The Future of SEO

Today I want to walk you through and talk you through some of the interesting conversations that emerged from a panel comprised almost entirely of State of Search bloggers on Monday at a4uexpo in Munich! I joined up with Martijn, Roy, and Kelvin to discuss what the future of SEO may look like and what’s in store over the next few years.

This is not an exhaustive look nor is it necessarily reflective of what the future will look like for SEO because hey, as I’m sure Harold Camping can attest, we can’t predict the future. However, I’m going to do my best to summarise here the different viewpoints from the panel as well as the audience so please feel free to disagree, even I disagree with some of the predictions but we’ve all used our experience to try and figure out what is in the future of our quickly maturing industry.

Near Future

Who Controls the Internet

We kicked the presentation off with an examination of the announcement by Google, Yahoo! and Bing about and the new standards that the search giants have provided our industry with regards to microformats. Whilst, in general, the panel agreed that standards are a good and necessary thing to have and for all of our concerns about Google being too obtuse when telling webmasters what they would like, that we could not help but discuss a couple of alternative outlooks that Martijn provided us (and I strongly suggest you have a read of this article as well as this one when you have a moment).

image source: @csolcer

Schema is potentially a god-send for a great many users who needed a kick in the rear to get started with microformats and to take advantage of the impressive impact that they may have on click-thru rates in the SERPs! However, the larger argument remains that these standards go against W3C standards and have not been agreed by consensus but rather ordained by the search Gods and interestingly- it appears that the major search engines will expect SEOs to spearhead this issue and ensure that our clients roll these new “standards” out on their websites.

Ultimately this decision makes using RDFa or Microformats (rather than using Microdata) on a commercial website a “false choice” – much like coding a site entirely in Flash would be considered a “false choice” – if the webmaster wishes to have that data indexed in Google.

I don’t want to beleaguer the point too much but there was some differing opinions on this particular decision on the panel – though it seemed we could all agree that it was an interesting twist that SEOs are now becoming messengers for the type of web the Search giants would like to see rather than the developers and creators on the web would like to build.

What is the Next “Panda” Update?

Anyone else heard enough about this big cuddly bear yet? In any event, I have.

As Kelvin pointed out on our panel, although it is sometimes difficult to speculate what the next big update will be but the clear indication that Google’s “big” updates seem to be responsive to things that either already have embarassed Google or have the potential to do so in the future: the conclusion was to try not to create a site that would be embarassing or risky for Google to rank first (easier said than done).

Potential areas we have discussed for Google to address (and areas which they have acknowledged will be happening):

1. Exact Match Domains – I know, I know, we’ve been talking about this for years but it seems ripe for the picking. Kelvin pointed out that 18 months ago he saw a bunch of domains that he wishes he had snatched up but was afraid they would be devalued. I agree with his opinion but I’m going to go ahead and say that this problem will certainly be addressed in the next 18 months.

2. Panda Knock-On- a lot of people I have spoken to in the field seem to feel that some of the – let’s say “lower-level” – link building techniques that were meant to be crushed by Panda still seem to be working a treat in certain circumstances (sorry I’m not going to ruin something that people are still using by being any more specific). My view is that the impact of Panda was not a completely algorithmic impact and potentially the hit that some of these content farms took directly (i.e. they no longer rank for “how to pour a glass of water”) may not have had an impact on the sites these farms have been linking to. In my view (one that I know is shared by some others in the industry) this will be addressed in the next year as well.

What’s the Next Infographic?

So there are plenty of people in the field that are absolutely fed up with infographics and I am getting dangerously close. There was a period of time where creating a graphical representation of complicated data in one big image with an embed code below seemed to be a guaranteed way to get links and to get people to share your content.

Whilst I would contend that this is still true to a certain degree (if the chart truly serves the purpose of making difficult data more easy to understand) it would seem as though there is a looming backlash and this panacea to linkbuilding has overstayed its welcome.

A Joke About SEO InfographicsImage Via: SEOmemes

So what is next then? Well, I think a strong case has already been made for using new and emerging web technologies to create interactive materials.


For me, the obvious frontrunner at the moment seems to be the interactive parallax pages and sites though it never hurts to be ahead of the curve and I’m sure people will tire of those soon enough too!

What’s in a Name?

We couldn’t very well have a panel about the future of SEO and not discuss the severe PR problem our industry faces. I covered this earlier this year in my Dangers to SEO post but I think the need for us to consider the negative impact that “call centre” tactics and misperceptions of the work we do need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Some of us in the panel, as well as some attendees with whom I spoke after the presentation made suggestions about becoming more generalist and removing SEO from a lot of their communications – more on that below. However, there is a pretty strong sense of agreement that SEO is becoming every day more synonymous with “scumbag” and there is a lot of misinformation out there.

