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There’s nothing new about questioning the future of SEO; people have been saying SEO is dead ever since it began. But with Google continually tweaking its algorithm in favour of a more natural approach, it’s difficult to see a long-term future, not so much for the practice itself (or at least the intent behind it), but for the agencies who live and die by the latest algorithm updates.

I think the question goes beyond whether SEO companies can survive or not, to how they adapt, what this means for brands who use them, and the wider impact this has on the marketing industry.

Google is putting humans first

Google updated its algorithm more than 3,000 times last year and each of these miniature updates was designed to provide people with the best result for their search. Not the company with the best-optimised website.

Its most recent update, BERT, at the end of October, focused on conversational search, aiming to help Google understand natural language better. It flies in the face of outdated keyword-stuffed content and signals the search engine’s intent towards rewarding businesses who simply have a decent product or service, and a good website, over those who actively seek to optimise themselves for search.

In fact, Google’s webmaster trends analyst, John Mueller, recently warned marketers that working out ways to game the system is a waste of their time:

“And therefore we’re showing things differently. Sometimes the web just evolved, sometimes what users expect evolves, and similarly sometimes our algorithms…. evolve as well…. There’s often nothing explicit that you can do to change that.”

So what are SEO agencies doing?

With this in mind, will SEO agencies (of which there are thousands) become obsolete? Previously shady methods such as cloaking or “buying” links have long been out of favour but even more recent techniques like guest posting have become more risky and less effective.

Even the more considered, long-form content is written with the quality of the link primarily in mind, rather than for the audience of the publication they’re aiming to be featured in, when in reality writing for the audience first will bring benefits beyond the link, but probably still secure that anyway.

Will this be the death of SEO agencies?

I believe that for at least a portion of agencies, SEO will not provide a sustainable future. I’m talking more about agencies with a churn and burn approach who deal with SEO in isolation, focusing blindly on search positions, without regard for the bottom-line business impact. For agencies without another string to their bow.

These companies often boast about how “adaptable” and “agile” they are, but when this adaptability boils down to simply chasing the latest SEO technique following an algorithm update or penalty, I believe there’s a shelf life. I think we might be nearing it.

What can SEO companies do to embrace the change?

In fairness, Google’s evolving algorithm could (and is, in many cases) inspiring SEO agencies to do better work. However, it does push them into a space that many don’t own or sit comfortably within – more holistic marketing. It’s going to be difficult for SEO agencies to compete with more well-established marketing agencies who have a wider knowledge base and skillset, more experience behind them, and most importantly? A different mindset.

It’s that mindset that is most crucial for SEO agencies looking to survive, even thrive, in years to come. They need to think beyond search positions and to why their clients want those search positions – for more traffic, more enquiries, more sales. They need to consider the bigger picture – within search itself (for example, to think about search terms that signal commercial intent, and convert, not just keywords that look pretty on a ranking report) – but also the role other channels play in the mix – adopting the activity or channel that best suits the objective, even if they fall outside traditional SEO methods.

There’s a growing need to consider the role of SEO as just part of the equation, and think about the wider role it plays in the journey. If agencies can seize this mindset, execute it and own other pieces of the pie – paid search, social media, email marketing (if for stability as much as anything), then they might just succeed.

How will this affect traditional marketing agencies, and what does it mean for brands?

On the flip side, traditional marketing agencies may have to become more tech-savvy if SEO companies do die off as quickly as they appeared. If clients no longer have a separate agency for their SEO, it’s likely they’ll expect more from their marketing specialists.

Whichever way it falls, it seems to be a win-win situation for brands. Either their SEO agency is forced to look beyond website fixes and guest posts, or they work with marketing agencies who have adapted to absorb the skills and specialisms of the former SEO world.

But there’s also a forming pressure on the clients themselves to up their game now too. Never has it been more important to actually be a good company within the world of Google. Good reviews (not fake ones) have an impact on where you’re ranked and can even be displayed in your listing. Google takes into consideration who you’re associated with too, for example, companies that may collaborate with or endorse you. It knows whether your product is actually suited to the search or whether you’re just trying to chime in. Simply put, we no longer get to “choose” which keywords we want to be relevant for. There is, quite literally, nowhere to hide anymore. And as marketing specialists, we need to pass some of this pressure back to the client.

The future of SEO

I feel strongly that SEO agencies who focus purely on search results and have no other skills or channels to offer, are on borrowed time. I think they’ll struggle with fewer incoming leads and the time and resource needed to achieve good results within the evolving search landscape, will ultimately make them much less profitable.

Five years from now, I believe we’ll see fewer SEO companies, and those of us still operating will have adopted a more holistic approach. I think marketing companies will benefit from the shift, but the party reaping all the rewards, will be the client.

Kerry Sheahan is head of content and PR at FSE Digital.