A simple answer to this complex issue is always going to be both subjective and reductionist. And before you say anything – we know the title of this article is both inflammatory and reductionist, but you did click, right?

From what we read in the blogosphere we can be excused for assuming SEO is on its last legs, wobbling while the ref gives a standing eight count. Google has apparently spied an SEO-shaped rat, and has recently been making life harder for both the journeyman SEOs and the blackhat snake-oil merchants in the industry alike.

But, before we perform last rites, and consign SEO to the dustbins of history, let’s take a look at what SEO actually is, and where we think it’s headed.

Using search engines is how we sift through the avalanche of content, websites, products and other less definable things on the internet to find the things we want and need. SEO, that is Search Engine Optimisation, is an umbrella term for the tactics and actions used to ensure every piece of content, website or product appears in search engine results pages (or SERPs). And that is to say, how it’s possible for Google to find what searchers are looking for.

The first generation of search engines such as Lycos, AltaVista and Infoseek, functioned through analysing the keywords within content and web pages and matching these to search queries. The challenge was that there was not really any way to prioritise and rank results based on the quality and authority of different content and websites. Then Google came on the scene with its PageRank algorithm that introduced an additional layer of sophistication to the sorting and prioritising of search engine results. In a nutshell, these were based on the links to and from websites as a way to rank the authority and quality in search results (for more detail on how PageRank works, check this out).

The introduction of PageRank revolutionised web search (and thus ‘Googling’ is now a verb), heralding the emergence of what we think of as second generation search engines.  We have eventually ended up with the situation we have today – a cyber landscape where content is king and the key to engaging your target audience. The core idea here (and the Google party-line) is that having a well-ordered, clean site with appropriate, relevant and unique content is enough to succeed. And critically, this core idea has very little room for SEO as a distinct and separate discipline and industry.

Again however, the reality is different depending on where you’re sitting. There are inherent problems with SEO, not least that taken in isolation it’s an inadequate measure of a business and site’s success. Just because you have a high Google ranking, doesn’t mean you are performing as a business…

Ultimately, many of these issues can be addressed by better integrating SEO functions, strategy and tactics into broader marketing activities such as branding, content production, social media and PR/influencer marketing. It certainly appears that gone are the days of the lone self-styled SEO “guru”/”ninja” coming to the rescue by manipulating Google’s search results to meet their own ends. Many SEO experts still promise the world, and have an impressive array of superficial metrics and short term wins to go with their claims, but as with anything, if it seems too good to be true it almost certainly is.

Google has adopted an aggressive strategy of penalising what it calls “over-optimised” websites, which are employing tactics that sit outside of what it deems acceptable. These penalties—which range from temporary demotion of a site’s presence in SERPs to permanent bans and deindexing for the worst repeat offenders—can have a devastating impact on a company’s business, in some cases literally wiping out millions of dollars worth of sales from the bottom line. Also, through a program of ongoing algorithm and policy changes (often with bird names for some inexplicable reason), Google has systematically targeted the tactics and tools of the professional SEO industry.

What this has meant is that digital marketers have had to go back to basics, focusing on longer-term sustainable SEO strategies that incorporate multiple channels and activity areas such as user experience (UX), content quality and audience utility, conversion rate optimisation (CRO), email marketing, social connectivity and community building as well as the fundamentals of brand positioning and customer value proposition. This is not a bad thing when compared to the wild old days of search engine marketing when success basically meant finding new and inventive ways to game both Google and ultimately the end users who are searching for things they need or want.

Google has and will continue to make it increasingly difficult for SEO to operate, after all, they have a vested interest in providing the best experience to their users as well as controlling their platform and product.

So what does this mean for the future of digital marketing? It means, as Google says, that the quality, relevance and accessibility of your website and content is of utmost importance. If this sounds oversimplified, it is, and the truth of the matter is that effective modern SEO is still a highly complex mix of strategy, science and creativity that should not be underestimated (check out this video summary for more). What this also means is that as marketers we need to work hard to ensure that we are getting the fundamentals of customer engagement right, incorporating SEO best practices into our plans and activities more as a final polish on already great content and audience experiences, rather than a sloppy hack or shortcut to gloss over poor communication.

So, is SEO dead? No. Is it some black-magic button that you can push to ensure more $ales? Not anymore. Instead, Google’s power play is forcing the practice of SEO to mature, and forcing us all as digital markers to formulate more intelligent, integrated approaches to customer engagement.

And as in any maturing market, the lazy, uncaring and bloated will fall behind, leaving only the fittest to survive.