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August 24, 2010

33

The SEO Dream is Dead. Or is It?

by Anthony Verre

Is an SEO Company a Valid Idea Anymore Lisa Barone has done it to me again. Her latest post on Outspoken Media’s Blog, “Why Bloggers Should Put Up, Shut Up & Pay Their Tax“, created another fever-pitch of comments. I’m not going to craft a reply post because, frankly, the comments on that post are all the discussion and reply anyone will ever need. But there was a very striking comment made by Alan Bleiweiss that resonated deeply with me: creating and building something out of the ashes.

There were a lot comments that suggested investing money into a business, putting your life-force into it, and grinding the pavement to dust were the true testaments to ensuring your business survived.

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, having started a business last year. You can’t fight the entrepreneurial spirit, but there is always a time when you question the decision. Did I make the right choice? Can this business live, breathe, and succeed? After thinking about it, my honest, gut answer, is that the SEO entrepreneur is a lot like a restaurant owner; over 50% are going to fail within the first three years [1].

That SEO Dream is Dead, Kid.

Like it or not, it’s a reality. And, please don’t misunderstand, I’m am not saying SEO is dead. SEO is alive and well. I really do believe that the idea of an pure SEO shop is dead. Just look at the search marketing landscape a moment.

1) The Exponential Growth of SEO as an Industry

In the last three years, everyone is trying to capitalize on the SEO game. The market has exploded into stratosphere. So when I hear comments, that it’s all about passion, talent, and sweat-equity that will all but guarantee success, I have to shake my head a bit. Look, there’s is absolutely no substitute for those qualities. If you aren’t mentally prepared to dive in head-first, then turn around now. But the landscape is drastically different from where it was ten years ago. Hell, even five years ago, when SEO was just this thing “geeks” did.

Now a company is facing everyone and anyone who’s ever read a blog about SEO. Now a company is facing overseas outsourcing at a fraction of the cost. Now a company is facing traditional agencies building out “digital” arms of their business in order to cash in and feign relevance.

Don't Get Your Heart Broken by SEO Dreams

2) SEO Isn’t Enough Anymore

Another sad, but true, fact. Personally I think SEO is a lot more than just keywords and links, and that it is the core to building a great website that produces great content and converts. Something I’ve said for a long time now, an SEO must be capable and fluent in everything search marketing. Specialties are dead for the consuming public. They want one-stop-shops that can combine SEO, paid search, social media, and conversion optimization to create aggressive strategies. Whether they listen or not is a question unto itself.

Ten years to fifteen years ago, SEO lone gun men/women (Aaron Wall, Rae Hoffman, David Harry, Greg Boser, Meg Geddes (a.k.a. Netmeg), etc.) were the standard. Small, niche groups of people who studied and experimented to hone their craft. And, really, it’s all you needed. With the web making breakthrough after breakthrough, crushing barriers at the speed of sound, even the lone gun men/women adopted and incorporated the other search marketing channels.

3) Super-Groups: The New SEM Assassin

If you were lucky enough to get in on the first few floors of this SEM industry, then creating and securing a reputation was easier. I didn’t say it wasn’t ball-busting, grinding work. It’s hard work to convince people that you can help build them a better website that ranks better in search engines. Especially with something so foreign.

It was simply easier. Less competition. Less people competing for the bullhorn. A more connected community; warriors of the same ilk. It existed and so did they; an easy match. Fast-forward ten years, and everyone is a SEO/SEM expert. Shouting to be heard. Elbowing their way to the fifteen second spotlight, only to fade to oblivion moments later. Because of the proliferation of our service, our knowledge, profit-centers splinter thousands of ways now, instead of hundreds. No one can make any money.

Of course there are those that all the stars lined up and they caught lightning in a bottle. But that’s the absolute exception, not the rule. Much like that sweet American Dream: the true Horatio Alger legend; rags to riches. Instead of settling for a quarter of the business, why not get fifty percent or more by creating a super-group?

Expect to start seeing the most talented SEMs/SEOs in the game congealing to form a powerhouse SEM group. It’s already happening (i.e. Blueglass Inc. and Outspoken Media). These super-groups offer the best talent, a wide variety of specialties, and have an existing client base to ward off the new company doldrums. I have the utmost respect for those two companies and the people associated with them, but I have no illusions that I could compete with them. Economies of scale. More manpower to throw at something within days than I could muster in months.

