The Many “Deaths” of #SEO Before 2015

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The Many “Deaths” of #SEO Before 2015

While you are reading these lines, SEO’s death is probably chronicled in hundreds of articles all over the internet. A simple search on Google for “SEO is dead” generates no less than 42,600,000 results. Before we decide whether SEO is dead or not, we need to clarify what SEO really means. There are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding what SEO is about, which leads people on the wrong track. If for instance, you think SEO is about tricking search engines, linking schemes, and web spam then yes, SEO is dead.

In a few words, SEO refers to the process of influencing the ranking of a search engine by playing within the guidelines of the search engines.

We can look at search engines as large math equations to be solved. There is no such thing as a “magic” works-for-all SEO solution. The only “trick” you need to know is that there are rules you must be very familiar with, and you need to keep up with all the changes of these regulations.

When Did SEO “Die” For The First Time?

SEO is a concept closely linked to the search industry. So before talking about SEO’s funeral, we need to talk about the search industry’s funeral first. In 1997 the industry of search was “killed” for the first time. In fact, Richard Hoy was the first to mention that search is dead, even before the age of Google.

SEO is as Dead as Google

Screenshot taken 01/08/2014 of

“I’m beginning to believe that search engines are a dead-end technology and fretting over where your site comes up is a big waste of time. I’m now advising clients that we create good META tags, submit the site and then forget it.” – Richard Hoy, November 1997

Hoy got to this conclusion after he noticed several issues. Some of his concerns at the time included:

  • An inverse relationship between the level of site promotion and the percent of traffic from search engines.
  • Tools that are so dynamic they change their content every few seconds.
  • Tools containing a significant percentage of deceptive information
  • Tools requiring you to have a Ph.D. in Boolean logic to even hope to use them effectively.

Here we are now, 18 years later, and some of these issues are still there, even if they are expressed in different ways. People are still complaining about the search engine’s volatility and about how hard it is to understand the complexity of the algorithms.

However, the person who made the “SEO is dead” issue most famous is the web entrepreneur Jeremy “ShoeMoney” Schoemaker. He stated “the search engines are improving at such a rapid pace. You may be able to rank for x or y #1 tomorrow but eventually you will get called out by Google or Yahoo.” In 2005, his post became popular very fast, and in the context of several Google updates back then, the search industry was set on fire by the SEO obituaries. Around 2005 we witnessed the death of textbook SEO techniques, we saw how SEO died along with web 1.0, how copywriting for SEO was long-buried, and how SEO was struggling between life and death.

In all these cases, time was a good adviser and proved these predictions incorrect, as SEO is still a strong business in the present.

SEO is as Dead as Google

Screenshot taken 01/08/2014 of

Even Matt Cutts, the web spam team leader from Google (currently on leave), made a video in 2009 to answer the question: Will SEO still exist in 5 years? Here we are, 5 years later and we are still talking about SEO. One year after that video, in 2010, Google itself released the search engine optimization starter guide, so, if the big G was trying to eradicate SEO once and for all, why would it come up with a SEO guide?

Why Did SEO “Die” so Many Times?

What do cats and SEO have in common? They are both a big deal online and have (at least) 9 lives.

SEO is about understanding how the search engines get their information and what should be done to gain “free” traffic from them. SEO experts and digital marketers in general understand the process of search, and they tap into that process to attract visitors. Of course, that has not necessarily been the case from the very beginning. And the beginning wasn’t that long ago. SEO concept dates back as far as 1997, according to Danny Sullivan. It can be found on the “so 90s” websites of some marketing companies as a new, trendy, service companies might be interested in, to promote their business.

So how does something that’s not old enough to drink in most countries get so many obituaries foretold?

It helps if you picture it as renewal rather than a resurrection, a transformation rather than a reincarnation. It’s akin more to the shedding of reptiles or metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.For a long time, SEO promoters were less aware of the distinction between “white hat” and “black hat” and more tempted to improve page rankings by any means necessary. And search engines then were also less aware, taking keyword use at face value, allowing SEOs to go about their business and fostering abuse and manipulation.

