A recurring theme at this year's Chicago SES 2008 was that 'SEO (as we know it) is Dead.' The reason given is that as search becomes more personalized by location, recent searches, time spent on web pages (Microsoft's BrowseRank), and by user-built search results (Google's SearchWiki), it becomes increasingly difficult to gain top rankings across the board, since everyone sees something different when they perform a search. This even makes the idea of ranking reports, a common SEO benchmark tool, obsolete.
But it's not really about ranking reports and never has been. Ranking for keywords has always been a goal, because higher ranking means more traffic, and the right keywords often mean more conversion. And that's what it comes down to - traffic and conversions.
So in this brave new world of personalized search results, the shift is now away from search ranking, and instead it will move toward personal profiles - gender, profession, interests, hobbies. In other words, SEO will take a more classical marketing approach by first determining the audience and then determining how to communicate to them in an effective way.
And targeting personas has never been easier. As more and more social media users pour their data onto the web, it becomes easier to research and discover the who, what, and where. For example, who is talking about a certain type of product, what is the language and tone of the conversation, and where that conversation is taking place can all now be answered. This information will help marketers develop better ad copy and deliver better ad placement. Following both these steps can only result in better conversions and better ROI.
So on one hand, it's all becoming infinitely more complex. But on the other hand, to someone familiar with the tools, the ability to perfectly match a product or service to the right people is close at hand.