We've seen a lot of articles in the last few months with titles like this:
"Yes, SEO Really is Dead!"
"Stop Doing SEO - It Doesn't Work Anymore"
"SEO is over. Here's the new way to get your site seen!"
Invariably, these pieces will talk about the supposed demise of search engine optimisation as a worthwhile practice. They use the following arguments to convince readers that SEO is, indeed, a thing of the past:
- Link-building doesn't work anymore. Seeking out links from external websites used to be a huge part of SEO, but inbound links are no longer an automatic guarantee of high rankings - these days, quality is far more important than quantity, and it can be very difficult to manufacture a really good link to your own site. Also, Google are getting much better at spotting unnatural and/or manipulative links and punishing the sites on the receiving end; this has put an end to linkbuilding as an effective means of boosting rankings, or so some bloggers would have you believe.
- Keywords are more complicated than ever before. Once upon a time, you could achieve high rankings for a search term like 'cheap sofas' by simply mentioning 'cheap sofas' a hundred times in your site copy. Nowadays, the system is a lot more complex - search engines are aware of things like synonyms, closely related topics, and a whole variety of other ranking factors that don't have anything to do with keyword density. Also, Google and their competitors have learned to spot keyword-stuffed content from a mile away, and the penalties for this can be just as severe as the slap you'll get for dodgy link-building.
- Sites should be optimised for users, not search engine bots. The problem with a lot of old SEO practices (particularly keyword stuffing) was their tendency to make things unpleasant for the user. You can write a 500 word essay that uses the phrase 'best mobile phones' in every other sentence if you so desire, but even if it ranks highly, it's not going to make especially riveting reading; in fact, all of that keyword stuffing might well make it harder for your customers to find the information they need. Nowadays, a good user experience is valued above high rankings, and since aggressive SEOing can quite easily get in the way of a strong UE, those practices no longer have a place on most websites.
Now, these are some good points - keyword stuffing and link farming do more harm than good, and we would certainly advise any webmaster to stay well away from these practices if they value their site traffic. But SEO isn't just the black hat stuff; those three letters may have picked up some negative connotations over the years, but search engine optimisation is still alive and well, and if you want your website to have any kind of presence on Google, Yahoo! and Bing, you absolutely must take it into consideration.
First of all, you need to stop viewing SEO as a shady effort to fraudulently boost a site's rankings. SEO is actually a very important part of website design, and it starts with the code itself - our developers have spent the last decade building sites in a way that's easy for Google and other search engines to digest. We also work hard to create lightning-fast pages, user-friendly functionality, and so much more; all of this is as much a part of SEO as strategic keyword placement.
But we won't bore you with an in-depth dissection of good quality code. Instead, allow us to address the points above, and demonstrate why SEO remains very much alive:
- Links are still important. Building a lot of low-quality links to your site is unlikely to do much for your rankings nowadays, but remember what we said about quality and quantity? That's an important thing to bear in mind - Google themselves have stated that inbound links are still a major part of their algorithm, it's just that they're now more interested in the value of your links than in how many you've amassed. Of course, since artificial links can land a site in very hot water, it's better to focus your SEO efforts on creating a site that encourages people to link unsolicited - make it easy to link, and make sure you provide something that's worth linking to. This is what really impresses search engines at the moment.
- Keywords still have their place. Modern SEO demands a rather less ham-fisted approach to keyword placement, but that doesn't mean you should forget about keywords altogether. When creating your website, think about the search terms you would like each page to show up for, and then tailor your copy and any other content to those keywords. Make sure you're providing potential users with the clear information and the useful resources that they are likely to be looking for, and this will make each page's purpose clear to search engines as well.
- User optimisation and SEO are, in many ways, the same thing. User optimisation makes your site more appealing to humans. Search engine optimisation makes your site more appealing to search engines. These two practices are very closely related, especially as search engines get smarter and more capable of thinking like humans. The articles we've read always tell you to forget about SEO and concentrate on the user experience, but this is misleading - they are two equally important undertakings that will yield sizeable rewards if done properly in tandem.
To answer that million dollar question, then: no, SEO isn't dead, it's just different to what it was a few years ago. Mind you, this shouldn't surprise anyone (least of all the type of people who are liable to write 'SEO is Dead!' aritcles) - SEO has been an ever-changing entity since day one, but none of its transformations have ever negated its usefulness as a practice. In fact, as web designers, optimising for search engines is one of our most important jobs!