One such example we discussed was brought to my attention by a tweet from Ross Hudgens about a thread on Hacker News.

The title of the thread/link was “What kind of Spam/SEO is this?” and if you have a chance to read through you will notice right away that clearly it has nothing to do with SEO, but the fact of the matter is; if it comes to the point that HackerNews and a community of well versed and engaged internet users believe Spam is synonymous with SEO we have a more serious reputation on our hands than perhaps most are willing to admit or do anything about.

Google +1

Finally, we couldn’t help but discuss Google +1 because it (along with seemingly 200 other buttons) went live in the last week or so and blogs everywhere are adding it into their arsenal of buttons.

Now, as I said in the presentation, my feeling is this: Google had to do this in order to get at some of that data they cannot (or claim not) to be able to access via Facebook. Google also launched this prematurely (and childishly) to drown out some of the sound from Twitter’s announcement about the Follow button. Google is stubborn and will no doubt rely on this data for the next few months.

As I also pointed out, here is the reason that this cannot last as a significant ranking factor and why it may be worth taking advantage of now (if you are so inclined) rather than later: Google likes to use their own data and are stubborn at admitting when something doesn’t work properly (so it will work for now), however, there is no emotion whatsoever attached with hitting +1; sure it may show up in the SERPs if you are logged in to your Google profile and I have hit it but it’s not the same as putting it in front of my trusted and hard earned followers and colleagues (Twitter) nor my judging friends and family (Facebook).

Lastly, and most importantly, +1 is way too easy to game. Perhaps not in terms of having a real and meaningful impact (which it would see would come by engaging in communities which Google just don’t seem to have down yet) and getting your information shared more widely across the web but it sure would be a lot easier to make use of Mechanical Turk, Fiverr or any other service to get a whole heck of a lot of +1’s.

Perhaps the button will evolve, or perhaps it’s to try and track down sites that are trying to game the system (whether through link building, spamming or social media) but as it stands now it cannot meaningfully be used in the long term as a ranking factor in my personal view.


Distant Future

As an economist by training I cannot help but quote Keynes here and point out that “in the long run we are all dead.” Now, does that mean that SEO is dead? No, of course not. Do I think, however, that our day to day tasks will change by 2018? Of course!

We as an industry have evolved immensely in the few years that we’ve been around and as anyone who has made it from the “pre-Google” SEO days and is still running a successful business today can attest: the most successful among us are those of us who are able to adapt. At the end of the day we are an industry full of chameleons (not snakes or other industries with a bad reptutation) and one of the most impressive and marketable skills that I believe every SEO has – and indeed must have – is the ability to evolve and adapt quickly.

And I think this is an important thing to celebrate – though it does make communicating our work to our spouses, family and clients difficult at times!

It is much harder to say what the industry will look like in 5 years so we’ll just stick to a couple of the broad questions addressed in the panel.

What will an SEO do in 5 years?

I think Kelvin put it quite eloquently on the panel by pointing out that ultimately this whole game is about creating content that will be shared and will engage users and receive approval from a wide set of audiences. I don’t see this changing a great deal in the next five years and I do think offsite activities may not be “link building” per se, but it will be about content distribution, consumption and interaction.

Onsite I think both Google’s ability to crawl and developers ability to write code that the search engines like will ultimately mean that less time will probably be spent optimising title tags and meta descriptions – though I still think onsite will be important. Hopefully in 5 years we won’t see any more of the burdensome development “release schedules” and every site will have a manageable CMS that allows for control over architecture, internal linking, and the major onpage indicators to search engines, “content discovery” channels and whatever else helps generate traffic and business to a website.

There will still be a need (perhaps more than ever) to get SEOs involved in building a site and providing the requirements, structure and flexibility of the platform and for my money, content managers and copywriters to maintain the site once built. However, it is also my belief that SEO will be further enveloped in the marketing of any website or product and will likely mean that less time is spent on “SEO” onsite than at present as more in house resource is taken on to handle this.

As I say above, we will all adapt if we wish to stay within SEO and there will always be opportunities as long as there are search engines, or app stores, or anything else that has an algorithm and helps a user find your product.

