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SEO Is Dead, And The New King Is ‘SMO’

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Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a web publisher, and author of the Digital Quarters blog. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile, the online retailer of luxury goods. He is also an angel investor in various media and e-commerce companies.

Over the past five years, Web publishing has been so heavily dominated by search engine optimization (SEO) that, to many publishing executives, the right keywords have become far more important than their sites

92 Responses to “SEO Is Dead, And The New King Is ‘SMO’”

  1. SNEMarketing

    SEO isn’t dead, it’s always smelled funny. SEO is only a piece of the internet marketing strategy puzzle. Too many people in the industry have been doing SEO for SEO’s sake: focused on traffic numbers alone, and SERP results. The picture is much broader, and the search engines have tried to communicate it all along, but as long as the hard core SEO people got results, they didn’t care. With so many modifications in the Google search algorithm lately, results are ever more fleeting and erratic.

    Supplanting SEO with SMO is equally erroneous. SMO, again, is only a piece of the puzzle. Basic internet marketing strategy is the core principal that will outlive all of these “fads”. Being nimble, have a good foundation, and being able to adapt to changes is what will win out.

  2. maddmatt


    Just received this article from a friend – welcome to my soap box! I ‘do SEO’ for all of the clients at my agency of employ, and have been preaching this message for the last year – Content is King! If you’re not serving up relevant content to the right people, all the rest is just smoke and mirrors.

    I don’t, however, see much qualified traffic from Facebook – people don’t like to leave the Facebook environment – afterall they didn’t login to learn anything, they logged in to hang out with their friends, in a virtual sense. So we may see sporadic spikes from Facebook or other social blogs, but over time the higher volume of qualified traffic is still coming from Google.

    I don’t see that changing any time in the near future – but I am happy to see other people getting back to the basics. If your content isn’t timely and relevant, and your various initiatives (SEO, SEM, SMO, and dare I say it old school print, TV and OOH) aren’t all on the same page they aren’t doing you any good. One voice, one message, one love.

  3. Reading the comments above, my position still stands solid – SEO still is and is nothing more than speculative quack science. The comments above were some of the most weirdest, vague commentary I have ever read on a math/science topic such as search algorithm.

    The notion that someone performing information retrieval is likely to buy a product than a social viral recommendation is proof-positive of how the SEO is full of quacks..

  4. Ben, as for keywords – Google has a very sophisticated “filter” system that has thrown even the professionals of SEO of-course. In short, content now needs to be RELEVANT and keyword search engine SPECIFIC with laser-targeted strategy or it hits the Google junk listing pages many have called the sandbox for life or the GOOGLE content submissions waiting room. This is why most people cannot find their website, daily submissions or work out why content disappears and days or months later it returns. This will sound confusing too most! Why? Is anything easy about Google? That is why small businesses and companies need real professional online SEO/PPC/SEM/SMO strategists to get ranked, save cash and compete.

  5. Ben, SEO is NOT dead until search engines cease to operate! In fact, SEO has now become more sophisticated than ever before with Google Instant and “Real-Time” demand for innovative and optimised content. Within the last two days the ex-Chief of Microsoft wrote an article stating that the “Internet” was no longer about connectivity – but about content and service. Very simply, GIANT search engines like Google, BING and Yahoo will always need content and content will need Search Engine Optimization to compete for Top 10 SERP’s. Nowadays, especially with Google Instant who wants to rank or be listed on page 4, 5, 6 or 7? Also, SEO for BING and GOOGLE requires two sets of completely different SEO strategies. If you want to talk quality content every page still has to be OPTIMISED with relevant keywords, tags and links combined to rank top ten. Even Press Releases must have combination SEO strategies to rank and rule top ten. I think your article is more related to SM than SEO. You cannot mix Facebook, Google and Bing when talking about SEO because “Facebook” does NOT require any SEO whatsoever. It is a social “like” me website where your strategies are purely about networking and socialising not content writing or optimization. As for SMO this requires a multi-channel and multi-media strategic approach across ALL social networks and search engines. You cannot even call or approach Twitter and Facebook the same way! I rarely use Facebook and I challenge anyone to SERP my global “website title page” top ten listings worldwide. SEO is very much alive and anyone thinking pure social is like a Man or Woman with one eye.

