How the SEO Bubble Will Pop

Ian Lurie

bubble small
I just realized we’re in an SEO bubble. There’s been an explosion of SEO consultants, companies, books, conferences, etc.. Everyone’s cashing in.
Then, of course, I did some checking and noticed I’m about 6 months behind other bloggers who pointed this out in late 2007.
So, I thought I’d fast forward a bit, and ponder how this lovely, cash-filled bubble will eventually pop. I have three theories. Let me know what you think:

The Slow Meltdown

As more and more companies move their SEO practices in-house and SEO techniques become common knowledge (cough), SEO firms will find fewer large clients. The bigger agencies will either adapt and learn to work with many smaller accounts or die.
Why I’m right: More companies are moving their SEO teams in-house.
Why I’m wrong: I recently spoke to someone who thought you could pay someone at Google to rank #1 in the organic rankings. He didn’t hire me because he thought I was a moron. Clearly, we’re in no danger of SEO becoming ‘common knowledge’.

The Sudden Extinction

A severe economic crisis so hampers corporate marketing budgets that they slash everything, driving us poor SEOs out of business. By the time everyone picks up their heads (and wallets) again, other marketing possibilities exist. SEO is less relevant, and I end up running a bicycle shop.
Why I’m right: Haven’t you read William Gibson? The end times are upon us!
Why I’m wrong: In 1929, the Great Depression killed many agencies. But many others survived, flourished and are still around today (if a bit crusty). Even our current President can’t kill the economy as badly as the Depression did. So I don’t think we have to worry about this one.

A Tough Adolescence

The industry shakes out. While many rip-off artists stick around, even more go away. Competent individuals move to agencies or continue as consultants. Corporations become smarter consumers of our services.
Why I’m right: This is already happening. Internet marketing and SEO are in their adolescence. It’ll last a little longer. But our clients are increasingly savvy, and they won’t tolerate lousy results or service for long.
Why I’m wrong: I’m not wrong on this one. In spite of some spectacular examples of ripoff artists making it big, they’re getting caught, too. The industry is slowly, painfully coming of age.

What do you think?

Am I nuts? Are we headed for a horrific crash? Should I go take a bike mechanic refresher course?…

Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. There are always doom-mongers, but I think #3 is the likely scenario. I find it hard to believe that marketing forms as ROI-driven and measurable as SEO, PPC etc would just die off unless something better comes along to replace them.
    In economic lean times it’s more likely that fuzzier forms of marketing (like TV and radio ads) would suffer.
    A shake out every now and then is healthy, if it gets rid of muppets and rip-off artists. The real pros are still around -stronger then ever – when things bounce back.

  2. Here’s why I think you’re off target on everything.
    85% of websites aren’t optimized. There’s a lot of biz out there with people that are still afraid of SEO or have been burned by some blackhat.
    I probably send out 6 SEO proposals a week. I still think we’re in the infancy stage…
    Don’t listen, watch and guage for yourself.

  3. I don’t think it will pop. As long as there are people out there trying to get rich off of the internet, there will always be a high demand for SEO. I would also take a low risk bet that there are far more new people going online trying to make money than there are new SEO experts.

  4. Having worked now for two small Internet Marketing agencies, I can tell you first hand that there are at least two agencies out there who have no idea what they’re doing with SEO but claim to be experts. I’ve also interviewed and had some interaction with a few other agencies enough to see how they’re doing business.
    Bottom line: they suck. I can’t say they ALL suck, but a very high percentage, at least from my experience (which is, I admit, not the widest sample), suck eggs. They’re sales-driven, not results-driven. “Get the signature on the line, we’ll worry about results later.”
    Workhorses like me (poor, poor me) take on the burden of results while the sales force is rewarded for selling…well, nothing. They’re selling thin air. Or the promise that “we’ll get you to the top of Google.”
    The clients 90% of the time aren’t seeing results worth the paper the bogus “ranking reports” are printed on.
    I’ve got a big blog post brewing in me on all this.
    The Snake Oil SEO salesman is no joke. I’ve sat with him and shared lunch. And somehow, I got stuck picking up the tab.
    Back to your topic – any shake up of the SEO industry is welcome from my standpoint. It’s high time someone crashed this party, pissed on this bank parade.
    Sure, there are plenty of sites that need to be optimized from a coding and architectural standpoint. But where clients are getting royally screwed is on the “monthly maintenance” packages. Residual income for one party – a fat, nasty leach for the other.

