SEO: Where Is It Going?

SEO came about soon after the advent of the web crawler. The commercial imperative was obvious - where there was web traffic, there was money to be made. Positioning a page first in the engines was pretty much a licence to print money.

Still is, of course.

Throughout the history of search and SEO, the predominant metaphor of the web has been one borrowed partly from publishing - the page - and partly from computer science - the domain. A domain contains pages. A domain is a silo. A domain has clear borders.

The Search Metaphor

Search forces quite a different metaphor on the web.

Search is a connector between a person and a page. Search subverts the domain structure because the visitor can dive in at the page level. In this respect, all pages become a part of the much bigger silo. In 2009, that silo is Google.

Search also strives to be the ultimate answer engine - the mind of God. Got a question? Google it. Google will provide the answers.

But search is not quite there yet. Search still returns pages - the user still digs through the page to find the answer.

But for how long?

The Slow Unraveling Of The Page Unit

Consider social media. Is a page the basic unit of Twitter? No, it's the sentence. How about Youtube? The video. Social networks? The person. All can be extracted, re-purposed and dis-intermediated without losing meaning.

Consider the semantic web:

Humans are capable of using the Web to carry out tasks such as finding the Finnish word for "monkey", reserving a library book, and searching for a low price for a DVD. However, acomputer cannot accomplish the same tasks without human direction because web pages are designed to be read by people, not machines. The semantic web is a vision of information that is understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing, and combining information on the web

What happens when the machine "understands" the query enough to provide a direct answer to a question, as opposed to returning a list of pages?

Black Clouds On The Content Producer Horizon, Or Opportunity?

In a recent Techcrunch interview, Eric Schmidt said something rather telling:

So I don't know how to characterize the next 10 years except to say that we'll get to the point - the long-term goal is to be able to give you one answer, which is exactly the right answer over time.

Perhaps he was quoted out of context, but that strikes me as an absurd thing to say. As if there is ever one "right" answer. Well, I guess there is if you live in some Orwellian nightmare.

More importantly, if this is where Google intend to be in ten years time, then where does this leave content producers? If Google provides "the answer", why would anyone click-thru and visit a page? Conversely, why would anyone let Google crawl their content if Google's aim is to disintermediate the producer from their content? Johnon had an excellent post on this topic.

Recently, Google released rich snippets, a feature whereby you markup you data to suit Google's display criteria.

Rich Snippets give users convenient summary information about their search results at a glance.

If the answer is "rich" enough, I guess the user doesn't even need to visit your page. Perhaps the user will get distracted by the Adwords listings, instead ;)

If Google aims to extract information and keep the visitor on Google, rather than just acting as a conduit between visitor and page, then this does not bode well for content producers.

This brings up the burning "Newspaper vs Google" argument. "How", the newspapers argue, "can we make money if Google undermines our revenue model? Ultimately, this is a question all content producers must face. Just ask those in the music industry.

Seemingly in response, Google is planning to roll out micropayments in the next year:

Google is planning to roll out a system of micropayments within the next year and hopes that newspapers will use it as they look for new ways to charge users for their content.

The question is, will micropayments and web advertising be enough to pay the bills, especially when it comes to expensive, high-risk media production, such as television and movies:

Grade’s criticisms were echoed in October by C4 chief executive Andy Duncan, who said Google had failed to invest in UK content creation. “Google takes more ad revenue out of the UK than ITV makes and it isn’t regulated. It isn’t fair [that] it’s not reinvesting that back into content and independent film production companies in the UK,” said Duncan.

Content producers are posting losses, whilst Google continues to post massive profits. What happens if content isn't worth producing anymore? What happens when revenue falls below the cost of production? Or perhaps content will still be economic, but only if production quality is sacrificed? Is it really just a case of fat media producers cutting bloated production costs?

What is Google's long term strategy as far as content producers are concerned? Besides PR fluffery, they never really say.

It's Not All Bleak

Of course, if content producers really did get disintermediated to the point where content production wasn't worth doing, Google may well collapse soon after. What would there be left to search? Wikipedia?

Where would the "answers" come from? Who would fund "answer provision"? Sufficient income must flow to the content producers, but the question still remains "how"?

And I don't really think the page is going away. The page has served humans well for thousands of years as a container of information. But if the information on pages can be aggregated in such a way that users don't need to visit the source page, where does this leave content producers? Where does this leave SEOs?

In 2009, SEO plays fall into three distinct categories.

  • Agency model: people offer services to others for a fee.
  • Affiliate model: people gather traffic and funnel it somewhere else for a performance fee.
  • Content model: people generate content and make money off advertising.

The last model is, I'm guessing, is one a lot of SEOs will pursue. Many do so now.

