Are SEOs Selling Out to Google?

Digital Rockstars

SEO gets more difficult. PPC is easier. Google opportunism pays. Are we following the mainstream, aka the path of least resistance?

For almost a decade I have compared SEO to getting a driver’s license, while PPC is like paying for a taxi each time you want to get somewhere.

Now imagine that just one company controls almost all taxis globally (well, with the exception of China and Russia). It’s buying so many taxis that there’s barely any room, let alone parking spaces, for other cars and drivers.

That’s where we find ourselves today. Google has made SEO so difficult for many industries (think travel, e-commerce) and has added so many ads above the fold that you barely see any real results anymore.

And that, of course, makes Google Adwords look more and more promising.

Most SEO practitioners actually offer both SEO and PPC services. I’ve always considered this a conflict of interest because it leaves you with two choices:

  • Don’t tell clients how to get Google traffic organically so you can earn money in PPC, or
  • Tell clients how and cannibalize your own business.

So what do we do now? Should we just give up altogether now and help Google get paid?

Beginning of the end for PPC?

Google can’t grow its revenue forever the way it has until now – it may grab the PPC agency business model as well. So you aren’t safe just trying to please Google to the maximum, though you may be able to postpone the inevitable. I’ve seen shopping search engines get knocked out that way and they were much more powerful than Internet marketers.

Some features of the Hummingbird algorithm update already foreshadow the end of PPC. Many search queries display neither search results nor ads. Think weather, sports results or dictionaries. Google just grabs the whole page for itself. There is no need for any other results or ads anymore in such cases.

Let’s just assume that Google will rule forever and you can piggyback on its success like many people in the industry seem to be doing now. Isn’t it still a bit problematic to sell out to Google, to say the least? What possible outcomes are there?

SEO + PPC + more budget

You can tell clients that you still offer SEO – but that it takes more time and a bigger budget to get decent results – while at the same time urging them to add PPC for instant traffic without having to change their sites.

Fast forward 12 months and you’re still working hard to get some value from the disappearing organic Google search results. Now your client gets a bit grumpy and impatient. When the trust is gone, your clients may quit your business relationship altogether – both SEO and PPC.

SEO + PPC + less budget

For this example, let’s assume that the scenario above somehow works during the first year and the results are OK. Long tail searches lead to sales, some generic rankings look good (at least if you block the ads) and branded searches go up as well because you have strengthened the branding aspects of your campaign too.

The logical thing for the client to do at this point would be to cut the temporary budget for Google Adwords and rely increasingly on organic traffic. This way you lose as well.

PPC only

This time, let’s say that you give up SEO from the start. You explain that “SEO is dead” and tell your clients they’ll have to buy Google Adwords instead to show up on Google’s first page.

How long will it take until Google either automates this or offers themselves the services PPC agencies are offering now? Google has to grow its revenue somehow, and lucrative processes run by middlemen are next to be overtaken by the mothership.

The bottom line

See the common thread here? The more dependent you become on Google’s whims, the less sustainable your business model is in the long run.

Why am I using the term “sell out” at all? For marketers, it doesn’t matter how you get the leads and sales as long as they arrive.

SEO gets more difficult. PPC is easier. Google opportunism pays. What I’m really asking is: Are we following the mainstream, aka the path of least resistance?

By selling out to Google and becoming dependent on its ads, you are actually speeding up that process.

It might appear harder today to get visitors via organic search or other channels than Google ads, but in the long run the businesses that still can pull in visitors from somewhere other than Google will prevail.

But don’t take it from me…

Now, some people have called me radical when it comes to Google criticism. Many more people have no problem whatsoever with PPC ads.

Personally, I don’t like working in advertising. I use ad blockers, and I don’t want to harass people with my sales messages.

Thus I decided to include opinions by some SEO and PPC experts I know. Let’s consider a few more “moderate” (or should I say opportunistic?) views from more down-to-earth marketers:

Krystian Szastok, SEO Manager who also blogs:

Krystian Szastok“Some of us who have been in SEO for 5 years+ and are still successfully delivering results and enjoy the changes won’t switch at this point.

