Since its early days, search engine optimization (SEO) has always had naysayers insisting that this marketing discipline is a passing fad, or that it’s dead.
Not only has SEO survived this long, it’s thriving: According to a recent study by Borrell Associates, companies are going to spend $65 billion on SEO in 2016. This is more than triple what they predicted for this year back in 2008, before major game-changers like Panda and Penguin even entered the equation.
What’s more, the company is predicting that the SEO industry will continue to grow to an estimated $72 billion by 2018 and $79 billion by 2020.
Though estimates can be fallible, this does suggest that SEO has grown even more than previously expected, with a trajectory to preserve that growth well into the future. In fact, another recent survey of 357 marketers found that more than 90 percent plan to increase their SEO budgets or keep them the same over the next year. Assuming these projections are at least roughly accurate, is there anything that will stop SEO from growing?
Factors for perpetual SEO growth
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons SEO might continue to grow indefinitely:
- More user searches. It’s likely that the number of searches per user will grow well into the future. Older generations, averse to technology, will make way for younger generations, who rely on technology for everything. Plus, technologies will become faster and more convenient, enabling even more search traffic for each user in circulation.
- More users. The sheer number of search users will also feasibly increase, compounding the effects of the per-user search growth. This is largely due to the internet becoming more affordable and more available to different demographics. One day soon, thanks to efforts by Google, Facebook and other companies, we may enjoy universal availability of the internet. And technologies such as self-driving cars will give users more time to perform searches at times when they previously couldn’t. These changes will make it possible for almost anyone to search for anything at any time.
- More outlets for search visibility. There will also be more outlets for search visibility, beyond the conventional search engines we’ve come to know (e.g., Google and Bing). Alternative search engines will certainly rise, but there are two main areas where I expect radical growth: first, the use of digital assistants, which bridge the gap between online and offline search; and second, search engines specific to individual platforms, like app store-based engines, Amazon.com or YouTube search.
- Decreasing power of traditional ads. Traditional advertising methods have been dying for a long time, and they’ll continue dwindling in power until they eventually fade away. When they finally do bite the dust, a number of businesses dependent on traditional ads as a means of customer acquisition will have no choice but to look to inbound marketing campaigns in the online world to supplement their acquisition strategies.
- Increasing SEO sophistication. We’re getting better at creating and managing more intense SEO campaigns. As a simple example, what used to be a matter of keyword stuffing and cheap link building has now become an intricate strategy of content development and publication. Furthermore, we have access to more data than we’ve ever had before, and our capacity will only grow from here.
Factors against unlimited growth
And now, some of the reasons why SEO may face an eventual halt or decline:
- Competition and prohibitive costs. SEO spend rising means that more businesses are getting involved in SEO. That means more competition to deal with. For a while, this will be fine, but eventually the cost of entry will become prohibitive, and there will be a “tipping point” where the rise in spending tapers off.
- The Knowledge Graph and visibility decline. Thanks to the Knowledge Graph (and similar future technological developments), users are being given more immediate forms of answers, reducing their reliance on individual site visitations to find what they’re looking for. This could eventually start compromising the ROI of SEO, pushing people out of the game.
- Alternative search modes. Search is starting to evolve in some weird forms, including personal digital assistants, which marry online and device-specific search. These alternative modes of search are harder to predict and harder to “rank” for, since oftentimes they forgo a “ranking” process entirely.
- RankBrain and decreasing rank predictability. Machine learning is already huge, and it’s only getting bigger. Technologies like RankBrain are starting to upgrade search systems in real time, with processes only AI programs can incorporate. That’s going to make it harder and harder to accurately assess ranking factors and respond accordingly.
The problem with definitions
It’s also important to recognize what may actually qualify as “SEO” in the strict sense. Today, this term largely refers to optimizing a website to be featured higher in organic search rankings, but already it’s starting to apply to other areas, from local results to Knowledge Graph entries, and even digital assistant-based results.
As new forms of search technology evolve, it’s likely that SEO will adapt with the times, rather than dying outright. If that’s the case, spending on what we see as “SEO” today may disappear, but spending on what we label “SEO” in the future may continue to perpetually rise.
The bottom line
It’s hard to look more than a few years into the future with so many variables and potential technological developments in play. However, it’s likely that SEO will continue to grow in popularity, in one form or another, for the foreseeable future.
With that information, you should at least feel comfortable investing further into your existing strategy. For search optimizers, that also means a positive outlook on your job security — as long as you’re willing to adapt.