GOOGLE TOOK YOUR KEYWORD DATA AND WANTS TO LEAVE YOU BEAT UP BEHIND A BRIDGE
I apologize for the lack of pictures, I realize they are all the rage now...you'll have to suffer through my writing just as I did.
If you've follwed me on twitter or we've talked before about the future of search, you've likely heard me talk about how I don't believe the position of SEO really has much of a future left. That isn't to say I think it's going to disappear tomorrow, but there have been all sorts of warning signs indicating that if you hang your hat on just being an SEO, you might be struggling for a job in the future.
Well, Google just took another swing at SEO's by eliminating keyword data.
Rand Fishkin over at Moz put together a video recently that covers the topic and attempts to alleviate the pain by giving vieweres ideas on how to get hold of the data that Google is quickly hiding away. Personally, I appreciate Rand's valiant attempts to help SEO's, but I don't think bringing more fuzzy numbers/math (trust me, things get dicey when you go down those paths...) into the situation isn't exactly the way to win over a Director, VP, CEO, etc.
This has already become a struggle and I know that if I were shown some of the data I've seen SEO's attempting to use to validate their efforts, I'd be less than convinced of the value. That's not to say I think SEO is something that should be ignored now, but simply that the value shouldn't be argued for from the stance that many SEO's are taking - grasping despartely for data which is continuing to get more and more wishy-washy. After all, this should be about business decisions and helping a company achieve business objectives, not just trying to keep your job...but that's a different topic all together.
Let's take a look at exactly why I believe "SEO's" are in trouble, and how Google forcing the issue with this latest change may just help some adjust before it's too late...if they can see the handwriting on the wall.
The SEO's are being killed, and their parts divided up
Think about the tasks and knowledge a typical SEO performs and has. You'll probably come up with a list that crosses over with many of the items below:
1) Keyword research and on-page optimizations (title tags, meta descriptions, content optimization, etc.)
2) Link building (identifying opportunities, making connections, manually building, generating content ideas, etc.)
3) Technical site reviews (identifying dupilcation, developing redirect strategies, examining crawling, etc.)
4) Keeping an eye on Google updates (aka "WTF did they do now to break our site and penalize us?")
5) Keeping up on suspected algo changes (social signals, authorship, re-ranking, personalization, etc.)
6) Some data analysis to identify opportunities, create reports, etc.
For a long time, these tasks were unique enough and the discipline of SEO was unique enough to warrant individuals focused on this. But now, I think these skills can be divided out amongst other individuals in a company that should have these skills anyway:
1) Content strategists - they should understand keywords and keyword research, how to identify oppportunities for new content using keywords and also help their content succeed with simple optimizations. Content is also a major part of link building. It is how it scales, it is how you stay away from penalties, etc.
Brand + Content + Promotion = efficient, natural, links
2) Developers - Developers should have knowledge about how sites are crawled, the impact of site architecture on search, and how google sees metrics tied to URLs. Basic skills developers can pick up that will help them build efficient, quick sites that search engines can crawl with ease and users will appreciate.
3) Social managers - you get social signals when you have good content and good community builders. Easy as that (cough..).
4) Data/Business Analyst - a true analytics nerd would snap most SEO's in half in 10 seconds in a data anlysis fight. These people are trained to understand and break data into actionable insights that businesses can use to improve, and should be on the top of their game in understanding the sources of the data. SEO's often don't have the analytical ability (sorry all..) to do this as well as they should, nor do they have the time to develop the skill or thinking style. Instead, they often come back with some basic metrics and data that is questionable in accuracy based on a poor understanding of how analytics platforms differ and what really goes into the numbers. How many SEO's really understand (and the implications of...) how Google differs from other analytics platforms in tracking conversions, visits, bounce rate, etc.?
5) UI Expert - This person understands how people interact with a site, they help with site architecture and they are responsible for helping with conversion(s). If they do their job well, they will be part of what gives you good signals related to visits, bounce rate, etc.
So...where are we?
At this point, SEO's are left with writing meta descriptions, page titles, and keeping up on how Google is slamming the site this week. Honestly, you can train someone to do this functionally in a week and you should probably pay them $12-15/hr. This is not what most SEO's want to make, or do.
A Brave New World
Now for the connection to the news. Without keyword data, it gets hard to prove you're efforts as an SEO. You can't breakout branded vs non, you can't see if the keywords you were working on boosting a page for were really the catalyst for the organic traffic growth, and you can't help deal with bounce rate, conversions (at least not as well) etc. (THAT is the one part of this I will say really sucks. It's hard to improve your page and your bounce rate when you don't know what terms are bouncing, where your thinking might be off in how your target market is searching to find your page, etc....that one does suck, I will give all SEO's/marketers that).
This is another swing at SEO's that makes it harder to be an SEO...add it to the list of threats.
So what does this mean?
The metrics that matter are still there; conversions from organic traffic, and overall organic traffic. How do you affect these? You market your business like a normal business. You identify your target market, findout what excites them, improve your products and brand based on their feedback, you build content that connects with them and figure out how to distribute it. You identify the KPI's that really matter and figure out the best way to track them. While valuable at a very granular level, you don't REALLY need to know what keywords sent visits from organic search.
You build quality things, do cool stuff, connect with people and share your passion.
In my opinion, this is where the shift must take place from an SEO to an inbound marketer (or whatever you want to call this person). Each page I work on I'm setting up to target my audience as best I can, no matter where they are coming from, and I'm using metrics that are available (and I believe many of the ones needed ARE available) to understand if that page is performing it's job well.
It's time to let go of the illusion of control we like to think we have on Google and start focusing on true marketing, not game playing. SEO has long been more like branding/traditional marketing than many SEO's like to admit. But the fact is, as much as some of the numbers help prove our case, they have also backed many SEO's into a corner time and time again because you can't control Google and you don't REALLY know what's going on.
SEO is something that must be done, it does have value, and you will suffer if you don't do it.
The New "SEO"
That brings us to the new SEO - reconciling what SEO's used to do that was unique, with our current situation. The fact is, I believe SEO should be built into everything an organization does. I remember hearing an executive from Marketo speaking about social metrics on an OMMA social data panel and being excited as he made the case that many of the metrics that are tracked don't matter. When it comes down to it, (he argued) social should be built into everything a company does, and thus it's affect shows up in a variety of areas and traditional metrics (better customer retention, increased brand awareness, growing sales, etc.). I believe SEO is in a similar position.
The different positions I mentioned above that are often part of a mid-size to larger organization can each take a piece of SEO and incorporate it relatively elgantly into their responsibilities. The result is a business that is naturally going to succeed in SEO, and the metrics that matter can become higher-level then "Look, we improved traffic and conversions from the keyword whogivesaratsass". Ok, that's cool, but all that really matters is that conversions and traffic went up (or whatever your KPI's are). You can mess with pages and figure out if that's happening without knowing if you're keyword is the one that did it. That's not THAT important.
The other marketing objectives have different KPI's that easily go along with SEO KPI's. These existing departments are not reliant on SEO KPI's to prove their value. SEO's on the other hand live and die on SEO KPI's. Guess what...Google just beat you up and left you behind a bridge to die if that's your position.