Others who struggle with the changes and adaptation may very well get some PPC certifications and change careers. PPC always have been an easier path with the official training programs and certifications.

At the same time, I’m not saying there is no space for shining in the PPC sphere – many do, however I see it happening more at the strategic level. Which could really be applied to social or SEO as a content strategy idea.”

Paul Gailey Alburquerque, Digital Marketing Consultant who has a blog as well:

Paul Gailey“With more fragmentation and complexity than before, I wouldn’t say PPC is easier. It’s normally quicker, yes – but the user intent is different to all organic traffic, and obtaining qualified traffic does not equate to uninhibited conversion sales success anyhow. A pragmatic mix of both is OK, and for some sectors a necessity.

If SEOs are slaves ultimately to where the user is, they will serve them elsewhere, wherever they are searching. So if that means being visible in Google Now by being semantically optimized, then so be it.”

Martin MacDonald, Inbound Marketing Director for Expedia and well known former SEO blogger:

Martin MacDonaldSEO gets more difficult – Agreed, however I firmly believe that’s a good thing as it prevents the lowest common denominator legions of “crap SEO” sellers that exist these days.

PPC is easier – Don’t agree. I spend a lot of time working in paid search (at least as much as I do in SEO), and Adwords is infinitely more complex now than it was 4 or 5 years ago. Again, I think this is a good thing for the professional practitioner.”

Micah Fisher-Kirshner, Digital Marketing and Analytics Specialist for Balsam Brands, read more about Micah on his site.

Micah Fisher-Kirshner“Are SEOs selling out to Google? That ship long since sailed ever since Bing/Yahoo has basically dropped from parlance even when the two engines combined make up 30% of traffic.

I wouldn’t say PPC nor SEO is getting easier; both are getting more complicated (which could be more difficult, but not necessarily). Cases in point:

  • SEO is having to work with more areas of marketing/business in order to compete in the SERPs. Before it was just web results, now you need to deal with images, video, local, Google+, etc. in order to either rank, rank more of your results, or stand out better against your competitors. It’s not that it’s difficult to do those tasks, it’s that the work is now more complicated because you have to interact more with people in your organization.
  • PPC is undergoing some of those areas now, too, that SEO has had to deal with. Number of G+ followers? Shows up for your ads. Now they care about showing you have more followers than your competitor. Star ratings? Important to have. Reviews from customers in ads? Soon to be showing up, if not already. Even PPC has its split with PLAs that used to be free. Once again, these aren’t necessarily more difficult – just complicated, as they have to work with other departments to continue the success they’ve had in the past.”

Larry Kim, founder of WordStream, an Internet marketing software focusing on PPC. They have an excellent blog too.

Larry Kim“I don’t view this trend as SEOs “selling out.” In a battle between PPC and SEO, the winner is marketing. Meaning, having a more diverse skill set including PPC, SEO, social media, etc. is a huge professional differentiator – marketers would be wise to diversify their skill set beyond just SEO. As the great Rand Fishkin said earlier this year (and I’m paraphrasing here): we can’t just be SEOs anymore!”

Cartoon image courtesy of Digital Rockstars from Hit Reach

  • 3leaps

    And you might have missed the point that Google is no longer asking money to take its Adwords certification exam. You can take this exam as many times as you can without shelling out a single penny. But the analytics certification exam is still paid. Any idea why? 😛

    • Tadeusz Szewczyk

      Yeah, there is a myriad moves to push you into PPC, just consider Google Keyword Planner.

  • David Quaid

    At times like this, I like to remember this – and it should be a guiding for those who work in PPC, SEO, Social, Content -or- Growth hacking if you’re into the stack!

