90 Seconds or Less: How SEO Got Into This Mess (And How It’ll Get Out)

When it comes to writing, less is more. In 90 seconds, here’s how SEO got into this mess and how I think it’ll get out.

Early Days:

1. Early search algorithms are easy to game.

2. Businesses slowly wise up to $EO, creating a market. 

3. Few skills are needed to succeed for copycats & “me-toos”. Opportunists with little marketing experience move in.

4. Rankings, traffic are primary SEO metrics. Rankings become synonymous with SEO; services are sold on this premise. SEO is perceived as tech work lumped in with “online marketing” – little marketing is actually done.

2002 – 2010: The Golden Era

5. Google’s algo has holes they can’t fix short-term. Warning shots are fired via PR and TOS. Content is supposed to be king, links are. Few punishments happen.

6. Link signals are easy to game; success can be systematized (so it is). Few clients know enough to investigate work quality. 

7. Competitive SERPs become a linking arms-race, creating an industry-wide mindset of quickly scaling link building. Industry becomes addicted to “tactics”.

2011: Google’s Warpath Begins

8. JC Penny & others disgraced for bad SEO.

9. Panda hits. Content is suddenly important again.

10.Penguin slams link schemes. Industry loses primary ranking source.

Clients start asking questions.

SEO’s New Golden Cow: Content Marketing (CM)!

11. Major industry channels (Moz, Hubspot, etc.) put emphasis on CM; try renaming SEO “Inbound marketing” to change perception.

12. SEO’s mistakenly interpret CM as “new link building”; rely on “great content” and business’ activities to create link opportunities. Most don’t see success, because…

Few SEO’s have marketing backgrounds or run their businesses like a marketing firm.

13. Attempts are made to shove CM into the “scale & automate” box of SEO. Mass guest-post schemes ensue. Google announces crackdowns.

14. Once sold as a service, SEO’s now need partnership status & marketing buy-in. Public perception of SEO is stuck in 2002; so are most teams’processes.

The tactics-addicted industry slowly realizes strategy & creatives are important, but has a hill to climb.

Opinion: The Future

15. (Not provided) destroys keywords as a reporting metric, Knowledge graph obliterates rankings. SEO’s must find new metrics, but clients expect to be reported to this way. F-f-friction.

16. Marketing firms seize opportunity to build digital teams & acquire talent. Basic tenants of SEO are easier to learn than marketing skills & strategy; firms already have buy-in, creatives & processes. 

17. Several poorly-run SEO firms close up shop because they can’t evolve in a strategy-based era.

18. Successful firms move away from selling SEO as an independent service, begin marketing holistic online marketing strategies with SEO treated as a tie-in/consideration for other marketing objectives.


Agree? Disagree? Use the comments below to  wave your pitchforks or sing your praises.
By the way, I’m a freelance writer lookin’ to pick up some work – so if you like my style, check me out!

35 Responses to “90 Seconds or Less: How SEO Got Into This Mess (And How It’ll Get Out)”

  1. Agreed, it’s going to take industry in general a long time to wake up to what’s required. People are still talking about how to put in place link building strategies without thinking about how to develop their content in the way a few years ago people in businesses started to talk about SEO as though it was new. SEO is so stigmatized now as it is so it’s easier to educate people, but still people are guarded.

    The only thing I would say about content marketing is it’s literally the new face of SEO, but these things don’t stick around forever, as Google experiences external pressures such as threats from other businesses, as the way we use the net changes (we don’t know where augmented reality is taking us yet), or as the SERPs get a bit stagnant Google will change the ranking factors again.

    • Joel says:

      People are DEFINITELY guarded – and metrics have become the enemy. It’s a small point I made, but KG and not provided are slapping the two metrics SEO’s really try to report on very, very hard. How do you sell the service without talking about either one? Therein lies the challenge for new SEO’s, in my opinion. Clients are ready to be educated, but bonuses and salaries are still tied to stupid metrics and changing perception won’t come without a long, hard battle (“education”)

      Any opinion about the future is made with the willingness to be wrong. That’s how I see it today – but I, like Google, can change my mind. Thanks for the response Simon.

  2. I think you missed a few vital points (Then again, 90 seconds isn’t going to cover everything).
    Link building isn’t necessarily a bad thing for SEO in general, it just needs to be rewarded in different ways. If Google wanted to they could just say all links don’t mean jack sh%t but they can’t because this’d piss off way too many people and it would mean an entire algorithm change.
    All I see if Penguin making my job easier, instead of spamming 1,000s of low quality links I can create a couple high quality links or spam 1,000s of contextual links. The game is still the same as a few years back, except this time instead of paying for large amounts of links we’re paying for large amounts of content.

    • Joel says:

      Hey Charles -

      You’re right, there were necessary omissions, I’m trusting that SEO’s can fill in the gaps. Link building is by no means bad, links themselves are not a bad signal. In fact as guys like Jon Cooper can tell you, link building the RIGHT way is still a huge component of any well-executed SEO strategy.