Finally, on this topic, we also discussed an increasing need for specialisation within the field as it seems a great number of the folks we spoke to have not tried much with the other search and discovery engines to try and find new channels for traffic. I suspect true mobile specialists, video optimisation specialists and app store specialists will almost certainly emerge as more SEOs experiment in these different channels and start to realise that “SEO” for YouTube is not the same as SEO for Google and “SEO” for the App Store is more different still.

What will your title be in 5 years?

This was a fun one and I think it says as much about an individual’s ambitions and aims as much as it does about the changing field of SEO. Unfortunately Roy didn’t really get to answer this one but we will close with the answer and the thoughts on these titles:

Kelvin, pointed out that he already has a [redacted] title as he goes by “Creative Director” though he does anticipate more people moving away from SEO based titles.

Martijn suggested that he would quite like to go by something along the lines of “Information Architect” as he sees his position and ability to add value moving in that direction slightly. I personally thought this was a great way to describe someone who specialises in the onsite side of things and potentially could work for offsite as well.

Audience suggestions: many alluded to the fact that they will (or in some cases already have) moved toward more generic titles because they focus on more than just SEO. Some of the examples were simply “Director,” “Founder” or “Consultant”.

Ultimately, my aim is to get more involved in the broader marketing set and hopefully direct strategy for brands online beyond just SEO. The more I learn about other disciplines the more this changes though, so we will have to see where the journey takes me. In the meantime, I’ll be gunning for a title somewhere along the lines of “Strategy Director” (whether specific to SEO or otherwise) and also threw out the idea of “Head of Content Visibility” off the top of my head.

For now though, it’s back to the present and dealing with today’s reality: getting through all the emails that built up whilst I was away. Here’s to the future – may it bring hover boards and many successes for all of you!

About Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.

46 thoughts on “The Future of SEO

  1. “Anyone else heard enough about this big cuddly bear yet?” FUCK YES.

    “one of the most impressive and marketable skills that I believe every SEO has – and indeed must have – is the ability to evolve and adapt quickly” – QFT.

    “What will your title be in 5 years?” – Emperor would do fine. If that’s unavailable, Dark Lord of the SEO is acceptable.

    1. LOLOL Barry ” Emperor would do fine. If that’s unavailable, Dark Lord of the SEO is acceptable.” I’m not surprised, but then you are very witty. All kidding aside this was an eye opener. I’m not sure where SEO is going in 5 years but I can tell you there are still a lot of clueless people out there. I tend to agree, with a few of your readers, incorporating everything that has to do with marketing, research, SEO, SMM and content development, is really the only way to survive in this evolutionary thing we call web2.0 – Brilliant post Sam 🙂

  2. Normally, these kinds of articles are just drivel and based on the guestimations of the writer (or they tell us stuff we already know) , and i never normally get to the end.. but i have to say i loved this article.. very insightful 🙂

  3. Thanks everyone for your comments! One area that we didn’t have time to discuss in the panel (or the post for that matter) is the impact and future of Analytics with the pending legislation around cookies in the EU as we decided it wasn’t explicitly an SEO concern. However I definitely think this deserves more attention and hope to either read or write more about it soon and I would have loved to hear what some of the German audience felt about the issue as it seems likely to hit them early on in the game!

    @Adrian- thanks very much, glad it kept your interest!

    @Mike- I couldn’t agree more though will be interesting to see how they deal with the “real” brands (i.e. cheapflights) and how they separate them from the exact match affiliates and such. Could be some hard hit folks that built a brand around their domain – and I suspect that’s why it’s taking so long to sort out! I still expect within the next 18 months we will see some serious impacts here.

    @Redlin- feel free to use the title 🙂 Someone ought to and I fear I will not be the first!

    @Barry- I think I prefer Emperor but like the connotation of “Dark Lord” as well – think you might have some stiff competition for that one though amongst some of the self-branded black hats!

    I would love to hear other suggestions for titles – what do you all want to be called in five years?

    1. In all seriousness, I’m hoping to be “Internet Marketing director” in 5 years time – or sooner actually. SEO is an online marketing discipline, and the sooner SEOs realise that the best way forward with SEO is to embrace it as a marketing channel, the better.

      1. I totally agree with Barry, both on the emperor part but even more so on the Internet Marketing Director title.
        I do SEO to gain traffic for my clients. But most of them don’t care if the people arrive from Search Engines, Links from other websites, AdWords or Social Media. They just want relevant traffic.

        I am more and more becoming a specialist in making the best of the website handed to me. Helping with conversions, helping with traffic from all kind of sources. I would like to think of myself as an Internet Marketing Consultant more then “The Seo Guy” that I used to be. And I think more people will go that path in the next couple of years.

