The Changing Face of Web Marketing

The internet is changing fast, that much is sure. For years upon years, decades upon decades, the world seemed to change slowly (though I’m sure it seemed fast at the time). Cars have taken over 100 years to get to the point where they are now. Innovations in other areas, such as food production, have also come along slowly as new ideas are tried and then rolled out more broadly.

This isn’t true of web marketing. The internet has only had wide adoption for little over 20 years now, and SEO first started in around 1996, which was only 17 years ago. And this world is changing fast. Think about it:

  • Until February 2011, content sites like eHow and Wikihow dominated the search results with low-quality crap
  • Paid links worked like a charm and sites were rarely penalized
  • Aggressive anchor text would rank your site and keep it ranking
These days the landscape is different:
  • Panda has sites running for cover and many have not recovered
  • Paid links still work, but Google is better than ever at finding them
  • Aggressive anchor text will most likely knock you out of the SERPs
  • Link removal companies now exist
It’s tempting to say “SEO is dead” or “SEO is dying”. I’m not saying that, by any means, but the game has changed. With the advent of: local search, personalized search, Google monetizing more lucrative search results, and the rise of social media, we’re now dealing with:
  • Loss of traffic to head terms, even when rankings don’t change (while Google inserts their properties above the fold)
  • Increasing importance of citations for local businesses, as well as new market opportunities for areas they used to gain traffic from
  • Increased importance of branding and investing in channels other than SEO (such as social and email)
  • Marketers needing knowledge of semantic search and what the heck entities are
There are many other areas that I could cover here, but you get the point. Businesses can no longer afford to rely on just one traffic source in order to stay in business. Once that traffic dries up or the tactic becomes less effective, the business will have to adapt or else will fail. I prefer to build for the longterm, so that’s what this post is about.

Pick a non-Google Vertical

As I said a month ago and Dr Pete said in his Mozcon presentation, Google is increasingly moving into spaces that it can monetize either through its own programs (such as HotelFinder) or increased product listings (PLAs), and this is pushing organic results below the fold.

Here’s a screenshot of a search for [london hotels] (the pink shows Google properties):


Here is a very commercial branded search for [asset tags]:


SEObook had a great post a while ago about choosing a niche/vertical which I highly recommend you read. Even then, the vertical you choose will never be completely safe from Google, or any other large competitor with a lot of resources, entering the market. My hope, then, is that you take Dan Martell’s approach to it:

The validation Dan is talking about is that it is a lucrative space, one that Google deems worthy of entering or disrupting, but this is also a challenge (one that Dan is apparently game for).

Change Strategies As Google Changes

What should you do when Google makes changes that directly impact your business, such as increasing cost per conversion (CPC) when sales aren’t necessarily increasing by the same amount? Or, when Google launches a new product that directly competes with yours and offers it for free (Amazon does this too, by the way). What if you see changes in your organic traffic graph one day simply because Google moved in on your SERPs and began to monetize them for itself?  

Let’s explore some ways to diversify so that you’re not left out in the cold when (not if) this happens.

Invest in Multiple Channels

The beauty of online marketing is that the many channels all work very well. One downside of this is that people tend to pick just one and focus on that for a time without taking a more longterm approach to revenue and business. Organic search may be your cheapest acquisition method today, but I can assure you that it won’t always be. As Patrick McKenzie (@patio11 on Twitter and HackerNews) says, it’s easier to scale short term revenue than longterm revenue, but focusing on the former often works to the detriment of the latter.

Have doubts that any one tactic has a shelf life? Take into account the following changes that have taken place in just the past couple of years in online marketing:

  • Google targeted thin content (goodbye Demand Media)
  • Google targeted manipulative linking practices (goodbye lots of spammers, and unfortunately legit businesses too)
  • Google changed the inbox layout, and now email marketing could be less effective
  • Facebook changed how far your brand’s page posts can reach, but you can now pay to promote

Focus On Bright Spots

Many of you organic search specialists are not going to like this, but other channels convert well too. For example, if you look at the channels that convert best for Distilled into either consulting or DistilledU subscriptions (our online training platform), organic search plays a role but others play almost as large of a role:


Beyond organic search, consider the following sources:

  • Social media
  • Social campaigns
  • Lifecycle email campaigns
  • Community engagement
  • Thought leadership
It’s weird to mention “thought leadership” as a channel in itself, but I do so because it encompasses all of the following (which are valuable beyond their SEO implications):
  • Forums (HackerNews is how Patrick McKenzie first built his reputation online)
  • Guest content (Forget about the links. What about the mindshare and reputation?)
  • Interviews
  • Conferences
Once you know what works, invest in that but not to the exclusion of other channels (remember short term vs longterm). For example, on one of my side projects I know that right now my best acquisition channels are targeted content on other sites and social media. That is where I will invest until the organic flywheel begins to turn:


Sometimes Tactics Don’t Scale

Scaling tactics can be tricky. Often, in order to scale a tactic you need to scale the number of people you have working on it as well. When this happens, you end up making mistakes that can be costly.

