SEO is Dead. Long Live OAO.

9 tips for implementing online audience optimization strategies now. 


For content publishers, search engine optimization—which we’ve all come to know as SEO—is dead. Rising from its ashes is OAO—online audience optimization.

SEO was the art and science of creating web pages that generated traffic and high rankings in the search engines. It relied on keywords, links, page rank, and site structure to work its magic, and it has always been a bit of a moving target for webmasters. Search engines, wishing to stay ahead of SEO spammers who might use the knowledge to game the system, have kept their algorithms secret, constantly tweaking them to prevent their exploitation.

As publishers have gotten more sophisticated in their online presence, they have chafed under perceived restrictions of optimizing pages for search. The use of keywords in content has seemed at times antithetical to good journalism. Keeping Google and its cohorts in mind when creating web content has seemed to some like pandering. And the spammy tactics of less-reputable SEO wizards casts a sleazy pall over the entire process.

Enter OAO
OAO is the collection of techniques that online content publishers use to rise above the pack of sales sites, catalog sites, or sites that live through shady SEO practices, generating cheap clicks that cause unwary web surfers to stumble upon their pages. OAO allows online publishers to leverage their greatest assets—their wealth of high-quality content—to create a consistent web-wide presence, and generate consistent new and repeat visitors. OAO uses the best practices of SEO, along with social media, content sharing, engagement mechanics and branding, to build and optimize loyal and targeted audiences for online content publishers.

OAO is an emerging discipline, but savvy publishers can begin to put its elements in place in their online strategies right away. Here are some tips to get you started:

1.     Focus on the brand. Sharpen up your editorial mission and communicate it. Words and phrases that are important to the brand should be shared with your webmaster, your social media strategist, and your SEO team. Every phrase used by them in headings, captions and anchor text should display dual relevancies: to the searcher and to the product.

2.     Be consistent and clear about your strategy and purpose, both online and offline. If your print product is serious and practical, your online presence can be playful and whimsical—but everyone involved must understand the reason. Is your online audience different from your offline one? Do you have different goals for your site versus your print product? And if so, how is the duality managed? Where do the approaches dovetail?

3.     Cast a wide net. Today, social media provides one of the strongest correlations with high search engine rankings. Build out your presence on social media and content sharing sites, but focus especially on Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

4.     At the same time, cast a targeted net. Your goal is not to bring the maximum number of visitors to your site. It is to capture potential audience members. Working to increase site traffic is pointless if the visitors who land on the site don’t stay. With that in mind, search for and connect with those people who need the content that your site offers. Stay away from empty promises in both SEO and SEM.

5.     Encourage audience participation. Time on site and bounce rate are two of the main indicators that search engines use to evaluate sites and, hence, two of the main factors for site searchability. There are few metrics more significant in building and maintaining your audience and your presence in the search engines. Build audience engagement through polls, quizzes, reader-submitted content, sharing and comments.

6.     Employ engagement mechanics and gamification techniques. You don’t have to put games on your site to use the techniques that make games so rich, immersive and interactive. While points, badges and leader boards make up the the low-hanging fruits of gamification, they represent only a beginning to the engagement mechanics publishers can build into their sites to encourage audience participation and build site interactivity.

7.     Integrate your mobile strategy. Optimize your mobile and desktop sites, not only for search engines, but for social sharing, local and national apps, and personal assistants.

8.     Don’t obsess about keyword density. Practices having to do with keyword density are increasingly irrelevant, and in fact can result in content that looks like spam to the new Google updates. In keeping with Google’s long-time strategy, the search engine’s recent updates look, above all, for the natural use of language in web content. Use your keywords in your titles and captions, and don’t worry so much about using them in the body of the text.

9.     De-emphasize metatagging. It’s been a long time since Google took those tags seriously, and from a Google-centric point of view there isn’t much point in them today. (However, don’t abandon metatagging entirely—as other search engines will still pay attention to tag contents). The exception is the description metatag, which still has a role to play.

OAO integrates effectively with all the media strategies of online publishers. It enables them to do the thing that continues to be of paramount importance—to build an ongoing relationship with their audience members.

57 Responses to “SEO is Dead. Long Live OAO.”

  1. Ed Coburn

    For content marketers SEO may not be what it used to be, but for publishers SEO remains the vitally important activity it has always been. I realize the appeal of being the person to coin a new label or acronym so good luck with pushing your OAO concept. But it’s still about SEO for publishers and the statement that SEO is dead is simply not consistent with the facts. For legitimate publishers with authoritative content, SEO (which encompasses social, link referrals, PR, etc.) remains at the core of publishers’ marketing strategy.

    • Michael Campos

      Linda, great piece! And Ed, when you take into consideration that Google is now encrypting all keyword data (meaning you’ll get [unknown keyword] or [not provided] in your Analytics dashboard) as well as updating to the Hummingbird algorithm, it makes little sense to pursue “SEO” and “SEM” tactics, which, for our purposes (and Linda, please correct me if I’m wrong) refers to link wheels, spam, and other technical tricks to “game” the algorithm (all of which are “black hat” tactics). Hummingbird’s got extra-special sensors to sniff out spammy tactics, and sites who have been successful at it will start to see harsh penalties.