  6. There sure are a lot of angry SEO guys out there. There is novreal difference between SMO and SEO. Each effort is trying to position the content in question to be prevalent in each presentation layer (search and social). Bing did a fun thing with Facebook, but it didn’t change the number of searches through Google or the number of tweets through twitter. SMO and SEO go together well, and if you are to take the tactics away, they are the same endeavor. Get my stuff in front of the most important eyes…

  7. jasonandrews

    I agree that Facebook is driving huge traffic and all publishers should be integrating social aspects into their content but tradtitional SEO won’t disappear overnight so people shouldn’t think that SMO is replacing traditional SEO, its simply an expanding part of SEO. In 5 years time, people will still be using search engines albeit in ways that are more connected.

  8. SEO can never die. SMO is nothing without SEO. You better clear your facts first.

    No doubt, SMO is important but you can not marginalize SEO. SEO is the base of every activity, be it a SMO, PPC or anything else

  9. searchbrat

    Not much to add in addition to what Bill said. I guess it’s odd you don’t seem to understand SMO came from the SEO industry. The first link bait piece around “SEO is Dead” was 4 years ago and it still seems to cause a stir. I suppose gutter journalism always does. There is no need for anything to die, everything is constantly evolving and the good people adapt.

    “For those who are still working on implementing search strategies: if you haven’t turned your focus to SMO, you will be left behind as the allure of gaming search engines fades into the past.”

    I hope people do listen to you, it will make competitive industries a lot easier for people who are putting time and effort into creating a holistic strategy that incorporate search, social, analytics, cro and the many other strands that work together.

    I can just see all those companies in competitive industries like insurance, gambling, cosmetics switching off their search strategies and waiting for someone to like their page on Facebook. Hey, that’s certainly going to send a flood of traffic their way.

  10. Good point Ben. But those who spread content via social need to find it first. So search= SEO and distribution=SM (social media). To those the content will be distributed it will be push and no search is required but not for those in search of … . Still we face a problem: content is not keywords and to put all time in keyword optimized content writing results in loss of great content.

  11. Why is it always web developers, SMOs and crappy SEOs doing linkbait that do the SEO is dead shite. Cuz they are ignorant of what SEO is. Like links you can’t take Facebook shares and likes to the bank. Each of these are at opposite ends of the conversion funnel and guess which is farthest from the goal. Social and Facebook drives pageviews and metrics that fior the most part put $0 in the bank.

  12. Hi Ben,

    I second Bill here. Apart from the fact that “SMO” is patterned after the art and science behind SEO, I do believe that people search and consume information differently in different situations.

    Likes, suggestions, and recommendations, from friends and influencers are without a doubt a powerful means to push information forward, however I do believe that the searcher’s/user’s intent to consume/use information/a product should be taken to a deeper level–it provides historical, actionable data that can help determine specific mental models and personas that “optimization” and “efficiency” practices can be built on top of.

    To say that SEO is dead is similar to saying that UxD, IxD, Usability, Design, Library Sciences, and the rest of other related practices are all dead.

    SEO will always be evolving.

    My thoughts,


    P.S. If people still continue to believe that SEO is about links and keywords, then they must’ve learned something else. SEO (simply put) is about “producing relevant content in the users language & making it accessible to search engines” – Avinash Kaushik

  13. Hi Ben,

    SEO doesn’t require paid links, tricks, or hacks. It does require technical knowledge to make it more likely that search engines will crawl and index your content, avoiding things like duplicate URLs for the same pages, soft 404s, unwise redirects, and other issues that my improve the quality of your site. SEO also focuses upon creating great content, using search keywords that your audience will expect to see on your pages, and will likely search for to find what you offer on those pages.

