Is SEO dead? The naked truth in 2024

Last Modified: May 3rd, 2024 - Category: SEO Blog, UX Rants and Stuff
Cover image for SEO and SEM article

So, just in case you missed it, I made more or less the same question a few years ago on the post Are Google SEO content guidelines killing real content?.

In that post, I mentioned how Google’s guidelines (and, of course, SEO professionals trying to take advantage of them) were killing real content in favor of mechanical, overthought, and synthetic content. The losers of this game were real content creators and, therefore, the audience.

Fast forward to 2024.

At the time of writing this, Google is performing one of its feared updates, and it has all SEO experts shaking in their boots. And while it still isn’t over, there are obvious losers and winners, as usual.

However, it seems this particular update has more losers than usual. If you visit any SEO forum or group, you’ll see a way above average number of SEO specialists complaining about the loss of traffic and SERP positions. While these complaints are very common with any update, this time the number of complaints is really surprising. This includes known websites being completely de-indexed (I can feel their pain).

So, what happens now? Is it time to leave the boat? Will AI kill my business? Is SEO dead? Is SEM the only way to get traffic nowadays?

Well, these are questions I’ll answer in this article.

Are AI Chatbots killing Search Engines?

Image of AI chatbot killing SEO results

Let’s start with the “elephant in the room,” as there are good reasons to do so. One of the major concerns for webmasters and SEO specialists is that many users are changing their search behavior on the internet, opting for searches via chatbots over traditional search engines. This especially affects Google since Bing has incorporated AI search nearly a year ago, to which Google initially responded with Bard, which has now transformed into Gemini.

This model is really quite interesting and was originally developed by You.com, which combined search engines, a chatbot, AI image generation, and other features that made the concept really innovative. The problem is that You.com had (and has) to compete with giants under very unequal conditions. And for reasons we don’t know, it had a lot of issues. One issue was that its user interface was unclear, its purpose was vague (similar to when Yahoo tried to integrate so many features that it became confusing), and the overall feel was that of an incomplete product. To worsen the situation, they recently decided to copy ChatGPT’s user interface, which stripped it of its last vestige of personality.

Nevertheless, despite the inherent problems of You.com, it was clear that it only took one of the giants to adopt the concept and use it. Thus, Bing was the first to emulate it, followed by Google. However, what makes You.com interesting is its subscription model, something unprecedented in a search engine, and certainly a model that could generate billions for search engines. Bing started with Bing Chat Enterprise, which will soon become Bing Copilot, and Google has already announced that Gemini will be a paid service and that they “have no plans for a free version.”

The Impact of AI Chatbots on Search Engine Optimization

The impact of AI chatbots on SEO is very tangible. According to studies by Ignite Visibility, 62% of users prefer searches via chatbots over search engines. While I personally doubt these figures, it’s undeniable that it’s a growing trend.

Another more realistic study reports that 42% of respondents already think they will use (note the future tense) chatbots rather than search engines, with 34% still undecided. These figures are more reasonable, or at least more in line with a preliminary study we began conducting on the subject, which suggests that the 42% figure is quite close to our own findings.

It is clear that if a user is looking for reference material or an answer to a specific question, using a chatbot is an easy and quick way to get a response. It’s true that these answers are often incorrect (as a heavy user of AI chatbots, I believe the accuracy of responses is about 80% for generic issues and less than 20% for more complex matters, including UX, where errors are quite significant), but the user often can’t tell if the answers found on a website are correct either.

However, when it comes to transactional searches, search engines are still the first choice, almost exclusively. The reason is simple: if I’m searching for a restaurant or to buy a pair of shoes, I know a search engine will provide those results directly, something a chatbot currently cannot do (yet). However, they are on the way to doing so. For example, the aforementioned You.com can perform price comparisons and show places to buy products.

screen capture from you.com displaying an AI product search with direct links to products.
Screen capture from you.com displaying an AI product search with direct links to products.

How Do AI-Based Searches Affect Search Engines (and Businesses)?

As mentioned earlier, a significant portion of users are choosing, and will likely continue to choose, chatbots for their searches. This trend suggests a potential impact on SEO, as organic traffic from search engines could be significantly reduced.

However, it’s also worth noting that transactional searches will likely remain unaffected, at least in the foreseeable future. The future holds uncertainties, but for now, the focus seems to be on informational queries.

This shift presents a challenge: there’s no established approach for “AI chatbot SEO.” While this is a concern, it doesn’t necessarily negate the value of classic SEO entirely. Let’s explore this further…

The “Is SEO dead?” mantra.

As I mentioned before, every time Google updates, SEO people shake in fear. And sometimes there are good reasons for that. Many of those SEO specialists are trying to rig the game, even though they know Google will usually outsmart them. So, they’re scared the update will catch them. And of course, most of those trying to outsmart Google get caught. Nothing new here.