It’s the next phase of the SEM industry.

Or Maybe It Isn’t Dead?

Maybe there is still hope for the small SEO company? People working out of one room buildings and in-home offices building respectable client lists and knocking out dynamite work? Maybe we all catch lightning in a bottle a few times in this lifetime and it up to us to know what to do with it?

33 Comments
  1. Aug 24 2010

    thought provoking, to say the least, Tony. And it’s honestly why I shifted focus to where I now only do audits and the ensuing implementation consulting that goes along with them. I no longer need to wear all the hats.

    Yet even then, I still need to intimately understand enough of the hats to even do the audit these days, let alone communicate with all the players.

    • Aug 24 2010

      Alan,

      Thanks for the great comment. I wanted it to be thought-provoking, so I suppose it’s “mission accomplished”. I’m still teetering the fence on shedding all the hats and just doing the one or two things I do at a master-level. I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to wear all the hats.

      Keep doing your thing man! It’s all shaping up around you, just keep pressing on. Your lightning is on the way. :-)

  2. Aug 24 2010

    Great post, Tony. At first, I thought you were just serving up another “SEO is Dead” piece, but you make some great points, most of which I agree with. I’m not so sure that the powerhouse SEO/SEM groups will be the rulers of the roost, in the long run. Maybe. Certainly though, SEO is going to undergo a lot of change in the next year or two. Those that can adapt, may survive. The rest…

    • Aug 24 2010

      Doc,

      Hahaha! I wouldn’t be crazy enough to write an “SEO is Dead” post. That’s for those on the naked, “look-at-me” spotlight grab :-D

      I’m really interested to see how the next couple of years shakes out; I think the super-groups will end up having a really large piece of the pie in the long run. But, heck, who knows? Maybe the consuming public will want smaller and more agile? But, I definitely agree that survival is the key right now. If you just started, like me, avoiding getting yourself into a debt-hole early is what might make the all the difference until the economy stabilizes and you can afford to take on expenses without risk of capsizing.

      Thanks for the awesome input Doc!

  3. Aug 24 2010

    As long as that lightening doesn’t hit me in the butt! And fwiw Tony, I think it really comes down to whether someone believes both in themselves and in the notion that God/ the universe will provide regardless of what things might look like all around us. So I think you’re also gonna do great things in the coming years.

  4. Aug 25 2010

    Nice and thought-provoking post Anthony.

    I may be overly optimistic (in this one case) but I don’t think that smaller SEO shops, or one-man SEO shops, will be going away anytime soon. I do think, and hope, that all these people who know nothing yet profess to be expert SEOs on Twitter will quickly fade away when people realize that they honestly have nothing good to offer other than a possibly low price.

    One reason that I think smaller groups and lone individual SEOs will be ok is that the larger SEO companies won’t be able to handle all of the work. They’ll need someone to refer a potential client to when they have to turn something down. Another reason is that there will always be quality beginner SEOs who will do good work for a low price simply to get their name out there, and for companies that can’t afford a larger budget, this will be a godsend.

    • Aug 25 2010

      Julie,

      That’s all we can really hope for in the end. That big conglomerates won’t want to/be able to handle those businesses that can’t pay huge money for lots of talent. I think the scrappier SEM/SEO start-ups that will make it through are those who extremely low overhead, are extremely agile/flexible, and find just the right price point for region/market place they’re in. As far as the “self-proclaimed” SEO experts, I really do want to believe they’ll fall by the wayside, eventually.

      My only issue with that, and this might be a stretch, is that you can proclaim knowledge (even if you don’t have it) and the strategy and info is so readily available that all one has to do is search for it to continue to posture. Essentially, one can claim master-level knowledge from the get-go and build up to that point. They’ll never go away, but I do hope that the consuming public gets smarter to sort the wheat from the chaff. Only time will tell. :)

  5. Aug 25 2010

    For the foreseeable future there will be a place for the true Search Expert, in my estimation.