    If SEO isn’t working for you, it’s probably because you haven’t been doing it right.

    If you think that sites like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft/Bing haven’t been paying attention to social signals long before the Facebook/Bing collaboration (with patents exploring the topic that go back more than 5 years), and that SEOs haven’t been paying attention to social sites, then you may know less about SEO than you think you do. If you search for the origin of the acronym SMO, you’ll find its roots in the SEO industry going back at least 5 years.

  14. Interesting post, Ben.
    I do like this quote: “The encouraging implication is that the audience values content, not keywords.”
    I’m a believer that strong content really is king.
    But, I I do agree with other comments about their needing to be a mix of SEO and SMO in order to garner the best results.

    Thank you for sharing your research and thoughts with us.

    ~ Jette’

  15. @ Ben

    People don’t go to Facebook with the INTENT to have their questions answered (nor do they go there with the intent to make a purchase).

    They go to Facebook to see what their friends and family are doing or perhaps kill time with a game or browse photos. There is no intent for any specific action other than that.

    If they are exposed to something new or find an answer to a question they did not intend to have answered going to Facebook, that is simply a by-product.

    Having done research and lots of experimentation, I’ve found that social media sites have very low transfer and carry-over rates. By this I mean posting to Facebook (or even Twitter) yields a low amount of “click through” and “action” when compared with search. (and yes this is messaging targeted to people who should gobble it up and act upon it)

    Perhaps because my world is about selling products and services, not attracting eyeballs to content my views are different.

    But there is no way that you’ll convince me that folks are going to Facebook, Twitter, etc with the intent of making a purchase .

    They may go for advice, experiences, etc (and my experience is that this is the exception, not the rule) from friends, but they still end up going to the good ‘ole search engine to find the company with which to seal the deal.

    That said, I advise every company to participate and leverage social media…then again I said the same thing about forums, message boards and instant messengers 10 years ago.

  16. Garrett, au contraire: people are finding an answer at Facebook every minute to the very most important question in media: “what do I need to know?” While print declines in its service of that question, Facebook is growing faster than any other outlet at answering that. That’s what’s changing news and publishing so rapidly.

  17. Rurik, you got it. Thank you!

    Kronis, I don’t think you do any publishers a service when you demonstrate comment spamming in support of your claims that SEO is important.

    Paulhoff, consistently great quality content – as judged by its audience – is what earns a site the best kinds of traffic: destination status and passalong. For those sites, SEO widens the funnel to expose a site to more people, but it’s the great content that truly builds durable audience relationships.

  18. SEO is not dead and won’t die at least during our lifetimes. SEO is a zombie! No matter how many times they try to kill it SEO it just picks itself up and starts back up again. Even if Facebook will figure out how to do internal searches from its immense user base it will be a while before that happens and it is safe to deduce that Google is developing something even before that happens. We’re in Los Angeles and snippets from Google Places and reviews are now showing up on our queries hence the implied added importance of SMO but as far as replacing SEO I think that is too far off to see.

  19. Don’t bet too much on the misnomer that any significant amount of web traffic comes from search. I know from years of experience only 10% of visits come from search and produce next to no income. The huge majority of web traffic and business comes from mainstream media reference, direct visit or link association.

    SEO still is and is nothing more than speculative quack science. I love how people talk SEO they use a lot of “if” or “can” or “probably” or “maybe” as they talk about the science of SEO and how it suppose to work. The ones making SEO money were those creating the SEO conferences and talked about SEO luring gullible people into the junk science.

    Social marketing has always been around since the web begun with email chain letters and all Facebook was created a new channel for the same style of viral marketing.People make information reach other people, not information retrieval quackery.

  20. SEO isn’t dead, it’s changing (just like everything else). SMO might becoming a more critical piece of the online marketing mix, but it won’t replace SEO or kill SEO.