      I definitely didn’t mean to imply “link building is dead” – far from.

      It’s the fact that they’re so easily faked that’s the issue. The fact is, links still NEED to be a part of the algo, but I think they’re still going to be just one factor of many. Right now they continue to carry a lot of weight, and that’s OK so long as Google ups their ability to detect quality. That’s a gargantuan task and a huge part of the reason SEO is STILL broken and smart black hats can still spam their way to the top – or employ a new kind of quality-based tactic. There will always, always be exceptions.

    • Joel says:

      I think one other thing I do need to specify is that this applies to SEO as a client-facing activity. Black hats will always have a longer leash to play around with the “exploit the loopholes” game – and that’s not a game that’s going away any time soon.

  3. Max Minzer says:

    Agree, except I’d put some clarification for 18) especially when talking about independent experts not working in firms (as well as folks who specialize in this in firms). Highly technical SEO services or things like SEO audits will still be sold as individual services. Tied to marketing strategy of that business (silly to do any marketing effort without overall strategy) but still independent.

    I still believe (and I know these people) it’s possible to specialize in that technical area alone and sell your services without trying to be all “holistic” and “strategic” 10 years from now. There are (and always will be) a ton of sites that need their broken ship fixed.

    • Joel says:

      Hey Max! Nice to see ya here.

      You’re right – SEO audits and tech services can be sold as separate services, potentially indefinitely. With the tech stuff, you’ll need to interact with other teams who might have other ideas for the site from a content/design standpoint, but you don’t need to be working with the company on marketing initiatives. As long as you’re still communicative and avoid operating in a vacuum, I think the technical components can live on their own or get absorbed by a new breed of developer.

      Audits can be sold standalone too, but there’s more power in being able to execute. Those who can actually work with the company to get things done might find themselves at an advantage here.

      Good points.

  4. The thing with Google’s index is that many are still gaming things within it. That been said I am an SEO who actually studied Marking and Advertising, yet at the same time I came from a technical background where I was building sites in different languages for a bit of fun. Sure content marketing is popular at the moment but it is 100% not the be all end all, I have numerous clients who have in house teams of 3-4 content people who are pumping out top notch content all day issue is that so is every other competitor in niches, that is where we step it up and build things they are not doing. I mean Content Marketing is nothing new it has been around for a long time.

    • Joel says:

      James – totally. The problems ain’t fixed, but I don’t think you can deny that client-facing agencies have been hit with some serious implications as far as how they go about serving their clients. You’re totally right to say content marketing is nothing new – it’s not! Marketing agencies have been doing it forever! You might have detected the hint of cynicism in my post when I called it a “Golden Cow” – content marketing is NOT the saviour everyone is making it out to be. Technical elements of SEO are still as important as ever, as is link building using legitimate sources. Content is another leg on the chair, but it’s not the whole chair.

      Appreciate your commentary.

  5. Yes, bottom feeder SEO firms will close up shop as you state in 17 and I do agree that the only way SEOs will get out of this mess is by avoiding tactics and doing the hard work (strategy, etc.) I think as Google continues to evolve and update its algorithm it will become harder for people to game the system because of the work needed to prove to Google that you are a brand or business. Anyway, they want that so that you will be forced to use AdWords.

  6. Love this 90 seconds or less idea! My articles are usually a 90,000 seconds or less concept. Ha.

    Pretty much agree with all of what you’ve said – it was nice looking back at the good ole days.


    • Joel says:

      Thanks Ramsay! I thought it might be a fun way to try and do it – a really digestible piece that sums up what some people think is a real complex issue. Thanks for reading!

  7. Steve says:

    Great post, Joel. One of the truest I’ve read in our industry in a long while.

    I’ve heard people say that most people are very technical but not very creative or vice versa, i.e. if you’re very good at one, you might struggle with the other. SEO’s challenge is that it’s often 50/50 – and some ‘pure’ marketers I know hate SEO because they want to be creative but don’t want to be technical. But I agree that more marketing-focused SEO folk are going to survive longer than more of the solely technical-focused, especially these days.

    Also, without sounding malicious, I’m hoping that #17 will trip up a few competitors local to me. There are too many ‘agencies’ still playing by pre-2010′s SEO rule book and wondering why the hell they’re losing clients…

    • Joel says:

      Cheers, Steve – The thing that excites me about “SEO” is that there’s so much room for participation because it applies in so many ways. In my mind, the things we group under the SEO umbrella are actually backwards – SEO is a consideration for things like social, content, etc. – but that doesn’t mean those jobs fall solely to the SEO. I think techs and creatives can both thrive – it’s just a matter of where they’re planted.

