Are you familiar with the Gartner Hype Cycle? If not, it’s worth a couple minutes to check out.
Essentially, the theory goes that all emerging technologies suffer through a period of impossible expectations before being written off and getting called names.
Eventually, the technology starts to meet some, but not all of its original expectations– after it’s taken its roller-coaster ride.
Though not actually a technology, the lifespan of SEO has, thus far, been really similar:
SEO’s Technology Trigger
Search Engine Optimization probably began as soon as there were search engines, but it really became the target of time, effort and money once it became apparent that people would actually spend money on things from the internet.
What’s neat about SEO, though, is that the real “trigger” might have been an actual (well, digital) button. Once Yahoo and other popular search engines would allow webmasters to submit their sites and get instant feedback about rankings, there seemed to be a groundswell of curious folk who would eventually become the earliest SEO practitioners.
SEO’s Peak of Inflated Expectations
Fast Forward to Google and the early-to-mid 2000s. The bubble had burst, and e-commerce was starting to emerge from its own trough and become a real revenue stream. By now, SEO was alive and well, with some companies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on SEO vendors. The general consensus was that any website could compete for traffic from search engines. All it needed was a bunch of links.
This easy-to-sell economy of PageRank gamification spawned a sea of link-building companies, vendors and freelancers, all desperate for blue, underlined pixels. Unfortunately for most internet denizens, it worked, and the niche forums, blogs and other “Web 2.0” sites we loved were flooded with a deluge of link spam.
SEO’s Trough of Disillusionment
If the words “May Day,” “Panda” and “Penguin” seem to you as if they were just chosen at random, I’m happy for you. Their very mention just sent a cold chill down the spine of anyone tasked with SEO throughout the late 2000s.
Truth was, that for every spammer trying to gain a little bit of traction by testing which links worked, and which didn’t, Google had a whole police force at work trying to slay the monster they had created. Eventually, the multi-billion dollar corporation employing many of the world’s top engineers beat out the upstart hustlers working out of garages and basements.
If you’ve largely kept the traffic you’ve seen from search engines over the past several years, then you must work for a really big company, because nearly any e-commerce site working to establish itself as a brand that we talk to has told us “It ain’t what it used to be,” or some variation thereof.
SEO’s Slope of Enlightenment
In many ways, SEO hasn’t got here yet, and the people holding it back come in a few varieties:
- There are several companies still today that will just keep selling you links. This is generally a waste of your money.
- There are several companies and individuals who would tell you that anyone saying the old ways of SEO don’t work anymore are just out of touch and looking for excuses. Truth is, if these people were really as good as they claim to (still) be, they wouldn’t be talking to you about it. They would be diving in their coin vault while managing to care for their three identical nephews despite their adorably predictable misadventures, like that guy over there to the right. (Above, if you’re not on a computer screen.)
- There are still companies that will tell you they have the new recipe for rankings in search engines, and that you just need to game a wider variety of signals today than you used to. This tends to conveniently cost a lot more than it used to and has a success rate remarkably close to that of chance.
Despite these kinds of claims, there still is a way to gain search traffic, but can it still be called “Search Engine Optimization?”
Search engines have largely figured out how to measure real popularity, real good marketing and return results that people really want.
It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but if you want to reel in the clamoring masses to your site, you have to optimize it for your users, not for the search engines.
It’s for this reason why there is an actual Slope of Enlightenment happening today with SEO, even if several hangers-on are trying to tell you otherwise. They’re really just trying to convince you and themselves that SEO is still in its “inflated expectations” heyday.
Does SEO Have a Plateau of Productivity?
There’s no question that traffic from search engines will always be important to any website. I also tend to believe that search engines will only continue to improve the ways they’re able to understand really good digital assets and serve them up to people. In that regard, yeah, there should be a productive place for SEO to exist.
But maybe, in a world where new technologies are constantly divvying up our attention and finding new ways to serve up content across several different devices, through several different methods, eventually it might just be more cost effective to do marketing really well instead.
If you’re in your own trough of disillusionment or ready to get your SEO onto a plateau of productivity, give us a shout. We’ll take you up the hill.