November 13, 2023 | 4 min read
Sam Callender leads PMG's performance content practice, working across the SEO team to level up organic search and content strategies for clients across PMG's entire portfolio. With over 15 years in roles spanning FedEx, Amazon, and R/GA, Sam relies on his deep industry experience and technical expertise across digital and product marketing to support B2B, tech, ecommerce, and retail brands.
It'd be quite an understatement to say that the SEO profession is having a bit of a "moment" recently, requiring many of us to find new grounding. The zeitgeist of recent SEO chatter online could easily be characterized in a variety of ways, ranging from dysfunction, disruption, or disillusionment. Many SEOs have responded to the trends of the past year with excitement, opportunistic moves, and existential dread that our careers are going to evaporate if generative AI destabilizes decades of internet behavior and the website and search engine content paradigm.
As if that wasn't enough, the old "SEOs are spammers and hacks" narrative surfaced yet again this month as The Verge lambasted SEOs as the culprits behind the declining quality of the internet. While it is true that some SEOs have approached search as another scheme to cash in on (especially in its earliest days), there's also a large, vibrant professional community focused on delivering great marketing in a complex system. For the latter, navigating an uncertain future is going to look less and less like manipulating a monolithic system and more about focusing on delivering value to our audiences.
My gut feeling is that most people have become more in tune with "SEO" than they realize—or what SEOs give them credit for. Anecdotal conversations with non-tech or marketing friends have seemed to more often segue into speculation about "The Algorithm" (across Google, TikTok, and Instagram, in particular) that's driving their consumption patterns. Topics like "fake news," "influencers," and "the Reddit blackout" are fundamental to popular and internet culture, so it's not surprising that people are more aware of how platforms work and that much of the content they consume is heavily optimized against myriad criteria and signals.
This time last year, the press was seriously scrutinizing the perceived decline in the quality of Google search results just as ChatGPT was making its way into the hands of early adopters. The early use cases demonstrated a true threat that could convert searches into AI prompts and quickly began setting off alarm bells in Mountain View. By the spring of 2023, competitive pressure pushed Google to release BARD, which was then quickly followed by the introduction of Google's Search Generative Experience (SGE) in June.
User behavior changed as well. TikTok has emerged as a popular search engine, and speaking from experience, we've all gotten used to concatenating "Reddit" to any search query that requires a more nuanced answer, as content from top-ranking sites often lacks sufficient detail. Ironically, some of this behavior likely emerged as a result of excessively optimizing content strategies by SEOs (go us!).
“My gut feeling is that most people have become more in tune with "SEO" than they realize—or what SEOs give them credit for.”
Meanwhile, SEOs have been navigating the less spectacular yet near-constant evolution of shifting SERP layouts and back-to-back algorithm updates since August 2023. Even without putting popular SEO tools to use by monitoring the changes and drawing causal conclusions, the future is all but set in stone: More searches but fewer clicks that directly translate into monetizable site traffic for brands.
Combined, these trends dovetail into a less certain future for SEO, yet more opportunities than ever to engage audiences in new ways. With more competition and AI advancements on the horizon, it's not difficult to imagine a future where Google Search and the billions of websites that Google relies on are no longer the center of gravity for internet users.
SEOs will continue to have an incredible amount of choice and authority over their work, with a small subset of SEOs likely to do exactly what The Verge describes by delivering excessively optimized content and spam. For the rest of us, however, finding a path forward through the uncertainty of industry change demands that we recommit to the core principles of SEO even as the tried-and-true strategies of today may not exist tomorrow.
Audience, Not Algorithm: While it's tempting to focus on tactics and channels, the strategy must start with the customer or end-user by taking the time to understand their goals, challenges, interests, and other motivations related to the customer journey. Centering the end-user as the proverbial north star in the beginning will future-proof your efforts and provide much better direction than rushing directly into the weeds of keyword research, content audits, and establishing a roadmap. As an SEO, these first steps provide a great opportunity to bring others from across the organization into the process of establishing a cohesive content, communications, and SEO strategy. At PMG, this translates into live workshops with product marketers, sales teams, subject matter experts, and sometimes, even brand customers themselves.
Create Value, Not Content: As we move into a more uncertain future, we can pivot from content optimization based on established techniques towards innovation by creating value through content. Again, this ties back to addressing our audience's real-world challenges. To deliver real value, we can start by identifying gaps in how our audiences are currently being served. We must push ourselves to reveal problems that don't show up as average monthly search volume and avoid planning based on what others have already published. We can deliver the most value when our content has something unique to say, and it comes from an authentic place.
Outcomes, Not Rankings: How most SEOs measure success is already seeing major disruption. More importantly, traffic and rankings should never have been the primary KPIs. What we do with our audience after we've earned their attention and delivered our message is where many SEOs fall short today. We need to think about our SEO initiatives and the content they produce as part of a broader communications framework and set of brand touchpoints. Showing up at the top of the SERP doesn't drive transformative business outcomes if there's no plan to continue engaging the audience after that interaction.
Become Convergent: Our profession has always been about converging disciplines and trends. Unlike our paid media counterparts, we have never had a straightforward model for delivering success. Driving results often relies on generating change across various disciplines within a single organization. Great SEOs have long realized this is an amazing 'backdoor' opportunity to take on challenges rarely labeled as 'SEO work.' Use your next SEO project to solve bigger problems. The new frontier of SEO is already spilling into many other audience touchpoints, from customer service to influencer marketing. In other words, don't stay in your lane—converge.
As long as there are users searching for information online, whether it be via Google SERPs, AI tools, the TikTok For You page, or a new platform to come, there's going to be competition to 'own' that space. The great convergence of AI, SEO, creator content, and walled gardens presents a critical moment for us SEOs to reflect on why we're competing for the top of the algorithm in the first place—and what we can do once we're up there.