What Will Businesses Do if SEO Dies?

Posted by Loren Feldman on Jun 18, 2024 9:59:27 AM




This week, Shawn Busse, Liz Picarazzi, and Jaci Russo talk about how the marketing world is turning upside down. For decades, business owners have treated search engine optimization as something of a religion. They may not have been able to explain it, but they had faith that, if they obeyed the rules, Google would discover their sites and rank them. But search engines are getting a lot less generous about sharing links, and Shawn fears there’s an apocalypse coming for businesses that rely too heavily on SEO. Jaci’s a little more optimistic: “There’ll be some other places to go get free traffic,” she says. “There always are.” Plus: Liz gives us an update on her recent trip to Vietnam in search of a contract manufacturer. And in a case study ripped right from the subreddit headlines, I ask the three owners: What do you do if a loyal, hard-working employee starts a side hustle selling a product that doesn’t compete with your product but looks a whole lot like it?

— Loren Feldman


This content was produced by 21 Hats.

See Full Show Notes By 21 Hats

Subscribe to the 21 Hats Newsletter



Podcast Transcript

Full Episode Transcript:

Loren Feldman:
Welcome, Shawn, Liz, and Jaci. It’s great to have you here. I want to start today by talking about SEO, search engine optimization, and I want to do that for two reasons. First, because business owners have kind of been told that SEO is pretty much the most important thing in the world. And second, because I’m picking up signals that something big is happening here. Things are changing.

I’ve even seen suggestions that SEO may be dying, perhaps because of the rise of artificial intelligence. If true, that would be a big deal for a lot of business owners who have spent a lot of time and money optimizing their sites—many, I suspect, without necessarily having a clear understanding of whether SEO actually does what it’s supposed to do. You guys are all kind of on the front lines of this: Jaci and Shawn as marketing experts, Liz as a business owner with an e-commerce website. And I’m wondering if any of you have started thinking about this.

Liz Picarazzi:
I’ll jump in, Loren, and I’ll say, I haven’t thought about it a lot. But I know that I also have a little bit of a stubborn stance on it. I don’t like AI-generated web content. I can see it from a mile away. Me, personally, for my own brand, my company’s brand, I believe in real writing that has texture and has nuance and has creativity.

I work very hard on every word that we have in marketing, whether it be something at a trade show to something that we have on the website. But I’m going to be writing it from the perspective of: Is this reflective of my brand and my product? I never really consider: Is this good for SEO? I know that I probably should be doing it, but I don’t like that type of writing, period. And therefore we haven’t done it.

Shawn Busse:
Are you engaged in an SEO strategy at all, Liz? Or is it just you believe in content marketing and are using that as a—I don’t know, maybe it’s a sales enablement tool, maybe something else?

Liz Picarazzi:
I mean, we use things like Moz, Afhrefs, some of those reporting to see for the keywords that are important for our product, where we’re ranking. So we do look at that regularly. We do have a blog writer who writes in SEO-friendly ways. I think a lot of that is also trying to make sure the keyword terms are in the writing. So far, those have kind of been my steps.

And we do really well in SEO-ranking for our category. Often the only kind of companies above us are Home Depot and Amazon, which means, in terms of an independent brand, we’re doing really well up there. But that’s as far as we’ve gone.

And I know that’s not like having an outside person, but it’s just taking what I’ve learned about SEO to see: What can we do there? But I guess what I was saying before is, I would never use a tool to do the majority of my writing. I would use a human being, and then maybe scrub it from the back end for, “Okay, could we change this word “trash enclosure” to “trash bin,” knowing that that’s a frequently searched term?” So I would say it’s very, sort of surgical, very tactical, and it’s not like a holistic strategy.

Loren Feldman:
Before we go any further, could either Shawn or Jaci offer up a quick definition of what search engine optimization is?

Jaci Russo:
I’ll jump in. So search engine optimization is going through a series of points on a Google-supplied checklist that the other platforms—Yahoo, Bing, etc.— have kind of followed or modeled, that allows you to be a good match when a person asks a question of the platform. So I go to Google and say, “I need to find a brand-identity company, a company that’s going to give me a new logo.” Notice two different versions of the same thing: brand identity, logo. And so Google will say, “Oh, this company is a good match.” And it will supply a list of companies that it feels are a good match, based on those specific words I used in my question.

And the challenge is, much to the point that we’re discussing right now, you’ve got two different audiences then. You’ve got the audience of the humans who are doing the searching, and you’ve got the audience of the platform that’s answering the question. And they do not use the same criteria in what they need.

Loren Feldman:
So you have to pick one or the other?