  5. Slow, sudden or tough? How about a fourth choice… giving business away to agencies like ours who understand that technical perfection with the added costs on the margin just aren’t in the cards for most mid sized companies?
    We are an honest hard working ad and pr agency not an SEO firm. Working with client restricted “total all-in” marketing budget caps, it is rare for us to be able to allocate line item funds equal to what outside silo vendors quote us as “needs” to do a good job.
    To make sure our mid sized companies are at least in the game, we defended ourselves by developing a blend of practical experience with SEO/SEM, Adwords, email… to be mixed in a campaign with traditional ad and pr.
    Definitely not as good as the pros but our clients keep growing and we grow with them.

  6. Great post Ian,
    I agree with you & Alex, it’ll shake itself out & the right people (for the most part) will survive. I think as our clients (& prospects) become more edumacated about their options, how google works, why a decent site is so important etc, they will ask better & better questions beforing hiring an SEO consultant.

  7. @Stan What really matters is a commitment to help your client. Sounds like you’ll be there after the dust settles.

  8. The SEO Bubble is just a small part of the much larger Web 2.0 bubble, which will burst like every other bubble. As soon as people started saying things like “making money isn’t important, it’s about getting attention” the end was on its way. In 1999 they were talking about how “eyeballs were more important than revenue.”
    It took a few years to recover from the bursting of the Web 1.0 bubble, but the companies that made it were much stronger. The same will be true of this bubble too.
    Just don’t get confused like the people in 1998 that thought a php programmer 1 year out of college was _supposed_ to be making $120K/year. That job as a barista will hurt even more if you convince yourself that times are always supposed to be this good.

  9. SEO as we’ve known it will always have it’s place to some degree, at least on the technical side. At the same time, it is the nature of SEO to change.
    True, more companies are bringing SEO in-house and interactive/PR and Ad agencies are building up SEO practices. However, with the billable hours accountability, there’s not much room for the kind of experimentation, testing and insights that can be afforded by a specialist agency/consultant.
    Also, companies with bloated budgets that have relied on traditional online advertising are looking for more cost effective tactics and SEO flavored content marketing falls very well into that category.
    A declining interest is evident in some categories, but in others, it’s a real boom time, not a bubble popping time for search.

  10. I not sure what is going to happen as all of this is reliant upon the market becoming educated just enough to see the value of SEO and appreciate the ethics of those who do have their best interests at heart.
    Unfortunately, I just don’t see this happening. Over the years I’ve seen clients time and time again get their heads turned around by fast, cheap and easy solutions that only serve to take advantage of what they don’t know (and don’t want to make the effort to understand).
    All the comments above the majority of us have promoted consistently and still I am challenged on a regular basis as to the reality of SEO vs. the “programs” and quick fixes offered by some.
    Do these clients learn their lesson when they throw good money after bad? Nope… The expense involved and the knowledge acquisition necessary to make proper SEO decisions — for the long haul — keep a great majority always looking for the next best thing.
    I think the bubble that will pop are those who are simply not up to the challenge of what successfully doing business online requires of each of us.

  11. poop.. Lee Odden beat me to it… the voice of reason as usual.
    no need to repeat what he is saying..
    but i work at an advertising and PR firm that has Internet Marketing/ORM/DAO/SMO/SMM/SEO functions..
    SEO is leading the horse to the water.. the key is making them drink.. (i.e. bounce rate).
    There is a lot of dis-information out on the “interwebs” that in-house SEOs will use and ultimately fail using.. however those frims/agencys, etc.. that understand the long-term concept of SEO along with the fluidity of change in SEO and the ability to experiment, just not on client’s sites.. will succeed.

  12. Ian —
    I think you missed what I consider to be the most likely scenario: that at some point, SEO best practices become so “baked in” to web development projects and content management systems that SEO as a separate discipline, as we know it today, simply vanishes. Just as every computer now comes with anti-virus software, a firewall, anti-spyware and spam-blocking software already installed, eventually SEO will “come with” every new website.
    SEOs are best advised to have a diversified skillset, methinks.