    Change also takes time. I bet most of the world website’s get over 50% of their traffic from search and 40% of their online revenues. This won’t be displaced overnight (or in a few years) just because of Facebook or Twitter.

    Besides when’s the last time you went on Facebook to find an answer? You may find links to things of interest, but as a “direct response” medium, Facebook et al is not well suited to deliver.

    • Great point here, seo is not dead. What I have found is that webmasters, project managers and firms that have zero project management experience have miss-managed what seo would do for their websites. Evaluation of your industry is key to whether seo is something worth while. I invest and build my own project and have been in seo for long-time now and those who cannot finance and take risk on their own capital, will never have good enough information to determine if seo was a good strategy for their business models. 

  21. I think this is an exciting development. I’ve always thought how sterile and bland seo optimised content can often be. This headlong chase for keywords can ruin good writing. I like to write for people, so I say bring on SMO.


  22. Great post Ben. I think that Kronis and PaulHoff overlook your fundamental point, which is that the sun is setting on Google search. It will not go away, but will be massively downsized, as people ask friends/contacts what to read and buy — not a search engine. So instead of 90% Google / 10% other for queries, it might flip to be just 10% Google.

    One recent example: I was looking for sites that have property rental listings in London. Google’s results were useless (even though they are competitive key phrases), but Quora’s were great.

    I’ve always thought that SEO-spam outfits like HuffPo and Demand Media were a temporary blip, until human-powered discovery got more advanced — I think what you’re seeing here is exactly that.

  23. paulhoff

    I agree with Kronis, it will do nothing to SEO. A rubbish site with little and/or out of date content, no matter how good the SEOer was wouldn’t get to the top of the SERPS, it’s always about quality content, whether on a website, blog, membership site etc… You still need to do your homework with SEO.

    I wouldn’t mind betting that their are plenty of websites and blogs with fantastic content that are languishing in the SERPs because of poor SEO, so while SMO is definitely going to be huge in the future (FB aint going away any time soon) it’s not going to kill off SEO.

    Good post though Ben, similar to the ‘Google Instant-Will It Be The End Of SEO’ debate.

  24. Right and if your site isn’t optimized, then you will still rank lower. SEO is ever changing, but you will need it until search changes to a point when you can’t do anything to increase your rankings….

    Yeah, you can get LOADS of traffic from facebook, but the folks who DON’T click and then try to find you later on may not if you don’t come up in the results…so you will lose that traffic if you aren’t making your site crawlable (which is NOT SMO). The science of making sure the sites rank properly won’t go away, it will just be ignored more by people who claim its not important (like this article that confuses non-industry types who google it and hear SEO is going away, making that part of my job annoying, thank you) and thus their clients won’t see the natural rankings, just the pushed social traffic (which is GREAT, but not the be all and end all).

    kinda like car lots will always need to advertise their deals until we stop using cars.

    Yes, a lot of people love Facebook, its amazing, but its not the only thing in the world. SMO is important, but SEO and SMO will be around together for a long time, SMO is just now another subset of your overall SEO campaign which (when done properly and not just in the way you mentioned where the gaming of keywords and articles leaves the ‘great content’ ideas in the past) still includes linkbuilding, content creation, internal linking structure reviews, and much more.

    Also, I personally wouldn’t use DISQUS as they own your content and comments not you. lots of people have issues with DISQUS. i just don’t use it. I guess its good for anonymous commenting if you want trolls.

    [*Update* thurs 8am, NOTE: re; ben’s comment : I’m not condoning comment spam [wtf, really ….. lolz] I’m saying DISQUS isn’t good and its only + is that is may make it easy for people to comment without saying too much about who they are quickly, possibly encouraging trolls. The proof you both (Rurik and Ben) Don’t get it is the silly 10% number you are claiming. You are generalizing way way way too much with that, which you are stating as some solid fact…please do show the research on this if you have? – a healthy discussion of course for all of us to learn from – not trying to argue just want to be accurate for those who google SEO before calling my firm.]