It’s taken over a decade, but I believe that we’ve finally arrived at the point where SEO and search have entered the stage of ubiquity. Perhaps we were at the long downhill slide a few years ago with the explosion of Search and SEO, with the explosion conferences. But, it’s ever-present now. It’s sauntering through the halls of every agency, it’s dribbling off the lips of small business owners, and it’s the little voice in every head of every executive at the boardroom table. It’s in the common vernacular of how we talk about digital marketing: “what’s SEO’s part?”. And, we’ve waited a long time for this recognition, the juncture where it’s common place for businesses to ask how we optimize and leverage search. Ubiquitization. We might do well to be careful for what we wish for. And, of course, the caveat to that, is just because they know they need it, doesn’t mean they “get it”. But that’s a separate post entirely. And, perhaps, a nice follow-up to this one?
Ubiquity has it’s price. I think we realized this a couple of years ago as an industry, as a field, but it was better to say nothing. It was important to enjoy the renaissance, the birth of a long overdue movement treading water in the digital undercurrent as the long-toothed serfs of the digital world. What ubiquity brings in terms of positives for the industry is acutely contrasted by its negatives.
Same As It Ever Was
Recently, Rand Fishkin posted a Whiteboard Friday that discussed the SEO’s job. Specifically, it’s this quote: “The SEO’s job, in my opinion, should have no boundaries other than what are the things that positively influence this cycle. What are the things that will help you achieve your goals?”
Inherently, I can’t disagree with Rand’s assertion: SEO’s job is whatever is necessary to help the client and achieve the goal. It’s what I’ve spent my career doing (and likely what you’ve spent yours doing too), learning technical website structure, learning UX, learning enough about design and its advances over the years to make websites accessible, learning social, learning content strategy, learning to architect search strategies, unlearning how to write to write for the web, etc. King of all, master of none. Because each affects the end goal of throughput of a website, whatever that particular throughput is.
Hasn’t it always been this way? The fact is SEOs have always been responsible for a website’s throughput. When throughput was visits, it was our SEO that was held accountable for the throughput metric. When the throughput was TOS (Time on Site), it was SEO that was responsible for this metric too. We all know too well that throughput is a multi-shaped, multi-shifting creature (depending on the site), but if the company uses SEO/Search, you can bet your ass SEO is invariably being bonded to that throughput’s success or failure. When SEO claimed the lion-share of success, it bears the burden of failure.
As companies demanded more from throughput metrics, as the traditional ROI metrics began to filter down to the digital space, and the analytics became ever more capable of measuring traditional ROIs, the role/job of SEOs expanded. Traffic and SERP Position isn’t enough to satisfy traditional ROI metrics concerned with sales/dollars. Traditional ROI metrics demanded that SEOs incorporate other skills, become more holistic in their approach to satisfy ROI, expand their narrow focus.
And, just to wrap up the point, once SEOs were seemingly responsible for a website’s success or failure, it became less about the SEO (but that always remained our core strength) and traffic and rankings, but blending these techniques with other disciplines to create a throughput monster. The job expanded from necessity to become as valuable to the market as possible, to keep business moving through the door, and to earn as much as the market would bear. This is really no different than any other service industry job: create as much value as you can to create as much profit and growth as you can. However, the explosive expansion of the job role coupled with the explosive expansion of information available from professionals has led to a state of marketplace saturation. And, so here we are today: ubiquity.
Positive Change of Ubiquitization
There’s Enough Pie To Go Around. For Now.
It’s not all bad. Ubiquitization of SEO/Search has brought more people to the table than ever before. From giant Fortune 500 brands to neighborhood corner businesses, everyone is of the understanding that SEO is must have. It is an essential tool and channel in the marketing arsenal and practically writes itself into scopes of work (we’ll get back to this point later). The days of working really hard to get businesses to see the value are all but gone; they’re finding us now and convincing us why they are a good candidate for our services. Is that oversimplified? Ya. Granted, there are always small factions that lag behind and insist they will catch up when it’s time. And, there’s no denying the magic two-step of the Dog and Pony Show plays to an endless record.
