Is Search Engine Optimization Under Attack? Yep, No Biggie.

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 07/20/2012

These highly technical and occasionally personal blog posts are a main pillar of my personal brand. Writing is thinking and the more you make yourself write, the more and better you think, and the less you live life on automatic. This is good if you want to be a dynamic, ever-improving person. I guess it’s a bit fatiguing if you found a comfortable role in life and are just playing it out. Not me. I have thousands of little course adjustments to make now for the journey I’m trying to see play out, and I’ve got to be optimizing my decisions.

My field of the moment is search engine optimization, which is under attack—the days of Google’s simple trick of sorting out the “top 10” for any given query are over. Back then there was no fragmentation of audience or query-types, based on intent and the monetary value of the queries. Instead, we all used Google or the few other engines like it, as research librarians. That’s been changing for awhile, but the recent Google product search changes called Google Shopping really emphasized the point—chopping off the fat head of lucrative search space and tossing it to the advertisers, leaving the sizable but less tasty long tail carcass to us SEO vultures.

In a nutshell, without advertising dollars, you can come up very well in search, but not on any of the big dollar-moving terms. We are becoming increasingly relegated to that three, four and five-word “research space”. And that’s only if there’s not a product name or major category amongst those three, four or five words.

This is Google’s right, and it may even be the best thing for the users, as everything being put in front of them has thumbnail pics and carefully written descriptions, and is one or two clicks away from a purchase. In fact, if you do flip over to the full shopping experience, things become remarkably Amazon-like, right down to the product attributes that you can sort and filter on, such as price ranges, colors and sizes.

And how could it really be any other way, as product-info is amongst the most monitizable data and the most well structured, in terms of meta data and attributes. And Google has been working for a long time to offer that end-to-end experience with experimental and transitional products like Google Base and Google Checkout, which have since evolved into today’s very Amazon-like experience—everything but the hardgoods shipping infrastructure.

Did I mention end-to-end? Well, that’s where the really big battles is being fought—over end-to-endiness. Everything about life that can be served up digitally and facilitated with some shipping and hardware infrastructure in a scalable and profitable way is part a point between those ends. Some of the bigger checkmark items are a digital goods store for apps, movies, software, ebooks and the like. Another checklist item is the phone, tablet, laptop or TV on which to buy and consume those goods are other checkmarks.

Remember big media? Remember when if you bought TV ads on NBC, ABC and CBS in the same timeslot, you reached the whole world—from coast to coast? And how GE bought NBC and got end-to-endy before it was in style? Control big media, control culture, control what we buy. Good formula! Only problem now is that pesky Internet, media fragmentation, and the zero-cost of production and distribution. Just add talent! This makes what’s available take a more natural shape—a lot more of everything, and nothing seizing and holding the entire world’s eyeballs for very long.

The new networks are now those companies with what it takes to be end-to-endy. There’s not many ways to control the whole picture easily and extract large sums of money at once. But you can control all the points along the way and extract a little at each. Sometimes you make one free that a competitor charges a premium for, in order to disrupt—as Google did with Android. And sometimes you set expectations at a particular price-point as Apple did with 99-cent songs in iTunes.

Whatever your particular products or pricing strategies, you’re going for a tight, slick lifestyle that’s also pretty good for your customers, least they move like a flock to someone with a better deal. There is some amount of customer lock-in possible by making your digital library non-transferable and apps platform-specific, or a social history you don’t want to reset. And therein lies the real clash of the titans being fought on this planet over the hearts and souls of the people. It’s why Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are such important companies, and why Microsoft almost flubbed it.

So, what does one who has a fairly clear view of what is going on—who happens to currently be a professional search engine optimizer—a career that’s becoming less relevant with every end-to-endy attack on the level playing-field do? How to re-invigorate my earning capacity and adapt to the diminishing relevancy of relevancy? Well, its all about plotting a course to an envisioned future, and have all the steps on the way useful in a variety of ways, like hedging your bets in case I guess wrong.

Peering into my crystal ball, I see personal brand and personal authority surpassing authoritative websites and all the invisible hand webmasters linking to eachother. In other words, quantitative social signals will simply have to trump PageRank as a relevancy factor. But that only matters where the searches aren’t being competed over by advertisers, because ads will dominate those pages—highly relevant and useful ads, but ads none-the-less. SEO as we know it today will become more important as the subject-matter becomes less profitable.

One must move one’s thinking into the end-to-endiness of the titans. Precisely what are they going to be doing? Do they have the full ability to take away natural search, or continuously pull it back as a necessary evil for users to be exposed to as little as possible—such as in the days of the portals? Remember Excite, Lycos and Go? They all viewed search as something that brings you AWAY from their controlled experience, and more ad impression opportunities. The precise same issue is being dealt with by these end-to-endy companies.

In many peoples opinions, the Internet is TOO free and open, and it was a mistake for it to have ever happened the way it did. Consumer’s eyes have been TOO opened, and expectations for a natural sorting of schlock from quality are too high (it’s getting harder to feed us schlock). Tastes are increasingly difficult to lump together into single advertising vehicles, and making sense of it all—the only sane navigational and filtering mechanism—leads back to natural search—a search that aggressively goes into the content, makes sense of it, and reads all the signals around it.

The need for such “natural” or organic or editorial or whatever you want to call it search will not be going away. It’s just a question of how worthwhile it is for these end-to-endy companies to continue delivering it to you. So long as they can’t completely shut you into their ecosystem, they can’t ignore search. But the moment they control the experience from content creation to device delivery, and there’s not cheap info-tech devices outside their ecosystem ready to contradict and lure you away, then old-fashioned style Google search is in danger.

As far as my career, I guess it’s becoming pretty clear. My specialty will be predicting how this is going to play out, positioning myself for greatest advantage, and building things that most help myself and clients navigate. survive and thrive through the turbulence and disruption. Today, I call it SEO. Tomorrow, I’m thinking “earned media optimizer”. But I’m keeping my options open. It has something to do with the world that’s trying to get rewarded based on merit, and not ad budgets. It’s always going to be there finding the best ways to poke through.