State of SEO: Challenges & Threats

Insights from our recent State of SEO Survey report show that although the last year began with uncertainty across the industry, SEO is now more in demand than ever before.

Even so, it is not without its challenges. What issues are SEO professionals facing — and moving forward, what are the threats that might block success?

We surveyed over 2,800 SEO professionals about their experiences in SEO over the last 12 months. Keep reading to find out:

  • What the biggest challenges were in the last 12 months.
  • Whether SEO results trended better or worse over the last year.
  • What SEO pros perceive as the industry’s greatest threats in the years ahead.

What Were the Biggest Challenges in SEO Over the Last 12 Months?

At the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty for everyone as businesses tried to navigate an unprecedented situation rife with real-world shutdowns, a near-instant shift to digital, and massive changes in consumer behavior.

As the pandemic unfolded many businesses had to pivot quickly in order to survive. Some struggled while others thrived as digital and ecommerce growth accelerated by several years.

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Early in the pandemic, budget cuts were the biggest challenge for SEO professionals, as indicated by 37.6% of survey respondents.

Strategy issues (34.8%) were also a significant challenge in the SEO industry, as was a lack of resources (32.9%).

SEO Industry Challenge%# respondentsBudget cuts37.6%874Strategy issues34.8%810Lack of resources32.9%765Pandemic-related issue27.9%649Management/stakeholders approval27.3%635Alignment with other departments26.9%627Scaling processes25.8%600Client relationship issues14.1%327Legal approval10.6%247Not experienced any challenges5.2%120

(Question asked: In the last 12 months, what were your biggest challenges that blocked SEO success? Up to 3 options could be selected. Open to all respondents. Answered: 2,325; 1.76% selected “Other.”)

Across the industry, it appears that a lot of budgets were cut as an initial reaction, but many clients quickly came back on board. Out of those, many clients actually increased spend and invested more heavily in SEO.

Ron Lieback of Content Mender, for example, experienced cuts to client budgets and says, “Many cut their budgets due to losing their clients/customers, which meant a cut on new content and technical SEO monitoring.”

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However, clients then took advantage of the situation. Lieback explains, “As competitor rankings began dropping, many clients focused much deeper on their SEO efforts, some doubling down on new content, although others did cut budgets.”

In combination with the complications of the pandemic, SEO professionals also had to contend with a series of core and major Google updates in 2021.

Those updates created plenty of disruption. Michael Bonfils of SEM International warns that we still haven’t seen the full effects of the recent Page Experience Update.

“Google continues to put a lot more emphasis on the ‘overall’ health of a site, so even if a site is perfectly optimized for SEO, it may not perform as well as it should (or its competitors) due to a weaker technical foundation, less paid efforts, weaker social signals, unfavorable link environment, etc.,” Bonfils explains.

He added, “We’re only seeing the first, mild consequences of the Page Experience Update and I can only assume that it’ll get much more important over time.”

Jason Barnard, the founder of Kalicube, experienced longer wait times for crawling. He shared with us that, “Google seems to have become less reactive to new and updated content, whether through the normal process of crawling, or submission through Search Console.”

He noted that this has led to longer wait times for seeing any effect of those changes, which is frustrating.

Are Results Getting Better or Worse for SEO?

Although budget cuts were the greatest challenge for the industry, results from SEO are getting better and better.

SEO results improved this year for 64.6% of respondents, with 18% reporting they were “a lot” more successful than the year prior.

(Question asked: In the last 12 months, compared to the year before, how do you rate the results from SEO? Open to all respondents, Answered: 2,369. 2.11% selected “not sure.”)

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It is worth considering that many sites may have benefitted from the “rising tide floats all boats” effect as worldwide internet traffic levels increased by 40%.

As a result of restrictions on visits to physical stores, ecommerce saw the biggest leap of year-on-year growth in a decade with 32% growth driving $759.4 billion in U.S. ecommerce sales.

Digital businesses also had to contend with shifting spending patterns as consumers became more cautious spending on luxury goods.

Bonfils confirms that many of his clients noticed this shift in traffic due to users spending less on travel, luxury items, technology, etc. “Most spend went to essentials, personal items, and savings,” he said.

According to Google, the businesses that benefited most from the pandemic were home improvements, home fitness, pet-related, and anything work-from-home-related.

The Biggest Threats to SEO in the Next Two Years

Biggest Threat to SEO%# respondentsGoogle zero-click pages38.7%899Google updates35.1%817Machine learning/AI28.4%660Third-party cookies22.9%534Messaging platforms (Whatsapp, Slack)21.3%495Offline brand awareness (direct traffic)17.8%414Government regulation16.7%388GPT-316.1%375Apps14.1%327Site security13.7%319Email marketing12.6%294Don’t think there are any4.9%115

(Question asked: In the next two years, what will be the biggest threat to SEO? Up to 3 options could be selected. Open to all respondents. Answered: 2,325. 1.2% selected “other.”)

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Nearly three-quarters of respondents said that Google is the biggest threat to SEO success over the next two years, in two specific ways: Zero-Click SERPs (38.7%) and Google Updates (35.1%).

The third greatest threat to SEO is from machine learning, as indicated by 28.4% of SEO professionals.

Lieback agrees that Google updates and AI pose threats and also thinks that a shortage of talent is going to be an issue, especially on the strategic side.

“I can hire people to implement and do the basics of work, but to find an SEO pro who truly understands the way everything works together – from on-page to off-page and a wise content marketing strategy – is nearly impossible,” he said.

It’s a challenge shared by many SEO experts, including Barnard. “I see, read, and hear super smart and talented people all over the place. But how there could ever really be enough supply for the potential demand?” he wondered.

Every website that comes online creates new demand for SEO, he noted.

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“The question is, would that work be profitable? And that depends on the talent available,” Barnard added.

Right now, the shortage means that talented SEO professionals are in demand and are in a strong position for salary negotiations.

Our survey data shows that 60% of SEO professionals earn the same or more than the U.S. median, and SEO comes with a $100,000+ salary for 19%. Learn more in our SEO Salary Report 2021: How Much SEO Pros Get Paid.

But it does mean that finding enough resources to fulfill work is going to be one of the biggest challenges over the next few years for agencies and in-house brands.

One thing is certain, employment in the SEO industry is very strong right now.

Putting SEO Threats & Opportunities Insights to Work for You

How will you adjust your strategy for the year ahead with this enhanced understanding of the challenges your peers are experiencing?

You can use these other issues-based reports from our State of SEO 2021 series to hone and perfect your strategy, as well:

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Download your copy of the full report to access all the data from the Search Engine Journal State of SEO survey 2021.

Find additional insights such as:

  • The most important emergent SEO factors for the next few years.
  • Which Google changes are considered the biggest threat to SEO.
  • Which factors have the most impact on ranking.
  • Where to find new business.
  • What to focus on for the next year.

The Greatest Challenges & Threats in SEO [Survey Results]

Featured image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal
All in-article images created by author, September 2021

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Shelley Walsh