Of course, it wasn’t seen as manipulation, because there were no clear rules against it, and because the impact of page ranks wasn’t so big. Quite naturally, when search engines started imposing rules, it felt like the Wild Wild West was getting regulated and becoming less “wild”. When your definition of a concept, be it the Wild West or SEO, gets challenged, there is a natural tendency to call that concept “dead” instead of adapt to the new definition. Even now, there are those calling for retiring the term SEO.

“SEO is Dead” Failed Predictions

Death #1

As search engines became less permissive, SEO changed. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of SEO’s long string of “deaths”.

Back in the late 90s and early 00s, ranking a webpage was quite simple, or at least this is what we think nowadays: It was all about metatags and keywords.

You could create doorway pages – one page websites focused on the keyword you want to target – all you had to do was stuff your keyword in the content and you were good to go. But in 2003 Google introduced the Florida and the Cassandra updates, which focused heavily on hidden text and hidden links, the bread and butter of SEOs that time. In the following year, the Austin update happened, further penalizing invisible text and Meta-tag stuffing. That was one of the first “major deaths” of SEO.

Death #2

As time passed, it also became more about links. Back then, it wasn’t even about the quality of the links, just the quantity.

People would go to directory submission sites, article directories, link exchanges or any other way you could get links to your site would help you rank well.

As we moved on, it became more about the relevancy of the links and the 2003 Cassandra update brought something for the link-farmers and link-traders as well. It started targeting tactics such as link exchanges, making of article directories that contain links to sites or co-owned domains that existed just to make links to the target site. The way SEO was understood died a little more.

Death #3

It wasn’t all about penalizing either.

For a long time, the game was simple: get on top of the search results page.

But as early as 2005 (and further expanding on it in 2007, 2008, and 2010), Google, and also Bing, changed the game in a major way. You no longer had “the search results page”, but rather “search results pages”: one for each user. Your previous results, social signals from Facebook and Twitter, everything started to matter and influence what was going on in your personal browser. Once search results started getting personalized for each individual user experience, it was a new game altogether. And it wasn’t even necessary to penalize anyone. A lot of businesses who couldn’t adapt probably died around that time, along with yet another meaning of SEO.

Death #4

All of these were really just stepping stones for 2011, the year of the real change.

The bar for quality was raised tremendously in 2011 when Google introduced a new algorithm to decide how to rank pages.

Since 2011, the Panda algorithm targets websites with too much keyword stuffing, advertising, duplicate content or those that didn’t have quality signals pointing to their sites. It also took personalization one step further (based on searches that you’ve done, website that you’ve visited, your social networks, etc.). You could search for your keywords and see you rank 4th, but someone else can do the same search and see your site ranked 13th, or even on the 2nd page. Since everyone saw a different result, it became increasingly difficult to tell exactly where you rank. The Google Web Toolkit allowed you to see your average rank for various keywords, but that’s the best you could get. A lot of webmasters lost traffic (it’s estimated this update affected 12% of Google search results), and a lot of people believed optimization was no longer possible.

Death #5

In the last three years, Google made SEO even more challenging. In 2012, it introduced the Penguin algorithms, which focused mainly on web spam updates. Penguin checks the links on a website and if it doesn’t like the links pointing to that website, it “demotes” the site’s ranking significantly.

Just because you have a bunch of backlinks, doesn’t necessarily mean you deserve to be ranked.

Of course, if you find this unfair you can always make a reconsideration request, as long as you have a strong reason to do so, or try to use Google’s disavow tool keep your site “in good company.” If, however, you knew about those links and you were just trying to get some easy link juice, you’re probably in a heap of trouble and what you knew to be SEO is dead and gone.

How Can You Say SEO is Still Alive?