        1. Great stuff gents, glad to hear that lots of people are thinking along similar lines – and perhaps more importantly – moving in that direction. SEO is such a misunderstood term that often does not do justice to the hard work that lots of consultants/practitioners put in!

  4. Looking at the form the POV of some one who used to work in X.400/X.500

    Yet again G Y and Bing have droped the ball yet agin by not being rigorous enough with the standard at least they do say you can use ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country code to indicate country but then let you use any string.

    Reresenting phone numbers agin they have completely ignored the fact that there are phones outside of north america and made no attempt to cater for defining a canonical phone number.

  5. I’d like to be Head of All Things Linky without having to actually do anything other than direct everyone else. That’s kind of like what I do currently actually…excellent post Mr. Crocker!

  6. Sam, good post…I usually stay far away from the “future” of SEO type posts, but really enjoyed this one, especially the first half. Every SEO should be thinking, whats the next panda, I’ve always looked at my job that way to help futureproof my strategies. Its quite simple, take something that works really well and requires VERY little work…cloaking, meta kw tag stuffing, on site kw stuffing, reciprocal directories, reciprocal links, directory links, buying links in networks, spinning low level content

    Each one of those tactics has a time where they worked GREAT and SEO’s just sat back and collected checks…the minute something works too well and is too easy I immediately start thinking of my next tactic, b/c it could be 2 days or 2 years, but you know Google wants that crap out of the index.

    1. Great stuff Wil! Thanks very much for your comment and I do think that is often the easiest way to measure “is this going to be a great long term strategy”?

      I’m glad to hear that the title of the post didn’t send you running as I know sometimes I’m hesitant to read speculative stuff as well.

      I’ve got to ask, what would you like your title to be in 5 years? 🙂

  7. lol on the exact match domain… it looks even more stupid when the exact match domain doesn’t appear first… you know like every other bloody Brand search out there! Has anyone stopped to think that quite often an exact match domain has exactly what the user wanted.. well unless you are where your domain says something it’s not…. in that case kick it to the curb… but devaluing exact match domains simply because they are exact match makes no sense at all and is just SEOs whining cuz they have to actually work for a ranking… if someone can outrank me based solely on domain name…. I need to think about changing careers!

  8. The fundamental rules for an algorithmic based search engine are all pretty much the same, as an SEO professional, understanding these basics will enable you to optimize digital web content across most search enabled platforms.

    I think the term SEO may be replaced by some other acronym which encompasses all classifications of online marketing channels. (i.e. “DIO” digital information optimization)

    Another interesting discussion topic would be “will Google be around in the next 10 years” Google needs users! What would be the impact of Facebook integrating a full blown search facility into their platform?

    I think the skill of optimizing web content for “search” will be around for a very long time, Who will be the dominate advertisement platform is anyone’s guess!

    Companies who focus on just delivering pure SEO services in the true sense of the word, will probably run into problems in the near future, as this service alone will not deliver the clients expectations or total online marketing strategy.

    1. It’s definitely a topic that continues to amuse & bemuse a lot of SEO’s in the industry. I did want to mention I got a chuckle out of your “DIO” Lee, I wrote a piece a while back “Will Digital Asset Optimization Be the New SEO?” Over at SEJ. I would drop the link but (don’t want to presume it’s okay) I’m sure you can Google it 😉 enjoy your weekend.

      1. Hi Gabriella, thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the post! Don’t worry about the link, here is the article in question just to save people from having to Google it:

        Thank you Lee for your thoughts as well as I think you hit the nail on the head that the need for the skill of optimising web content for “search” is here to stay is a very strong point as well as the fact that focusing on delivering “pure SEO services” may lead to some problems in the not too distant future!

  9. However, the larger argument remains that these standards go against W3C standards.

    Not true. Microdata has been a Working Draft at the W3 since Mar 4, 2010 and is part of the HTML5 Working Draft that goes back to Jan 22, 2008 (A vocabulary and associated APIs for HTML and XHTML). Here’s the latest…

    HTML Microdata W3C Working Draft 25 May 2011

    Here’s the Last Call Announcement for HTML5, Microdata and HTML+RDFa 1.1 made by the W3 on May 25, 2011.

    Last Call: W3C Invites Broad Review of HTML5 and Five Related Specifications launched on Jun 2, 2011.

