Search engine optimization: An obituary

Nota bene: even though this is a hypothetical situation, my hope is that it will get you thinking… which this what’s really important now that it’s 2015.

Just past his 10th birthday, we’re sad to announce the imminent death of unpaid (also known as organic) Search Engine Optimization. Born on September 4, 2004, with Google‘s NASDAQ public offering, SEO reached its zenith in the fledgling days of global web search as a free means for Internet users to find a website or browse for related information.

In its heyday, SEO meant that the entire left hand side of the viewer’s screen was devoted to these free listings. These listings were derived from the website itself, rather than paid search – also known as Google Adwords for the masses who utilize this search engine juggernaut – which were relegated to the right hand side of the screen.

And what a childhood it was! Everyone was determined to have their site found ‘on the first page’ for any important search term or browsed keyword. A whole cottage industry emerged to service this desire. Fueled by the recognition of the importance of being discovered on the internet, countless organizations and purported gurus developed their own techniques in a mad dash to reach for the top of each listing.

Not to be outdone, Google responded with a series of rules for the search game, each aptly named for a different member of the animal kingdom (Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird and so on). These Google bulletins gave hints as to what Google prepared to release on ‘how’ or ‘what’ was important in their ever-evolving and secretive search algorithm.

But at the same time as the marketing world was scrambling to find the way to get their site picked first, Google was busy selling the prime ‘organic’ space to the highest bidder. First, ad space (sponsored links) appeared at the top of the left – the supposedly free – column on the page. Then, as the right hand column was replaced with Google Local (another profitable product), paid ad space continued to expand through the left hand column.

In the pecking order for hotels, the big omnibus sites (Expedia, TripAdvisor and other OTAs) took up these dominant positions. Based upon their sheer bulk and site size, they easily commandeered the next few slots on the search page’s ‘free’ column under the paid placement.

The result? The front page of any search result is pretty much closed out for any individual property hoping for a free search-engine-optimized space. Sorry, but there is no longer such a thing as a free lunch.

Ever wonder how Google’s share price moved from $54 to in excess of $500 in 10 years? They did not reach that by giving away free space on their search engine, but rather by selling this much sought space to the highest bidder. And the best way to sell us more Google Adwords is to limit, reduce, eliminate and literally kill the free (organic) search space allocation on the eternally critical front page.

I imagine many of you still encourage your web marketing teams to seek a first page ranking on Google through a comprehensive SEO program. While a full court press may indeed deliver a first page ranking for some search terms, I question whether it is really worth the effort these days. How much extra time is your marketing team spending trying to reach for this Holy Grail instead of pursuing other fruitful goals?

Rather, as a senior manager, should you encourage your team to improve your website’s viewer experience and make the site better not just in Google’s ‘eyes’ but in the mind of the guest? Or perhaps you might undertake a bold, new social media campaign? Regardless of the strategy, this I know for sure: in the next few years, Google’s gradual conquest of the organic search results section of their pages will force us to seek new means of reaching consumers, and anyone who relies solely on this cost-heavy system will be left behind.