Has search marketing been devalued?

Ash Nallawalla

1 November 2014

Bing, SEO

Several observations over the past year have led me to conclude that search marketing as a profession is in decline. Of course, some people will say that it’s never been better before – good luck to them.

Duane Forrester laid off at Bing

Duane ForresterDuane Forrester was a Senior Product Manager for Webmaster Outreach at Bing until 30 October 2014. His position was restructured out of existence, along with many other layoffs that day. I met him just once at Pubcon, when I confused him with Derrick Wheeler, an in-house SEO at Microsoft. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have since had the occasional interaction with him on Facebook and noted his birthplace as Nova Scotia, Canada (which I hope to explore in the next year or two for family genealogy purposes).

With six layoffs in my own career, I empathised with Duane’s predicament, but he will fall on his feet and for the better, as has been my own experience. I wish him well.

Duane’s role was “to create resources to help publishers and developers improve their websites through search engine optimization, and by using Bingโ€™s tools and applications“. Now this role does not exist. Bing had a great spokesman in the form of Duane, who did not clock off when he went home. His posts on Facebook via Hootsuite pointed me to what’s recent and relevant in search marketing (and saved me from reading all my email subscriptions). His numerous other interactions with webmasters both online and at search conferences extended the Bing brand.

I could, but won’t focus on how few people use Bing and how valuable was Duane’s presence in improving Bing’s visibility. That’s a worthy topic on its own. Being based in Australia, I can’t recall any other kind of publicity for Bing from Microsoft. I want to explore the declining importance of search in the minds of senior leaders.

Where Is Matt Cutts?

Ash with Matt CuttsGoogle’s own public interface with webmasters is Matt Cutts, who has been on extended leave this year and word has come in that he will extend this into 2015. His is a different situation, but the other Googlers who continue to interact with webmasters are a poor substitute.

Declining importance of Search?

My past seven years have been in enterprise SEO, which is a different creature from SME SEO, which I experienced during 2002-2007. Ten years ago, we had to educate business owners on the importance of search engine optimisation (SEO). Today, most business leaders have heard of it and have an opinion of it, but I suspect that their estimation is declining.

Anybody can do it?

Traditional marketers have often been sceptical of SEO. Years ago, I didn’t renew my membership of the Australian Marketing Institute after their magazine editor declined my offer to write about SEO. In large corporations I saw them enjoying their careers in the company of agency reps — essentially, marketing was something you outsourced and you got a known deliverable. They could not grasp a technical discipline that claimed to bring more traffic than their paid campaigns. I have spoken about corporate SEOs being placed so low in the hierarchy that their voices can be ignored. I suspect that many business leaders think that SEO is about keywords and meta tags and anybody can do that. It’s not, but that’s a different topic.

Tougher Algorithms

In 2004 I had a brief taste of SEO riches, when I was making $1,500 a day through affiliate marketing. That lasted just one week, when affiliate sites were suddenly demoted in the search results. I regretted not embracing SEO in 1997, when a lot of wealthy SEOs had begun. Not being a risk-taker, I had worked for a salary and didn’t have time to build affiliate sites and make money from commissions and AdSense clicks.

Today, I think I made the right choice by not trying to live off my own websites. Many of my US self-employed SEO friends have gone back to work for a salary; some for a very modest one. I have no idea if they were losing clients or they had a change of mind. A couple left the industry altogether.

Jill Whalen

Ash and Jill WhalenOne year ago, well-respected SEO Jill Whalen said her goodbyes to the SEO industry. Her reason was “my SEO voice was no longer necessary.” In brief, she wrote that tricks were no longer needed to fool search engines, because they did not work. The only reliable technique was the original philosophy of building a great site with great content.