Check this out:

Demand Media operates based on a simple formula for success on the Web: create a ton of niche, mostly uninspired content targeted to search engines, then make it viral through social software. Demand Media has been heavily funded to carry out that mission, to the tune of $355 million. So yes, brute force - quantity of content + money/power - works more often than we'd like to think on the Web.

The aggregator wields most of the power in this relationship, unless the publisher can lock in an audience who will by-pass the aggregator.

Is Dis-intermediation Over-Rated?

On the flip-side, John Battelle argued a few years back that search dis-intermediation is overrated.

Those who fear disintermediation should in fact be afraid of irrelevance -- disintermediation is just another way of saying that you've become irrelevant to your customers. It doesn't mean there isn't a customer, or middlemen of some sort who service that customer, or that the core proposition of your business has disappeared. It just means you're in a bit of a rut, and as much as you might pine for the past, it's probably time to rethink things before it's too late.

He reasons that writers can go outside the traditional silos:

And what of the role of publisher or content creator? Increasingly, those who have the ability to create great media can get pretty far without attaching themselves to the traditional indentured servitude of a publisher, label or network. Writers, for example, are finding their own voices outside the strictures of magazines and newspaper publishers. Blogs like Boing Boing, Daily Kos and Cool Tools are drawing millions of readers each month, and their overhead is the cost of a high-speed Internet line.

However, what they're actually doing is jumping out of one silo and into another. Google is the master silo in this scenario.

So, what do you think? what is the role of SEO in the future? Will it be more about making connections, and a less about making pages? Will the page itself be subverted? Have Google gone moved beyond the idea of "organizing the world's information"?

Published: September 27, 2009 by A Reader in seo tips


September 28, 2009 - 4:34am

As the web "unravels" the page unit and when the semantic web hits I would think the definition of a search engine would change and with it how we think of SEO. Gone might be the traditional search portals and in it's place might be a search interface at every corner of the web. Yes, connections will still play an increasingly important role in traditional search but I think being able to accurately label and organize content in a semantic, meaningful way will help win market share once the semantic web is in full force. I'm still sort of feeling in the dark a little bit with the semantic web stuff and SEO but I suppose we'll see someday!

September 28, 2009 - 7:23am

I think the "semantic web" is a LONG way off. Look at Google Adsense as an example - it's supposed to be using a semantic algo to show ads that aren't just keyword matched, but ads that "understand the meaning behind the page" (e.g. show Nike shoes ad on a weight-loss website, the implicit connection being fitness). However, I've found Google are still very very wide of the mark with these ads, often we get irrelevant ads, or ads that are keyword matched but have no actual relevancy (e.g. on my tickets site that sells sports tickets, I get ads for concerts and all kinds of non-sporting events - just because of the keyword matching).

If Google can't get it NEARLY right with Adsense (one its big cash cows), then we're still a long way off.

I think Google will always love fresh, quality content - after all, that reflects well on its search results (that they provide the searcher with quality results). I believe people will not accept content being essentially on one site (i.e. disintermediation) - people love the web because it's democratic in that it has as many editors as there are websites. Disintermediation means Google (or whoever in the future it is) is the sole editor of the content we read. People are just too cynical to accept this (which is a good thing).

I see search very much like the car industry in that there's not been, or going to be, HUGE changes, just incremental ones along the way.

September 28, 2009 - 9:08am

Back in the black and white days, they worried their little heads about horse shit.

In 1898, delagates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s first international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.
Source: From horse power to horsepower

but life moves on...thus;

At the start of the 20th century, the internal combustion come into being, roads were made and so forth.

Google can do what it likes, but they cannot stop themselves ending up being put out to pasture.

steve holmes
September 28, 2009 - 10:44am

If Google attempts to replace a selection os possible results with one definite result it will fail.
Consumers want choice, they do not want to be given one possible result that an algorithm deems to be the most suitable. I know we all have a lot of trust in Google but do we really have so much trust that we woudn't even bother to check prices against other sites? Probably not, in which case it renders that particular model redundant.

The only arena I can see this model working in is research. Ask a question, get an answer - simples!

Now, if google were to run 2 search facilities simultaneously - one for shopping/finding a business and one for education/research - that might work. Currently all of the results are grouped together which inevitably creates a certain amount of irrelevance. Separate them out into 'Google Consumer' and 'Google Research' and you immediately create two very focused tools, purpose built to target the two main areas of search.

rich Laburn
September 28, 2009 - 11:21am

I agree with your comments about Google, and I am also aware of one of their latest developments "Sidewiki" which further increases their ownership of content. However I feel that everyone has neglected the growth of social search and the future of it within the internet.

If you continue to take Google as an example, they are currently developing Google wave, however in the meantime, topic search on twitter allows for instant search results of people who are talking about an interest point.

I believe that search is not about finding all the answers all the time, it is also about indentifying like minded people, topics, conversations, discussions, etc that will shape a persons perception or opinion about that which they are interested in and searching on. With this in mind, something such as Sidewiki could potentially be adding onto your concerns about Google owing to how it will start to have control of the the social conversation as well as the original content.