    1) search engines are in the business of providing the best results to users (well, and making a boatload of cash doing it)
    2) as search engine publishers become more and more sophisticated – driven by the arms race that is search – they will become more and more able to discern human efforts from automaton efforts*
    3) if 2) is true, then it is safe to say that the need for actual search experts will be all the more acute

    But tomorrow’s search expert will have to be completely fluent in inbound link building and information architecture. Today’s search experts already get it. The poseurs don’t.

    And tomorrow’s search experts will have to be more technically savvy as well.

    As long as their are search engines to be kowtow-ed to, there will be the search expert and a bunch of previously-burned companies that want to hire them.

  6. Aug 25 2010

    Hi Anthony. Great post and you raise some points that I’ve been considering myself as a 1 man SEO band recently.

    Overall, I think it’s a case of weathering the storm. I think that the majority of these new digital arms of traditional agencies are learning on the job. Some will provide solid results some wont. I agree with Julie that the “fly by night” SEOs will pass onto something new soon enough too where they think they can make more money.

    Alan’s point about believing in yourself and your business is vital to weather the storm. I’m making efforts to target more of the types of clients I’ve enjoyed working with recently.

    I’ve found some companies will instantly discredit you if you’re not a large agency, and I can live with that. I’ve also found some small businesses who think SEO is a $200 job that can be done in a week. I used to try and educate these enquiries thinking it would be worthwhile, but it isn’t.

    I’ve found the best option is to seek out those businesses that respect your work, and the process. It doesn’t matter to them who you are, or how big your office is, but what you bring to the table, and that’s up to us to make sure we offer as much value to their overall marketing and not just their SEO. There’s plenty of these businesses out there, it just might take a little longer to find them.

  7. Aug 25 2010

    Tony,

    Great post! From working on both the corporate and now agency side, you definitely see things from two different angles – from small SEO business consulting to larger internal SEO teams.

    I don’t feel that the small SEO is going away, I am kind of with Julie in that I believe the fakes will fizzle out. Like anything in life, you are only going to do something for the long term if you are passionate about what you are doing.

    All these people who are jumping on the bandwagon because they know companies are interested in growing SEO due to the ROI are soon going to realize it is not for them. Back in school it was the same thing with accounting, everyone and their mother was hiring accountants, so all these kids were getting their CPA’s etc. Now, three of my friends have decided to move on from Accounting as “it is not for them” :).

    Keep doing your thing….I am a big advocate for specialties, however, do believe (like Alan) that you need to know most interactive disciplines and the full search gamut within the marketing mix to be a successful search marketer.

    Cheers,
    Ross

  8. Aug 25 2010

    Nice post, Tony.

    I think that your basic point is very much correct — that many people are now looking for an all-in-one SEM shop rather than just an SEO shop — but I think that people like yourself will be able to adapt, if for no other reason than this: the vast majority of businesses in the country won’t be able to afford the mega-agency price tag.

    Maybe this is the affiliate marketer in me talking, but if I ran a business like yours, I’d probably focus on one very particular niche of the broader ‘SEO’ umbrella — and strive to be the absolute best at it.

    You don’t have the staff to compete with the all-in-one agencies. But do you have the staff to be the best CMS migration company out there from an SEO point of view? To be world class linkbuilders? To be the best at anything that these larger agencies will undoubtedly need help with if they want the best results?

    I think that this will be especially true in coming years. As technology improves, it becomes more complicated. And the more complicated something gets, the higher the barrier to entry. That is the sort of environment where specialists thrive.

    • Aug 25 2010

      Kevin, Ross, Gareth, and Matt:

      I think that’s one of the biggest issues: specialty vs. general Jack-of-all-Trades. Kevin and Matt you both bring up some good points for the need for “specialists” in an increasingly complex environment. My concern, again, is that consumers of our craft/science/art can’t make the distinction. What’s on the majority of companies’ minds right now? That’s right, social media. Getting “viral”. Consumers rarely ever see the 30,000 ft view, the big picture of inter-connectedness, and are looking for the latest and greatest. And there is no limit to the amount of “gurus” out there willing to take a chunk of someone’s wallet in the name trendy services.