  8. Scott Krager says:

    Pretty solid timeline. The one shift I’ve seen pretty heavily the past few years is more companies hiring in-house talent for online marketing vs. an agency. With Panda/Penguin there’s just too much risk involved for many businesses to not have more oversight and control of SEO work. Plus with social media, and other tasks that SEOs can be good at handling, there’s more work for talented operators inside small/medium size enterprises.

    • Joel says:

      Hey Scott – that likely should have been another point in my summary, but you overlook a few things when you try to keep it short! Great insight. I do think there’s a big future for internal teams, though often they’ll battle the same preconceived notions, politics and challenges as those on the agency side of things.

  9. I love the brevity and accuracy of this compact history. You seemed to cover everything. I don’t think it’s clear yet whether the knowledge graph will obliterate anything though.

    • Joel says:

      Emory – I’d really encourage you to check out Dr. Pete’s presentation here – I think it gives an incredibly eye-opening view of how meaningless and difficult to track rankings are quickly becoming. Appreciate your feedback!

      • Thanks Joel, I’m with you there. I guess in the back of my mind is the thought that what if users don’t end up adopting these types of things, might Google go in a different direction. Guess we’ll see.

        • Joel says:

          Good thought – that said, I think the change are actually great for users.. more information, less clicks. I think it’ll stick for that reason alone.

          • I think at least some of it is here to stay. I’m not sure if you’ve heard some of the rumblings in the industry over this lately. One tweet comes to mind from Danny Sullivan.

  10. That’s a pretty accurate summary. It’s easy to read. Note to self: quality content doesn’t always have to be at least thousand words long.

    • Joel says:

      Cheers Arvin! I would actually argue that the brevity of this piece is why people clicked through in the first place. An element of “Really? He’s going to try to explain it all in under a minute and a half? I’m intrigued!”

      I think it’s all about how you position the piece, frankly. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. SKI USA says:

    “Several poorly-run SEO firms close up shop because they can’t evolve in a strategy-based era.”

    That has already happened and we have ourselves observed several who used to offer SEO at dirt cheap rates now closing shop. At least it now levels the playing field for ethical SEO companies

  12. Paul Turner says:

    Great post. I noticed in the comments a major web spammer though in my local area Mr Simon Dalley the SEO consultant from Preston, Manchester, Wigan, Liverpool….
    Going back to the post, this is what I love about SEO, its how it is constantly evolving, keeping us on our toes and constantly learning new skills. I agree with Arvin also I too have been guilty of 1000+ posts to entice the visitors only to find they doze off half way down the page…

    • Joel says:

      Spammer? As in, my site is now liable to be flooded with spam? Thanks for the heads up. You’re right – SEO does always evolve, and that’s what keeps things both exciting and frustrating.

  13. [...] 90 Seconds or Less: How SEO Got Into This Mess (And How It’ll Get Out) If you have been involved in SEO in any way, you might have realized what a crazy world it is – an environment that is constantly changing, fast-paced, and at times confusing. For the uniformed, this is a great post that gives you a quick overview of the history of SEO including how we got where we are now, and where we go from here. Have 90 seconds? This post is worth checking out. [...]

  14. Spook SEO says:

    I agree with low quality SEOs closing shop in the future. With how Google has been updating their algo and how people are complaining about being penalized and all, it’s inevitable that business owners will know the adverse effects of hiring low quality and also black hat SEOs.

  15. [...] 90 Seconds or Less: How SEO Got Into This Mess (And How It’ll Get Out) If you have been involved in SEO in any way, you might have realized what a crazy world it is – an environment that is constantly changing, fast-paced, and at times confusing. For the uniformed, this is a great post that gives you a quick overview of the history of SEO including how we got where we are now, and where we go from here. Have 90 seconds? This post is worth checking out. [...]

  16. Hey Joel,

    I agree with the Knowledge Graph making rankings obsolete in the future, which makes the loss of keyword data bearable. However, the Knowledge Graph is only a piece of the real reason rank will be irrelevant- semantic search.

    That being said, content is the lifeblood of semantic search, so in my mind content marketing (or strategy, or whatever) is indeed a valid path to take. You need content for people to engage with, build trust and authority upon, and finally influence the co-citations that influence semantic search and the knowledge graph. I think of it like Jung’s collective consciousness, only made explicit and tangible.

    Keep up the nice work man.

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  19. Lee Odden says:

    Well done Joel. #18 is spot on. We did that in 2009.

    One rub for me is the perversion SEOs often apply to “content marketing” as a link building tactic.

    Digital marketing agencies that have gone holistic think of content marketing as something quite a bit different. It’s more social psychology and behavioral than mechanical and it’s certainly prioritizing customer experience over KPIs like “rankings”.

    The good news for great content creators like yourself is that demand has never been higher :)

    • Joel says:

      Cheers, Lee! I couldn’t agree more – content marketing is NOT link building, it’s an entirely different discipline, one outcome of which might be links.

      I sure hope demand for content remains high, because I could use a few more jobs :)

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