The (Eventual) End of SEO?

I’ve just read a thought-provoking article, Has SEO Peaked?, which links to another article called Someday, the sun will set on SEO — and the business of news will be better for it, and I’d like to share my thoughts on that subject.

One of the questions raised in the above articles is this: if search engines were perfect, then everyone could use the “I’m feeling lucky” option on Google (which takes you immediately to the search’s first result), or its equivalent on another engine. After all, the first result would be the best one, wouldn’t it? The fact that very few people ever do that is proof that people don’t trust search engines, because they often fail. Either they put a bad quality page on top, or one that isn’t really what the user was searching for.

But what if they didn’t? (more after the break)

If we define SEO as “trying to make a certain page appear as close as possible to the first result in a search (for a certain phrase)”, then we can see it as a competition between website owners (even though some of then may not be trying, or even aware of the concept — but the site is still “competing”). However, having the best SEO doesn’t tell you anything about either the quality or the relevancy of a page or site.

Now, because search engines aren’t perfect, they can be influenced by SEO — say, filling up a page with keywords, or adding links to it in thousands of external pages — and Google, for instance, recognizes those as abuse, and has been trying — with varying degrees of success — to prevent them, and possibly even “punish” those who try. But, of course, it’s always an arms race — for every hole Google closes, the SEO “black hats” find another, and it will work, and possibly make them a lot of money… for a time.

Then there’s also the “white hat” kind of SEO, which search engines don’t frown upon — for instance, making a site more organized and easier to index, having good, descriptive titles (though the writer of this article laments that need, since it makes titles bland and repetitive, and effectively killed the usage of, say, puns or witty metaphors, common in print newspaper and magazine headlines), getting “quality” external links, having mostly valid HTML, and improving response speed. But in a world of perfect search engines, even these wouldn’t make a difference. Get it? The search engine would take you to the (currently) best result, and there wouldn’t be a way to “game” that.

Can this eventually happen? Some, like the author of the second linked article, believe so. In a way, I think, it may be that SEO is a lot like anti-virus programs and firewalls: they exist, and are usually needed, because operating systems are faulty, and to “patch” those faults (and here I don’t use the term “patch” as in a software patch), an entire industry was created decades ago and is still thriving. Think about it. With a “perfect” operating system, you could have your desktop computer safely connected directly to the Internet, with no firewalls or anti-viruses, and nothing to fear. The fact that you typically can’t isn’t because computers “need anti-viruses and firewalls”; it’s because your operating systems have faults. ((this is a bit of an oversimplification, because this isn’t a security article: even a perfect OS could have security problems due to trojans, since, after all, it’s running a program you told it to, with the permissions you gave it, and there’s not a lot you can do about those other than have a way to detect already known ones.))

Now, I don’t expect perfectly secure operating systems to appear in my lifetime, and so I also don’t expect search engines to really become “perfect” — especially because what is “perfect” to one user may not be to another. What I see happening is that they will keep closing “doors” that the “black hats” can use, up to a point where the return of investment makes it no longer worthwhile (though, until then, it will probably actually drive prices up for effective “black hat” SEO, because of its scarcity). I also see “white hat” SEO making less and less of a difference, eventually. Who knows: as advances in AI grow, maybe we can even begin to use puns in our titles again! :)

What conclusion can we take from all this? That, as search engines get better and optimizing for them works less and less, what will ultimately matter for “SEO” is what should always have been the most important thing: good content. And I, for one, have no problem with that.

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