7 June 2024 1574 words, 7 min. read

SEO is dead, and Google killed it

By Pierre-Nicolas Schwab PhD in marketing, director of IntoTheMinds
In this article, I explain why I think SEO is dead. Google's algorithm updates in September 2023 and March 2024 were masking a complete shift in strategy from quality results to commercial alliances. I'll illustrate my point with several real-life examples.

After Google’s latest update, I wrote a provocative post on LinkedIn announcing that SEO was dead. The reactions, epidermal, were not long in coming. Some website owners and bloggers rallied to my opinion. SEO experts cried out in outrage. Without wishing to vilify either camp, I’d like to use this article to develop my point of view and explain why it’s now more than ever time to stop relying on SEO to appear in Google’s search engine results.

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First, this article concerns SEO techniques applied to Google. The September 2023 and March 2024 updates have forged my opinion. Of course, SEO also applies to other sites (Bing, Amazon, YouTube, etc.), but that’s not the point here.

Google’s latest updates have killed some sites

Google has made several updates in recent months, but 2 in particular have harmful effects on some sites’ traffic. The Washington Post investigated the subject and showed how the latest changes, under the guise of better-serving users, penalized content creators who, at first glance, met all the criteria for being well-ranked by Google. The BBC did the same, and the case of HouseFresh is now famous. Its original, highly informative content was replaced at the top of the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page) by poorer, partly fake content from media sites stealing content from other sites.

All these upheavals come at a price, and those who had made content creation a business model are paying for it. Here, for example, is the testimony of a content creator in despair over the May 2024 update. The words are sincere, and the distress is real.

SEO google update

The example of the RetroDodo site has also become a textbook case. This free site, run by retro console enthusiasts, used affiliation as its business model. It was decimated overnight. The video posted by its creator on YouTube testifies to the violence of the Google algorithm update on the company’s life.

The September 2023 update was justified by a noble desire to prioritize the most useful content (hence the name HCU or Helpful Content Update). However, only some people are convinced by the HCU excuse. Many high-quality sites, written entirely by qualified, authoritative humans, have fallen by the wayside.

Here, for example, is the traffic for a site devoted to fitness and powered by a certified trainer. I’ll let you judge the quality of the site.

GOOGLE SEO

Evolution of the site’s traffic as posted by its author on Twitter. Credits: @blogbizznass

We can see that the site’s traffic was reduced to nothing in December 2023 and that the latest Google algorithm update in March 2024 wiped out what little traffic remained. On the face of it, this person met the HCU criteria perfectly.

The quality of results is no longer Google’s priority

“Don’t be evil.” This was Google’s motto in its early days. It no longer applies. Google has decided, without really saying so, to change its priorities radically. It is no longer a question of satisfying the user through the quality of the results, but of prioritizing certain content from “partners” with whom deals have been made.

The example of Reddit is particularly interesting. This forum’s traffic has exploded since the HCU update of September 2023. Is it the quality of its content that has suddenly been valued? Not really. It’s all due to a $60 million deal with Reddit that authorizes Google to pump its content to train its generative AI. So, there’s a conflict of interest, and traffic evolution doesn’t lie (see below).

evolution website traffic reddit vs. amazon SEO

Evolution of Reddit traffic since the Google update of September 2023. Comparison with Amazon’s traffic evolution.

Again, this conflict of interest penalizes content creators who see their articles used (no doubt illegally) by Google to feed its generative AI further. Forbes is also a good example of a site that Google has favored since 2023.

quote Jake Bolly washington post SEO

The content of thatfitfriend.com has been sucked up by Google, which reuses it in the answers provided by its artificial intelligence. All this was done without the consent of Jake Boly, the site manager.

Why I say SEO is dead

To say that SEO is dead is, of course, a provocation. But the statement also reflects a change in basic assumptions since September 2023:

Conflict of interest

It’s clear that Google’s objectives no longer necessarily converge with those of its search engine users. Search results are skewed in favor of others that Google wishes to push because of commercial agreements.

