SEO Is Dead, And The New King Is ‘SMO’

This article was published as a guest post on paidContent.org

Over the past five years, Web publishing has been so heavily dominated by search engine optimization (SEO) that, to many publishing executives, the right keywords have become far more important than their sites’ actual content or audience. But this movement toward SEO has been dangerous, as it’s moved publishers’ eye off their most important job of creating great content, and onto the false goals of keywords, hacks, paid links, and technical engineering that their audience doesn’t know or care about.

Even venerable publishers like Forbes have traded in their leadership legacy to chase the Huffington Post pufferfish strategy of filling up Google’s database with more posts, more frequency, and more low-cost content; while stalwarts like Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) are still chasing SEO basics like getting keywords into their URLs.

But the recent announcement of the Facebook/Bing partnership to integrate social and search results clearly marks the beginning of the end of SEO, and the smartest digital publishers will drop everything to rethink their distribution strategy entirely.

With the rise of Facebook, we’ve entered a new era of digital media: personalized discovery. The balance of power is shifting: Already sites at Wetpaint and other publishers are seeing more audience coming from Facebook than from search.

Search was critical when answers to questions were scarce. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) can find an answer to almost any keyword query from among the zillions of pages on the web. But at a time when such answers are abundant, it’s far more valuable to find the best content for me – and increasingly, find it before I’ve even asked for it. The sort algorithm that works best for that is more correlated to who’s doing the asking than how they would phrase the ask.
For that level of personalized results, no abject algorithm can keep up without deep knowledge of its users.

Advantage: Facebook.

The encouraging implication is that the audience values content, not keywords. And Facebook sides with the audience. And so it’s time to christen a new era of social-media optimization, or “SMO.” The era of SMO liberates publishers from the exercise of tricks, hacks and keywords. Instead, the big opportunity is now once again creating and refining the most appealing content possible.

Imagine that.

SMO recognizes that Facebook already has the best position to introduce content to users. Already, audiences are using Facebook as the news interface to their favorite sources (both media titles and their friends) in a way that Google News hasn’t cracked the code on; products like Flipboard that take this to the next level are captivating.

As Facebook takes its immense database of “Likes” and pivots it to inform search results, there’s no question that it will have a huge advantage in delivering a better result set for almost every user. It simply knows more.

SMO strategy means appealing to the audience, not an intermediary; knowing what drives interest; and activating people’s desire to consume and share. Sure, there is buzz among many publishers around Facebook logins and likes, and the traffic bumps that come with them. But SMO offers more far than that. It’s about creating a positive feedback loop, where users are rewarded for both consuming and distributing content. The key is to develop virality in media like that of Zynga games and Groupon offers. Beyond, of course, creating great content and experiences that are worth sharing, publishers need to then reward their audiences with the full range of possibilities, including prestige, access, exclusive content and enhanced experiences.

For those who are still working on implementing search strategies: if you haven’t turned your focus to SMO, you will be left behind as the allure of gaming search engines fades into the past.

Update: After numerous requests, I posted a follow-up piece to this on how to implement an SMO strategy.

63 thoughts on “SEO Is Dead, And The New King Is ‘SMO’

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    • I will be out of the office on Thursday 10/21 through Tuesday, 10/26, returning Wednesday, 10/27.

      I will not be checking this email account on those days. (Eeek!)

      For matters that shouldn't wait til I get back, please feel free to call my mobile or contact Larisa Hauser at larisa@wetpaint.com. Really, I won't mind.

      Thanks and have a great day!

      –Ben

    • Niall, thanks for the post in response. I think you’re assumptions are overstated. In reality, the only assumption is that people turn to their Facebook page and their social network frequently as part of how they get and stay informed. Fortunately, the data bears this out: people spend an average of up to an hour a day on the site. You may question the theory of whether Facebook provides perfect recommendations, but that’s academic. The reality is that that’s how people use it. And use it they do.

