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The Future of The Visual Web and The Future of SEO

John Doherty —  November 16, 2012
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I swore at my computer the other day (sorry Mom). You see, I had just seen a tweet that led me to this page:

That, of course, is the current Airbnb homepage, where they announced that they have built out neighborhood pages, such as my neighborhood of Boerum Hill.

I didn’t swear because they launched something that I wanted one of my clients to launch. I swore because they did it so damn well. These pages are beautiful. They have local knowledge, large photos (which is rare for travel, but makes so much sense), and they don’t talk about themselves – rather, they let people see the area and qualify themselves, with only a call to action at the end.

This marks, in my mind, the final step in a move towards the visual web – these pages are going to rank because they are so useful and beautiful (though they do need to work on SEO on these pages) and they will naturally attract links.

The web is becoming visual; SEOs need to get on board.

Why I Say This

Just look at the growth of Pinterest over the past year, which is really just images:

The most successful ecommerce shops online are also becoming increasingly visual. Check out Fab (though they get only 2% of their business from organic):

And how about Etsy (protip guys – women love Etsy):

I’ve shared Uncrate before with their beautiful typography and imagery:

And even the tech site TheVerge, which is not your typical tech site from a design perspective:

And by the way, their organic traffic since launch is like a hockey stick:

The web is increasingly becoming visual. This move shouldn’t be an SEO play either. Look at the statistic cited earlier that only 2% of Fab’s sales come from organic. They could do a better job of SEO, sure, but will it really move the needle?

Will telling them to put more content outside the login wall, or that they need more text on the page, really help them? It may a bit, and they have opportunities there, but is this really what their business is centered around?

My Own Thoughts

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the future of SEO. As I see Google moving into more and more areas and pushing organic below the fold, I wonder about the future of SEO. Check out this search, which has half of an organic result above the fold on my 15″ laptop monitor:

I see Google revoking data access by removing access to their AdWords API, and I see (not provided) climbing ever higher in every vertical in which Distilled has clients. I don’t see Google as being friendly to SEOs – Google is monetizing everything, and the only way they can monetize organic listings (even though that is what they built themselves on) is through ads, so they’ll increasingly be more aggressive with ads while also moving into other areas.

We don’t have a choice but to build brands now, at least with the size of companies that I am working with now. Others, such as SMBs, have more space in organic and rankings matter a lot more. In the verticals that I have been working in, organic is being squeezed out and Google is taking over, or they are simply broadening the number of areas for optimization (local, images, etc) that don’t see as good of conversion rates, or still lead people to a Google property.

So what is the future of SEO, and what does this have to do with my opening examples?

People like good design. With good design comes a lot of trust that the company is legit and knows what they are doing. Good design is pleasing and therefore people feel pleasure. They keep coming back to the site, and buying, because it is a good experience for them. And while they are not searching for [diy easter eggs] to find Etsy or Pinterest, they are going to those places because they know they can find what they want there instead of on some random blog somewhere.

Build a brand, win online. We can still do SEO on these sites to get a bit more traffic from the search engines, we can still collect email addresses so that we can remarket people that way (the travel industry does this very well). In my opinion, though, links are becoming less important in a lot of areas, and other avenues are becoming more important.

What do you think? Am I on the right track here? Or just ranting?

John Doherty


Founder of Credo, I'm formerly the Senior Growth Marketing Manager at Trulia Rentals. Previous to Trulia Rentals I ran marketing at HotPads.com. Previous to that I worked at Distilled for 2+ years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter account.

25 responses to The Future of The Visual Web and The Future of SEO

  1. Good post mate. Is there any good examples that you could
    provide of travel companies using remarketing well?

  2. Back when Pinterest was “by invitation only” I recall the site being billed as a “visual bookmarking” site, before the links became no-follow. Google Goggles is still early in the game and visual search will become more common place over time. Yahoo Flickr might even have a resurgence if visual search becomes more the norm vs. the exception, which is why I geo-tag ALL of my Flickr images.

  3. I think you’re 100% right, especially with Etsy (which women DO love :p) and Pinterest. We’ve been active on Pinterest for about a year and a half now, and holy cow it’s been amazing. The great part is, we’ve barely even done any of it for ourselves. Just make pretty, actionable content and the traffic (and conversions!) come pouring in. This shows how promising it is – our pinterest organic conversions for the year, for a store-that-shall-not-be-named http://i.imgur.com/xKooM.png. YES, PLEASE.

    I think it also lights the fire behind a lot of SEOs to become bffs with great designers and developers, which I’ve been really blessed with. You can be a pro at pitching, but if it looks like crap, you’re pretty screwed.

    Make it pretty!!!

  4. Hey John,

    I absolutely think you are on the right track here. It also kind of ties in nicely with Rand’s WBF video on co-citations today into how much SEO is changing.

    Together, the two posts really paint a changing landscape for SEO. Rand’s video implies that link building is dying. You simply need to get people talking about you on relevant pages. Your post implies function + beauty has the ability to win out over classic on-page SEO techniques.