Jaci Russo:
Both. You have to do things for both.

Loren Feldman:
I have to admit, my own bias as a journalist has been that having great content is more important than having great SEO. And kind of what Liz was saying before, I believe that if you stuff your content full of keywords, it can’t be great content. Of course, that’s what I want to believe. Am I wrong about that? Is Liz wrong about it? What do you guys think, Shawn and Jaci?

Shawn Busse:
I mean, I have a lot to say here. I’m trying to sit on my hands for a minute. You know, we have a really extensive history in SEO. We were probably some of the first to market in it, in terms of our strategy back in the early 2000s was what was at that time called article marketing. And so what you would do is you would write an article about something important and valuable to the customer. And then the search engines would pick it up and eventually point customers your way. And just sort of as a credibility piece, we were on the first page of Google for highly competitive keywords for many years. Terms like brand design, logo design, website design, marketing, Portland, you know, what are today exceptionally competitive words. We were on page one, often in the top spot.

And what I have observed, even prior to AI, is that the industry has matured. And in the early days of most technology, the technology is super advantageous to the user. So in effect, we were getting customers for free. I mean, we had to put energy into writing content. And at the time, there was a lot of these, like, stuffing words and even using white text on white background. Y’all remember that?

Liz Picarazzi:
I do.

Shawn Busse:
So it’s kind of been this arms race. You have the search providers—Google, Bing, etc.—and then the SEO people, whether those are consultants or individual businesses, doing the hard work and trying to figure out the game. And what I observed, sometime in the, I don’t know, teens, was that slowly but surely, the search providers, especially Google, were pushing away from organic content—from actually really valuable content—towards monetized content. And so you started to see sponsored content. And you remember when it was in blue? Remember that? It was highlighted as this set-aside thing, as paid. Like, they made it really clear what was paid and what wasn’t paid.

And then over time, they’ve made it less and less clear what’s paid and what’s not paid. And today, I would argue that a Google search is actually quite terrible. You have to work really, really hard to find something good. Because it’s been either overwhelmed by paid, which is their incentive, or it’s the folks who game the system. You know, kind of to your points, everybody here, folks who are putting quantity over quality. And there are always exceptions to this. I think Google does, in some cases, try to put good content forward. But to my other point, I think it’s an arms race.

And two things happened, especially recently, that I think are really important for people to pay attention to. One is, AI is going to turn everybody and their brother into a quote-unquote SEO person. So I think you’re right to observe, Liz, that the content is garbage a lot, but it doesn’t mean that people won’t use it. It’s sort of like when stock photography came onto the scene. I would be like, “Ugh, this is terrible. A real photographer is what we want here.” But stock photography has won. It has ultimately dominated everything: cheaper and worse. So I think we’re gonna see content become progressively worse, progressively cheaper to produce.

Loren Feldman:
Shawn, can I stop you for a second? I’m not sure I understand what you meant when you said that AI is going to turn everybody into an SEO person.

Shawn Busse:
It’s going to both dumb down and democratize SEO. So you can do things like, “Hey, ChatGPT, what’s a strategy for keywords to optimize for my business, which is XYZ?” And it will not only give you the content, I think it will also give you a quote-unquote strategy. But if everybody has access to the same thing, it’s going to really change the landscape, I think for the worse. And I just worry for the small business owners who aren’t aware of these really seismic changes that are coming, that have already been coming for, actually, quite a while, and that are going to accelerate as a result of AI.

You can now write content. You’re not going to need a writer to write a blog post. And I know it grosses me and Liz out, for sure. We all value thoughtful information. But it doesn’t mean that folks will not default to that. So you’re gonna have folks pumping out content that’s mediocre—and maybe even get better. But then it’ll all be a lot of me, too. So I think, just to kind of put a bow on this, then the trajectory will be: How do you break through all that noise as a business? And I think it’s going to be pay-to-play. I think it’s going to be you’re going to have to pay to get access to customers. That’s my theory.

Loren Feldman:
Paying the search engines?

Shawn Busse:
Paying the search engines. That’s their goal, right? If you think about it, their goal is to control the buyers and the sellers. What Amazon has effectively done, right? Amazon has effectively controlled the buyers and the sellers within their ecosystem. Google wants to do the same thing.

And so my other piece, aside from AI, was the recent Google event, where they actually came out and said it. They said, “We want you to make Google your choice for making decisions. We want Google to make it easy for you to make a decision.” So the future, not only is there an AI arms race, in terms of content creation, but what Google is wanting to do is, they want to become the intermediary between you the buyer and service providers. So instead of it pointing you to multiple web pages, it’s going to just give you the answer. It’s just going to say, “Oh, well, the best restaurant in Portland is XYZ.” They’re not going to point you to a website that has that choice. Does that make sense to you guys?