    The growth of searches per day has doubled in the past 3 years – its driving ahead unabated. Even if it slows, its at 410 million a day. Yes, there are 400 million tweets daily, as someone pointed out but look at this way:

    1. Every search is answered. Search is a query, tweet is content and sometimes query
    2. Google content is 40+ trillion pages
    3. Even if search stands still, slows to 1% – so what
    4. Google own 42% browser market share, 72% mobile. Google search is built into mobile
    5. Mobile search works same as desktop – nothing for SEO’s to fear
    6. Asia has more internet users than the US and EU. Africa and growing economies are going to mobile and they won’t go for Apple.

    Ta da!

    • Tadeusz Szewczyk

      Impressive stats indeed but what does this mean when Google grabs all the SERPs for themselves as happening with Adwords, shopping search and now hummingbird? Google grabs all organic traffic and controls it.

  • Ali Moghadam

    This is a great post :)

    I think I’d tend to agree with Larry Kim’s view – marketing is the winner. Selling out seems a bit of a harsh judgement – I say, do what works. The problem with SEO? A lot of pros killed the golden goose by force-feeding it spam – but the environment allowed for it at the time. The system was broken, it got gamed to all hell. It was never going to be sustainable.

    But I find a lot of old, “underhand” tactics still work, although it kind of depends on industry. Less competitive (read profitable) areas can still be found ranking for the keywords stuffed into their footer links. Cue small biz frustration. How do you explain – “We’re doing everything right, what Google says to do, but we’re nowhere further” – it’s a bit hard to swallow. Knowing the PPC angle will work, and fast, is a lot more attractive.

    I think we can still make it all work. But all the spam needs to stop – you want wins? There are ways! Social media and content marketing have become bywords for boring and bland. IF you’re brave and completely devoted, you absolutely will prevail. But you need to stop being precious about everything. If you’re fading into obscurity, consider the paths to redemption as more than just gaming your way to the top again – or paying Google for the privilege.

    • Tadeusz Szewczyk

      Yes, that’s true. Luckily PPC is not the only alternative.

  • Reginald


    Thanks for sharing. I don’t do much PPC but for SEO, it is definitely getting tougher!

    We are all changing (or halfway there) and you got to! If you dont change in terms of SEO, chances is you are going to be ‘drown’ in the flow.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Tadeusz Szewczyk

      It’s also the question how you change!

  • Gerry White

    I am starting to re-brand myself as a technical marketer – I know how to do all the geeky bits around a site that used to be the realms of the SEO guy – SEO isn’t dead, its just evolved…. it will continue to a point that it won’t be recognisable. PPC is a copmletely different skill set.

    • Tadeusz Szewczyk

      Yeah, but there are lots of real marketers out there you have to compete with then.

  • Stoney deGeyter

    Tad, The initial premise of “two choices” is complete bunk.
    “Don’t tell clients how to get Google traffic organically so you can earn money in PPC, or Tell clients how and cannibalize your own business.”

    I’m not sure why anyone would pass up SEO money in favor of PPC money. If a client has a $10k budget, I’d personally rather have that full $10k than give Google 80-90% for ad spend.

    Secondly, running both PPC and SEO does not cannibalize business. It enhances both. I agree with those that say PPC isn’t easy. Sure, it can be, but doing it right is extremely complex. If you want to run unprofitable PPC, then do it the easy way. If you want to maximize profits, do it right.

    SEO being hard is no reason to cut and run. But really, SEO is no harder, it just takes more marketing to get results. It’s not about “SEO” anymore, but about engaging in multiple inline marketing channels at the same time. All are needed. On-page optimization is still viable, but it no longer stands alone.

    • Tadeusz Szewczyk

      The point is there is no choice at all by now. Either you do PPC or you don’t show up on page one above the fold at all in most lucrative cases. When I started out in SEO almost 10 years ago there still was a choice and there were real results in the visible screen area.

  • John David


    I am doing SEO for last 4 years. I did PPC also. But my view in this is SEO is interesting to do and to get visible results.