Life after SEO

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 03/04/2013

I need to get myself more productive on a daily basis at work. This is my daily work journal, and I should do better to keep that continuous, if not rather unpolished, story rolling out every day. A nice strong narrative keeps your work and your live moving along forward—the correct direction. Life’s little knocks and trials can so easily make you backslide.

There are a certain amount of projects in one’s life that feel worthwhile during the normal workday, and certainly are distracting. But they must be treated like plates that need spinning, and you have to avoid chasing the rabbit down the rabbit hole. Yep, my life is filled with metaphors. On any given day, I first ask: What’s MOST broken? Then I ask: where do I get the biggest bang for the buck? And finally, I ask: what plates need spinning?

Many of the projects that threaten to consume me for the day if I pursue them are actually just plates that need to be spun, and then forgotten for the rest of the day. I have to always remind myself of that, and that’s one of the functions of this daily journal—to keep me on track. And by doing it in the very distributed version control system repository of my most important project at work, I make everything sort-of part of the record, even if I don’t end up publishing it on my blog. It’s a line-of-defense.

And so, my daily routine. It’s got to be fairly tightly controlled and turned into strong habits. It consists of forcing myself to start a daily journal entry, and to not immediately get consumed by the Web: Twitter, Google News Reader, HitTail, Facebook, and the like. The things I’m doing now for my career—isolating and packaging the things about my recent switch to Linux for the whole world to follow—is so tempting to turn into a social media personal campaign of my own. But I have to suppress that urge, and just focus on my daily work.

Satisfying that urge is really just spinning plates. Until I take that time to “shoot that video” or update Levinux, I can just make quick FAQ entries on my site (takes MUCH less time), or write scripts for my videos on the subway on my way to or from work. Being a daddy of a 2 year-old, and wanting to dedicate as much of my time after work to her and my wife, I have to seize whatever time does not belong to my employer, and does not belong to my family for deeper, time-consuming thought-work.

I switched out of the SEO department at work, because of my belief that it’s losing value as a career if you’re not directly servicing the small-and-medium businesses (SMBs) that can still greatly benefit from SEO. Large Fortune 500 type companies like giving SEO lip service, but don’t really want to do all those things that SMBs are so motivated to do to pick up the scraps of search, gathering them together into something that’s worth it, and represents a toe-hold for free automatic exposure.

In fact, I would say SEO is stratifying in two directions: the long-tail that I just described, and the increasingly less spam-able hyper-competitive terms that require either a large marketing campaign behind it, or absolutely brilliant content, of the type that we used to call viral. All that stuff in the middle USED to be fertile ground for SEO, but is forever less-so, because after all your on-page optimizations are done, and all the link-manipulation withing your own site architecture is done, all that’s left is garnering more links from outside sources—and Google is on a war against any paid form of that.

And so, you put the social king-maker links on the pages: Tweet, Like and +1. This is what linking has become. Once in a blue moon, you will get a blogger to link to a deep page because it happens to intersect with their current interests. And even less frequently, a link will appear in one of the super-rare forums that haven’t nofollowed everything. But more commonly, your deep pages will never get old fashioned “a href” links. That era of the Web is winding down.

Things just change too fast where people’s mind-sets actually are. That’s one type of web content—the stuff that aligns with the public zeitgeist. And that’s always shifting and changing with culture, news, and the times. So, you have to speculatively outguess the news and have the content there before the story breaks, so you get picked up by the twitter-storm when it finally happens. Alternatively, your topic may be in a place so fortified with old-time competitors, you have no chance of knocking them loose. Is either one a place to base a career servicing Fortune 500’s?

Things are not so bleak in the long-tail. You can still publish content, and have it in the first position in Google for those keywords literally in minutes. You can even start getting hits right away from people interested in those topics around the world. But it’s only a few a day—or even a few a week. How does that equate to money? How does that equate to career? Well, in two ways: if you have an enormous long-tail-ish product catalog (i.e. Amazon) where you can collect up enough of these prospects to make it worth it.

And on the other extreme is obscure high-end, heavily researched products with long sales-cycles and a painful sales pipeline process with dozens of touches required before winning the sale. That could be a fine career, but I’m living in New York City now, with a 2 year old kid and a mortgage. I simply have to be where the high-paying careers are, and that’s no longer SEO for Fortune 500’s. Than what is it? Being yet another social media guru who talks the talk, but can’t really “do anything”?

A lot of people thing so, but not me. I’m betting on the pendulum swinging back into the direction of people who really know how to do things—in the best technical sense of the word—become valuable again, because they are required for the multitude of ad hoc real-time projects that are going to permeate marketing in a few more years. The only truisms are that everything is getting fragmented: hardware platforms, media channels, content revenue models—everything. So many of the rules are being suspended, and a great cloud of uncertainty hangs over the battle for eyeballs.