True cost of SEO

Today, many SEO jobs are paying as little as $40,000 in Australia, with agency managers being offered less than $100,000/year. Those figures may seem high in the US, but in Australia a first-year graduate position offers $50k-$60k. Middle managers earn between $100k-$150k. Senior managers earn $150k and up. Very few SEOs earn around the $150k mark, which is the level needed in a large company to make some impact. This level will put them in meetings and email distribution lists where they can speak up before something comes along and impacts the website.

When listed companies have to prepare quarterly financial reports in tough times, their bean counters often look at reducing headcount as a quick way to make the figures look good. Marketing is a favourite area to cull heads, as it can “always be outsourced”. This might be the thinking at Microsoft in Duane’s case. The headcount decisions are made without a full understanding of the possible fallout and impact on future revenues. When I was at Sensis and a major headcount reduction was announced to managers, I was asked to halve my team of two people, simply because “all departments have to find some people to let go”. I had to fight to keep my sole direct report. A year later, I was “let go”.

The end result of lowering the cost of SEO is being left with inexperienced operators, be they in-house or outsourced. The accountants might rejoice in getting the numbers to look good, but they would be well advised to keep a regular watch on their keyword rankings and organic search conversions. I won’t out the companies where this has happened, but they have lost many valuable rankings and their online conversions would have tanked. Taking advantage of the client’s inexperience, one enterprising agency is stillย  renting links from spun content on expired domains to high-paying customers. Can anyone say Penguin?

Deflation at work

In the outsourced agency area, I have also seen deflationary forces at work. For a recent client assignment I had to locate agencies that claimed to offer SEO services in Melbourne. I gave up the count after 277, which is over-saturation for a city the size of Melbourne. This high degree of competition has led to two things:

  • At the low end, agencies charging $199/month to $2,000/month are having to offshore their implementation work if they have to make a profit.
  • The outsourcers have not caught up with Google’s ever-changing algorithm, so outdated tactics are still being performed. Unhappy customers go to other agencies and might get similar results. It’s lose-lose for many.

Search engine disengagement with webmasters

You can infer at this point that Bing and Google have gone dark (or “dimmed”) on webmasters. Algorithms are getting merciless, with innocent customers bearing the brunt of inexperienced or ignorant operators. A cynic might think that the search engines want more ad revenue while they continue to render SEO obsolete.

Coming back to Jill Whalen’s point – about tactics returning to basics – the SEO industry has been marginalised and the responsibility for “quality content” has fallen on the laps of traditional marketers. Traditional ad agencies are now “digital agencies”, usually with minimal SEO talent in-house, but they are happy to rise to the challenge, for a decent fee, of course.

How am I affected?

I am a little disappointed, but not surprised that I am no longer approached by large enterprises, probably because they think they have SEO “covered”. I have shifted sideways into the vocational education industry and teaching SEO is a tiny part of it, so I haven’t really left the profession entirely, but life is good.

Ash Nallawalla

Search strategist experienced in large, complex websites. Ash's Google+ profile

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  • Yatin Mulay on 1 November 2014

    Search has never been at the core for Microsoft Corp the way it is for Google Inc. Still, I’m a kind of surprised that Bing would let go of such a strong evangelist of their brand.

    SEO’s need to understand that it’s a pay to play ecosystem now. I had a rude wakeup call when Google shattered my well SEO’ed passive income empire of 5 years with a single update in April 2012 (1st penguin ) .

    It forced me to introspect and realize that aggressive SEO basically runs counter to the revenue model of the search/social platforms and the only way is to adapt and get your business model inline with the revenue model of these giants. ( I run a Google Partners PPC agency now & couldn’t be happier for making the switch.)

    With predictive search, Google now & cross device user based retargeting, PPC is going to earn increasingly more media spend share while SEO stagnates.

    Bottom line message from Big G: Build sites / apps with best practices in terms of crawlability, IA,UX, on-page hygiene, structured data, analytics. And then use PPC or Get buried/penalized/eventually die Because for Google/Bing: “search marketing !=SEO” but rather “search marketing =PPC”

  • duane forrester on 2 November 2014

    Just wanted to add a quick note for clarity Ash. Microsoft is not moving away from webmasters or SMBs. I was a single person (among many) affected, who’s work focused in the area of webmasters. The entire team who builds, maintains and launches new tools remains in place.