      The you have another chunk of client that’s already been burned years back, but want’s to get in the game again. They averse to the “trendy” and want solid strategy. A specialist could wiggle their way through that, and in fact probably do a great job, but the manpower isn’t there. Moreover, the one thing I don’t agree with is that the mega-agency/firm will have the need for specialist outsource. The firm, in this case Blueglass or Outspoken, do have the best of the best already involved.

      Money is the bottom-line, as usual. If the mega-agency can afford to make their barrier entry palatable, kind like what Blueglass Second Step is doing, then it stands to reason that they will eventually, in the long run, soak up more of the market place.

      I love how Alan put it:

      I think it really comes down to whether someone believes both in themselves and in the notion that God/ the universe will provide regardless of what things might look like all around us.

      That’s all any of can do. Put faith in yourself, in God/Universe, and catch those moments when you get a shot at capturing some lightning.

  9. Aug 25 2010

    Great post Tony. Being a freelancer and being able to build up a clientele base for me has been a SEO dream come true, so I hope the dream isn’t dead. It’s been.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to get some referrals from current clients who have been very happy with what I’ve provided for them. As Julie said “Another reason is that there will always be quality beginner SEOs who will do good work for a low price simply to get their name out there, and for companies that can’t afford a larger budget, this will be a godsend.” She was talking about me and my clients.

    Ultimately I’ve finally found something I LOVE doing, and helping a small biz bottom line makes me feel great. As one of my favorite people to learn from, Alan Bleiweiss has it right, belief in yourself and being happy goes a long way, in life and business.

    Once again great read and great comments from all of you.

    Peace, Love & SEO :-}

  10. Aug 25 2010

    That’s a good point too…it’s easy to fake this stuff at times. However, for my part in reducing the amount of people like this who actually get business, I’ll be certain to only send referrals to quality people whom I know to be good, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. If all the bigger firms can commit to doing that, it will go a long way towards keeping smaller shops and individual SEOs going.

  11. Aug 25 2010

    As a one-woman SEO agency, it is a challenge. There is a part of me that misses and so wants to be part of a larger team again. However, by running solo, I’m able to be part of each client’s team. One-person shops cannot serve the same clients nor the level of services as an SEM super-power, nor should we try.

    We are able to be nimble and work collaboratively with others who specialize in order to provide a level of personal service and training that may not be provided on a larger agency level.

    Your point about having a wide-range of knowledge is key. Pure SEO is no longer pure SEO. We may not implement the full-spectrum of online initiatives needed, but we can advise accordingly to help educate clients so they understand it’s more than keywords and code on a page.

    P.S. Most of us either do or will have a waiting list. For you starting out, your quality of work and reputation will follow you for years, and there will be a payoff.

  12. Aug 25 2010

    I’d like to see a post exploring how one-man and small SEO shops can work with the larger firms actually…ways to stay engaged, etc. I would not like to see it enough to WRITE it but it’s an intersting concept!

    • Aug 25 2010

      Julie,

      Might take a little while, but I’ll see what I can do. :-) I think that would be an interesting post too; I wonder if I’ll be surprised by what I find out.

  13. Aug 25 2010

    Great post that has spawned some great discussions here. I would agree with those that say the small/inidividual SEO shops will not die. With the increased importance of local there will be hoards of SMBs out there getting into SEO. Plus the super groups and large SEO firms/agencies are EXPENSIVE! Most people will never be able to afford the services of Blueglass or Outspoken and people like that really do not want to work with firms that don’t have at least $5k/mo to spend. That is great for them but there are small guys, with $1000-$3000/mo to spend that still need good service. That will never go away.

  14. Aug 25 2010

    I am one of those people who is finding it harder and harder to wear all hats. I agree with Dana, that SEO is much more now than it was before. You absolutely have to know your way around Analytics, for starters.

    The challenge is that small businesses have no budget for comprehensive SEO services and larger businesses have large scope projects that require teams to execute. For a one person SEO, you have to get a “perfect storm” to not only land a client, but have the capacity to help them effectively.

