Yet another "future of SEO" thinking out loud post

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 11/20/2012

It’s time to start using my daily journal for what it’s for—keeping my bearings, suppressing distraction, and preparing some good writing for the Internet that could only come from me. I am reaching a crossroads. It took me 7 years to call myself an SEO, and we’re 7 years past that. The center cannot hold.

SEO is still interesting, but the game is changing and becoming more complex, broken down into a variety of subspecialties, and amid that fluctuation, the “universal truths” are poking through. The sub-specialties are all moving targets, with battling vendors and data-sources. “Local” is the prototypical example. However, it’s the under-lurking universal truths that are of interest to me, and where recalibration of my career must occur.

I’m going to let this daily journal entry ramble for a little bit, because I need to get all my thoughts out there to decide what to do next. There are the things expected of my for my job, but I think that is rapidly losing validity. The battle to manipulate Google now in light of the war-on-SEO arms race—characterized by the Panda and Penguin updates—is increasingly relegated to the less profitable and less interesting long-tail.

The long-tail is still a place to base a career, but it’s where I was back in 2006 with HitTail, and specifically long-tail optimization. You can totally own topics whose value of owning is debatable. This is a good strategy if you’re just trying to get your foot in the door with a particular researching audience, and want to try to win a subscriber or follower, and segue into another topic over time. It’s a subtle game for small players to get a foot in the door—not very good for companies already working from the bully pulpit of a Fortune 500.

The thing that is by far the most interesting to me right now is the shift in technological platforms that’s going on all around us. My common mantra these days is that the driving force of change in digital today is not “social” and “mobile”, but rather the cheap, frequent hardware upgrade cycles that underlie it all. None of this transformation would be so significant if it were hobbled to the old desktop clunkers that you have to use with a certain propriety at the office, and even at home because it somehow “belongs” to someone else.

Social and mobile go together because you can’t go spending all day doing social stuff on the office computer, least it show up in their logs and you’re called in for questioning. But you CAN do all those things on either your cellphone, taking the device off WiFi and only letting AT&T or Verizon see your network activity. A similar dynamic occurs at home. There’s only so many desks set up with stationary computers with big screens. Places to sit and big beautiful screens are finite resources to be fought over. But why bother if that delicious little personal space of the smartphone gives you 80% of what you’re looking for with 20% of the battle over resources. And additional tiny mobile devices like that become even more common over the years as the “give them the razor and sell them the razor blade” business model grips 7-inch form-factor devices.

In short, things are becoming very interesting and old habits are being broken, repeatedly by weakening the bonds to our former desktop-bound habits. I can not overstate how brilliant the Android strategy is for Google. Without it, Google would have very little leverage over the new habits that get formed each time a new smartphone or tablet is dropped into someone’s hands. But today that razor/razorblade free 7 inch tablet is almost certainly going to have its default search set to Google. The castle built on clouds that is Google could collapse overnight, because old-fashioned Google searching is mostly a habit tied to the desktop hardware of yesteryear. But Android provides hope of a profitable mobile search future.

Okay, how realistic is it for a Google to collapse overnight? Tech empires rise and fall overnight. Remember Netscape? Novell? Even the largest and most adaptable winners have to re-invent themselves constantly and lose their dominant roles only to become relegated to just another mega-corp that has to keep diversifying and re-inventing just to survive. Witness IBM and HP. They’re still giants, but shifting changing giants, as IBM alternates between being a hardware versus services company, and HP struggles to adapt to the post-money-printing Inkjet-printer world. Companies with a hand on the very cultural rudder lose their grip, and struggle to not get knocked off the boat, as in the case of Microsoft. How much does Microsoft have going for it beyond momentum, and a world of sadly boxed-in developers and businesses? XBox was a good try to break out of the technologically stagnating office environment, but it’s too little too late.

This is precisely the type of writing I need to do to regain my bearings. I believe that most people are sort of blind, allowing the daily-grind to slap blinders on them, resulting in a sort of myopic view of what’s going on. In that state, they just let the changes that are occurring in the world wash over them, and then come into line with it—with a sort of “oh, isn’t it interesting that happened” attitude. They don’t see the manipulations being done upon them by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg creating the Facebook habit, or Amazon with the Kindle and eBook reading. They don’t see the obvious results of tablet specifications being released by NVidia, embraced by Asus and Google, and the accompanying dropping manufacturing costs sustained over a few holiday seasons. Larger, more flashy versions of this have of course played out with Apple already with everything from the iPod on forward, whose strategy now looks like the rule-book for cooking the frog without it hardly knowing. There’s a lot of those frog-cooking games going on right now.

Younger generations just grow up into this stuff. It makes them look like they have some sort of advantage, but it’s really even much worse than for the 8-bit generation who have a more solid context in which to be awed. My generation remembers when a TV remote control used mechanically struck aluminum rods, much like a musical tuning-rod, which when “heard” by the TV, drove a mechanical motor that literally flipped the channels by turning a dial. It’s almost comical, like the movie Brazil, what technology used to be like.