  13. @Tom Pick
    I agree that the technical aspects of SEO: site crawlability, inclusion of important elements, SEO-friendly content management systems, and so forth will be baked into web development (at least for smart companies). It still takes a human being to figure out what keywords best drive a given business, the strategy for creating and arranging content around those keywords, and how best to channel new visitors into a successful conversion. Once you have been in the industry a while, it seems fairly elementary, but if you’ve ever trained people on SEO, it definitely takes a while for people to wrap their heads around this mode of thinking and “get it.”

  14. I probably would not have commented, but I would like to echo Tom’s sentiment about the “baked in” projects. Just looking at the plug-ins for my WordPress blog or Firefox, I could easily get the impression that I have my SEO needs covered. Fortunately, I am just smart enough to know that I do not. Unfortunately, I am in an industry suffering from revenue at the moment (real estate), so I look to these options to reduce my costs. Some of my colleagues though feel that they can handle all of their own SEO needs, so they go happily on with their plug-ins.
    It is interesting to note that larger traditional RE firms do not put much effort into SEO, yet they have the funds. Trulia and Zillow outperform ReMax and others.

  15. There will always be in-house SEO and SEO agencies. I do agree that SEO agencies should look beyond the biggest clients. The real fall-out will be for consultants that are trying to make a quick buck and give SEO a bad name.

  16. As someone doing the “complete Online Marketing Solution” I’m going to be happy having clients becoming more educated about SEO – it will allow the SEO objectives become more ROI oriented… (Not about ranking, but rather about Traffic vs. Sales vs. ROI, and not just “#1 on fanciest keyword”)
    Yes, there are more people jumping on the “SEO bandwagon”, and traditional SEO may be dead. Additionally, Web designers are becoming more SEO savvy.
    Additionally, most design Firms that I work with already do a decent amount of on-site optimization.
    1)Yet (from personal experience) there’s still so many CEO’s that haven’t been taught about SEO (or PPC or Affiliate Marketing).
    2) The proportion of budget invested in traditional media vs. online marketing is only set to edxpand.
    3)The local search industry is still in it’s infancy (no standards, even more misinformation, and the lack of budget)
    All in all, the closest approximation is #3 – that we’re in for a tough adolescence. I don’t think it’s adolescence though. We’re still in childhood. Everything is still topsy turvy – and it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time 🙂

  17. While there are still programmers churning out blog, forum, and content management systems that are totally unoptimised, with poor crawlability, poor on-page document structure, vague IA, and multiple duplicate content issues, there will always be a market for people to fix them up. I’m not sure how long these processes will take to be “baked in” but at the current rate of progress I am guessing that it will be a very long time.

  18. Great discussion! It’s amazing how this whole SM thing can take you to places you’ve never been and find topics like this, ooh-rah!
    The only Bubble that will be popping will be the heads of those who don’t catch up with the rest of us. Come on now, it’s not 1999 anymore!
    SEO has evolved and continues to do so at an accelerated rate. Technology improvements have changed the meaning of that initialism considerably over the years.
    In the end, we’re all Internet Marketing Consultants. SEO is just one subset of our skillset.
    BTW, it’s the programmers who we need to watch out for. I’ve been training quite a few of them and when we’re done, they don’t need no stinkin’ SEO anymore. 🙂

  19. Anything or person who resists change and fails to adapt will disappear.
    SEO’s collectively have already demonstrated their ability to evolve, and I would hope not too many of them are afraid of the industry bubble popping.

  20. I don’t think it will pop. Everything is found through search, and someone will need to optimize it. Yes, I agree with you about consulting, especially being a consultant myself.

  21. Wow, so many comments that I barely made it through half of them, great work Ian!
    A few people mentioned the “agency” approach and that is a good idea. Offering more than just SEO will always help shield you from industry trends. Besides, it is never good to put all of your eggs in one basket!
    As far as in house team go, I laugh at every one of them! Think about it, is it better to have an entire team/agency of 10-30 people that can brainstorm about your issues OR is it better/cost effective to hire a staff of 1-3 at $50k/yr+ each? Duh! Plus when you stare at the same site all day everyday you start to miss things and it all blends together. You will need an outsider’s perspective to REALLY see what your site/campaign needs.
    In house teams can be great but you still need an audit from an outside agency from time to time.