    I also think that taxes are not the solution for everything. I am wholeheartedly with Alan on this one. Bad bloggers will eventually disappear. If someone makes money on their blog – great for them. I like the free spirit of the Internet. “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” – Dave Clark (1992)

  15. Jill
    Aug 25 2010

    Many good points here. However I still believe that one man/woman SEOs can succeed in the foreseeable future for example, the trend of bringing SEO in-house. Having a specialty on building in-house SEO teams for example. Consulting with large businesses would still be viable.

    Also, many large SEM powerhouses tend to have a certain price point for engaging with a client

  16. Aug 25 2010

    As has already been said, kudos on the thought provoking post. You are not alone, Tony.

    This very reality is what led me months ago to shift my focus toward building search engine friendly small business websites, doing on-site audits and keyword research and away from focusing on SEO as a whole.

    Frankly, I was much in need of an outlet for my creativity and I feel my skills are best put to use building a solid foundation that small businesses can continue to build on confidently for a long time to come.

    There’s still room for smaller SEO firms who cater to the small business market and their shrinking marketing budgets. As others have said, there’s a large percentage of SMBs that can’t afford $5,000 a month to work with a big agency, even if the investment would ultimately prove to be more than worth it.

  17. Aug 25 2010

    Nice post on the state of the SEO industry. And, thank you for the respect you have for OSM, we love it and hopefully we can maintain it for years to come!

    A quick personal note on size and resources — it was awesome to see our name next to Blueglass as a mega agency, but the point I most relate is, “People working out of one room buildings and in-home offices building respectable client lists and knocking out dynamite work?”

    We’ve been in the industry as individuals for awhile now, but as a company we’re still very young. We started off with a couple great clients and coverage, but we’ve certainly had struggles along the way. For example, as of this week we’re finally securing office space in Troy and hiring a second employee. A year and a half in and Lisa and I get to move out of our apartments! I feel much more like a scrappy startup than a major agency. I won’t argue with perception though, so what makes us look bigger than we actually are? We partnered with each other to compensate for our individual areas of weakness. We wanted to grow and that’s impossible to do while trying to wear every hat. I can’t do Lisa and Rae’s job and vice versa. Accepting that and respecting each other’s strengths is what makes us look like such a powerhouse.

    We also recognize what we’re good at and refer to others when we aren’t equipped with the information a client needs. For example, we don’t know PPC and we don’t pretend to. We stick to a few core areas of specialization and since the start of the company, even those have evolved with demand and knowledge. We want to stay boutique, nimble and collaborative and if we get to a place of wanting everyone and everything, please slap me! There’s plenty to go around. :)

    • Aug 25 2010

      Rhea,

      I aim to please! On a serious note, thanks for sharing that Outspoken Media view. It’s refreshing to hear that even a powerful group of seasoned professionals can feel like “scrappy startup”. It’s not that I wasn’t convinced that there’s plenty of work to go around, but the comments and discussion on the post has certainly helped reinforce the viewpoint. :-)

      Maybe the industry is heading /already at place where small start-ups and small search marketing firms will leverage the two or three things they do well and shuffle the rest to trusted sources.

  18. Aug 25 2010

    Much appreciation for your thoughts. In the few years I’ve been running our small company, I’ve learned that SEO is only the beginning of a truly effective online marketing strategy. SEO is simply an introduction to an interested audience. Attraction, engagement and conversion (not to mention an infrastructure that can actually deliver a quality product or service) are no less critical just because you’re the first foot in the door. The same mentality was responsible for all the “AAA plumbing” and excessive “A” businesses that thought they would game the yellow pages’ use of alphabetical listings. SEO provides an advantage, but as I said, its only the beginning.

  19. Aug 25 2010

    Interesting article… However, one thing I feel is often forgotten in our industry is that ‘industry celebrities’ aren’t necessarily the most successful individuals or business owners.

    I have been in this business for about 14 years now. Not only have I been pretty successful in my own right, but I have worked for multiple agencies who are extremely successful where their names and the names of their employees are not ‘known’. We were all too busy working, perfecting our craft, and landing clients to promote ourselves.

    Don’t get me wrong – there is value in being published on industry blogs or speaking at industry conferences. However, many times you’re just promoting yourself to others in our niche industry… This doesn’t translate directly into revenue and success.