      • ok.1- they use it, but how many of them use it for their searchs?2- I agree that facebook has more data than google to know what we like, etc, but they don't turn it into search yet.3- people said radio would kill news paper, television would kill radio… etc. but it always finds a new balance, but they don't kill each other. I think there will be an interesting change, but it won't kill SEO. You'll have to think of both.4- if google buy stumble for example, he will also have access to this “like” data that facebook has. they can also introduce a “like” system within the search engine. 5- ok. if you're right, i'll have to change the focus of my company ;o) http://www.them.prothksHacene

  2. Ben, I must respectfully but firmly disagree with you. SEO isn't dead. It's still alive and kicking. You mentioned that it is content and not keywords, but honestly I think that you're making this more complicated than it needs to be or perhaps you could be unknowingly super-imposing what we, as marketers, want onto the consumers.So you are correct that at the center of this matter is the question of what is it that the audience really wants. But we must remember that as much control as the audience has in the web 3.0/4.0 era consumers are not marketers i.e. consumers or the audience if you will does not want keywords or content-what they want is answers. And they will go where ever they can to find those answers-whether the answers come in the form of friends' or follower suggestions or whether they come from a piece of content that lies at the end of a search result.Furthermore, let me say in response to your observation about there being more answers than questions that the abundance of answers doesn't negate or diminish the process of discovery that consumers experience when they have a problem. To the contrary, more answers just means more questions-which lead to deeper and more refined searches.My 2 pennies. Thanks for a thought provoking perspective. Take care.

  3. I disagree. This mindset is wrong and narrow sighted. SEO (search) is very important if you want your customers to be able to find you, unless people don't use Google anymore!?! SEO will live as long as people search.I have this holistic approach where every tactic is important either SEO, Social Media, Copywriting, UX, Analytics, Online Search Campaigns, Display Campaigns, etc. This is all part of web strategy.I understand you're a specialist but try to see the bigger picture, its the mix of all the tactics that determines your success.

    • Joao,I agree with you about the holistic approach to marketing encompassing both SMO and SEO plus the add'l ones you mentioned. At the risk of contradicting myself I want to post a link to Scobelizer's piece on the same topic from almost a year ago. He uses the same title but the argument seems vastly different. Instead of concluding that SEO is dead he finishes the piece by saying that relative to the overall field of integrated online marketing SEO's vaulted position may have come down a bit so that practitioners must learn to mix tactics up-they will still use SEO but as you said, Joao, will use it in conjunction with many other aspects of online marketing.To me his take is more palatable than a total about face that says SEO has suddenly fallen off the cliff-if that makes any sense…

    • Joao, clarifying that to build a truly premier media title, search engine optimization has been a false prophet for the last decade. It’s diluted media publishers’ focus off the customer. Benin, thanks for the comment. You and I agree that consumers will go where they want to get what they want. However, the age of SMO acknowledges that the power of Google Almighty is declining – and consumers will be turning to search engines less of the time and to their social networks far more frequently. And for media, in particular, that means the opportunity to get in front of the consumer before consumers ever even thought of what to search for. It’s time to refocus our efforts on our audience.