  22. While I agree with your sentiment in #1 that people are slowly catching on to how SEO works, this isn’t a bad thing for competant agencies.
    Companies always outsource, everything from cleaning and IT to sales and marketing. Why should SEO be any different. Some will take things in house, many others will continue to outsource.
    We spend a lot of our time educating our clients on how we work. Clients that ‘get it’ are far easier to work with that ones that don’t. Having a client list of people that understand what you do would be a some kind of blissful utopia.
    The only people that should be worried about clients having a greater understanding of SEO are the con artists who feed off of the lack of knowledge.

  23. I’ve been an in-house for my entire career at this point, and I must say that many companies are better off having in-house than external agencies doing the bulk load of the SEO work.
    I’ve gone through multiple audits from external sources, even the so-called audit/analysis team from overseas, and sure they were great at picking out all the mishaps and problems, because that was the easy part of the whole SEO process, yet when it came down to the actual implementation and executions of various strategies and tactics, they would not have imagined all the red tapes and internal problems that only exist in an in-house environment.
    Alot of time while sitting through the so-called audit result conference call or presentation, I could only laugh when they simply presented everything that I already knew, and I was so tired to explain to those cocky presenters who thought they were better because they could identify the faults and errors that the problems exist not that we didn’t know about them, but because there were limitations that prevented us from acting upon it at that time.
    Trust me, in-house SEOs tend to perform better because they actually understand the corporate culture and are able to build upon relationships with other stake holders, which outside agencies have no such luxury nor drive to do so.

  24. Just one quickie that hasn’t been said:
    People bringing SEO in house is not a good reason – there are still only 10 results on page 1 so if your in house isn’t great at breaking the top 10 for your most important terms it doesn’t matter that they are in or out house they are not effective, you know?
    The beauty is that SEO is a lot like beachfront property, there’s only 10 spots and most people don’t go past the first page, a few will go to page 2, as a result you can have all the SEO’s outsourced and in house you want, the best should rise to the top.
    Here are my top 10 questions you should ask before taking SEO in house.

  25. Personally I don’t see the SEO bubble popping. Granted its been said we are in a recession, but at Beanstalk SEO we are doing record sales (Dave Davies my boss spoke on SEO and recessions at SMX Advanced). What I’ve actually observed is as the economy gets tighter and tighter people are turning to SEOs to make sure they are positioned at the top of the market to avoid what typically happens to small businesses during these times.
    As for in house SEOS big companies are always interested in doing things like these but its only cost effective for the elite few, and even then some businesses with in house SEOS are missing out of the advantages of hiring a team vs and individual, a pool of knowledge is better then a puddle.

  26. I spoke to a perspective client that thought SEs indexed things alphabetically… Which is why he had registered his domain beginning with the letters “AAA”…

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  28. I see what you mean with the SEO bubble, but I still think we have a long way to go since mostly everyone I talk to still has no clue what it is I do for a living.
    Great post though Ian and I look forward to checking out the rest of your blog.

  29. lorne, agreed. very few get it. i also disagree, i dont think the SEO bubble has burst – i think it will take a major change from google to put us out of business (like yahoos search placement pro).

  30. I had to chuckle when I came across this article that is now over two years old that talks about the bubble bursting.
    Although it was a bold prediction, knock on wood it hasn’t happened. What I have experienced is that so many self appointed “experts” came out and floundered, it opened the doors for people who actually know what they are doing. I would have predicted (and incorrectly I might add) that companies would be turned off by getting burned once or twice and it would have closed the door. But what I find is that clients see some of their competition having successes and realize they just went with the wrong company/person. They know want proof that you can deliver.
    So if you can deliver, there still seems to be a pond full of fish just waiting…and for each successful engagement you have, it usually leads to two more “referrals” by satisfied clients. So for all of those self-appointed “experts,” keep selling snake oil so you make the legitimate SEO folds look even better.

  31. Interesting discussion. I don’t think it will pop though. The lousy practitioners will fall out, and the rest will have more opportunities than ever…

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