    Getting back to the main point of your article, there are so many small businesses who don’t even have websites, let alone know what SEO is. Our industry is still in its infancy, with tons of unrealized opportunity still out there for the taking and much more to come…

    • Aug 25 2010

      Brian,

      I definitely agree with you. Celebrity on the web or otherwise in the SEM industry does not translate into dollars or revenue. If you don’t have the skills to make great things happen, but talk a great game, then maybe politics is a better career for you. :-)

      That said, there is a balance that a person/entity has to achieve in order to be considered authoritative and respected in the field. A blog, Twitter, Facebook is purely supplemental as a way to demonstrate knowledge or authority in a field. That over-used, over-played “thought leader” buzz word. Unfortunately, I think it’s a necessary evil many of us have to take on in order to get let in on the “unrealized opportunity”. One might be able to summon that opportunity, but having a position of authority/celebrity certainly helps funnel that opportunity faster.

      Great comment to add to the discussion!

  20. Aug 26 2010

    Love the article. Gotta say I’m glad you mention Rae Hoffman prominently as one of the Lone Wolf SEOs – however simply having been a groundbreaker doesn’t give anyone already established reason to rest on their laurels. Rae Hoffman (since I’ve already mentioned her, I’ll use her for an example) has branched out into providing all of the services that a business needs to make them happy. Why go to five people to work on various aspects of your site when you can simply call one person / company who does it all?

    Newbies are definitely going to have to put in five times as much effort tooling up to face the total SEO challenge – and business owners need to be educated in what SEO today really is – a much broader package with much higher returns.

  21. Aug 26 2010

    I agree with you to a certain extent. Don’t you think with local search becoming more popular there will always be opportunities in geo-specific areas? Sure, theses opportunities may not be to work with a fortune 500 company, but they will be there. Local/independent business are starting to realize the power of SEO and SEM, which provides the smaller agencies opportunity to still provide services.

  22. Aug 26 2010

    Tony – well, tis true about prospective Clients not “getting it” – meaning not being able to discern what it is precisely you do and don’t do.

    But that is more of a sales issue:

    For instance, in selling into a company, we do a line-by-line break out by item and hours – some would disagree with this approach – but it seems to work for us… however, having said that, we are not inclined to line item something like “SSL Cert,” as it is too much to expect our prospects to “get” – and, it is such a tiny piece of the puzzle that getting caught in that discussion is a real low-value discussion… that is, it complicates a smooth transaction.

    I think in the line of work you’re in, specifically, trust is crucial. Because frankly, most clients may know they need “SEO” (having been told by someone or another that it is so), but are not at all interested in really understanding wtf “it” entails.

    So, it’s like this… “it must be done… it must be done properly… it is harmful to have a poor job done of it… so, I am here now to make sure that you do in fact receive as much benefit as your budget will allow.”

    Beyond that, expect the glaze over the eyes look.

    Just my two cents. We approach the topic in this manner… partially because I am not a SEMktr, but also because it really is a matter of due diligence, isn’t it? It’s a dotted “i” … a crossed “t” – that is, it is NOT an option. It must be done.

  23. Aug 26 2010

    I would also add… I don’t know how a one-person SEO shop could survive on a one-crack-at-a-time basis, where the SEM specialist has to be selling and fulfilling to keep the pipe full. I am sure it CAN be done. I am just not sure it is at all the recommended way to go about it.

  24. Aug 26 2010

    The comments here are just awesome. Something I’ll add for those of us who are individuals or small shops that can’t or don’t want to wear all the hats, or even if you think you can and then can execute on that.

    The vast majority of my work comes from agencies – design houses, development companies, PR and brick-mortar marketing firms. I bust my butt more on cultivating those relationships than anything I do, because on great agency is like having an entire team of account managers.

    Crucial to this success is being crystal clear on what you will and will not work on, what you are and are not expert in, as Rhea mentioned. It requires being fearless when an agency client comes to you with a new opportunity. I mean – if you alienate an agency, you don’t just lose one client – you lose five, ten or fifty, all in one shot.

    Yet by being fearlessly honest and focused, I have built a level of trust and respect that itself is invaluable. And that just brings me more work of the kind I like, enjoy and excel at.

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