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Field Notes #075: Is SEO Dead?

Field notes #075: Is SEO Dead?

“The reports of [SEO’s] death are greatly exaggerated” – Mark Twain, probably

SEO has died a thousand deaths, to the point where it’s a veritable meme:

“Every few months or so another reporter, journalist, blogger, venture capitalist, Jason Calacanis wannabe, actual Jason Calacanis, or spurned intern facing an editorial deadline writes a post officially declaring SEO dead. They then go on to describe at length what killed SEO stone dead and what’s going to replace the maggot ridden carcass of SEO – which turns into a fairly long winded description of what most people consider to be current SEO.”

There are many hard data points I can cite that refute this. 

Statistically, it is very likely that you use search and you use it regularly. Google still drives the majority of website traffic, searches and search revenue are increasing over time, and users of Google use it regularly, whereas LLM usage tends to drop off a cliff.

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And while no one can predict the future (including and especially Gartner, whose 25% search drop prediction was challenged in the above study), we can use first principles thinking to assume reliably that, in some form, SEO will continue to exist. 

Search as a Library, SEO as a Librarian

SEO, for all the industry chatter and debate, is a relatively simple concept. 

There’s a lot of content out there, and it’s hard to organize and find it. Organizing it and delivering it at the right time is very valuable. So search engines have invested heavily in algorithms that most accurately deliver the content that people are looking for.

Think of SEO like a gigantic library filled with books and ask two questions:

  • Have all the important books already been written?
  • Have all the books been accurately matched with all the library visitors seeking them?

The answer is obviously no to both of these, meaning there’s still value in creating content, and there’s still value in optimizing that content to be found by the right people. 

In fact, content, to the degree that we believe it is valuable (and I hope we do), is only valuable when it is found. 

SEO is a process that helps content get found. It includes content creation and optimization, but also website product management and user experience, digital PR and link building, and most importantly, an understanding of what your users want. 

From a business perspective, it makes a ton of sense (and dollars) to be found regularly for content related to your product and industry, whether you directly attribute revenue from the channel or look at it more as a brand exposure channel. 

What People Mean When They Say “SEO is Dead”

When people say some variant of this phrase, they mean that they don’t view search as a propitious opportunity for them. This could be for a few reasons:

  • There’s no alpha in SEO anymore (saturation)
  • There’s no alpha in SEO for me specifically (unfair game)
  • Consumer behavior is changing 
  • There’s no SEO anymore (it’s getting replaced)
  • I, personally, find SEO boring

“There’s no opportunity in SEO anymore (saturation)”

When people say this, they’re mostly saying “SEO is hard and not worth the effort anymore,” which is actually true for many brands. 

Two things are true today: the number of searchers and searches is rising, and the number of people competing in search is also rising. 

So the pie is growing, but it’s getting harder to secure your portion of the pie. Especially if you’re an early stage challenger, as incumbents have many advantages. 

While I do indeed talk many prospects out of investing in SEO (at least in the current moment), the amount of opportunity I still see, especially in the enterprise, is astonishing. 

We worked with a few Fortune 500 companies that had barely invested in organic up to this point, and while I can’t show you their charts, I can show you IBM’s blog:

We’ve got a few early stage clients also driving significant business value through search. 

To be clear, SEO is not a propitious channel for everyone at all times; I’m not an evangelist. 

But that’s part of the fun of strategy: picking and choosing where you put your eggs in order to best position your company to win. 

And SEO, for all its flaws, is a channel that benefits from time in market and compounding results, making it an eminently scalable channel with many key elements remaining fundamentally the same.

“There’s no alpha in SEO for me specifically (unfair game)”

If the above means “SEO is hard,” this one means, “SEO is so hard that it’s futile for someone like me.” 

This is the argument most commonly seen with the recent helpful content updates, as a thousand niche site owners scream into oblivion (AKA X). 

And honestly, there’s a lot of merit to this argument. 

From the absolute abundance of Reddit, Forbes, and other large sites taking the SERPs hostage for topics they don’t deserve to rank for, to the recent piece outlining the internal politics and systems that have (allegedly) led to Google’s quality decline, it does seem like the deck is stacked against smaller players. 

All I can do here is speculate that a) Google hates bad PR and will have to fix this over time and b) we have some counter-cases, small startups that are carving out a profitable niche by producing great content. 

So it’s not all doom and gloom and Forbes trash out there. 

There’s also real game theory going on here, and while I don’t want to defend Google, I think it’s a hard problem to tackle AI spam at scale. Probably a safer bet to raise the profile of big brands, at least for the general (non marketing) user of search, than to litter SERPs with potential spam. Food for thought. 

“Consumer behavior is changing”

There are many variants of this argument, from the rise of dark social and unmeasurable sources of influence to the decreasing click-through-rates and traffic driven from existing search rankings. 

Influence, it is said, is built on social platforms, via demand creation (not just demand capture), and search is simply an outdated method by which a handful of luddites make decisions. 

I’m not negating the value of any of the above methods, and I do believe dark social and demand creation / brand building motions create a ton of downstream value, consumer behavior is simply not changing that rapidly. 