      • Hi Ben,You are welcome. Yes, we both agree that the the consumer is at the root of the discussion. Where we differ is in how we as marketers are to address the consumers needs. At the center of your argument are three premises:<ul><li>Search engine volume is declining</li><li>That in their zeal to appeal to search engines publishers became all about the numbers, forgetting the consumer and proliferating the web with a bunch of disingenuous answers aimed at search engines</li><li>That the algorithmic approach practiced by search engines is faulty</li><li>That likes and other consumer behavior patterns exhibited on social networks are more accurate predictive models than search algorithms</li></ul>The problem with these arguments is that while they may sound good on paper they exhibit a disconnect from reality. Here is what I will do…Let's make the conversation more practical. Imagine that search engines were German manufactured car dealerships and that they represented the first dealerships on the block in Atlanta, GA on a street called Peachtree Industrial Blvd. Due to their first to market and near monopoly status in this section of Atlanta they reaped every reward that a market economy can offer, right? Now for the sake of argument let's say that a new kid on the block shows up expecting to shake things up-Japenese manufactured car dealerships (SMO)-several of them now purchasing prime property on Peachtree Industrial…Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the BMW, Mercedes, & VW dealerships will lose substantial business, right?But in most cases the exact opposite happens, economists call this counter intuitive phenomena clustering. Essentially, overtime consumers will come to view this location on Peachtree Industrial as a one-stop shopping experience where they can go to one place and see everything they need to see without having to run all over town. In other words instead of cutting the pie into tinier pieces the pie actually expands.This analogy applies to online vs offline. And the rising tide of SMO simply serves to both drive larger numbers traditional marketers online and it also helps more offline consumers (if there is such a thing) make it online. When they get online each group will inevitably choose between one, the other or both. But if you follow the logic you can see that search expands as SMO expands. So thats a macro level explanation…Now lets go micro…I am a consumer, I'm bored, its the weekend, plus I'm a thirty something professional looking for some entertainment. I'm a pretty connected dude..So I first hop onto my Twitter client and tweet-“whats going on in Atlanta tonight?” After a couple of minutes a few friends tweet back various events that are going on…So what do I do? I wanna know more about those events, but just to be on the safe side I hit the search engines up-first to get the locations of each event so I can determine which location is the closest…but then the light bulb really brightens up and I ask myself, “hey, if I've gotta pay money…may as well make sure that these events are worth it…what are other people saying about these events?” So then I do another search (note: in this example the decision to turn to search is a subconscious one that is made on the basis of being able to get a split second answer-as opposed to having to wait) this time I type “reviews best of Atlanta Concerts” into the search bar. Then something interesting happens-a section of the search results page is sectioned off and it displays results from my social circle-both on twitter and Facebook and maybe even a few other networks/blogs. So I do what anyone in search of an answer does and click the links and the cycle continues becoming more and more refined until I feel confident with the answer.In this example the consumer is channel agnostic and that's because they're following the scent of a possible solution-no matter where the scent leads them. This my friend is reality. This is how consumers make decisions-if you analyze it you'd find that its a very irrational and disorderly process-but then you'll realize that as human beings irrationality is our nature because we're composed of experience, emotion, and reason and often these stimuli conflict. This micro example reinforces the macro, wouldn't you say?Thoughts?

      • Hi, thanks for your email. I'll be mostly un-plugged until January 3, 2011 with just a couple of days in the office, and spotty access to email.
        Since I won't be attending to every message, if your matter is urgent please call my mobile; and if it's critical I get back to you in the new year, please try me again at that time if I haven't responded already.
        Thank you,
        –Ben

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  7. Hi all,I have to agree with Ben and ask you all a question; are you all looking at the greater picture of the future or justifying the present? In the midst of so many changes, the need for continuous enhancement of SEO needs to happen. So, to go back to Benin's car example, Japanese car makers have become the biggest manufactures in the world. The pie increases, but with that, the new kids on the block. My point is that people are continuously changing, which is inevitable. These changes are leading to the complete death of good SEO content, and with that SEO in general, and an increase of new methods such as SMO. I have seen an amazing change in content quality, because customers have concentrated on keywords, instead of good content. Why? Because you can trick SEO. You can still have web presence without butchering SEO articles with keywords. This implies that SEO, in combination with search engines such as Google are not the best combination. The best combination is still out there, no one knows the answer to 100%, but what we know is that SEO has evolved to SMO, which will continue to evolve until this optimal solution is found.

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  9. Make good content that people want to see and they will find you. Stop worrying about your “customers” finding you and start thinking about an audience that will like you. SEO is doomed because tries to stack the deck and that kind of strategy never lasts. The cards always come tumbling down.

  10. Information Age and the Internet are maturing… the cream rises to the top, and I am so glad to move towards offering relevant content to my followers instead of tricks and hack and keyword injection!

  11. Information Age and the Internet are maturing… the cream rises to the top, and I am so glad to move towards offering relevant content to my followers instead of tricks and hack and keyword injection!

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  13. SEO, SMO, are both in the same camp.  Your idea of attracting customers with content they want, that is easy to search and rewarding to locate is the answer.  Houzz.com is a perfect example.  It is social.  It is interactive.  It is free.  It is content rich.  It is viral.  It has so much going for it that Google and Facebook have no choice but to recognize it (3500 in Alexa? after about a year?) BHG lost.  AD (Arch Digest) lost.  so many magazines, so many lost.  I'm not sure what you're doing these days, but I'd like to get together.  I have built many national magazines (made one Adweek's hottest of the year).  email me Bob Dallas  bdallas@genesismail.com

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    • Thanks for your note. I am out of the office on business travel July 11-15. I'll be on email regularly, but responses may be delayed due to travel and meetings.

      Thanks!

      –Ben

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    • Thanks for your note. I am out of the office on business travel July 11-15. I'll be on email regularly, but responses may be delayed due to travel and meetings.

      Thanks!

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