The ubiquitization of SEO has led to more opportunities for more people and agencies. There are more slices of the pie to go around, offering entrepreneurial folks the ability to build something sustainable and scratch out a living thanks to the expanded job role of SEO. But, eeking out a living is as close to nirvana many will get to. In fact this post illustrates these points beautifully, and published today no less. We Can’t Help Every SEO Prospect!, makes the point for me. For every seasoned professional that turns down a site for one these reasons, there’s an opportunity for an other SEO to pick it up (yep, even the “ethics”. Some SEOs are bendy that way ).
As much as we’d like to think that SEO is still a highly specialized marketing field that deserves a handsome reward, our collective work on a number of different battlefields and boardrooms over the last decade to make it inclusive to marketing mix, has also caused its commoditization. Like any commodity, there will be concentrated pockets and coffee-drip waterfalls, and has truly become a price vs. brand service.
Negative Change of Ubiquitization
The Monolith of the Super-Group and Homogenization of SEO
Evenutally, the concentrated pockets will grow and trickle-down will become less. It’s already started to happen; independent SEOs and those running small SEO/Search shops are packing in the tent for the seemingly greener pastures of agency-life (both digital and search). The information and voices have already started to become more concentrated and are coalescing, take Moz/Distilled, iAcquire, SEER, Blueglass, etc., as examples. And, concentrated pockets of influence tend to try and make things more homogeneous than they already are. They attempt to mainstream it and mainline it. Because, after all, when it’s about price (which it is), only brands are worth paying the premium for. It’s no real coincidence that Moz hooked up with Distilled 4 years ago to off-load the SEO/Search Clients, to focus on tools. And, it’s no real coincidence that Search “super-groups” are commonplace, and why every traditional and digital agency is hounding (and getting) the best SEOs with chops.
The attempted (still in progress) hijacking of SEO to be “inbound marketing” is just the latest attempt to mainstream it and mainline it. Make SEO a faceless, unassuming thing. Just another channel in the tome of the marketing playbook that everyone can lay claim to. By the end of 2013, I strongly suspect and agree, as Tad Chef so eloquently put it in his piece on The Future of SEO in 2013 will ultimately have to be “[...]about giving SEO a new meaning.” If not, you can either join an agency, go in-house, or become a marketer. That’s where this train intends to stop. Where the companies pay top dollar for “inbound marketing”, and the SEOs are working themselves into the grave taking the clients that “can’t be helped”.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma of SEO
Commoditization through our new-found ubiquity is/will be making life hell for Independent/Small SEO shops and small businesses alike. Maybe you got lucky and hooked with a big firm and get fed a stream of business to contract out on. If that’s the case, this might not apply to you. But, for the small business it’s about price. Plain and simple.
Their margins are slim enough, that they’re not going to want dump that into the prices being asked by Premium Search Brands, which means they’re going to haggle and shakedown every independent and small firm to the cent. It’ll be no different than any service or product that drops down from the “premium” tier; you’re willing to pay less in the hopes that what you buy gets you to the point-in-time down the road when you can upgrade. Make no mistake that small businesses are just as needy, if not more so. They intend to get every penny worth and ever so gently (though sometimes not) bend that scope. Indeed, it’s cynical, but it’s straight economics and a ever-revolving Prisoner’s Dilemma. The trick is learn how to cooperate to survive so every gets the best of the situation. Small shops and independent SEOs will have to cobble together several of these projects to make ends meet, struggling to keep it together until they either move up the Tier Structure or pack it in.
Going forward, I have to be honest and admit I don’t know how this shakes out. The industry is, and for the most part always has been, in its own Prisoner’s Dilemma. Experience and historical trends tell me that the Search and SEO industry shifted the gear to warp drive on this course. There’s always the possibility that this trend will reverse itself.