else on earth. And all that brainpower was not going to waste, as it soon became one of the biggest, richest, and most powerful companies in the world. By 2012, it had become a formidable entity.

Google’s geniuses were working constantly, refining the way that their search algorithms worked. Before long, it seemed that SEO as an industry was doomed. Google was too big, too powerful, and too smart to outmaneuver anymore. The fact was rammed home as it announced that no longer would it provide information about keyword searches carried out by users logged in to any of its many web properties. The SEO industry was up in arms but by the time, two years later, that Google stopped providing keyword data for any searches, they were just resigned to their despair.

Gradually, Google, and the other major search engines, ramped up the inclusion of what they called “social signals” into their results pages. Google went as far as launching its own social network, and aggressively incorporating it into its search results. The loss of keyword data, and an increasingly granular landscape of personalized search results rendered many of the popular tools that SEOs used on a day to day basis all but obsolete. One by one, they went bust, until by the mid twenty-teens not one was left standing.

Many SEOs struggled to cope, and either quit the industry or went broke. The old labels of black and white hat became irrelevant, as Google and the other search engines had become so sophisticated, and accounted for so many ranking signals, that they were nigh-on impossible to manipulate. So those that had previously sought to manipulate the engines found themselves at a loss.

Eventually, as 2020 approached, it seemed that SEO was dead. At least, SEO as it was known at the turn of the millennium was dead.

Google, in 2018, had announced the extension of their Google Instant feature. For years, Google Instant had presented searchers with instant results and options, calculated based on amalgamated search patterns. But now, they were transforming it into a more predictive form of online search. They had hired a team of the world’s best psychologists and behavioral analysts to work on predicting search patterns. Before the search had even begun. Many laughed at this idea, but Google carried on regardless. They had the money, resources, and most importantly, the data to make it work. And they did.

By cross referencing location data from their Android mobile platform; social sharing patterns through Google+; web browsing information from Chrome, their web browser; the use of Google TV and YouTube, their major video and television streaming platforms; emails, and countless other data points, they were able do devise a search algorithm that could much better match a searcher’s intent than ever before. Gone were the days of searches based merely on keyword-inferred intent.

People protested about the invasion of privacy, but the inevitable court cases, equally inevitably, failed. Google argued, reasonably enough to many, that if you didn’t want your data used in this way, you didn’t have to use their products, which they offered free of charge. And besides, they asked, where was the harm? They were making the internet a better, more useful place, weren’t they?

The CEO leant back in his chair and laughed bitterly. A better place. For many people, that was true. But for many more, it was the beginning of the end. Small businesses had turned to the internet for years as a way of competing with much bigger, more powerful companies, as a way of marketing their products, and of spreading their growing brand. And SEO had been crucial in that. While, at times, SEO had been exploitative, seeking to manipulate search for the benefit of its clients, it was still the most affordable way for any business to market itself. But now that Google effectively pre-empted search intent, a huge potential market was cut off. Denied access to people searching the web to discover new things, many small businesses died out, while the big corporations only grew bigger. And “traditional” SEO could no longer help. Google had hammered the final nail into its coffin.

Or had it? By 2020, many of the professionals that had been working in SEO since it began had left the industry entirely. But there were still a large number of people who called themselves “search marketers”. They had joined the industry relatively late, and had not yet latched on to any “best practices” by the time those same practices had been shot dead by Google. They were young, smart, creative and could think on their feet. They realized that trying to stay one step ahead of Google was a pointless and thankless task, so instead they sought to merely understand it. Google thought, searched, and behaved like a real person now. Link buying, blog networks, comment spam, none of those old tactics worked any more.

They behaved more like conventional marketers than ever before. They would approach every client individually. There were no one size fits all solutions, and everything was driven by tireless, in-depth research and analysis of each client’s business. To help them rank in search, this new breed of SEOs would find out why that business should rank in search. Sometimes there was no reason, and then they could do nothing but wish the client good luck, and watch as they inevitably went bust without the online traffic that only Google could now provide.

The landscape of SEO had changed. Content was truly king. They had been saying it for a long time, but now more than ever it was very true. The idea of “linkbait” had been around for ages, but was now an absolute essential, not merely something it was great to have, and it was not about getting links, it was about getting people talking about the brand on the huge social networks that Google paid so much attention to.

While this creative angle of SEO had blossomed, the traditional analysis of backlinks, rankings, keyword data, and other metrics had died out, thanks to the aggressively personalized search results that had evolved from Google’s changes to its algorithm. Instead, monitoring of social signals, and monitoring the uptake of content distributed through many channels became the norm. Being able to understand and perceive patterns within data sets became much more important than the actual data itself. Understanding sentiment, discussion and the cultural pervasiveness of a brand became vital. This was the key element of the new breed of SEO. In a way, it was still underpinned by data, just as the old SEO had been. The dataset was just different. You couldn’t know anything for sure, but you could do a lot to find out.

And so SEO had changed, adapted, and survived. But unfortunately, the changes had not been easy for many to take. Excel spreadsheets, coding skills and link building know-how were just not relevant any more. And so many of the old experts were now unemployed, and many were unemployable. An unfortunate consequence of the fact that Google was now the biggest and most powerful company in the world.

For many people, it is the internet now. And only the smartest, most adaptable marketers could take advantage of that.

Epilogue

If you made it to the end, well done, you win a prize! (not really) In all seriousness, I hope you enjoyed my rambling thoughts, and if you didn’t, feel free to comment or tweet me and tell me why I’m an idiot. But be specific, as there are many ways in which I’m stupid.

So back in the world of today, what are my predictions for SEO in 2022?

  • Obviously, social signals are important now, and are only going to get more important.
  • Traditional signals like links and on page optimisation is going to be gradually devalued until it is practically worthless
  • Google’s new privacy policy implies that all the products will gradually meld into one. And that suggests search will only get more aggressively personalized, using all kinds of data
  • That personlisation is going to kill conventional SEO tools. What point is reporting rankings if nobody sees the same ranking page? This is a problem I know many of us already face when reporting to clients (“Oh you see it at a different position? You need to use an incognito browser…”)
  • I love analytics, and I’m the data nerd of the Red or Blue office, but I can tell its shifting. Keyword: (not provided) is going to only become more of a problem, especially as more people use Google products. Before long, the number of people signed out is going to be so insignificant that Google will just shut the door on keyword data entirely, and we’ll have nothing to say about it.
  • But fundamentally, SEOs are a smart, devious and crafty lot. I don’t see the industry dying just yet. Whatever happens, all those clever folks will adapt and will just change their working practices.
  • Ranking won’t be enough, you really will have to deserve to rank. And that means being the best search results, not just tricking Google into thinking you are. There will be no way to rank irrelevant content, and so great content will float to the top. Content. Is. King.
  • Data analysis is the most important thing any SEO can do right now. Everything starts from there. You don’t know what you don’t know (as we say around here), but you can damn sure find out. That won’t change, but the datasets we investigate will.

Written by Shaun Myandee

Information Analyst at Red or Blue, has a weakness for shiny toys and tech, is an avid football fan, and loves all that London has to offer (especially food and drink...) Is also the world's best looking SEO guy.

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