For example, I have a client who did bad link building for years before they started working with Distilled. As a result, they’ve suffered in every algorithm update for the past couple of years, especially Penguin, and so have been conducting large-scale link removals through their outsourced team.

Unfortunately, after being siloed away from the process, I found out that they were actually doing things that could hurt organic traffic even further. One of my co-workers, who built some links to good content we produced for them in the past, received this email:


Epic facepalm. This was a painful learning experience, but it revealed a larger truth:

When tactics don’t scale, you need strategy.
I loved the recent post by Paul Graham that argues to Do Things That Don’t Scale because it gets at the heart of business -
Sometimes we need to stop focusing on more and instead invest in better.
If you’re interested in the product side, you should read this post about not adding more features to your product, but actually getting back to the basics and figuring out where your blind spots may be. Are customers ignoring new features, and instead just wanting certain basic features to work better? This sort of visibility can drive your product strategy, which then informs and betters your tactics longterm.

By investing in things that don’t scale easily, you can begin to see outsized returns on the investments that you strategically make. For example, an ecommerce company can easily continue large scale guest posting that could get it in trouble (check out Google’s updated guidelines on “link schemes”), or it can invest in great content that hits its user base and gets it in front of its target audience (building brand and thought leadership along the way).

My ecommerce client has done just this, and they’ve received links from Mother Nature Network, REI, ClickZ, Huffington Post, Examiner, and many more. Here’s a snapshot of one of its sites over the past year:


Measure Multiple Types of ROI

At the end of the day, revenue puts food directly on the table. Links don’t do this, neither do emails or social media.

But (!) these are all tools that we can use to measure ROI, and to make a case to clients or bosses for investing in these channels, if we’re able to measure the lifetime value of a visitor, an email, or social media.

I’m not going to dig deep into this because others have dealt with the topic in many different places. One piece of advice, though, is to ensure that your tagging is up-to-date in order to properly attribute your ROI. I recently learnt this lesson when I published an article on Medium. When I looked at my referral traffic to the site I had linked to, I saw this:


Sad face. If this was a client’s site, and not my own, I wouldn’t be able to say definitively where that traffic came from. So do yourself a favor and not only learn how to tag your campaigns, but also do it!


Online marketing is changing. Specialists will always be specialists and generalists will always be generalists, but as marketing changes we need to set in place systems that allow us to adapt quickly to changes. The data driven marketers are the ones who will succeed longterm, because we know our target markets and how to reach them. We’re building content, outreach, acquisition, and consulting teams now because we know that all of these will be valuable in the future.

The best marketers of the future are not the specialists. The best marketers of the future are those who know how to learn new strategies and tactics, and also know when to say that they need to learn more.

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  1. Great post, John. This is the biggest problem we see in the automotive niche... too many SEO providers and agencies who can't (or won't) keep up with the times. It's insane how many of them still use pre-Penguin and pre-Panda tactics, and how many auto dealers get zinged for it.

    Adapt or die, ya know?

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    • I cringe every time I open up a link profile that's pure press releases and article directories from a previous SEO company!

  2. 'Diversify your channels' is one of those mantras many adopt when it comes to digital marketing, but the fact remains that organic search is by far the most cost-effective customer acquisition channel. Most SMEs simply lack the budget to do anything else but focus on the channel with the most ROI. So as far as I'm concerned it's meaningless advice. We have to play ball with Google, because we simply don't have a choice.

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    • John Doherty

      Thanks for the comment, Barry. I agree that we have to play ball with Google (I never said that we didn't), but I don't agree that SMEs lack the budget to do anything else but focus on one channel. Building an email list is easy with a decent writer. Interacting online will build your social channels.

      Honestly, it's the 80/20 rule. 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the way, and 80% is good enough for most SMEs to not be completely reliant on Google.

  3. Joe

    Yea I think as SEOs we tend to go for things that scale right away, but there is something to be said for things that don't scale such as the long hard slog of posting in forums and commenting and such to build up your business in the way that Patrick McKenzie did with Hacker News. Also, I think a healthy percentage of focus can go towards gaining links that might now pass a lot of equity, but will give a lot of referral traffic.

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  4. Thank you john for the great article! I finally found a good link on how to tag campaigns.

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  5. Ouch - Head hurts never mind sad face! Sometimes this beast changes so fast that old geezers like me really do struggle to keep a handle on it. Several surveys seem to confirm that G is squeezing organic, even though it is still a pretty effective channel. Is it less a case of working each channel ion isolation, to preserve something in the next apocalypse; than it is a case of synergy between the various channels? That's something I'd like to gain some insight into before I start the next learning curve!
    very informative article John, but I'll need a couple more skims before it all sinks into this old brain ;-)

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  6. Gary

    Hi John, Thanks for this valuable post. Kindly provide alternative channels so that I will suggest my clients a better way to improve sales and profits.