If you think only the long ago changes killed SEO, you weren’t paying attention to last year’s updates. Linking schemes and black hat SEO were the major targets of the last years updates. Guest blogging also started to get the evil eye from Google. Nothing wrong with it, in principle, but it became very popular because people were looking for ways to get links. Just like anything else, guest blogging has been abused, so Google began to devalue the links from guest blogging.

By now you’re probably silently screaming: “What else is left?! How can you say SEO is still alive?…” It is, just in a new way, and there’s still room for optimization. Social relationships are the new backlinks. For instance, you begin following people who have similar topics to yours. Start building relationships and they will share your content from their social media spaces. The more influential content-related people who share your content, the more impact it has on rankings. You can still influence your rankings, but it takes more work and more strategic thinking. SEO is no longer a caterpillar that indiscriminately pillages through link juice, but rather a butterfly that creates a network of meaning.

As you read this article, Google is raising the bar even higher.

Last year, Google rolled out two new updates: Penguin 3.0, which focuses on link building strategies (less quantity, more quality), and Panda 4.0, which prevent sites with poor quality content from reaching Google’s top search results.

In the end, how do you prepare for the next “death”? Remember, this is an algorithm; it cannot be 100% accurate. So sometimes, the quality sites may get hit. You cannot control Google, but you can control what you do. Diversify your traffic! Write for humans not for search engine bots! Stay away from link building schemes, they might work on short-term but will surely get you penalized heavily in the long-term. Make your content sharable and interesting. Follow people who have sites similar to yours and create connections with them.

SEO is as Dead as Google

As long as search engines exist and are trying to provide users with the most relevant results, the ability to make your site the most relevant will exist. If Google and every other search engine along with it collapse and die, then SEO will probably die along with it. But until that happens, until the system breaks or it is replaced by another one, we are going to have SEO.

How can you capitalize on these changes and what shifts should you be doing? I know it’s not as simple as it sounds, but: avoid over optimization!

Just like with dating, you need to try, but not try too hard.

The your date, just like Google, will notice it and find it unattractive. You need to have quality backlinks and content. Just as the company you keep in real life says a lot about you, so does the company you keep online. And last but not least, take active interest in what Google thinks about you.

Pay attention to what Google tells you and if they think your actions are shady, make sure you clarify the situation. SEO is always a challenging field, but it doesn’t change all that much. If you’ve been doing the right things, none of these algorithms should be ruining your businesses.


Featured Image: Screenshot taken January 2015

Razvan Gavrilas
Razvan is the Founder and Chief Architect of cognitiveSEO, an SEO Toolset focused on in-depth analysis of ranking signals. His passion for search engine marketing... Read Full Bio
Razvan Gavrilas
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  • Nick Stamoulis

    Great article. In each of these instances SEO didn’t die, it just changed and became more challenging. The key to SEO success today is to be a good marketer and focus on what your target audience wants when they’re spending time online.

  • Scott Stouffer

    Razvan, I laughed (in a good way) all the way through this…great job!

    By the way, I just did an article over on MarketBrew’s Blog about our take on the same matter:

    It’s refreshing to see the comments made waaaay back in 1997. I think the fact that there have been over 42 million documents about the “death of SEO” tells the story more than anything.

    • Razvan Gavrilas

      🙂 interesting to see how this develops in the following months and years.

  • kalpana

    Simply a Great Article …. This Article Changed My thinking about seo Thanks For it Sir

  • James Wang

    That was really thorough! PBN’s(Private Blog Networks) are another thing that looks to be in Google’s sites more and more too. Definitely a quickly shifting landscape. I know there were also rumors that Google was going to go more and more silent about their future changes and just do them real time instead of major updates. It’s not dead but it sure is changing fast.

    • Bhim Rai

      I agree. Seo is not dead. Google would not be able to make money if that was the case.

      Anyway, you can create a social signals for your pbns.

  • Lucas Rose

    Really enjoyable read. Too many articles asking “Is SEO Dead?” etc. are annoying and written just because.