Loren Feldman:
Jaci, are you seeing similar things?

Jaci Russo:
Oh, absolutely. I think Shawn’s spot on, and that’s the part that really becomes a challenge. Because can we really trust Google to know what’s best for us? Do we not want to have some ability to go look at different websites, get a feel for the vibe, do some research, make a decision? You know, it’s like the people who go to a restaurant and just say, “Bring food,” and whatever the chef wants you to eat, that’s what you eat. That’s not how we are.

Shawn Busse:
Yeah, I mean, I listen to a number of tech podcasts. One of my favorites is Kara Swisher. She’s been doing this forever. She is such a credible, credible journalist in the tech sector. And when she came out and said, “SEO is dead.” I was like, “Whoa.” I kind of thought that, but to hear somebody of her credentials say that? And it makes complete sense. Google absolutely wants to own the rails.

And I think what small business owners need to start acting on now—especially if they have an SEO strategy—they need to start building other ways to get to customers. This is something that I really admire about you, Liz. I think you’ve done two things really well. One, you said: Hey, we’re not going to be single channel in how we get to customers. So you do PR really well. I’ve noticed that. I think you do a really good job on social. And then I also think that you’re pivoting to the government and public sector, you’ve said: Let’s go find new customers. So you’re constantly looking for new channels. And I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but I think that lesson is what owners right now need to start working on. Because two years from now, it’s going to be an apocalypse. It will be an absolute apocalypse. How’s that for positive?

Liz Picarazzi:
That’s nice. No, that makes me feel really good, because sometimes the things that we work on seem sort of disparate. But when someone like you from the outside identifies and validates the thing that I have been working really hard on, I have to say it’s very validating. But what I’m coming out of this conversation with is the idea that, “Oh my God, there’s something wrong. I need to come up with my AI strategy by Friday at 6pm” Like, I need to quell that sort of worry.

But I do agree that I’m going to need to adopt parts of it and learn more about it. Whatever, I’m 51. I don’t know if that’s too old to learn more about AI, but I’ve been very close-minded about it. And maybe what I should do is look at it sort of like: It’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve, but maybe I can have a hybrid where 75 percent of my content is real and organic from our voice and 25 percent is placed in there.

Shawn Busse:
I’m saying to owners out there who do marketing: You’ve got to have more than just one strategy. And in fact, I would start to reduce my reliance on SEO, unless you want to be in the pay-to-play business, which, Liz, you have a lot of experience in pay-to-play, right? I mean, you come from the advertising world. You do a lot of advertising for your clients. What’s your take on that? I mean, Jaci. Sorry, I meant Jaci. That’s your perspective. That’s your world. I’m curious what you think about that.

Jaci Russo:
Well, I think everything’s got an ROI. And so you’ve got to examine: Where are you going to get the return on the investment of whatever the resource might be: time, money, frustration? And so I think that there’s always a way. There’s always a way through. And so as the system changes, we’re going to adapt new systems. And those are going to work.

In some ways, Google works for us. But in other ways, it’s not working for us. It’s working for itself. It’s a for-profit entity. And so we’ve got to find a way to work the system in our favor. I saw a lot of people abandon their websites and go all in on social media, until they realized that Meta wasn’t really altruistic. And all of a sudden, it was like, “Wait, you’re going to restrict my content? Wait, you’re going to just shut down my page without warning? Wait, you’re not going to protect me from hackers and I can lose my page for months at a time or maybe forever? Oh, well, let me go back to my website and my database and something I can actually control.”

Shawn Busse:
Yeah, that’s such a good point. I remember that. It’s like an era, right? There was an era where, especially small businesses, were like, “This is fantastic. I’ve got this Facebook page. I might pay for some ads. I can get low-cost leads.” To your ROI point, it was a great deal until it was a terrible deal. And I guess that’s where I’m coming to this from. It’s like, the sands are shifting in a really big way, and to recognize that change is coming hard is really important. If I can leave people with one message, it’s that. The days of free traffic, I think they’re coming to an end really fast.


Read Full Podcast Transcript Here


Topics: small business owner, marketing challenges, SEO, digital marketing

About The Podcast

Podcast Banner

Hosted by Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker the Change the Game podcast highlights true life stories of organizations influencing positive change by doing business differently. They’re teaching people how business works and closing the gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s capitalism at its best. Inside each episode, you’ll discover stories of entrepreneurs who are Changing the Game.

Change the Game Podcast Trailer


Subscribe to Get notified about new episodes!