And against that backdrop, champions will arise. Some will be false—those who talk a great talk, but as soon as their novelty wears off, they have nothing more to offer. When the significance of Google+ and those head-shot author icons that run next to search results FINALLY dawns on marketing pro’s, the marketing world is going to be inundated with “Authority Authorities”. Being one of those was my first thought. And then my second thought was contempt. One of the only guys who gets a “get out of jail free” card as being one of those types is Seth Godin, because he articulated Permission Marketing, and then created Squidoo. He is an individual who talks the talk and walks the walk.

And therefore, you see my vision. It is much more important to walk the walk to me than talk the talk. This is not always so great when working in a New York marketing agency, where talking the talk is what people mostly want from you. But by doing that for too many years without full immersion, your… well, your blade gets dull, in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habit’s terms, and the time soon comes to have to “sharpen the saw”. When that time comes, you generally job-switch, and that was my first inclination.

But I LOVE where I work. It’s the best place to work I’ve ever been. They’re literally stellar. You’d have to be nuts to abandon ship when your company is repeatedly getting named as the best of its type by the industry trades. Imagine a company recently being acquired by the Japanese, but maintaining its autonomy, because that’s the value they felt they are getting—because the new owners have the long-view in mind, and are willing to invest a little.

Now imagine an employee who has lots to still offer, but sees his current line of business having run its course (in the context of Fortune 500’s), and the heavy responsibility of doing right by his new family, and still wanting to be positioned brilliantly professionally 5 or 10 years down the line, without having gone obsolete by total soil-liquefaction having just occurred underneath him? I have lots of choices, and it turns out one of them is staying with the company and re-immersing myself and sharpening the saw again!

And now we finally get to the point of this post/daily journal entry, and why I justify putting a good solid hour or more into it at work—just by way of getting started for the day on a Monday morning. I am now an internal projects guy. But I feel a lot like the Obi Wan Kenobi quote: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” in regards to SEO.

SEO isn’t going away. It’s just being transformed, and I have been unsuccessful in divining the precise nature of that transformation. I’m not even 100% convinced it remains a Google game, or that there can be one-big-trick after all the platform, media, and search method fragmentation plays out. If you’ve read the asteroid strike scifi or seen the movies, you know the one thing you don’t do is blast an incoming asteroid, or the countless spread fragments that are still going to hit you will do more collective damage than the one big blast. That’s what’s happening with SEO.

None-the-less, there is some brass ring is out there to be grabbed that has something to do with next-generation SEO—even in context of servicing the big Fortune 500’s. In many ways, its already happened with social, community management, and the like. Because all we’re really doing is aggregating eyeballs and human attention to open channels for message delivery. Ad-driven media is ad-driven media, no matter how tech reshapes it. And premium subscription-content is premium subscription content, mo matter how tech reshapes it. It’s kinda always the same. So what career skills could possibly remain the same and maintain their value—or perhaps even appreciate over time?

Well, in my mind, it’s crystal clear now. It’s the ability to rapidly carry out ad hoc projects without the long product-build that’s normally associated with them. It’s the field of agile or extreme programming converging with real-time marketing in a way that can keep pace with the zeitgeist of the world. The problem is that to do each project well, you need to be a domain expert on the material, and you quickly get into a circular dependency problem that keeps you from being fast, and high quality.

THAT is where my career needs to reside. In those impossible projects. The ones that everyone wants to spec out and put into the queue according to the old processes, but if you do, the window of opportunity has closed on you. You need to drop a project like that into the hands of someone who’s been there and done that enough times, in enough different ways, and has sufficiently mastered all the tools, API’s, subject-matter and such involved, that they can appear to work miracles. I have to be one of those miracle workers.

This makes a lot of my actions difficult to understand, even by my employers who I occasionally have to explain things to. It was unworkable in my old position as an SEO director, because the things I simply had to do to adapt to the new ways of the world were not 100% consistent with what was desired of me to make my people and our clients happy. But that puts me in the choice of doing right by myself, or doing right by others. Either choice has a win scenario and either choice has a lose scenario, depending on the details of how things play out. It has a lot in common with the classical prisoner’s dilemma (google it).

And when choosing the doing right by myself option, which one must ultimately do to do right by our families and the ones who truly depend on us, and because we are managing our own careers that we must be able to take with us anywhere, I must ensure my success by means that are not always 100% understandable to everyone. I say that I do not want to merely become another one of the gold-rush marketers trying to become an authority on being an authority, per Google+ author rank and the replacement to the PageRank algorithm. What then? Well, the Sun Tzu quote comes to mind: Victory over multitudes by means of formation is unknowable to the multitudes. Everyone knows the form by which I am victorious, but no one knows the form by which I ensure victory.

And so, it will play out in my daily journal. Stay tuned.