  • Brett Edgerly

    TIL: SEO is a beautiful butterfly.

    • Razvan Gavrilas


  • Craig

    SEO is very far from dead! If you employ dodgy tactics, then yes, but if you aim to stay on top of everything then it is actually really exciting. This great article proves that once again quality (links, content, structure, networks, etc.) trumps everything else!

    • Razvan Gavrilas

      agree. shady seo became much harder. in this area of SEO … the techniques are not dead but they become harder and harder to apply in order to get a quick rank.

  • Max Brockbank

    I think the line that summed it up for me was: “SEO is as Dead as Google”.

    As long as Big G – or whoever finally manages to overtake them – is out there trying to perfect the algorithm for the best search result, there’ll be a need for people like us (or perhaps not like us) trying to get websites to provide it for them.

    Thanks Razvan, a clear, lucid and lighthearted look at the repeated demise of SEO. SEO is dead. Long live SEO!

    • Razvan Gavrilas

      exactly. as long as search engines exist, optimization techniques for them will exist 🙂

  • sarika

    the ranking factors from year 2000 to year 2012 surely changed dramatically. earlier I used to do directory 7 other things to rank my clients website on 1st page & that was quite easy. most of my sites & my clients website used to stay on 1st page for long time. Nowdays I have to check the content quality & other social factors closely. SEO is really getting hard day by day,

    • John

      It should be getting harder. Naturally it’s not good for those selling SEO, but Google shouldn’t cater to them anyway, search engines are designed to provide relevant content, not content that’s there purely because of the many strategies used to get in the top position. I don’t particularly like Google, and don’t often use it, purely because I never get the results I want when I make a search. The top results are adverts, followed by pages who have thousands of links to keywords that might not even be relevant. This is changing, and although not perfect it’s still probably the best you can get at this time, so I’ve started using Google again. This is why Google will constantly update their algorithms, because if they only provide irrelevant content, they will lose users.

  • Tom

    More like traditional SEO from five years ago is dead … Matt Cutts has buried those techs, yet people still try them and don’t get anywhere. Therefore, SEO is “dead” to them. I think we all know better though!

  • Craig Griffiths

    In regards to social media links – I thought Google still preferred regular links and placed more value in them?

  • georgie

    Well…i think SEO will never die, but you have to adapt to Search Engine´s development.
    By the way, good article. =)

  • Marcin

    seo is dead ? wtf? if seo will be dead, the search engine will be not exist.

    • Scott Hartley

      Well, not quite. I have another idea that if SEO does officially “die” that social media will be the main signals for search engines. I am also expecting search engines to implement Social Media into their results more in the future, but that is just my theory.

  • Nabiha Khan

    As i am new in SEO but this post helped me a lot to understand the history about seo and now i am able to understand the seo in future.
    I want to say thanks to the Editors of SEJ for providing the such nice and helpful articles for beginners.

  • Ghayoor Abbas Shaikh

    Great Razvan,
    I really appreciate the work and Research you made since the first phrase used by Richard Hoy, Nov 1997 till its Panda, Penguin and Latest Hummingbird Algorithms which is death for many SEO Spam Companies.

    I learn a lot from this Post I am New in this Field but not Novice,,,,

    Nice to Read.

  • Amit Verma

    Yes, Mr. Razvan Gavrilas we all SEO guys know that SEO is not dead and will never die until search engines are alive. I would have appreciated if you shared some good and reliable SEO techniques.

  • Marcosduce

    This post made me laugh xD

    But…. who of us (SEO’s), thinks that he es going to retire himself with 60 years? I know i won’t be workin on SEO with 54 years old… at least, i think i will be not ready for so many changes on one work

  • Tory

    This article is everything I have been trying to communicate to those around me. Everything you do should improve your users experience, whether is it developing content, rewriting Title Tags, it should focus on your market.

    My favorite comment was:

    “Write for humans not for search engine bots!”