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    • John Doherty

      Direct traffic (branding)
      Paid search

      Do these help?

  7. Dear John , Hats Off to you for creating a wonderful piece for understanding the Digital Marketing Trends and Trainst as well as putting forth valuable Tips for Small Business Entrepreneurs like me . As a Business Consultant and Entrepreneur , I feel that SME's do have financial constraints in the beginning but If they do the business planning and Strategic Planning ,there would a whole new picture for them . So , in this Regard , Organic Search will play major role for Marketing Needs of Small Business . Will be expecting more master pieces like these for the guidance of SME's and Entrepreneurs .

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  8. What is most, well, let's say dangerous about those changes are, ironically, SEO guys. To be more specific, SEO guys who refuse to adopt newer methods and cling on their ancient ones. It was not so long ago since I was offered 1,000 free directories registration, uh.
    It is quite important to do an actual research before hiring SEO guy. It can be tedious task, but nowhere as tedious as fixing the mess that some self-proclaimed professional did before. Personal experience, sadly. Anchor text diversification? Deep page links? Well, we received none of that. Be wary.

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  9. Rajesh Magar

    Completely agreed with you points and optimization or overall marketing tactics are going more complex and personalized. Which is heading lac of workload on we webmaster, what you think?

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  10. Rae

    I don't think the problem is so much that experienced SEOs don't know this as much as it is convincing clients of the above. SEOs know rank tracking isn't a reliable method of determining the value SEO has to the client (i.e. #1 in a SERP that looks like your hotels example above may not be as valuable as #2 in a SERP where Google hasn't invaded - then add in personalization, logged in vs logged out, cookies even when logged out, local packs, IP, G+ etc), but they still are focused on those ranks.

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    • John Doherty

      Thanks for the comment, Rae! I agree that experienced SEOs know this, and challenge then is to sell it in to clients and show them why rankings don't matter as much anymore (because of the reasons you outlined above), though they are still a good lead indicator (thus we still track them as best we can). Honestly, I've found it quite difficult to convince clients to focus on things outside of rankings, though when you show increases in the long tail that convert they have a hard time saying that what you are doing isn't valuable. This isn't to say you're not also increasing their head terms, but you're not focusing on that in your interactions thus they focus on it less.

      The endless circle of being a consultant :-)

  11. Yes! I have always figured anytime more than 50% of traffic starts to come from one source it is an indication more attention is needed cultivating the other sources. Regardless, a sure way to weather the changes is having a solid system for funneling traffic to email. Jon Morrow seemed to be an early adopter to removing the RSS feed from his sites and funneling visitors to email sign-up with great success. It is one of the few "sources" that you "own" and control. Take advantage of organic while banking for the future through email sign-up. Email seems to be pretty consistent throughout all of the changes, right? What do you think of think of that and the 50% guide?

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  12. Thank you for putting in to words what I have been seeing for the past couple of months.

    I am an in-house SEO Expert at an E-Commerce shop, SIMA Warehouse, increasing organic search is my bread and butter. The problem is that the number of tools in my arsenal have been cutaway by Google's Updates and I can no longer work on stand-alone SEO.

    I am continuously diving in to other areas to increase sales and justify my existence in this SME and I am certain that there are many others in this situation.

    I am having serious problems though.
    Social Media does not seem to be working for our customer base and I can also see competitors invest a large amount of time and effort in to it with very little results.

    Marketing emails can only be sent so often.

    The short term solution is to list more items on Amazon, Ebay and other channels but we are feeding the beast that will be our ultimate demise. The fees are high, the margins continuously getting smaller and they compete with you in the SERPS.

    So the big question is, what should an SEO invest their time in?

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    • John Doherty

      All depends on your business or client, Miguel! From an SEO perspective, it depends on your niche, but it could be different types of link building, content creation/outreach, involvement with communities online that will drive business (and make sure you're tracking it), etc.

      Also, you say you can only send marketing emails so often. True, to that audience. What if you build another list, like a daily roundup or something like that, to turn a new audience into brand advocates?

  13. Great post John! Love your insight and ability to look at SEO from the big picture perspective. I've found that best way to get clients to buy into a real digital marketing strategy is to build trust first. Once they trust you, they'll be more inclined to listen and do what you suggest. I guess this is easier if they're already a client though (my Inbound clients were already PPC clients). I've also found that the best way to get them to stop thinking about rankings is producing tangible results (ie leads, sales etc). When you can prove that rankings dont necessarily equate to sales or leads, then it becomes moot.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

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  14. Great article. This is very worrying for hotels and too many really dont understand exactly what this means- I created a video that shows exactly what is happening and what it means to hotels. Many small hotels, guest houses and apartment rentals have just dispapeared from first page listing in relative search results. It means a huge lost in bookings! see Hotels falling off of search with new Google Activity

    Thanks for the details - I will post this to my network and twitter.