But consider the opposite: good, honest content. Should website owners be worried about Google updates if they did things correctly?

Well, in my humble opinion, the answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT.

I might be wrong, of course.

But I highly doubt Google will penalize websites for being honest. As much as Google’s algorithm isn’t the greatest, as mentioned in the article cited above, it won’t have a punitive algorithm for well-done things. It would be ridiculous to even think about it.

I, for one, never cared at all. And I mean NEVER. I know there are ups and downs. At the time of writing this, this website itself went down close to 15% last week. This week it’s 41% up.

Is that -15% or that +41% real? We don’t know until the update is over. And frankly, I couldn’t care less.

Don’t get me wrong. If you visited our services page or our homepage, you’ll already know that we’re a data-driven UX firm, and of course, those figures are data that I value a lot and to which I give a lot of consideration… when the time is right.

But the point is: will I go crazy over some keyword, or title, or image or alt tag or whatever for a few more (or less) visitors? Of course not. Because, unlike what the mantra that titles this section reads, I don’t think SEO is dead. I think it’s alive and kicking. So, keeping a steady pace and continuing to do things right is the only way to never worry about each and every Google update (and be rewarded a bit, as we are at it). Thus, I can use my time to make my business grow rather than to outsmart Google.

Outsmarting Google at its own game

Attempting to outsmart Google in its own game is not exactly the smartest strategy. Yes, it might work once, but with the next update, you could lose everything (and even get de-indexed, as is currently happening to thousands of websites).

Despite this, it’s quite common to encounter SEO specialists promising top-three Google rankings with ease. However, they consistently fail, time and time again, without exception. The challenge is that many companies or website owners are unable to identify these false promises. For instance, they might claim, “We positioned Site A for a highly competitive keyword in the top result,” but verifying such claims is often impossible unless you contact the top-ranking company, which ironically might be your competitor.

There are numerous ways to distinguish professionals from scammers, although the methods vary in complexity.

A simple method is to ask for their website. Surprisingly, many of these so-called SEO companies do not have their own website. It’s akin to a mechanic admitting they don’t know how to drive.

This step is straightforward, followed by examining those who do have a website. You should review testimonials and their own website’s rankings. If they can’t rank their own site, how can they rank yours?

Note: Did you know we outranked several top 100 global brands for branded keywords? For example, in searches similar to “Adidas shoes,” though not that exact term, our rankings were higher!

And we reach the “outsmart Google at its own game” part. Some of these SEO companies might actually deliver some traffic, indicate your website has a higher DA (domain authority), and your site may rank a bit higher. In this case, they’re simply manipulating the SERPs. They contact reputable websites to exchange backlinks with links from low-quality sites. To put it in context: We receive about 50 requests a day from these so-called “outreach specialists.” Just multiply that by the number of websites that exist, and you’ll quickly realize it’s a numbers game: if they contact 1 million sites per day and receive a 0.01% positive response rate, they’ll gain 100 new links a day.

Nice, huh?

Well, guess what: they always fail anyway.

The problem is that most aren’t conducting this as a serious, ethical business. They aim to outsmart Google (and clients), so when a website owner sees those amazing results (which also include a few thousand low-quality spammy links from Fiverr and similar sites), they’ll want more… and that’s when the links disappear because they’re needed for other clients. Rinse and repeat.

And of course, Google identifies the pattern and then devalues all those links as well as the linked sites. Namely, your website, which now might be blacklisted or relegated to page 46677.

So, how can we be “Google-friendly”?

The solution is actually quite simple. SEO is a game where you can achieve significant benefits for your website, but only by doing it right. And doing it right means being honest.

For example, with these fake SEO agencies, websites always receive a sudden boost, which is highly illogical to any observer (let alone an AI trained to identify patterns, like Google’s!).

Now, does this mean a sudden boost will harm your business? Not if you’re playing honestly. A legitimate sudden boost will be accompanied by many other signals that fake SEO can’t replicate, and Google will test these, possibly placing your link in a top position. Google will then analyze user behavior, bounce rate, engagement, user experience, etc., to determine where your content belongs (hopefully in the top 3!).

Of course, this might happen once or twice, but it can’t occur daily. If so, your website will be scrutinized. And again: if you’ve done nothing wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.

Now, you may ask: what does it mean to play by the rules and stay safe? Well, it’s actually quite straightforward:

  • Produce high-quality, engaging content.
  • Maintain a consistent publishing schedule.
  • Ensure an exceptional user experience.
  • Prioritize user security and data protection.
  • Achieve flawless technical SEO implementation.
  • Foster organic growth through strategic optimization.
  • Utilize relevant keywords effectively.
  • Build and maintain quality backlinks.
  • Analyze and adapt based on analytics feedback.