      Now, you said something that interests me: “For legitimate publishers with authoritative content, SEO (which encompasses social, link referrals, PR, etc.) remains at the core of publishers’ marketing strategy.”

      The keywords there are “authoritative content”. Thus, without the “authoritative content” piece, the SEO piece doesn’t matter. When you create high-quality, helpful and authoritative content, then of course you drive organic SEO through social media, inbound links, PR, etc. And I think this is what Linda’s trying to get across — it’s about the content, which serves a duty to readers first and foremost. Now, of course we want to apply SEO best practices according to the Google Webmaster recommendations (meta descriptions, alt tags in images, accurate title and H1 tag, etc.), but that’s basic common sense.

      Write content for human readers first, then garnish with elements to make it digestible for bots/crawlers.

      The main point here is using content as the centerpiece to build your marketing foundation. You cultivate an audience by creating content they enjoy and find useful. By all means deploy social marketing and PR to help attract attention, and optimize page elements to make it easier for bots to index, but don’t make your priority to rank #1 on Google via spammy, deceitful methods.

      When you create awesome content, the traffic will come naturally.

      • Lolno

        Sorry Michael, but you’re assuming that everyone who utilizes seo (do you even know what it is) engages in spam tactics which simply is not true. Most dedicated seo’s are and have been well aware that quality content brings in visitors and keeps bringing them back.

        And are you trying to say that just because google webmaster tools suggests a common practice, that serp rankings will automatically improve? Because meta-descriptions don’t even get factored into the SERPs.

      • Matthew

        I disagree entirely. OAO sounds like a nice little buzzword that ultimately refers to quality SEO. Sure, SEO could refer to the practice of spamming and blackhatting the system, but the Google guidelines for quality SEO have been in place for a long time now. Nothing has changed.

        Creating quality on the web is what ethical SEO has always been about. And yes, Google has removed quite a lot of information from analytics and has updated its algorithms. The only people complaining about it are those who should be penalised for it. Besides, that data is still available if you have any idea how to use your tools properly.

    • Joseph Mas

      Nice article and good points raised, but it seems to be saying SEO is useless while putting emphasis on content delivery. However, content delivery will not happen if it is never seen due to lack of technical SEO (which will keep you off page 1 in SERPs).

      The term is coined OAO or online audience optimization. BUT… without SEO there will be no audience. Cart before the horse maybe in this context.

  2. Jessica M.

    Great article! I’m studying online marketing and SEO right now in my post-grad and OAO hasn’t been mentioned (yet, I guess). Thanks for the helpful info!

    • James

      After 17 years in the computer science world, I finally finished my degree. The point is my degree is based on software that is 7 years old. Congrats on your post-grad but at my school we finalized our projects on old technology not the new stuff

  3. christopher beeker

    Great article, Linda! It’s all happening, just as you’ve said, right before our eyes. Well, apparently, not before every ones eyes! Pretty soon it will be the norm. Thank you for your rich insights.

  4. Catherine Willems

    I tend to agree with Ed – call it OAO if you want, but we’re still fundamentally talking about SEO. It, like anything in the online world, is constantly evolving. If you’re doing proper SEO then you should always be focused on the audience and making sure your content speaks to them. But the ultimate goal – whether you call it SEO or OAO – is to get the right people to your site. And that means optimizing where you appear in search engine results.

    • Nimbod

      Catherine, SEO – Search Engine Optimization. You can’t be “focused on the audience” when the idea behind SEO is writing for bots.
      “whether you call it SEO or OAO”. That is the problem – you MUST separate the two. one is focused on people, the other on bots. once you get it, the rest will fall into place. if you say that OAO and SEO are the same, then you are running in the same spot.

  5. Yanito Freminoshi

    Very interesting read, but call it whatever 3 letter acronym that you like, it is still tweaking you website so that it shows up higher on GOOGLE – which is a search engine.

  6. Hashim Jamal

    @linda, its indeed a great article. However, whatever you had mentioned about is to provide a great content and publish it online. This is what exactly a real SEO does. Whatever suggestions you gave to achieve that awesome content, its all in focus of search engines only. So, ultimately, whatever you named this technique, its still SEO (Search Engine Optimization) only. You write natural content with adding your keyword on content title, make it available for social share, using meta tags, aligning offline with online strategy… everything cares search engines only.
    Still, i agree that the name “SEO” became so spammy because of fake agents, its better to go with a new name like a branding!!! Still, same product in a new cover …. :)

  7. Dave Young

    You’ve found the magical phrase to raise the ire of an SEO specialist! Great job! I’ve been telling our customers for 2 years that if their SEO firm isn’t suggesting original, authoritative content, that they need a new SEO firm. The problem is, most SEO firms aren’t set up to produce authoritative content on behalf of their clients. They can only point them to ghostwriters or suggest that they make time to write. Well, that just isn’t effective for busy experts. We take a different view and are able to help them create the content they would have created, if only they had time to write. It’s not cheap, but it is effective.