    These changes definitely make you question the future of “SEO”, but I think we all agree that what we consider SEO today is not what we would have anticipated 3 years ago.

    The involvement in content creation, content marketing, social media marketing, conversion rate optimization and everything else under the sun has really changed the game for us, and in a good way.

    I apologize that my comment is rambling and I’m trying to avoid the SEO/Inbound/Who am I discussion… but posts like this definitely cause the mind to wander in a lot of different directions.

    As consultants, we need to help our clients be better. Better for their customers. Better for the web in general. Help them improve in every area possible.

    The visual web is going to play a major role in that. People want information quickly. Images (design) are the best way to deliver on that most of the time. The right image can tell you everything you need to know in a second. Articles and videos take much longer to consume.

    Articles and videos still have their place of course, but you might only have a second to capture the attention of a website visitor. The right image and overall site design are becoming increasingly important going forward.

    Not sure if anything I wrote here added to the discussion. Cheers to thought provoking post.

  5. I agree with you that links are on their way out and a more visual web is on the way up. However, I don’t think the visual component makes a good substitute for links (and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying either). I consider them separate, where the visual component is designed to increase conversions and engagement, whereas links are a way to help rankings and drive traffic.

    I think Google is looking for a way to push links out, but I don’t think that they’ve decided what they want to replace it. They seem to be experimenting with a few things right now (or at least that’s how some of my erratic rankings make it feel). I just don’t know that design alone is that thing.

  6. I think this is absolutely right. First off, as an SEO I do tend to look at thinks too much from a ranking perspective and think rankings are the most important thing to earn website traffic, but then I have to remind myself it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

    I think mindshare is huge, and that’s what branding is. What’s easier:

    Searching in Google for “christmas ideas for girlfriend” or “best necklaces for christmas”


    Going to etsy, clicking necklaces and having them all in front of me.

    I love beautiful design, and the visual web makes going on line much more enjoyable.

  7. Even if you are ranting you really hit the nail on the head. Good points and another great blog post.

  8. Felix Tarcomnicu November 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    I also noticed that visual sites have more impact. Even mashable has s new beta version with bigger images, and a bit similar to pinterest.

    The “built a brand” it’s difficult if you are a freelancer or have a small team.

  9. I completely agree. We all want “free” organic traffic but in reality a visually pleasing site is more likely to convert. Themselves for the great post.

  10. John,
    Great when I can find what is in my head so artfully articulated. Thanks. I too believe we’ve reached the point of diminishing return for old school SEO. Put Google aside for a moment and ask what is best for engagement, relationship creation and sustainability and it is the beauty and purpose you’ve found and demonstrated so well here.

    I’ve always felt we Internet marketers must walk a strange and tiny line between pleasing Google Gods and our customers. That the seesaw seems to be tipping in favor of customers can only be good for all since the fight between these two poles is sometimes mutually exclusive. I personally greet the end of please Google first and foremost with a smile, a nod of acknowledgment and thanks and not a look back.

    If Google can move their metrics to what the website and content we create MEAN to our customers I will gladly play that game all day and every day.


    Martin Smith
    Director Marketing
    Atlantic BT

  11. Absolutely on track!! And I love this post. Tweeting, FBing etc!

  12. Hi John,

    thanks for the article! You’re definitely on to something here! Especially since Google now also launched this:


    Not only does this open up a new search sector for Google but it shows the future of search – different agent solutions by Google. Together with its other services such as Calendar, Wallet, Flights, Offers, Google+, Maps/Streetview, Alerts, Google Mail and Google Now (to name but a few) the user won’t need any other means but Google in order to find and book a hotel or the whole trip. In fact, Google only needs two parameters in order to find the most fitting trip for the user: where and when. The impact and significance of data mining goes up, organic goes down…
    And I’m pretty sure that this is only the beginning…

    Best Regards,

  13. I’m a fan John, so It goes without saying … but great post man.

    I did want to add though, that there is a lot to be said for mobile / app / responsive design in this equation as well.

    Visually driven? Yes. Mobile? Overlooked too often.

    For fun I launched http://www.geekbabyclothes.com less than a month ago and have already cleared big G page one organic for “geek baby clothes” – but here’s the kicker, google mobile ranked me higher faster than google on my desktop – all I can imagine is because my site was responsive from day one.

    I’m not saying start a SEO religion around it but I’m not the first person to notice this, and who knows if it’ll last. But I think its an important factor.

    And for what it’s worth John (I would love it if you wrote a post about this…) my opinion is that human moderated niche directories are the wave of the near SEO future.

    Google openly values DMOZ and the like, and frankly I am fed up with organic Google results half the time these days (and I’m sure others are too). I think the new “go to” resource will be human moderated directories with a social element divided by niche. Think about it :)

    Keep up the good work. You’re an inspiration.

    • I forgot to add to my argument for mobile that Fab and Pinterest have mobile apps. Don’t know about the others. You can’t be relevant to an audience that can’t see you! Go responsive design! I’m done. Geez it’s lame to comment on your own comment…

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