I've avoided writing this type of post for years, as they're almost cliche among 'online marketers'. But after reading the announcements from Google at SMX today, and the reiteration that you can't do SEO for RankBrain, I sat down and starting writing. It's basically what I've been telling clients for the past year anyway.
Why you can't optimize RankBrain for SEO.
Google stated back in June that "you cannot optimize or do SEO for RankBrain." Myself, along with many other online marketers took this with a grain of salt. Of course you can optimize for it, it's a machine learning algorithm that looks at your site like a user would. Yes, how you optimize is different than past SEO, but change is the only certain factor in our industry.
With all the Google announcements from SMX today this fact again has been reiterated, and this got me thinking, maybe they're right. It's not because you "can't do SEO" for it, but rather that fact that the RankBrain algorithm relies on other, less technical factors that people associate SEO with. And herein lies the question that seems to popup every year...
Is SEO Dead?
No, SEO is not dead. But once again it may be time to reexamine what our industry calls itself. The term Search Engine Optimization made sense for many years, as you needed to optimize your site for search engines first so users could find it. As the web grew, search engines needed different factors to know which sites to show first in the sea of results. Backlinks from other sites, keywords, content, then later user interaction factors came into play. All of these relied on people linking to and using your site before it could be found high in the rankings. Traditional factors played the biggest role, so you could (and still can) optimize your SEO by creating backlinks, inserting keywords, and writing informative contextual content.
That last factor, the user, has started to play a bigger role. Google has recognized that, and started to build this into it's algorithms. Now it has a machine learning algorithm, RankBrain, that looks at your site like a person would (and much, much more). At this stage it only is used to interpret search queries and match them to relevant content. At least that's what Google has publicly said. We don't really know everything it's doing, only that it has quickly grown to the third most important ranking factor in less than a year!
So what is going to happen to SEO?
Again, we don't ever know what the future is going to hold, but the signals are strong. The machine learning algorithms will likely replace traditional search engine factors. Likely Google will be able to scan a new site, see very strong user signals, and boost that site up high in the results page quickly. No more looking at domain authority (because hey, the Internet's been around long enough for strong authoritative sites to have bit the dust), backlink rankings, etc. It will know that it's a site that users with certain search queries will definitely want to see.
Of course this is all speculation, but like I said, the signals are strong.
So no, SEO is not dead, it's just one checkbox in the list of things online marketers do. And, like what many of us write about every year, it may be time for a name change. You're now optimizing for the user, so call it what it is; website optimization, or user optimization, or experience optimization. In fact don't even give it a name. I'm quite happy simply calling myself an Online Marketer with no other sub-titles attached. I will run your online advertising campaigns, implement a social media strategy, and optimize your website for it's users.
*of course to be a bit of a hypocrite, you couldn't pay me to remove the term Search Engine Optimization from our website. After all, it's what users expect to see and search for ;)