    New faces can be found. I am replaceable. ๐Ÿ˜‰ As is Matt, and everyone who holds a job working for someone else…

    For a couple years now I’ve been presenting to conferences and telling people about the need to shift focus beyond just SEO. That’s not me rambling… hehe

    I think this is a natural direction, part of the maturation process. And let’s face it, while grape juice is nice, wine is better. ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Ash Nallawalla on 2 November 2014

      In no time you will find a better position and will feel grateful for being forced to find it. It improved my income by 50% after one layoff and then 300% after another. That gave me my greatest SEO success and my best feeling of achievement.

      I don’t doubt that Bing will be kept alive, but webmaster outreach helps to encourage better content for Bing users.

  • Paul on 2 November 2014

    Hi Ash
    I enjoyed your article and find it very relevant to the SEO specialist in today’s online environment.

    I am one of your previous online students have been dabbling in SEO and SEM for the past 3 or 4 years now. I have noticed that Google is making it increasingly harder to index websites using SEO and for this reason I have also found the need to become certified in Google AdWords.

    My reason to focus my attention on PPC is due to the realisation that Google wants to increase revenues and profits and while I believe SEO is still important to Google, the AdWords platform is the major revenue and profit vehicle for Google.

    Due to the free aspect of SEO, Google makes no income from SEO. So this makes SEO, in a strange way a competitor with the Google AdWords platform.

    I believe that Google, as a business will make it increasingly harder for people to perform effective SEO, so the PPC side of the search does become the go to option for many online marketing professionals. I don’t think SEO is dead and for medium to large companies with larger budgets SEO will still be viable, although in saying that, it will depend on the speed to market aspect of each business.

    The problem now for many small business operators is the need, to now put a lot more time into SEO to show up on page one. I have read other SEO professionals saying the same on this issue for small business. For example, a plumber who used to do their own SEO. Its now a lot harder and more time consuming.

    I’m sure Google knows this? I have noticed they are promoting ads targeted at businesses to promote their business on AdWords Express. AdWords Express is an easy way to promote your business and would be a handy introduction for a small business operator to engage with the Google AdWords Platform.

    If the small business owner does engage with the Google AdWords Platform they are going to find that its not easy to be cost effective with Google AdWords. Its not an easy task and is also very time consuming so this strategy may only work for a small number of people.

    I would have to say this is a deliberate strategy for Google to make more businesses become engaged the the AdWords platform.

    The good thing about the AdWords platform is the valuable amount of knowledge on keywords and search funnel information that is gathered over time. This information can be directly transferred to the SEO strategy for any business, saving many hours of time researching the client/user search origins and keywords used.

    As a freelance operator my decision to also incorporate PPC into my online marketing services has been a direction that Google has made me take in order to stay competitive. I don’t believe SEO is going to be as easy as it has been in the past and will always be difficult.

    This drives people to use the Google AdWords platform/PPC as the preferred online advertising/information channel for business. Its not just the Search Network aspect of PPC, Google AdWords also has the Display Network, Analytics and great reporting that can also be used for SEO purposes. I wouldn’t say SEO is not effective…its now best practice to have both and easier to use AdWords for both the SEO and PPC analytical aspects of online marketing.

    • Ash Nallawalla on 2 November 2014

      G’day Paul. I totally hear you. I also did my GAP certification but I prefer to work as little as possible with PPC, as it is fun during diagnosis and recommendations, but boring during maintenance. ๐Ÿ™‚ Large companies usually have nobody capable of challenging their external PPC agency and spend more than they need to.

      SEO is getting back to the days where the site owner is the best person to effect ranking improvements, not an external agency, but small companies don’t have the time or people to do it. Relevance will always be king.

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