21 Years Practicing SEO: Five Observations

I did the math and I officially began practicing search engine optimization in earnest in March of 2000, which means my SEO career is old enough to buy a beer! And I’ve learned a lot in this time. But before I get to some lessons learned, here’s a little context that you might appreciate how I got into SEO.

The Dawn of Digital Marketing

Back in those early times of myth during the dawn of the digital marketing (when nu-metal was hip and nobody had ever heard of an iPod, let alone an iPhone) I began optimizing a rock band’s website I was playing in to appear more on Yahoo and for our tracks to show up for big searches on Napster and MP3.com. I didn’t call this process SEO, and the resources to learn how to do it were slim. But after a while, my day job (sales at a shared web hosting company in Cedar Falls, Iowa) took notice of some of the successes I began having (history doesn’t remember this, but one could actually generate a fair bit of income in the dot-com-fueled pre-Napster days of MP3.com). One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was also doing SEO, paid inclusion and paid search (which resembled nothing like what it is today). That led me to a role at one of the earlier digital agencies. The industry really started to flourish, and once Google IPO’d, the marketing world decided search marketing mattered.

Over the past couple decades, SEO has led me all over the world. I’ve helped some of the largest brands in the world publish content that ranks for some of the most competitive terms ever. I’ve learned from some legendary pioneers. I’ve mentored fantastic professionals and forged long lasting relationships. I met my wife when she was a student in a SEO 101 class I taught 14 years ago.

I’ve gone on to do plenty of other things besides SEO and have led plenty of other marketing disciplines. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that SEO has given me more than I’ll ever give back to it. Here are some general observations about the search engine optimization from being down in the trenches for over two decades:

1. SEO Isn’t Dying (no really)

The first time I think I heard a credible source declare that SEO is dead was when Dave Pasternak said so on DMNews in 2006. And every year since, someone else has declared the death of SEO, creating ripples of concern across the digital marketing landscape. Those declarations have led me to some wild re-branding meetings and inventive ways to describe SEO because everyone was convinced the end is nigh. Yet every year, investments in SEO continue to rise, it continues to be a reliable source of leads and traffic.  There’s a lesson to learn here: listen to the authorities with a critical eye, and don’t let the hype make you jump to hasty conclusions.

2. SEO value is maximized when it is an input to strategy vs. an output

Here’s a truism that applies to every company from the biggest brands in the world on down to series A startups: the more they understand their customers’ digital journey, the more strategic SEO becomes. I’ve seen it happen time and again with senior levels of every organization after they take a deeper look at how their customers discover them online: suddenly the SEO teams start looking less and less like executional resources relegated to “fixing” things well after the fact to strategic consultants who help drive customer acquisition. Why? Because those companies start to realize that search is like a giant focus group, and Google is the single-greatest arbiter of purchase intent ever created. And it JUST SO HAPPENS the team optimizing title tags, tracking rankings, fretting about algorithm updates, and working with multiple departments to implement things to drive more traffic has a front row seat at this show. And they generally know how to distill that arbitration between the intent and Google into meaningful insights. Giving SEO a strategic voice is usually when that brand’s digital marketing really starts cooking with gasoline. The reasons for why this shift happens vary, but when it does, SEO always has a strategic seat at the table. The main takeaway is that the sooner you look to your SEO’s to help you understand what your audience really wants, the more effective your overall marketing will be.

3. SEO is looking more and more like product marketing

Over time, perhaps as companies began to change their view of the channel, I’ve noticed the really good SEO’s start walking and talking more like product marketing groups. Their customers are the keywords, and the SERPs are their focus groups. They think about positioning, differentiation and things like use-cases for products that help answer queries people may have. I’ve spent a fair bit of time working in product marketing alongside my SEO work and the parallels are more apparent as search results get more robust, and the insights SEO’s have on what consumers want are easier to obtain. Both product marketing and SEO wants to answer that question “what makes my audience tick?” and they plan their work accordingly.  In fact, I’ll go as far as to say some of the most effective SEO programs seem to be embedded in product marketing in some fashion, and query intent fuels how those brands position their products. Because purchase paths are migrating online across nearly every industry, I see this as a trend that will only continue and create more ways to deliver value for SEO practitioners. If you are looking to embark on a career in SEO, my advice on differentiating yourself early on would be to learn the fundamentals of product marketing. The Pragmatic Institute has some great materials for this.

4. Google’s advice is timeless

A lot of what Google has advised webmasters to do hasn’t really changed whatsoever – and we’re better for Google’s consistently strong advice. When Matt Cutts, aka Google Guy, was telling people to write content for people not spiders, that advice rang more true the more sophisticated their algorithms became. Google has been talking about the need for webmasters to focus on a positive page experience for years, and this upcoming Page Experience update is no left turn. When Google gives advice, you can trust that it’ll stay advice and become more important as time goes on.

5. Self-inflicted wounds are the biggest challenge for SEO

Design trends have risen and fallen throughout the years. Some of you remember the days of sites built entirely in Flash. Whether its building in a technology not designed for discoverability, or mis-prioritization, over the past 21 years, the biggest challenge I see companies faced with are still fundamentals. Even today, testing for crawlability, caching and ensuring core web vitals are healthy are things companies fail to do and their traction in organic results suffers as a result. It’s not that companies don’t get it or that the things that are fundamental haven’t evolved, it’s just the importance of technical SEO hasn’t diminished.

Here’s to the Next 21!

Ultimately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve been in this long enough to understand the transient nature of online platforms. Trends peak in popularity, and the masses move on. The change that makes me excited for the future, particularly in SEO, is the continuing removal of the friction between the content creator and the content consumer. Even after the advent of “Not provided” and privacy, it’s easier than ever to compile and visualize macro trends in consumer behavior and content resonance. From hacking listings in MP3.com to writing this article, I’ve had a great and interesting 21 years. Here’s to the next 21!

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