As you can see, it’s nothing extraordinary. It requires knowledge, dedication, and professionalism, but anyone can achieve it with some trial and error.

Of course, you may not have time for “trial and error” or to learn new skills, especially when those skills are updated once or twice a year. Then, investing in a reputable SEO agency becomes essential for generating sales.

The SEM side of things

Let’s frame it in more tangible terms: a website is essentially a business location. Just as you can have a street-front shop with shelves, a counter, fitting rooms, products, signage, screens, etc., a website serves as the virtual equivalent of a physical business. However, there’s one fundamental difference: the reach of a virtual business (a website) can be vastly greater than that of a physical one.

So, how much does rent, maintenance, employee salaries, and other expenses cost for a physical location? Depending on the city or country, the size of the premises, its location, its socioeconomic target, and other variables, costs can range from a few hundred dollars to low to mid five figures.

Now, consider that the cost of maintaining a physical location is $10,000 monthly. Often, when a physical store owner is advised to invest $10,000 monthly in their website, they are likely to reject the idea. This happens despite the potential for significantly higher returns, at least in theory.

And there are good reasons for this hesitation. Many clients have tried to save money by hiring “affordable” designers and inexperienced programmers, only to later attempt SEM advertising. Naturally, failure was almost guaranteed, because what many clients fail to understand is the principle stated earlier: a website is akin to a physical location. Opting for “affordable” designers and programmers is like setting up a physical store in a dark, dangerous neighborhood where no one dares to enter. No matter how much advertising we do, no one will buy!

Consequently, clients may give up, thinking that SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is a waste of time and money—which, in these cases, it undeniably is.

One might think, “I was right, it’s a waste of time and money.” However, that’s not necessarily true. Why else would so many people invest in it? They’re clearly not losing money; the reason for investing is apparent: the potential return on investment (ROI) can be substantial. Consider this: if you invest $10,000 and sell products worth $100,000, with a total cost of $50,000, you achieve an impressive 66.67% ROI.

And that’s the beauty of SEM: it’s results-based. You only pay when people click, meaning if there are no clicks, you spend nothing. This allows you to control and, even better, adjust your strategies based on those results.

SEO or SEM? What to do?

At this point, you might be wondering if you need to go full-SEM and forget about SEO.

gif animation of a girl saying "why not both"? wehn asked about whether to go with SEO or SEM
SEO or SEM? Why not both?

However, that’s not the purpose of this article. The point is that you actually need BOTH. At least initially, until you gain enough traction, SEM is almost unavoidable, especially considering the new trends in user behaviors regarding search and the role of AI: many users will bypass Google and go straight to AI, often with good reason. Since SEM is results-based (as mentioned earlier), the risk is quite low if you have a well-designed website, and quite high if you don’t.

But free meals are cool, and SEO is like a free meal. Let’s consider the previous user case.

Based on the same scenario above:

  • Revenue = $100,000
  • Costs (excluding SEM) = $40,000
  • Net Profit = Revenue – Costs = $100,000 – $40,000 = $60,000

If we consider the scenario where no money was invested in SEM (and therefore, no traditional “investment” was made), we calculate ROI like this:

image with SEO - SEM ROI formula ROI=(Net ProfitTotal Costs)×100=($60,000$40,000)×100=150%ROI=(Total CostsNet Profit​)×100=($40,000$60,000​)×100=150%

This ROI represents a 150% return based on the costs incurred (i.e., money spent in operations excluding SEM), not an initial investment, as that was $0.

So, 150% is much better than the 66.66% in the example above, don’t you think?

But to achieve that, we need to have great SEO. Which means we’re back to the start: we need to work on SEO and never stop, but in the meantime, we need to support SEO efforts with SEM campaigns. After you gain traction from free search engine traffic, you can evaluate how beneficial it is to continue with SEM. Usually, a combined SEO and SEM campaign is beneficial when we work with digital products or have an endless supply. However, if SEO-driven sales cover the supply of the product you want to sell, using SEM becomes pointless because you won’t have anything to sell and/or your selling costs will be higher.

Image from article "Is SEO dead?" displaying SEO traffic for Dorve UX
This website’s traffic for the last three months has increased by approximately 30%, while most SEO specialists are struggling. All traffic is organic, with no paid traffic or paid links involved.

To sum up: SEO isn’t dead. It’s stumbling and becoming more challenging every day. However, nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, and nobody wants to be the one left unprepared for changes we can’t even foresee. So, let’s just stay well-prepared and continue working on SEO at a steady and safe pace. There’s no way to lose.

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