Frank Schulte-L...
September 28, 2009 - 12:14pm

Bill Slawski had a tweet recently questioning how would a website market itself if there were no search engines. His point was placing all of your marking into one basket. I do not see search engines going away with the development of semantic web technologies, like Loomp; however, I do see the concept of search broadening. For example, I could find an auto mechanic through LinkedIn or Facebook. I find real time search geared toward popular topics, and it might not ever evolve to something more substantial. I make not claims to understanding an SEO, but I believe that as search evolves, so will this marketing. Semantic tags are enough like keywords for the concepts to carry over. I feel that an SEO who focuses to narrowly will encounter issues. An SEO who sees the possibilities of search by new means will find ways to meet those needs.

September 28, 2009 - 4:04pm

In this line: "In a recent Techcrunch interview, Eric Schidt said something rather telling:"

I'm pretty sure its "Schmidt".

Ravi Monitor
September 28, 2009 - 4:05pm

Search could go another way, disintegrating into specialized niches. Google is trying to go from a monolithic search engine to a specialized one based on your location, search intent, etc. but by inserting its own niches (google local, google maps, youtube).

This disintegration would lead to search aggregators which would dig into these independant niche source based on location, search intent. Bing seems to be taking this direction (though not fully) with results pulled from a variety of resources not owned by Microsoft.

The second version has a better chance as it would not have to build its own niche like google has to. Google has to be everywhere to counter facebook here, online docs there, other mail providers, in some it succeeds, in some it fails (answers? of all things where yahoo beat them), so how are they going to provide THE answer.

They cant tell me how good is this xyz restaurant in my city as well as my friends can who are on Orkut/Facebook.

What this means is there are areas forming where Google is finding it hard to be the leader or even number two.

What this means for SEO is that SEO would evolve as search and the related online marketing field evolves as more hubs for presenting your business open up across the web. It might not even be called SEO for all one knows.

There has been a rise and fall of a great many cultures from way before Rome and from the time of Rome to the time of Washington, DC. So, it will be with the web.

September 28, 2009 - 4:10pm

"Content producers are posting loses, whilst Google continues to post massive profits."

Believe you want "losses" there.

September 28, 2009 - 4:12pm

"The aggregator welds most of the power in this relationship, unless the publisher can lock in an audience who will by-pass the aggregator."

I think the third word should be "weilds".

September 28, 2009 - 5:42pm

Thanks ashbird...I think we got all those corrections made. :)

September 28, 2009 - 6:30pm

Lots to think about but wondering what other "game changers" will happen in the 10 years it may take for their vision to happen, if it even does. Speculation has its place but I, and my customers, are more on the "results now" tip.

Tony Hollowell
September 30, 2009 - 5:29pm

A while back, I read a blog post by MarK Cuban titled "How Twitter and Facebook now compete with Google." In the article, he explains that for the first time, more unique visitors are accessing his blog via twitter and facebook referrals as opposed to google.

This was intriguing to me, because it is an answer to the question, "How would a website market itself if there were no search engines?" It seems like Twitter and Facebook are already providing an alternative, at least in Mark Cuban's sphere.

Will the algorithms of Google catch up with the spreading speed of twitter, Facebook, and other social media? Will Google just buy these outlets and continue their domination?

The link to Mark's blog posting is but I'm not sure if URL's are allowed in the comments. Sorry if they are not!

October 1, 2009 - 12:41am

The problem is Tony, not everyone can be Mark Cuban. There's only room for a select few number of "internet superstars" (by the very nature of celebrity, not everyone can win equally massive amounts of attention). That's great for Mark, shoemoney etc whose market IS self-promotion, but it's not going to work so well for a guy selling cleaning equipment.

Search traffic is great because they're not just "curious clicks" - there is already narrowly defined intent behind the click and it's more likely to convert than clicking some marketing soundbite "tweet".

It's interesting to pose the question ("what if there were no search engines?") but there ARE, because they work so well, far better than any other method of finding things online (and finding customers).

Tony Hollowell
October 1, 2009 - 3:28am

I agree that Mark's unique status is different from a guy selling cleaning equipment. But the importance of his observation is that there is an increase in users affecting users. This is huge.

In fact, I found this site by twittering "SEO optimization" to see what other people had commented on. I got a snippet that recommended this site. I checked out the person's profile, they didn't seem like a psycho, so I headed to this site, and I am very happy with what I found. I knew I would likely get spammy, poor content, product-driven websites if I used a SE.

How long this will last and how much of an impact it will have is beyond my knowledge. But I do think it is something that will impact the direction and relevance of SE's because it has already impacted me (a very small player) and Mark Cuban (a very large player). I firmly believe search engines are here to stay, but users impacting users may decrease the SE dominance.

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