A common criticism levied against SEO is that it should be unnecessary. A lot of web professionals who don’t work in SEO say that a good website, built properly and filled with great content, will rank organically on its own merits without needing any SEO applied to it.
Now, as a SEO practitioner, I have an almost instinctual resistance against that argument. But it’s too easy to dismiss it out of hand. SEO is after all a multidisciplinary activity, relying on a great many disparate facets to be optimally deployed.
So let’s explore the issue in a bit more depth. Can SEO be made obsolete, if all other aspects of making and maintaining websites are performing at their best? Is it feasible to spread the role of SEO out amongst other web professionals, and not require a dedicated resource?
Let’s start with the basics of what makes websites great: the way they are structured. A site’s navigation structure is a vital aspect of on-site SEO, and this is the purview of information architects.
A good information architect will be able to provide a site navigation that tics all the boxes from a SEO point of view: navigation links aligning with the most relevant keywords, easily discoverable key pages, and minimal duplication of information.
So yes, a search engine optimised site navigation could be done by a non-SEO.
Next up is the design of a website, specifically the interactive experience it provides. This doesn’t tend to be a huge issue for SEO, but sometimes interactive experiences are designed in such a way that it makes it extremely hard for search engines to crawl and index the site’s content.
If for example you have a website that is basically a single page, with some nifty parallax scrolling to make it look slick and engaging, you’re probably missing a few tricks with regards to SEO. So the web designer needs to understand that what works for people may not always work for search engines, and design a website accordingly.
A web designer that is keenly aware of web standards and search engine spider behaviour will know to avoid some of the pitfalls that can make a site troublesome from a SEO perspective.
Historically web developers and search engine optimisers often enjoyed a quarrelsome relationship. To many web developers SEO is just snake oil and a pollution of their craft of building code-perfect websites. And to many SEOs web developers can be obtuse know-it-alls unaware of how search engines work, and thus often inadvertently building websites in such a way that Google et al will find it nearly impossible to properly crawl and index the site’s content.
The various aspects of search engine friendly web development are too legion to mention here, but suffice to say that recent trends make building search engine unfriendly websites a less likely outcome. Many of the web’s most popular open source content management systems come with built-in SEO features, and can often be improved further with plugins provided by SEO-savvy web developers.
In an ideal world, web developers know exactly what makes for a search engine optimised website, and will adjust their code accordingly. Everything from HTTP status codes to parameters in URLs could be addressed appropriately by developers knowledgeable in SEO.
Now we look at a website’s content, and all the considerations that go in to making it optimised for discovery via organic search. This is probably the easiest to tick off, as copywriters have been clued in to what makes SEO-optimised content for many years. Most web copywriters even actively advertise their skills as content creators with an eye on SEO.
Now truer than ever before, great content is written for humans first and foremost, but is nonetheless tweaked to make it optimally suitable for search as well. And while there are a number of pitfalls when it comes to multimedia content that some content creators have not yet fully grasped – such as including text in images instead of as indexable plain text – we see fewer and fewer of such instances.
So yes, the SEO aspects of content could be safely handed over to copywriters and content marketers.
Now for the aspect of SEO that has most often been perceived as a ‘pure’ SEO activity: linkbuilding. This aspect of SEO has probably evolved the most over the years, as some tactics have gone out of fashion (or are now considered actively harmful to a website’s visibility in search) and others arise to take up the slack.
In today’s modern SEO landscape, so-called ‘natural earned links’ are the flavour du jour, and this is what many SEO agencies strive to achieve for their clients. But is this truly a SEO-only activity, or does it cross over with other established online professions?
The most readily identified non-SEO candidate for linkbuilding and outreach is, of course, Public Relations. PR in the digital age is as much about links and search engine visibility as it is about column inches and AVE, and over the years we’ve seen a growing trend of integration between SEO and PR. There are even companies who specialise in training SEO and PR professionals in the finer points of each others’ crafts.
With the rise of social signals as organic search metrics, PR alone is insufficient to take over from SEO as the guardian of linkbuilding. We need to also get social media marketers involved, and I have no doubt these specialists would be most eager to put SEO out of business altogether.
Lastly I want to look at some of the more analytical aspects of SEO, specifically the phases bookending a typical SEO project: the initial research and the analysis of SEO’s results.