    Finally someone said it bluntly. SEO is alive and healthy, just more of a challenge. If you think about it marketing to your market in the correct way has always been a challenge. Why should having an online presence be any different? Search engines are trying to present the best results the fastest. Why? So that people will use them. If they are focused on being the best to their end users, you should be too.

  • Areesh

    Google Always tried to provide his user the best results, and always rolling out the algo updates, this is the big sign that SEO can never die. If google will officially decide to terminate SEO from the online marketing strategies may be google will lose his users also, because after that Results will not be based on quality but something else.

  • Jenny Illmann

    SEO is not dead, however, the way I work changed 100% in the last 4 or more years.

  • Pradeep Kumar

    I don’t what is the future of SEO but currently seo is alive and applicable.

  • Ashu Malik

    Actually SEO and Google algorithms go hand in hand.If there is a new update that renders earlier SEO tricks useless then there is also another way that will combat the new update.It all depends on the way how well you understand the new algos and find ways to over rule them to rank better.

  • Dan Howard

    100% agree – it’s not dead, it’s just evolved and is more about user experience than ever before.

    One of the major issues I’m seeing is because of the ‘SEO is dead’ topic of articles, many companies are reluctant to buy-in, and tend to rely on paid campaigns, neglecting the basics that can improve their base levels.

  • Jan

    A neverending discussion in the world of SEO 🙂 I believe there will always be a SEO of some kind until the search engines are alive.

    And truth to be said, SEO is not that different than it was five years ago.

  • James

    Seo can’t probably die. Relying on a comment made in 1997 can’t be valid any longer. Changes happen daily and most of those things won’t be valid any longer.

  • stephenjoseph

    Nice read, thank you. SEO didn’t die but it has changed his phase that’s all. Everyday is a challege for SEO people, desired keyword rankings have become more difficult.

  • Harendra

    Seo never die. It changes. if one seo technique is died another is born. With the changes of time, google emphasis on quality to its users from the crowd.

  • Jeremy

    It is unfortunate to see how Google is now manipulating their system to be in total control in deciding what quality content is, instead of allowing us to get traffic based upon what kind of keywords we want to rank for…

    So if I have a website that promotes a bunch of stuff that I personally enjoy and believe is great content….

    ….but Google doesn’t agree, pretty much I’m screwed when it comes to Google SEO?

    Google are now the new “rich elite” who think they and every other rich person out there are better than everyone else, which is proven by their new Penguin and Panda updates.

    Basically, if Google does not like your content, it’s not quality. It’s like living in a society without free press…under a communist dictatorship that only allows a certain stream of people or stream of thought to be honored…okay not that bad, but you get my point.

    Someone please create a better search engine that is not stuck up with big poles up their asses, or create a movement that will leave Google behind unless they decide to get the poles out of their asses…

    I’m glad when they go after slimeballs like certain mLms etc., but they definitely have taken it too far… only the richest or geekiest peoples’ websites are honored by Google…

    where does that leave small affiliate marketers like myself who just need to make money selling decent products that may not be the next Facebook or whatever, or may not be some website about the thousand different ways you can bake a cake because you are a cake-baker of 50 years, or some Youtube channel that is popular because it features an attractive woman, but just a simple service to people that they really can use and is not just a scam to make a quick buck off of people?

    Instead, I have to have about 10 different experts writing on my website about a whole shitload of different stuff, or else I’ve got nothing of quality?

    In short, Google’s search engine “updates” suck.

    • Jeremy

      P.S. I love everything else about Google…except for what they’ve done with their SEO, which is the epitome of the 1% screwing the 99% through SEO.

      I have spoken with small business people who are having to spend a bunch of money now on their websites just to have a chance online (often money they don’t have), and I’m going to have to do the same thing…

      Thanks Google. Thanks a lot! One day I hope to make a search engine that empowers the 99% instead of kicking them to the curb like they are not human beings who have any value to offer the world.