SEO on SMO: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”

Blue Nile co-founder Ben Elowitz wants you to drop everything SEO. Don’t do it.

In an article on paidcontent.org, Ben argues that competition for higher search engine rankings has led publishers to lose sight of their mission – writing great content – and that marketers should shift their efforts to a discipline less subject to hacks and more in touch with audiences: social media optimization (SMO).

Ben makes some salient points. He’s right about one thing, for instance: too many marketers have resorted to hacks and scammy tactics in an effort to game the system. The problem is, that’s not what SEO is about and – at best – it’s only an effective short-term strategy.

Good SEO is not about hacks

Broadly, it’s about generating compelling content and ensuring that search engines can index it properly.

Google is the all-powerful middle man, and it’s only to be expected that people would clamor to try and find quick wins. The only way to win long term, though, is to write what people want to read and share, make it relevant to your audience and format it in such a way that Google understands what it is.

Ben claims that “SMO strategy means appealing to the audience, not an intermediary.” But that’s absolutely wrong. The intermediary in SMO is whatever platform you’re optimizing for: Facebook, YouTube, Slideshare, Flickr. You’d better believe Facebook has a complex algorithm for how it chooses to display News Feed items — one that can be gamed.

And that leads us to number 2.

Social Media Optimization does not do away with hacks

“The era of SMO liberates publishers from the exercise of tricks, hacks and keywords,” says Ben. Wrong again.

People are already trying to find ways to optimize their content for social networks’ indexing mechanisms and as SMO becomes as popular as SEO the sophistication that marketers (and scammers) employ to gain headway will likely uncover just as many ways to game these systems as Google’s.

But there’s another reason why SEO isn’t dying, with the willing SMO waiting in the wings to jump out and replace it.

Discovery and Search aren’t even the same animal …

… and they likely won’t be for a long time (at least until Facebook can learn to read my mind).

Aaron Goldman makes this point better than I could in his own response to Elowitz, “SEO is Not Dead, It’s Just Changing,” so I’ll defer to him. As Aaron explains, the intent behind search and social media are fundamentally different. People visit Google to find the answers to questions; they go to Facebook to communicate with friends and discover cool stuff. I think you’d be hard-pressed to prove that that has changed in any significant way. Search-driven traffic is still more qualified, stickier and relevant for most businesses than traffic driven by social media.

Those of you thinking of “dropping everything” to focus on SMO would do well to take my colleague Bill Alberti’s advice, and beware the shiny new thing.

But it’s all good, because I know Ben’s joking. His article was too well-optimized.