Keyword research and competitive analysis are vital aspects of SEO, as these drive your search strategy and inject focus and intent in to your SEO efforts. These are fairly specialised tasks, requiring expansive knowledge of a wide range of SEO factors and metrics, as well as familiarity with a number of tools and evaluation methods.
With regards to keyword research, there is one other web professional out there doing very similar things as part of their job, and that is the PPC advertising expert. With a bit of training a SEO-prepared Google AdWords campaign manager could do a pretty solid job of keyword research and competitive analysis. The keyword research will be straightforward for them, and while the competitive analysis of organic SERPs is a bit beyond their comfort zone it’s nothing they couldn’t handle.
The measurement of SEO results are also easy to hand over; all you need is a good web analyst. There’s nothing SEOs do that cannot be done as readily by a good web analytics professional. In fact, SEOs are the ones who can learn from web analysts about effective ROI measurement, and rare would be the web analyst who couldn’t immediate conjure up reports showing exactly what organic search traffic to a website has been doing and why it’s been doing that.
So, at the surface of it, it does seem that SEO could be made entirely obsolete, if information architects, web designers, developers, copywriters, PR professionals and social media marketers, PPC managers, and web analysts all do their bit to pick up the slack.
Some of you will already have spotted the gaping flaw in this argument. Yes, SEO can probably be made mostly obsolete, if all the aforementioned web professionals do their bit to take SEO in to account when doing their jobs.
But that’s exactly where the problem lies. None of these other professionals has the mandate – let alone the desire – to take ownership of SEO. Some are even actively opposed to the very idea, seeing SEO as a blight on the digital landscape and a pollution of the web’s purity.
The necessity of SEO should be abundantly clear to everyone though. I have yet to see a site thrive in the absence of organic search traffic. But the problem with trying to distribute SEO’s tasks and responsibilities across all these other disciplines is that there will be no one person, no one role, who aligns all these various facets and ensures it all works together.
All of the non-SEO professionals mentioned above have something in common when it comes to SEO: it’s not part of their job. Their success isn’t being measured by how much relevant traffic comes in from organic search channels. These web professionals are dependent on entirely different metrics – and that’s a good thing, as it allows them to focus on what they specialise in – so as a result they have no direct stake in improving the site’s visibility in search.
And that’s the crux of the matter. If SEO is a distributed task, then no one will be able to manage it, and no one will be accountable for it. And if no one is accountable for it, then no one will be incentivised to do it right. The result will be, at best, sloppy implementations, half-hearted efforts, and a lack of focus.
On top of that, many of the aforementioned professionals have a very clearly delineated task with a fixed end point. Most web developers for example see their job as finished when the website goes live, and a web designer is unlikely to keep revisiting a website and tweak its design ever so slightly for a more optimal result.
But this is precisely what is expected of SEOs: continuous adaptation to changes in search engine algorithms, implementing new technologies – such as schema.org markup and Google+ Authorship – when it helps improve the site’s visibility in search, and to make tactical and strategic changes when evolutions in the search engine landscape demand it.
That’s where I believe the true value of SEO professionals is proven. We are perfectionists, we deliver focus, and we embrace organic search wholeheartedly. We are defined by change and adapt to the fickle whims of search engines on an almost daily basis. An SEO’s role is comparable to that of an admiral directing their fleet on an oceanic battlefield or, if you prefer a less hierarchical metaphor, that of an ever-changing sanity filter that other professionals’ output needs to pass through before being deployed.
Many non-SEO web professionals are only superficially aware of what makes good SEO and how their craft can contribute to visibility in organic search results, and few will be keen to take charge of the SEO aspect of their job. The ownership of and responsibility for SEO needs to reside with one person, one role, one resource – in-house or otherwise – for it to be implemented effectively, efficiently, and in such a way that it delivers actual value for a website.
So while theoretically SEO can be distributed amongst many other roles, in practice that will result in poor implementation across the board. You need a centralised, focused SEO role to make sure it happens properly, to keep on top of the latest developments and implement strategic and tactical changes as required, and to be accountable for SEO’s success.
Critics of SEO ought to take care. They might wish to see SEO’s demise, but that means they’d have to take some ownership of the required tasks themselves. And you should be careful what you wish for….