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  15. John

    Google is constantly changing and updating it's algorithm. It does make it harder for SEO's to a certain strategy. These days there is no such thing as one strategy for optimizing a website we constantly have to adjust and adapt to the changes and stay a step ahead of Google. In my opinion and my experience with ecommerce website marketing is that you have to have solid research and an all around marketing strategy including a well built blog and social networks before ever even building the store. Build your brand awareness with your blog and social network distribution, let everyone know that you have your blog which your active in. Even if you go to the store to pick up some dinner, have business cards and strike up a conversation with the checker and the people in line.

    Once you have your blog and your niche product line, start with one product at a time and make it 100% unique and original as well as target a few keywords that pertain to the product that aren't ridiculously high in competition. Utilize long tail keyword phrases all in all they benefit your products and website in the SERP's.

    Make every single page on the website, product pages, category pages, sub-category pages and main pages 100% original and unique with well written content and on page optimization. This goes for image tags, urls, anchor text and so on.

    You can have 100's of thousands of backlinks to your site that will hurt your website way more than it will ever ever ever help it. You need to have high quality backlinks to your site and with Google and all of it's changes. the best way to gain high quality back links is by keeping up to date fresh relevant content. (Hints why the blog has so much importance for an ecommerce store) The more search engine ranking you obtain, the more authority your website builds, which then can and will lead to higher PR sites in your same industry wanting to link to you.

    All this information is from my experience with my clients. I've had 16 websites in the last 6 months that I have done this with and I was able to get them on the top 3 pages of Google under 100 - 350 keywords between 7 days to 1 month their traffic also went up 300 - 1500 visits and started seeing sales as well.

    This is all from my personal experience and wanted to share.

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  16. I think sometimes the problem is also a self preservation attitude - either personally or agency. What I mean by that is that if you are a "SEO Specialist" or a SEO Agency then you make your money doing SEO. Suggesting other channels or tactics may be viewed as self damaging on a personal or business level. But I'm a firm believer that a boss or client will be much happier with strategies that work regardless of what those might be rather than advocating only what you specialize in or make money from. So if it means that you are honest with them and SEO becomes a secondary focus I'd say we need to put revenue as the focus and let the cookie crumble as it might.

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  17. Yes..Google is killing the organic search results......Top 10 is not the target anymore now, Top 6 position could be on 2nd page.....especially for local business....Google place or google plus local is everywhere....Either to target Top 5 or Local SEO ..or we need do the SEO vertically..............Local..Mobile...Ecommerce....Youtube videos...depends on the niche or industry....the best way is to do "competition analysis" and "reverse engineering"....We need to follow the flow which is from Google, whatever it ranks well from the competitors, reverse it and do better than them!

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  18. Great article! Whether in nature or in business, adaptability means survival...and most don't. As for ROI? Revenue is obviously, and arguably, the best indicator. Social media will always be a challenge, but we are getting better at understanding and tracking ROI. Social media requires both a short and long term perspective. We are learning as we go and the individuals and companies who can think on their feet and adapt quickly will flourish; and, as in nature, those who cannot will go extinct.

    Again, great article with some very useful suggestions for future reading!

    Thanks John!

    Prof John P. J. "Jack" Zajaros, Sr.

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  19. Hey Jon - great post! Really great insights and I think you are spot on in terms of what the future of web marketing will bring

    I feel like the future of SEO is to grow more horizontally instead of vertically, and as you rightly mentioned that 'channel diversification' is key. When you look at this at macro level, I think marketing teams across Fortune 500 and Madison Ave need to evolve and figure out how to integrate channel specialists with generalists, who know how to deliver holistic digital marketing. However, the problem is that 'generalists' rarely come from the SEO world or know how to effectively integrate inbound channels.

    As a result, SEO is often identified as a 'tactic' taking up one slide, with something about keywords, in a 100-page digital strategy deck. As you said at SearchLove 'SEO is about effecting change, not pulling reports' - I would only add 'effecting change at a strategic decision-making.' For example, when decisions are made about which CMS to use or what the content strategy is. Otherwise, you get to a place when you need to optimize stuff that was built on a wrong platform and it is too late to effect change, or change the course.

    So, my point is that it is not only SEOs who need to learn other channels: content marketing, PR, social media, UX, media, and how things work together. It is also the other way around. CMOs and marketing executives need to learn SEO.

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  20. My biggest take away from this, and other recent articles is:
    Don't rely on Google for your websites success, or your income.
    Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

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