Man v’s Machine – can search ever be fully automated?

There has been plenty of interesting debate concerning the announcement made by Commerce 360 earlier this week that they are embarking on a mission to build a fully automated ‘search optimiser’.

It would appear as if many of us got the wrong end of the stick. The presumption was that Commerce360 were referring to tools to automate the SEO process where as in actual fact they were referring mainly to Paid Search (Craig Danuloff from Commerce360 responds to the confusion in this thread by stating “the majority of the technology we’re building and the ‘future of search marketing’ phrase relates to paid search”).

Despite the confusion, it has stirred up an interesting debate. Can SEO or Paid Search ever be fully automated? Our opinion is short and sweet – automated tools have a role to play in many aspects of managing search, both paid and organic. However, there will always be a need for the human touch.

Much of the recent debate has centred around ‘on the page’ optimisation and how automated tools may aid this process. Personally, I don’t believe that ‘on the page’ SEO can be implemented and managed in an automated fashion because SEO is about targeting human searchers, not just search engines. Software, no matter how sophisticated, will never be able to understand the complexities of human interaction with websites, behaviour, psychology, etc.

It also has to be remembered that search marketing, especially SEO, has changed enormously in recent times. ‘On the page’ SEO, in our experience, only accounts for around about 40% of the optimisation ‘mix’. The lions share of the ranking algorithm (certainly in Google’s case) is accounted for by ‘off the page’ factors, most notably the number and relevancy of incoming links. There have been numerous tools to try and automate the link building process but in this day and age, how many of them really work? In our experience, these tools pick sites of low quality, poor relevance and have no understanding of sites that may be relevant to one another but in actual fact are competitors. Once the sites have been identified, an email is then sent which might as well have IGNORE ME, I AM IMPERSONAL AND AUTOMATED in the subject line (if I receive one more email from a competitor asking me to link to them I will not be held responsible for my actions!!). If automated tools cannot work effectively in ‘traditional’ link building, how can they possibly help in new link building disciplines, such as PR and social media? In short, they can’t. These disciplines are only going to have a greater and greater weighting in the future and can only be effective if managed entirely by a human who understands objectives, target market, context and so on.

There is no doubt that certain aspects of both ‘on the page’ and ‘off the page’ can be automated but the role of software is limited only in making the more mundane tasks more manageable, thereby improving efficiency. What would be really useful is a single environment where all of the many tools we use daily could co-exist and interact. Perhaps such an environment already exists but I have not come across it. Imagine, a one-stop shop, perhaps in a browser style format, where all of the very best tools can be found and called upon easily, as opposed to visiting many different sites, having to download programs, etc . SEO for Firefox is undoubtedly close to what I have in mind but I think there is the possibility to go one better.

Perhaps this is what Commerce360 meant or perhaps not. I look forward to hearing more over the course of the coming months.

What really makes me smile about the debate raging at the moment is the number of people who appear to be in favour of more automation. Do they not realise that the more automated the process becomes, the less likely they are to have a job, especially at entry level?! And of course, the more automated the job becomes, the less interesting it is.

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