If you haven’t noticed, there have been a lot of articles circulating lately about “the death of organic search.” Half of these articles are dramatized accounts of SEOs impending irrelevance, while the other half are high-level tech-talks that discuss the future of machine learning. In between are everyday business owners who have invested in SEO services and are getting freaked out by all the chatter regarding the alleged dying out of SEO. To clear up some of the common confusion surrounding this topic, here’s a simplified overview of the main things you should know.

So, first thing’s first:

Where did all the death talk come from?

This topic stems from developments that have been made in machine learning and chatter about how it will affect organic search. To understand why people are talking about this, you first have to understand the role of machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) within Search.

A Brief Understanding of Machine Learning and AI

It used to be that keyword stuffing-in titles, headings, content, etc.-was enough to climb to a top ranking position because search engine algorithms started off pretty simple. But that quickly changed as search engines became more sophisticated and adept at spotting shady SEO practices, such as spammy link building or hidden text on web pages. Penguin 1.0 served as the initial game changer for what I’ll loosely refer to here as the ‘Old SEO’, and since then search engine algorithms and advancements have only made it more difficult to game the system.

Since then, search engines have become less focused on a set of simple factors and more concerned with an ongoing and comprehensive approach that commits to user experience. Now, ranking factors determine which sites provide users with the best experience and information (quality content, mobile-ready, fast page speed, easy to navigate site structure, etc.). That means digital marketers have had to get a whole lot more strategic and think holistically about quality and what their audience is most likely to find useful or interesting enough to engage with. So, in other words, there’s been a lot less faking it for SEO.

As a result of all this, search engines now develop and use machine learning AI systems as part of their algorithms to process search results. That’s part of why search has taken on a more natural tone as of late and why Google can guess what you’re searching for before you even finish typing it. It’s also why forcing keywords doesn’t work anymore and says a lot about the direction search is heading, which you can read more about in this awesome article by Jeremy Knauff. The point is that advancements in machine learning AI have changed how SEO works and how it will work in the future.

Connecting the Dots

I’m sure you’re wondering where the advancements of ranking signals and machine learning make the drastic jump to the death of organic search. In short, fear and predictions about shrinking organic space stem from developments implemented from machine learning and Google’s efforts to drive revenue through paid ads.

Basically, it goes like this: findings from machine learning AI systems are used to further improve user experienceàsearch engines adapt by modifying the layout and functions of their search experienceàthe results of machine learning are processed and prioritized in how search engines look and workàthe space for organic search results shrinks. Specifically, the space for organic search results is shrinking under things like more paid ads on top and carousels. Just in October, data showed that the number of traditional organic search results dropped from 10 to 8.5, and that is where the hype surrounding the death of organic search really takes off.

The Bottom Line

An important thing for digital marketers to understand is that as search engines get better at predicting user intent and what search queries will be, there are fewer opportunities to be viewed by users. Think of how voice search has evolved: when a user conducts a voice search, search engines pull the best result without user selection. And while all of this may not mean organic SEO is dying out completely, it certainly does mean it’s changing.


Also published on Medium.