    Introducing Search engines come together for a richer web

    Let’s not give too much credit to the Big 3 for this. They came together and chose what they felt was the best common vocabulary for structured data markup. There have been plenty of people working on this behind the scenes. After working with Microdata since the announcement, I’ll agree, it is probably the best option moving forward. It’s easy to implement and understand once you’ve marked up one or two blocks of content. I’ve already retrofitted 50+ documents and continue to upgrade when time permits. How about you? 😉

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment and that’s a fair enough point to highlight. Obviously Microdata has been a part of the conversation and a piece of the puzzle for structured data markup more broadly and this is not a completely new development. I also agree that the Big 3 perhaps don’t deserve as much credit as they have received and a lot of others do deserve credit for their contributions.

      However, the larger discussion and I think the arguments made by a lot of folks a lot closer to the decision (i.e. Mr. Sporny et al) were based on frustration with the lack of choice for webmasters, developers and designers as a result of the formalisation of Microdata as the standard. Whilst you are right that it does not go directly against W3C standards (poor wording choice on my part) I do believe it marks a potential change insofar as the search engines were the ones choosing the “best” common vocabulary for structured data markup.

      I personally don’t have any strong objections to the decision made and fully agree that having a standard is ultimately a good thing, though I do think it does open up a good area of discussion around who determines the future of the internet and what languages/mark-up etc. will be supported. That is to say; should it be the Apples and Googles of the world that get to choose what is and is not supported or should it be more open?

      What I probably should have said was “this decision, it would seem given the backlash from some prominent members of the W3C group that created RDFa, is at odds with the view that the broader ‘web community should decide what features should be supported’

      The topic was brought up primarily to spur conversation and provoke thought, though I take your points and apologise if I have misrepresented my position.

      Any alternative views to those of the panel are more than welcome and I would definitely like to hear more if you were involved in some of the decision making – I do not fancy myself much of a developer or a designer but rather someone who will ultimately need to bend to the will of the Search Engines for the time being 🙂

  10. Thanks San for this great article. SEO has been changing and will keep changing and we must stay on the wave.

    pageoneresults, good infrmation about Microdata.

  11. Hey Sam,

    Thanks for an excellent post.

    SEO is going through an interesting period of development and this post is a timely one!

    We’ve also written a blog post recently on SEO in 2011 and interviewing some SEO experts if your readers would also like to check it out, it would make a good follow-on read from this post! Rand Fishkin and Ross Hudgens have given us their thoughts for our first post, and we’ll be having some more UK SEO experts in our 2nd part tomorrow.


  12. I like the title of CIS. Chief Internet Strategist.
    I do agree that internet marketing will consist more and more of content creation and distribution. That seems to be my main seo focus and the best bet for long term success.

  13. Great post i think that the world evolve like the VHS to CD to DVD to Blue Ray Disc we just have to learn the trends and focus on innovation rather than focusing on what we have already acquired, SEO death can be true for those who had stop learning and developing their personal skills i think the Web 2.0 is the first step that will bring a new Era to the digital world .

  14. As Adrian said these articles are normally just poorly researched guestimations of where SEO is heading but i found this article very useful including some of the links regarding (although some of it was over my head). Perhaps this is not the most righteous view but I have very little time on my hands so if Google says “jump” i say “how high”. I will therefore look into implementing into my pages.

    Your right about the google +1 being too easy to game.
    “there is no emotion whatsoever attached with hitting +1” – i believe Google has just launched “Google Share” and “Google Snippet” which allows you to share the content with your community or circle of friends etc.

    I also agree that the interactive parallax sites will take off. And yes they will eventually become tiresome. Never the less, as web designer i am going to start implementing such technologies.

    Anyway, a very interesting article indeed. I think i will read it again 🙂

  15. As an every SEO I am worried about future of SEO but after reading your post I feel some relaxation. As far as Panda is concerned Google will come up with new algorithm update (rumors) may be in December 2012 or Feb 2013 that hit many of old fashion link building techniques. After this algorithm change Web optimization converts into Social optimization.

  16. Hi,
    Parallax Sites do now have to be anti-seo.

    We created a SEO parallax scrolling site. We are an SEO Agency in Argentina.

    Our goal with this project was to do a
    Responsive Web Design
    Parallax Scrolling
    SEO (Onsite optimization site)
    Wordpress site.

    We think we did a pretty good job. It’s not perfect but most parallax scrolling sites do not have SEO. And very few SEO Agencies have parallax scrolling sites. We have yet to find one. Let me know if you do.
    Carla Dawson

  17. Fantastic discussion . I learned a lot from the facts . Does someone
    know if my business could possibly locate a template IRS W-3 copy to
    fill out ?

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