A gateway to the web whose exit is barricaded

Google’s business model is changing, and we must now mourn the loss of organic results, which used to account for 70% of global traffic. From now on, if you want visitors to your site, you’ll have to pay. With the integration of generative AI, Google wants to evolve towards an answer engine that doesn’t send traffic outside. Zero links” were a foretaste of what Google was to become. From now on, Google’s vocation is to take content from sites and regurgitate it into its interface without letting you leave. Google’s search engine has thus become a gateway to the web, whose exit doors are barricaded.

Nobody knows how the algorithm works

Despite the recent leakage of technical documentation on the factors evaluated by Google’s algorithm for ranking results, we must face the objective fact that people must learn how to influence the results. There are, of course, mistakes to be avoided (for example, not having a mobile version of your site), but no one is able to explain why one site ranks higher than another or how to get to the top of the SERPs. SEO consultants will gladly tell you otherwise but do the test. Ask 10 SEO experts what they can do to move a particular page up the rankings, and you’ll get 10 different answers. I did the test with a web page giving me problems and got multiple pieces of advice. I implemented them all, and since 2023, I’m still waiting for tangible results.

Since September 2023, every SEO expert has his theory: internal linking, advertising presence, site speed, … the truth is that none of them knows. And Google is taking us all for a ride, telling us, for example, that backlinks are less important than before.

It’s a bitter truth. It has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a new site to appear in the search results. Contrary to what Google claims, content is no longer the most crucial factor. Moreover, the technical factors involved in SEO are more obscure than ever. SEO, aimed at improving a website’s place in Google’s results, has fewer concrete solutions than ever. That’s why I say SEO is dead.


By killing off small content producers, Google is making a mistake. It’s turning off those who, objectively, had the highest incentive to produce high-quality content to differentiate themselves.


Beware of the backlash: “Content is still king”!

What we’re seeing unfold is a short-term strategy on Google’s part. The company is trying to catch up in generative AI but needs to do it better. I won’t go back over the criticism and mockery expressed worldwide about the answers from Google’s generative AI. The Mountain View company has much more catching up to do than ChatGPT.

SEO CONCLUSION

In a lecture given at the University of Colorado, Yann LeCun defends the idea that the family of LLMs (Large Language Models) used by tools like ChatGPT are doomed to failure. Credits: YouTube

Nevertheless, Google still dominates the online search market by a wide margin. But more voices are being heard about the declining quality of search results. The alliance between Microsoft and OpenAI has enabled Bing to offer a new search experience (which I criticized outright). Still, it’s clear that Google’s hegemony is slowly but surely being eroded. Google lost 2 points of market share between April 2023 and May 2024. On a yearly scale, this may be insignificant, but I hope that people will turn to competing search engines like DuckDuckGo or Bing for real. Content is always ranked “correctly” on the latter.

SEO CONCLUSION

Some content creators whose sites have been penalized do not intend to continue feeding their sites.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that generative AI needs content. By killing off small content producers, Google is making a mistake. It disgusts those who, objectively, had the highest incentive to produce high-quality content to differentiate themselves. Yann LeCun’s prediction could well come true. The responses of these LLMs (Large Language Models) will diminish in quality rapidly as the quantity of fresh, high-quality content decreases.

In conclusion

I want to offer a few concluding remarks.

One thing is clear.

Making your content stand out from the crowd has never been so difficult. Now, more than ever, is the time to stop relying on Google to send you traffic. If you don’t have tens of thousands of euros to invest in branding, it’s an illusion to want to give your brand visibility in search results.

The solution is to invest time in marketing strategies that allow you to own your audience:

  • Newsletters
  • premium content subscribers
  • non-text content (videos, podcasts)
  • promotion of your content on social networks (especially LinkedIn)

Good old-fashioned outbound marketing techniques will make a comeback. As I’ve explained on this blog, our investment in visiting trade shows has paid off (see my feedback on Vivatech and Websummit here).



Posted in Data & IT, Marketing.

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