I was recently posed this question by a journalist from Revista Exame (a business journal in Brazil). Here was my answer.
Algorithms will become smarter and faster, but the computational problem they’re chasing after is a subjective emotion: quality. Quality varies dramatically based on the search query and the frame of mind of the searcher. When you get back a page of search results and click through to one you deem valuable, is it because it is useful, because it is beautiful, or simply because it exists?
Google can only define quality through proxy signals, an attempt to determine higher-level information from lower-level source data. This algorithmic approach relies on webmasters to honestly represent these signals — over 200 of them says Google — which rankings are based.
Google won’t release their secret recipe for rankings, as otherwise webmasters that don’t have the level of content but want the benefits of high rankings would simply do the least of whatever it takes to game the signals. This of course presents an ethical schism in SEO: white hat vs. black hat.
White hat SEOs play the game fair and their work benefits Google tremendously. Not only do they publish content for Google to index but they optimize their content so Google knows how to determine relevancy, rank them appropriately, and profit from nearby ads. It’s the other type of SEO, black hat, which Google wants to put an end to.
Black hat SEOs are at odds with Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information, as they seek to maximize traffic and profits from search without providing high quality content in return. The latest algorithm tweak was done to hamper the advance of these guys, not the SEOs who play fair and deserve the traffic Google sends.
Since global data output never ceases, quality is dependent on interpretation, and the perfect search engine is only an ideal, there will always be a need for SEO. The search industry may not stay the same, but then it never has.
The question should not be “will SEO go away?”, but will you be able to keep up?