    Keep it up! You’ve got their attention!

  8. India

    You are simply putting a new label on content marketing. And I strongly disagree that SEO is dead. Every content marketer (and SEO practitioner who is at all up-to-date in his education) knows that without audience appeal, you will not enjoy success. SEO is a set of techniques that help make a your content program more successful, and it’s been a pretty long time now since link farms and spam sites enjoyed success by employing ‘black hat’ SEO techniques. Good content alone isn’t enough to get ‘found’ in a search engine. Thus, SEO will never die as long as search engines are creating search algorithms to help users discover ‘relevant’ content. Without SEO, it would be like standing in the middle of a library with no catalog. Also note that it’s still possible for companies to ‘game’ the system using, as you are calling it, OAO techniques. Lots of companies pay bloggers and even customers to contribute ‘organic’ content that appears to be authentic but is actually the age-old practice of paying for positive feedback from partners, friends and business associates. Advertorials and other paid placements has been an effective way to increase brand awareness for decades. Not sure this is a new idea at all.

  9. yark

    Your article makes good points, but the title “SEO is dead” is total link-bait BS. My organization is still happily using tactics (many of them in this article) to get top page placements for our targets. Maybe a more constructive “How SEO is evolving” might have been more accurate, but of course it’s not as inflammatory or likely to get clicked. Heck, even I fell for it thinking to myself “What idiot wrote this one?” It turns out to be a good article, just wearing a bad fitting dress.

  10. Luis Barragan

    Great article Linda, very good contentt and it makes me think beyond SEO. I wish I had you writing content to generate clicks to my new coming soon startup http://www.vivianandre.com
    I will talk with my marketing agency today to modify my online marketing sttategy to include your AOA tips.

  11. Ron

    Thanks for the great article and the constructive comments on it. I think yark got it right, saying that the article just carries an inflammatory title. But this also made me click and read (and spend a lot of time on this site!). Creating a teasing and maybe provocative title to attract readers is not new.

  12. Scott Heron

    Great article Linda – Thanks. Agree – the world is changing – but think this is more evolution than revolution. I liked your articles reference to a more holistic view of customer interaction with digital channels. As an industry we all got a bit caught up on ‘owned’, and then a bit too caught up on ‘earned’ too. It is still about the brand across every customer interaction. Still about the intersection of business goals and the user goals (and a framework for success metrics and test and learn). While this ‘content marketing’ approach isn’t a new concept, there are still precious few companies and agencies doing it well.

  13. Cyrus Shepard

    Hi Linda, thanks for this piece, but I’m a bit confused. You say SEO is dead, but also that OAO uses the best practices of SEO. Does this mean that only some parts of SEO are dead?

    Any strategy that involves attracting customers through organic search engines traffic by definition involves SEO and SEM.

    This well-intentioned article seems to confuse black hat SEO with SEO itself. Black hat SEO is a subset of practices that I agree, don’t work like they used to (and are not profitable for the vast majority of people) It’s like confusing a poisonous blowfish with “fish” in general. Or it would be like saying all mammals are dead because wooly mammoths became extinct.

    If you publish excellent content with the hope of that content ranking in search engines, you are doing SEO.

    In fact, good SEO involves long term strategies that optimize for humans first. An excellent resource I highly recommend reading is the Beginners Guide to SEO by Moz (disclosure – I work for Moz) or even Google’s own Search Engine Optimization starter guide.

  14. Mark Bragi

    Dear Linda,

    Your article is really funny, amusing, and quite frankly, made me laugh…thank you. I usually don’t waste my time on leaving responses on such rubbish articles, but I felt compelled in this case. Your reasoning is based on two very flawed assumptions.

    1. Today, social media provides one of the strongest correlations with high search engine rankings.

    2. Time on site and bounce rate are two of the main indicators that search engines use to evaluate sites and, hence, two of the main factors for site searchability.

    Wow, just wow, are you peddling this crap to your clients? You, dear lady, are the very definition of a “less-reputable SEO wizard”. How can you make such claims as time on site and bounce rates are two main indicators that search engines use to evaluate sites…hahaha what a load of crap.

    I feel really bad for the poor bastards who have left comments here saying “great job”, and, “great piece”…you guys should know better than to listen to this phony who is trying to sell you snake-oil OAO crap. Anyhow, this is getting really boring, what I’m trying to say is that you don’t really know anything at all about online marketing or SEO or OAO or whatever you call it, and you have just destroyed your credibility with this article…


  15. Iavor

    OAO sounds me like the old, well known truth – content is the king. About Mark’s comment above – yes Mark, my oppinion is that time on site and bounce rate are two of the most important factors that Google use to evaluate sites.


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