I was a remote-control dandy growing up, and embraced tons of automation solutions such as RadioShack’s X10 system and programmable universal remotes. Even today, we haven’t really even solved the super-obvious problem of using our smartphones as a remote controls—because all existing products use infrared sensors, and phones don’t emit infrared light, and wouldn’t work through walls even if they did. You need special equipment that’s not part of the common mainstream mobile phones, so universal remote solutions on your phone will remain in the margins until everyone really starts using the same standards.

This kind of thing used to be a source of great frustration to me, being denied the automation that was always just one non-stupid standardization away—but I’ve reached a more relaxed attitude about it, by which I don’t fight the progress, but rather go along with it, perhaps at best connecting dots a few moments before others do.

The newer generations have a distinct problem in that the extreme advancement and consumerization of electronics has actually realized Arthur C Clarke’s prediction that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Windows PCs with all their high price-tags, and operating foibles, idiosyncrasies and eventual slow-down and corruption always forced SOMEONE to be the PC expert. You needed to breathe new life into it for say two or three more years until you can afford a new one. But it’s not that way anymore. Usable laptops are $200 already for this holiday season, and super-cheap tablets are already $40 in China. Just imagine next holiday season, or 5-years down the road. Who would ever repair a computing device when a new one is virtually free (advertising subsidized, of course). This will relegate most future generations to being helpless consumers beholden to magic.

How does this equipment become so cheap and powerful? In Apple’s case, it’s a matter of total vertical integration, pinching pennies and squeezing out performance in every single place possible. I often think of Apple as the new Commodore in this regard. Apple resultingly commands the majority of profit margins in the smartphone market. Samsung has made a lot of inroads recently, to become the “other” company making some profit. Many other companies are either just breaking even or operating at a loss with their smartphones. So even though Apple might have a minority of the global smartphone market, it is of the most valuable sort, helping to turn it into one of the most valuable companies in the world. It doesn’t need to subsidize product-cost with advertising.

Everyone else is probably going to have to start subsidizing its products with profit-sharing with advertising revenue to make any profit on razor-thin smartphone profit margins. In fact, the whole non-Apple world (minus Microsoft) has to lined up behind the Android platform—it is of course Mac vs. PC all over again. However this time, Apple is committed to not repeating the same mistakes, and has put out a consistently ever-improving product that a reliable and ever-expanding customer-base will always upgrade to (unlike the Mac of the 90’s, which arguably really lost its edge to the PC). Therefore, the non-Apple camp has to look for where to eek out enough profit to make it worth even staying in the business, and will be uniquely malleable when Google shows them the way, subsidizing with ads.

It’s a tough point to think through and articulate, but it amounts to the fact that Apple is not incumbent to Google, but the whole rest of the industry is. Google makes something like 95% of its profits on AdWords. AdWords is mostly a desktop product, where people do most of their product shopping and research-oriented searches. I can’t show you the data, but I believe mobile search is much more geared towards looking something up fast to know what it is so you don’t feel stupid, and local on-the-go activity, that will rarely culminate in an AdWords click or purchase. In fact, mobile searching doesn’t even have to start out in Google at all—but rather, it can take place in maps or Siri or some other voice-recognition search—and forever more-so as voice recognition improves and gains acceptance. In those cases it DOES start at Google, it’s because Apple still uses Google as the default search service on iOS devices, and because Google controls the browser directly via Android and the Chrome “omnibox” address bar on [nearly] all other devices.

Getting the picture? There’s an argument here that I wobble between making or not about whether all this leads to the “SEO is dead” statement. A search on Siri hits every data source EXCEPT the Web, and then reports back: “I don’t understand ‘[your search]’. But I could search the web for it.” In other words, in the Apple-centric world, an old-fashioned Web search has already been demoted to “back-fill”, when some other more dedicated (and presumably, professional) data source such as Yelp and Wolfram Alpha has not turned anything up. In the Google-world on the other hand, results are continuously tweaked into fitting that “Top-10”-looking page, perhaps inextricably intertwined with the Google brand.

How far could Google really deviate from the Top-10-ish design that is so indicative of their brand, without driving away its user-base, and risking the the castle built on clouds from coming crashing down to earth? The answer is, in small degrees and over a large period of time—so long in fact, that whatever is playing out with Android will have had a chance to pour concrete into the foundations of the Google castle and gradually lower it to the earth, so if the desktop AdWords cloud that is keeping it afloat dissolves away, it will have lowered directly into place over its newly hardened foundations. If this plays out, SEO will not be dead (by virtue of Google still existing), but it will be driven down into the long-tail, underneath every conceivable way Google can get advertising in your face without breaking trust.

