It’s not your imagination — there’s no denying that SEO has become increasingly difficult over the last few years.
A recent thread on WebmasterWorld highlighted this fact when a poster lamented the challenges he has faced adapting to changes in the SEO industry, and he said that he was considering leaving the industry entirely. This prompted Barry Schwartz to share a poll collecting feedback on the topic from a wider pool, and I was initially quite surprised to see that a large percentage of respondents shared the same concern as the original poster.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. I can definitely understand the frustration. You build a business based on what you think the rules are, and almost immediately, they seem to change.
Isn’t that the nature of every industry, though? Amazon, Uber and Netflix all shook their respective industries in seismic ways. And as that happened, we heard the same cries that things are getting too difficult, that things just aren’t fair, and that people can’t make the same kind of money doing work the same way they used to.
But is that really such a bad thing?
Change is good for every industry, especially when it forces everyone to up their game. I’ve been in the digital marketing industry since long before Google dominated search, and I’ve seen a lot of changes to our industry during that time — some good and some bad.
I’ve watched search engines rank web pages based on nothing more than crude and easily gameable signals, like meta tags, keyword density and title tags. Later, I watched a clunky algorithm evolve from basic and easy to manipulate into something highly refined and effective. Along the way, I’ve watched many tactics come and go — and wave after wave of SEO practitioners enter, then retreat, from the industry, moving on to what they saw as greener pastures.
Maybe you’re brand-new to the industry, so you don’t have much to compare it to. Or maybe, like me and some of the other veterans of the industry, you’ve experienced every iteration of search engine optimization firsthand and have weathered the storms.
For example, I remember when link building was as simple as just getting more keyword-rich anchor text links than your competitors, which predictably resulted in the SEO equivalent of a nuclear arms race. Marketers took every opportunity to create links in any way they could.
I wasn’t immune to this thinking. In fact, at one point, I had built a massive network consisting of hundreds of websites that published a constant stream of user-generated, spun content, all with the sole purpose of linking to the other websites I owned. This network added no real value and existed solely for the purpose of manipulating organic ranking.
I had managed to fly under the radar with this tactic for many years, but eventually, Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithms destroyed it by penalizing websites that published low-quality content and/or participated in manipulative linking schemes. This destroyed both sides of the manipulative linking equation.
The fallout was brutal for many SEO practitioners and even worse for their clients, who often didn’t know what tactics were being used on their behalf. Websites that had previously benefited from these tactics now suffered aggressive penalties and were often removed from the search results entirely. Often, link-based penalties lasted for years, even after fixing the issues, which predictably destroyed many businesses.
Today, we’re living in an entirely different world. While they’re still being sold, the cheap and easy tactics of the past no longer work. This means that as SEO professionals, we have to work significantly harder than ever before. I know that might sound like a bad thing, but I believe it can help the industry.
Much like the housing collapse of 2008, which forced a lot of below-average realtors out of the real estate industry, this newest evolution of the SEO industry will hopefully purge many of the SEO practitioners who are still trying to peddle ineffective and/or dangerous tactics.
As the algorithms become more effective at differentiating artificial attempts to manipulate ranking from legitimate ranking signals, and they get better at understanding or even predicting what a searcher needs, we will see a lot of people — people who didn’t belong here in the first place — finally leave the industry. This means only the truly passionate will stick around.
There will be a lot more of “the sky is falling” and “SEO is dead” nonsense proclaimed by those who rely on tricks and are incapable of delivering any real value. But those of you who have been in the game for awhile have heard it all before. In fact, we see this collective panic play out nearly every time there is a major update, going as far back as the infamous “Florida” update of 2003.
After Panda, we heard a lot of SEOs asking, “How can we possibly compete when we have to hire real writers to write well-written and longer articles?” While some could no longer compete when churning out a bunch of 350-word, poorly written articles each month no longer moved the needle, those who focused on producing lots of unique, thoroughly researched and well-written content reaped massive rewards.
Penguin created a similar situation when it destroyed manipulative link building. Once tactics like guest posting at scale, directory submissions and paid links were effectively eliminated, many stopped offering link-building services entirely because earning real links takes a lot of work.
Today, we’re approaching a similar situation — the next evolution, if you will — as artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly larger role in Google’s algorithm. SEO practitioners who have relied on clever tricks will be forced to either adapt or exit the industry, while those who focus on producing quality content and earning legitimate links will become the new standard.
Does that mean some SEO practitioners will be forced out of the industry? Absolutely. It also means that some SEO agencies will go out of business. And I’m completely fine with all of that because it means that the industry as a whole will be pushed to a higher standard, benefiting professionals in the industry, search engines, searchers, and most importantly, our clients.