SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation is the mystic – or so the ‘gurus’ will have you believe – art of ensuring your website’s content is found organically by search engines and clambers to the top of search results. To clarify, when I say search engines, the efforts of SEO experts are generally focused on one search engine, the omnipresent Google. This is understandable as the SEO industry was born alongside Google and like the Pilot fish, has been swimming alongside, feeding off its oblivious benefactor ever since.
But has Google switched direction leaving the SEO experts out in the cold(water)? This may sound like a statement to bait a response – sorry I’ll leave the fish analogy here – but try typing ‘mobile phone’ into Google and what do you see? It’s probably something like this:
This is a screenshot from my desktop PC. The area inside the black tint is the full extent of a browser maximised for a typical 1024 x 768 screen, the green speech bubble is from the first organic result after web-traffic giant wikipedia which is nearly always going to appear first.
What this example shows is that three quarters of the available content space is devoted to ads. The organic – or non paid – links start appearing way down the page, below the initially visible screen real estate! This is fine if your digital marketing strategy is to ‘hope-users-ignore-everything-that-first-appears and scroll-down-to-find-your-result’. Good luck with that!
Is this indicative of a move away from organic search listings? Not quite – would you still visit Google if all you got was ads? It’s still going to provide relevant content to users, but the balance has definitely shifted to showing you relevant paid ads over relevant organic results.
The argument that Google is prioritising paid content is enforced if you look at your analytics. In October Google announced that for non Google verified sites it will no longer show you what keywords people used to get to your site organically (here’s a clearer analysis of the announcement). These ‘referer’ links are like gold dust for website owners and provide you with free keyword analysis with which you can further optimise your site.
Returning to the original premise. Is SEO a waste of time? Well, if your product or service is in a saturated or crowded market, and if you’re relying on your website’s organic performance in Google search results to drive business then there’s a good chance the answer is yes.
However, the good news, for the moment, is that SEO for organic traffic is still worth pursuing if your product or service is not in a fiercely competitive market. From my tests, search results for non saturated markets attract fewer, or no ads leaving plenty of space for your business listing to compete organically. A good SEO strategy will keep your content fresh, which will always appeal to customers and encourage repeat visits to your site. Additionally, if you buy keyword based ads with Google, the cost of your ads is in part determined by the relevance of the content on your website.
Moving forward, to me it seems that to ensure your business gets found online you will soon need to widen your focus. Worry less about your placement in organic search results and start budgeting for keyword based ads. With Google starting to withdraw the freebies, the ad space is going to get more competitive. Unless you’ve Apple’s cash pile this means that the stakes are raised for every dollar of your online advertising budget. Keyword analysis, online copy-writing, integrated marketing strategy and media expertise – to place, monitor and optimise the ads – are all going to be more important.
The free ride is coming to an end.