As an industry, SEO is obsessed with tactics. We focus most on what works now and look forward to new tactics that can help us deliver better results. Our tactical perspective helps us cut through the clutter and get things done, but it also comes with a downside: At its core, SEO is a reactive industry; always running to stay in line with the web, catching up with trends rather than set them.
Often what we call a ‘SEO strategy’ is in fact simply a collection of tactics in service of a long-term vision. Such a strategy assumes that the current landscape of SEO remains fundamentally unchanged.
But true strategic thinking is so much more than that. If we want to think about SEO with a proper strategic mind-set, we need to understand not only SEO as it exists today, but also where it will be heading in the future. And that means we need to understand the various forces that have an impact on SEO, and foresee how those forces can change the practice and purpose of SEO.
This sort of forward-looking strategic thinking is mostly absent from the day-to-day discourse on SEO, and I hope to change that to some degree with this article. Here I want to outline some of the key forces for change that can affect SEO, and engage in some speculative thinking about what SEO will look like in the near future as a result of these changes.
The model I use to think strategically about the driving forces for change is PESTLE. This model categorises the various forces in to six main areas:
Using this model we can describe the potential drivers of change that affect both how SEO is done and its purpose of connecting business and consumers.
Political factors determine the extent to which governments may influence the industry. These factors tend to result in legal factors later down the line, as new laws are introduced and existing laws changed to accommodate the changing technological and social landscape.
Sometimes political factors are more overtly influential. We saw in 2013 how political manoeuvring had a profound impact on the search industry, when extensive lobbying in Washington resulted in the almost complete dismissal of the FTC’s antitrust case against Google.
More recently, Indiana’s adoption of a ‘religious freedom’ bill has impacted the state’s economic situation, as several large companies have made changes to their internal policies and procedures as a result. Similar legislation is on the table in Northern Ireland, a country whose private sector is immensely dependent on foreign investors which may withdraw if such a law was passed.
When you want to embrace a strategic vision of SEO, you need to keep the political landscape in mind. One potential factor is the possibility of a change of guard in the White House, where the current Democratic pro-Google administration could be replaced by a Republican government in 2016 that has a less positive relationship with Silicon Valley, and which might introduce legislation that hinders how Google and other search engines do business.
Economic factors are the result of an economy’s performance that directly impacts the industry and has resonating long term effects. In the case of SEO, one of the key economic drivers for change is the growing purchasing power of consumers in second and third world countries, which can drive a greater embrace of search technologies and open new markets for international SEO.
Other long term economic factors are things like employment and inflation, which can have massive impact on consumer spending and, thus, on what types of searches are popular. For example, in a strong economy with a vibrant middle class, searches for holidays and luxury items will be more popular than in an impoverished economy where wealth is concentrated in a small elite and the bulk of the population has little spending power.
Understanding how a country’s current and future economic status can impact how you do SEO is crucial to anticipating your target market’s search intent and ensuring your client’s websites are ahead of the curve.
One of the more profound drivers of change in the SEO industry, social factors include aspects like cultural trends and population demographics. In recent years we have seen the 45-54 demographic become increasingly active online, which has resulted in all kinds of changes in search behaviour. For example, much of the growth of online activity in these older demographics is due to their embrace of tablet computing. This digital empowerment of the older generations has given rise to new markets online and changed the profitability of existing markets.
Additionally, the growing international popularity of holidays like Halloween – previously a mostly American affair – has also opened up a range of possibilities in European markets. You’ll also want to keep an eye on the cultural landscape and anticipate the popularity of certain movies and TV shows, as these can have a profound impact on consumer behaviour. Not only will new markets appear as cultural phenomena wax and wane, existing niches can change as a result as well. The comics industry for example has experienced a revival in the wake of the massively popular superhero movies.
Lastly, social and cultural factors influence how much traction a piece of content might achieve online. By tapping in to developing cultural trends you can generate stronger results from linkbait and clickbait.
Most often when we think about long term drivers for change in SEO, we only see technological factors at work. Indeed, technology plays a huge part in how we do SEO. Yet most SEOs barely look beyond the obvious drivers for change, such as the adoption of mobile computing and search engines’ carrot & stick approach to semantic markup.
There is so much more to the technological realm that affects SEO and its long term future, and this requires a broad perspective that looks at wider technological trends. These then need to be interpreted within the context of SEO – primarily, how they impact the very purpose of online search itself.
Technologies like wearables and embedded devices will fundamentally change the way we search for information online, and that means the very foundation of SEO can be affected. This is of course exactly where search engines are headed, changing in to information providers rather than doorways to the world wide web.
In fact, as technology continues to miniaturise and integrate in to our daily lives, the web itself will fade to the background and consumers will increasingly rely on intermediate platforms like Google and Facebook to provide all their informational and transactional requirements.
The concept of a SERP will at some stage become obsolete, and the SEO industry will have to adapt and embrace new ways of organically introducing client sites in their target audience’s information streams. The intermediary platforms intend for you to use advertising as the primary medium for that, and it’ll be challenging for SEOs to find ways of circumventing such commercial frameworks in favour of unpaid & earned channels.
You don’t have to look far to see legal ramifications for the SEO industry. From relatively small factors like the ASA’s insistence on declarations of sponsorships for bloggers (which applies to most forms of blogger outreach), to the ongoing antitrust litigation against Google in Europe, there are profound legal consequences to how SEO is done and how it will exist in the future.
If, for example, Google were to be heavily penalised in Europe for antitrust infringements, we could see a drastically altered search landscape. At the lower end of the impact scale we will see changes to how Google presents search results to European users. At the higher (and unlikelier) end, Google may opt to withdraw from Europe entirely, which will be nothing short of a foundational shift for SEO as we will suddenly have to change focus on whichever search engines emerge to fill the void.
Data protection law has also emerged as a powerful driver for change, as this can impact how search engines are allowed to personalise results for users. All things considered, it pays to keep a close eye on the courts and anticipating the effects of new legislation and landmark decisions.
While it may appear on the surface of things that the online realm has little to do with environmental issues, this is assuredly not the case. The way increased awareness of climate change has altered consumer behaviour is profound, as with the embrace of ‘organic food’ trends in affluent populations.
Additionally, environmental factors can reverberate powerfully through political, economic, and legal factors to create fundamental shifts in how business is done online on regional, national, and international levels. Just one look at how hurricane Katrina impacted on the New Orleans area shows you exactly how devastating environmental factors can be. While it may seem callous to look at how this impacts your industry, it’s nonetheless essential to keep such factors in mind when outlining a long term vision for your client’s SEO – especially if your target market is in a climatically unstable region.
If the above has peaked your interest in developing a proper long term strategic vision for SEO, further information on the PESTLE approach to strategic management can be found on pestleanalysis.com.
I encourage you all to think more broadly about the ever-changing world and how the SEO industry must also change with it. Embracing change is at the heart of SEO, and rather than wait for things to happen we should be anticipating what comes next and preparing for it accordingly.
After all, chance favours only the prepared mind.