Here’s a great take from Braden Becker on the lasting power of channels:

For what it’s worth, we drive a significant amount of high quality leads from our own SEO efforts, and we obviously achieve results like that for our clients, too.

I still believe you need a marketing mix to capitalize on multiple customer journey stages, but consumer behavior, in almost every industry I’ve looked at directly, still reflects the value of appearing in search. 

At a simple level, it’s apparent that appearing for high intent searches for in-market buyers can drive business value. At the very least, you’re entering the conversation with prospects when they’re making decisions. 

“Google is dying (it’s getting replaced)” has gotten some recent press, including from the NYTimes, framing it as a tool that can (and perhaps will) replace Google. 

I recently tweeted my admiration for, stating that it’s very useful for researching podcast guests. 

I crafted a simple prompt – “tell me about [guest].” 

Followed up by “What is the guest’s position on [topic]?” 

And then a more elaborate prompt, “Give me suggestions for uncommon podcast interview questions that may elicit contrarian or interesting answers.” 

And it was pretty good.

However, I then played around with the tool a little bit more, asking it things like:

  • Tell me about Alex Birkett. 
  • Give me the 10 best content marketing agencies.
  • What is Omniscient Digital known for? 

While the answers were ostensibly solid and accurate, they were limited. I noticed that, no matter how I prompted it, it would pull from the same 5-7 sources, some of which were outdated or poor quality (in my opinion, being very close to the subject matter).

This led me to think, “how does Perplexity choose which sources to use, when, and why?” 

For all the talk about LLMs and their utility, we have to give credit where credit is due: Google has been working on this problem for decades.

And up to this point, it’s pretty clear that LLMs are surfacing sources and citations in a similar way to classic search engines. That may evolve over time, but having a crawl-able site with good content, and getting mentioned on other sites within appropriate context, is getting brands pushed into AI answers. 

So to me, the question isn’t “will Perplexity replace Google.” It’s “how do I build strategies to appear favorably and regularly in AI-driven search engines and chatbots.” 

We’ve already done many experiments in this area, and the answer is appearing to be remarkably similar to “classic SEO,” with the addition of brand context and digital PR. 

“I, personally, find SEO boring”

Many marketers themselves seem to loathe SEO. 

I was at a conference talk by JH Scherck when he mentioned something akin to “traditional keyword research is becoming outdated,” and someone in the row behind me sighed audibly and said “Thank God!” 

This attitude seems to be caused by two things:

  • SEO has a bad reputation caused by spammers
  • People simply find it boring to produce

The first reason, I actually agree with, though I think those tactics have largely diminished over time. And I can tell you stories about pretty much every channel or tactic being hacked or gamed, but that’s for another essay… 

The second reason is frustrating, because it seems like boredom with SEO is causing marketers to jump the shark and praise social platforms and “build a media brand” type ideologies, which are, spoiler alert, ALSO subject to algorithm hacking. 

I cited Josh Spilker’s take in last week’s newsletter, and I’ll do so again here because it’s so good:

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If search is a library, social is a town square.

Search algorithms seek to best match a user to a piece of content explicitly. In the town square, you can build a reputation over time as someone with good information; but you can also just yell loudly and use tricks to get attention. I’m not sure that’s any better.

For what it’s worth, SEO content doesn’t have to be boring or bad. That’s some implicit rule that popped up the last few years. The work we’re doing with clients interweaves brand POV, subject matter expertise, and good search formatting. It’s good content.

My writing for CXL back in 2015 was good, and it also ranked well in search.

We can have our cake and eat it, too, and if you’re struggling with that, flex that creativity. Or separate them into two investment buckets, like we mention in our barbell strategy framework: SEO content & interesting thought leadership.

So is SEO dead? Will SEO Die? What’s happening?

Currently, SEO is alive and well, in its classic form.

And while ChatGPT, Perplexity, SGE, and other tools have the potential to alter some percentage of user behavior, a similar set of information science and information retrieval problems will exist in getting brand visibility on those platforms. 

So in that sense, when someone says “SEO is dying,” I simply hear “SEO is evolving.” Like it always has been

Will the value of content creation increase or diminish? What about backlinks and digital PR? What about technical SEO? 

I’m sure I can make an educated guess about these, but it might differ from educated guesses others make. 

And that’s a key point that I’d like to make when thinking about the future. Take Nassim Taleb’s quote seriously: 

“Invest in preparedness, not prediction.” 

There’s too much opportunity right here, right now in search to take my foot off the gas to try something because of mere speculation. Yet, it’s foolish also to think that nothing will change. 

So we take educated bets, hypotheses informed by experience and data, and we keep one foot in the present and tip toe into the future. 

Whether or not consumer behavior shifts completely to LLMs or Google results continue to falter, there will always be an information creation, retrieval, and delivery problem to solve. When there’s not, perhaps we can truly hang up our hats, take out the kayak, and log off for good. 

But for now, it’s hard to imagine seeing anything but opportunity.

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.