#Asia No, SEO industry is not in the death throes yet

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According to SEO expert Dan Clarke, with the proliferation of mobile apps, a sound SEO strategy is required to get your brand to the top of the Google search page

There can perhaps be no better indication of the rise of the mobile web than the announcement, earlier this year, that Google now receives more searches from mobile devices than desktop.

Many, including well-respected institutions such as Forbes, have opined for years that the SEO (search engine optimisation) industry was in its death throes, and that “SEO will be dead in two years”, often citing the decline of the desktop browser and rise of the mobile web as one of the nails in the SEO industry’s coffin.

It’s easy to see why these opinions form and take hold. Google shot to prominence in the age of the desktop and looked on idly as Apple stole its lunch in the mobile space, and Facebook usurped it in the social space. Once Apple launched Siri, some scaremongers decried it as the ‘death knell of SEO.’

Many of the classic uses for Google — checking football scores, stock prices, getting directions, etc. — seemed like they would soon be entirely eclipsed by Apple’s soft-spoken silicon servant.

For those in tech and media that have long viewed SEO with disdain, these developments were welcomed with a warm dose of schadenfreude. Having been in the SEO space for close to a decade, I have to say that I’ve seen more than my fair share of SEO is dead articles, yet somehow the industry still seems to grow at a rapid pace each year.

Just building a great MVP is not enough

With all of these diverse views on the state of the industry, it is easy to see why many founders dismiss SEO as part of their marketing and growth strategy. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of app- and mobile-centric companies. Conventional wisdom, mostly among the first-time founders, holds that the route to success with an app is fairly simple:

  • Build an awesome app
  • People fall in love with it
  • App gathers millions of users
  • Sell the company to a large tech giant
  • Leading to profit

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After all, that’s what WhatsApp, Instagram and Vine did, right? I’m sure the phone will ring any day now with Google offering you a few hundred million dollars for your “Tinder for Cats” app.

However, the successful outliers in the industry belie the actual state of the market. When you think about it critically, from a technical point of view, WhatsApp isn’t a revolutionary app, neither is Instagram, nor Vine. These are all apps that are easily replicated, the technical barrier to entry is low, and yet they were sold for billions of dollars. The value then lies not in the app itself or the idea, but the execution and more specifically the users.

If we cast our mind back a few years, we can recall another tech vertical that was not technically revolutionary was easily replicated, and had a low barrier to entry. Back in the summer of 2011, I worked in the SEO arm of Groupon at the time called the ‘Fastest Growing Company Ever‘, which eventually listed on the New York stock exchange for US$17.8 billion. Not because it was the first and not because the technology was the best, but because it understood the value of user acquisition and executed that with ruthless efficiency.

At its core, after you distill the essence of what makes a multi-million dollar tech company, you can see SEO will undoubtedly continue to evolve and change, but never “die”.

With apps, this conclusion can be seen directly in the stories of successful and unsuccessful apps as told by their developers. A survey in 2012 showed:

“What separates the fortunate from the failed? According [sic] App Promo, the amount of time and money spent on marketing products is one key difference between the two groups. Developers whose apps earned at least US$50,000 spent an average of 14 per cent of their total work time on publicity and had average marketing budgets of US$30,000. More than half the overall group, meanwhile, earmarked nothing for marketing and used less then [sic] five per cent of their time on that aspect of the business.” – Mashable

A holistic digital marketing strategy includes SEO

A proper, holistic, digital marketing strategy, it seems, is perhaps the core difference between developing a successful app and being another failed idea. Which is some sage advice that many startup founders rail against and bemoan, but would be wise to heed.

Recently, I ran a survey among my Facebook friends to understand how they interact with and discover new apps to download. Of the respondents, just shy of 80 per cent said that they found new apps to download by searching the app name directly in the app store – confirming that they had become aware of the app by some other marketing channel.

This is the classic marketing catch 22 scenario: “Nobody is using our app because nobody knows about our app. Nobody knows about our app because nobody is using our app.”

When asked if they would be more or less likely to download an app if it could not be found on Google, Facebook, or Twitter, over 80 per cent suggested they would be less likely to download it.

Whilst the above seems to suggest that focussing on marketing is required in order to drive awareness of your app and kickstart downloads, the story does not end there. Unless you have aspirations of being the MySpace of the app world, you are going to have to find a way to keep the users that you have managed to acquire.

When asked what they would do if they had an issue with an app, over 90 per cent of those surveyed responded that they would, “Google the app name to look for resolution”, with the remaining 10 per cent split between, “Ask a friend to look for resolution” and “Search Twitter for the app name to look for resolution”.

Disgruntled users who are unable to find a resolution for their troubles can quickly take the wind out of the sails of your app’s marketing with a barrage of negative reviews and comments.

Like it or not, a coherent marketing and branding strategy is the lifeblood of any startup in the first few difficult and formative years. For the most part, a solid SEO strategy will get you 90 per cent of the way to the goal line.

In conclusion

Detailed nuances of modern SEO aside, it is essentially just one very simple pursuit: Putting the content you want your users to see, when they want to see it, where they are looking for it. Your potential targets could be people you want to convert into users or existing users who want more information or help. If you can put yourself where they are and when they are looking for it, you’ll go far.

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Whilst Google continues to command around 80 per cent of the global search market, startups will continue to be forced to dance to its tune, or languish undiscovered, unloved, and ultimately unremembered. Google has shown its responsiveness to adapt to the evolving market, quite readily, whether it is with the “Mobilegeddon” update earlier this year, or its shift to indexing of mobile apps in its search results. As one might expect, the SEO industry continues to evolve and adapt in line with Google’s updates to stay relevant and deliver results.

With the proliferation of apps and startups that seems never-ending, competition for a seat in the top pages of Google is more intense than ever, meaning that the importance of having a solid SEO strategy is also more important than ever.

So, when people tell me, “SEO is dead in the age of apps”, I have to smile and think, “Nope, it’s more important now than ever”.

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at writers[at]e27[dot]co

Image Credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

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