Okay, this is precisely the type of thinking I need to do to not go stupid. Think about other factors that play in. There are other search-types—other user intents. There are all sorts of vertical searches that are better than Google’s crawler-based search. There is Amazon for products. There is Yelp for restaurants. There is Wikipedia for crowd-sourced knowledge. There is Twitter for the pulse of the world. The list goes on. What about maps? What about news? What about video? Maps, news and video are places where Google has managed to blur the line. They developed maybe the best map product, and bought the best video product, in the form of Google Maps and YouTube respectively.

Let’s zero in on news for a moment, because it is such an interesting one. Twitter hasn’t really killed news. It’s a place where “old school” hard-won reputations and editorial integrity still exist. However, Google themselves don’t really own the editorially credible news sources. Instead, they always give news special treatment when the query warrants it, and a “News for [keyword]” result is included, going to the news.google.com page for that search, and one or two other listings. I term this the News lottery for news media organizations, because this is one of the two major traffic-driving sources when news stories break. The first to get in gets the lion’s share of the search traffic on that news story—the other major traffic-driver being whatever story is getting picked up and amplified by re-tweets in the story’s twitter-storm. Oh and yes, there are often a few more minutes-old news stories that usually show beneath the special Google News entry. Google’s freshness apparatus sees to that, so the debacle of Google not immediately knowing about 9/11 or wardrobe malfunctions never happens again.

The interesting blend of editorially credible news sources and social leads us to a discussion of another factor that plays into career recalibration. In addition to my “cheap hardware” mantra, I am continuously repeating my “Google+ isn’t what you think it is” mantra. So many people seem to think that Google+ is some half-assed response to Facebook on the social-front—this strange niche that has enthralled 1 billion people (allegedly half of that active daily) in a sort of bizarro-world family newsletter fugue state. I keep my Facebook account and even update it occasionally, but I feel contempt at the transparent attempts to weave a tangled-web and suck me into a wasteland abyss no better than television.

I don’t feel that manipulative wasteland Facebook feeling with either Twitter or Google. Twitter’s length-limited dynamic keeps me happily tweeting in a matter-of-fact attitude. Twitter doesn’t pretend to be any more than it is—the inane babble-stream that occasionally helps to liberate a country and slip in an ad. It’s an easy way to leave some net residue, and say: “Hey, I was here”. It’s like having that opportunity to write your name drying cement—all the time! Likewise, reading other peoples’ tweets takes on a take-it-or-leave-it feeling, which makes Twitter a somehow easier place than Facebook. I just don’t feel the spider in the corner tuned-into my vibrations as I do with Facebook, and I therefore go back more often.

And likewise, over the past 15 years, Google has not fatigued me the way Facebook has. I always turn to it to research and answer questions, switching off of AltaVista for my own personal use the day I first performed a Google search. But now, Google is knitting together editorially credible identities with its search results, and THAT’S what Google+ is all about. Forget being a Facebook competitor. It’s one of the best examples of gradually cooking the frog that you will ever see, as Google gradually uses identity to first bolster, then eventually swap-out its infinitely corruptible crawl-and-index link graph PageRank system. If you want to see the future face of search, go search on “iPad mini” and step through the results. I dare you. Go tell me what looks different.

There are very few sure things in SEO. One, is of you target sufficiently obscure and uncompetitive terms, you can easily get the top position—although it’s questionable how much traffic you can actually get from it. The other is if you adjust a Google+ profile and website just-so, you can get the author’s photo next to your listing, and improve the chances of getting clicked. That is quite literally the new face of search. Forget about Google+ as a Facebook killer. Status updates and shares are not necessary for Google+ to be successful. Merely upgrading your GMail or YouTube account to Google+ and passively going about your business as you always have, is all that’s necessary—oh, and occasionally hitting a +1 button. Google+ is designed to overhaul Google fairly transparently, requiring minimal buy-in.

Where does that leave me now? There are my responsibilities and expectations in my current role, including doing a bunch of precognition. I have an internal keynote speech to give the SEO team on the future of SEO—how can I do that in this mental state? Prepare to be relegated to the long-tail. Prepare to be forced into any one of a number of sub-specialties which are themselves moving targets, and barely enough to sustain a career at an agency, because not every client needs every sub-specialty.

A day has slipped by, and I haven’t published my daily journal. This is the perfect example of questioning the publish-ability of it. Should I hold it back entirely? Sanitize it? Keep my feelings about the field I’m in secret or bottled up? Try to put on a happy face and make the best of it? No, I’m a director of strategy. A 15-year SEO “easy-thing” of lining up the crosshairs and getting a few good inbound links is coming to an end. I need to make some sort of statement. Go on the record with something that takes all this in and has solid “what now” recommendations. So screw it! I’ll make this post public, employing a bit of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion—a little public commitment to get these feelings resolved and plot out the most brilliant next steps possible.