SEO is not exactly dead
Google's recent release of its Penguin algorithm has made many in the web design industry hail the death of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The idea of using coding tricks, selected keywords, trading links, purchased services, etc. as a means to gain a higher standing in search engine results.
After reading many opinions from several resources, and even looking into my own practices in web design and development, I honestly would say "no" to the question "Is SEO dead?"
Penguin only changed the game
If you want to look at the old tricks of link-baiting, backlinks, keyword infusion, etc. as what SEO is, then yes you can say it's dead. However, to think that way is more saying we should stop considering search engines in our design and content plan strategies.
For the most part, Google isn't thinking about businesses when it evolves its algorithm. They're not thinking about the mom and pop shop, the startup, the small business or even the large corporation when they make changes. They honestly could care less how much you think you should be at the top. They only care about the end-user.
They care about the teenager looking for information on the Civil War for a history class. They care about the senior citizen looking for information on an ailment. They care about the consumer looking for information on a tablet, pair or shoes, or even what to do in a certain location when on vacation.
The real thing that Penguin "killed" is the industry of small businesses who run around claiming to other businesses how they can make them #1 on Google, when they honestly cannot and could not ever pull off that feat.
It's all about quality content and organic sharing now
Look at your own website and think about what's on it. Ask yourself how much value is there for the end-user you want coming to it. I'll use a travel agency website as an example. Let's say your business site only has some information about your services, a few specials, and a web form for potential customers to get a quote.
It's easy to see why you're not blowing up on Google. You have nothing really to offer the end-user except how to contact you. Thus no one has any reason to spend a lot of time on your website or especially to tell their social circles about your services.
Now paying more for a bigger back-end service like a Kayak.com might not be your cup of tea, but even a small business can gain with customer testimonials or even a blog with loads of information on destinations to see and what to do in those destinations, all intertwined with your sales pitch. You could even forgo the destination advice and instead focus on the travel advice. Write advisory articles on how to get the best deals on flights, hotels, etc, or when to travel or why a travel agent like yourself is a better value over planning a trip on your own.
You might think this seems like a lot more work when you would rather focus on finding and servicing customers, but this does help. Imagine the girl looking to go to the Caribbean and wants to find the best deals. She tries looking at Kayak, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc, but is confused and wishes she had the "insider info" on how to get the deals.
So she tries Googling up information on when to travel and how to save money on flights...and finds the article you posted on your site. You even wrote a specific one on Caribbean travel. She reads, is enlightened, and more likely than not she'll contact you for a quote. She might even post a link on her Facebook timeline when her friends ask how she managed to get such a great deal. That's how you win in this game now.
This can also apply to ecommerce sites where you're selling products through an online shopping cart. Look at Amazon.com and you'll see a big part of why you'll see them constantly pop up on page one when you search for almost any product. Every product page on Amazon contains full product details, specifications, press reviews, and submitted customer reviews. If your store only has simple descriptions and prices, consider expansion.
SEO has to happen from the start
So now you might be considering expanding and enhancing the content on your website to be higher quality and more organic, but some of the old "best practices" for SEO are still relevant now. The only big change is that they should be considered and planned on from the beginning of a website design, not as an afterthought.
In the past, many website projects treated SEO as the last step after launch. The client and designer would lay out and build the whole website, launch it, and then bring in an "expert" to give advice...which usually ended up with a frustrated designer being told his graphic titles and lack of proper HTML information hierarchy are keeping this site from being noticed in the search engines. I won't even mention how many all-flash websites caused much conflict between SEO expert and designer.
If you're a designer or developer, you should be striving to optimize your work from the start. I know for me it came down to using header tags, when in the past I used to use paragraph tags for everything. It meant using the new HTML5 tags of header, section, article, and footer, even getting into roles and why people use them. It meant trying to keep text items as text and not graphics. In the past I used to make graphics for titles of pages, but now I try to keep it all HTML text with the @font-face markup to allow for more font choices.
You should also utilize Google Analytics and learn to make and submit Google Sitemaps. Dive into tagging pages and especially research on markup that will allow social sharing to come out correctly. So if one pastes your page link into Facebook, the right image and text appears in the preview.
Now if you're the client, you should be inquiring about this as you shop for a designer/developer, and being aware of what are now being known as "Snake Oil Salesmen". If someone claims he/she can put you high or at the top of Google search rankings, dismiss it. It's not impossible to gain in Google, but the top spots usually go to the sites who did the most SEO work and paid money for Google adwords.
If a designer/developer tells you SEO is dead and meaningless, dismiss them too. You should look for the person who tells you he/she thinks about SEO in their designs. The person who carries the disciplines I just mentioned with them in their work.
In the long run, both the client and designer/developer should think of the end user in how they find web sites. I'm not just talking about Google, but also Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. The new era of Search Engine Optimization is actually now the era of Search Experience Optimization. It's not about fooling an algorithm but exploring your users and how they find you, interact with you, and share you on the internet. With some work, dedication, and patience, you'll get the results.
Do any of you have anything to add here? What are your tips for Search Experience Optimization?