WTF is SEO?

ehmegeard! A realization dawns. Featured

Ian Lurie Mar 22 2013

ehmegeard! A realization dawns.

Ever had a massive, life-changing epiphany?

Me neither.

However, I’ve slowly reached the conclusion that we’re doing SEO all wrong. Not in the do-real-marketing sense, or the we-need-to-change-the-name sense. More in the wow-did-we-ever-screw-the-pooch-this-time sense.

After 17+ years of beating my head against walls like IT departments, branding teams and disbelieving CFOs, I’ve figured out why: SEO isn’t an activity, or a tactic, or a strategy. Good SEO is the outcome of a disciplined, coherent marketing & technology strategy.

SEO isn’t a tactic

In marketing, a tactic is a single, atomic thing you do to reach a goal: Direct mail isn’t a tactic, it’s a channel. Link building isn’t a tactic, it’s a result. Using Followerwonk to find influencers is a tactic.

SEO is not a marketing tactic. I had that wrong. SEO is a collection of tactics: Writing. Server performance tuning. Site performance tuning. Code cleanup. Canonicalization. Online PR/social media/whatever current trendy term.

Most SEO tactics influence other parts of marketing: A faster site means better conversion rates. Better writing does, too. A better UX means happier visitors, which is always good. A mention on a well-known blog is a great business boost.

SEO isn’t a strategy

It’s not a strategy, either. You can’t have an SEO strategy, any more than you can have a dental hygiene strategy. You execute on details, one detail at a time: You brush. You floss. You don’t gargle maple syrup.

For SEO, you target. You streamline. You make sure stuff is visible. You use the words your audience uses. You don’t build slow, lousy web sites.

Getting those details right isn’t “a strategy,” unless you want to call “Don’t be a dolt” a strategy. It’s just the stuff you gotta do right.

Strategy is an approach that includes all roles in an organization. All of the components of SEO should be part of an organization’s growth strategy.

We (almost) ruined it

Remember the meta keywords tag? Why did search engines stop using it? Probably because we stuffed keywords tags with all manner of ridiculousness. We ruined it.

Remember link building? Yep. We ruined that, too.

Remember this? Yeah, so do all your clients.

Remember this? Yeah, so do all your clients.

We tried to turn SEO into a discipline, with specific, unique tactics for manipulating rankings. That includes all of us smug white-hat SEOs, by the way.

By doing that, we pulled SEO off into its own distinct job description. For a long time, that was good. We got offices with windows. The Wall Street Journal called to talk to us. We were pioneers, dammit!

We also made SEO something that had to be justified as an end in itself. We unwittingly pitted it against other corporate goals, like branding, architecture and infrastructure development. And, we gave ourselves zero room for error. If you twist the leadership team’s collective arm until they decree changes designed ‘to get higher rankings,’ and then they don’t see higher rankings, you’ve lost all credibility.

On the other hand, if you get the leadership team to make some little shifts that help all aspects of marketing, including search traffic, you’ll be a hero.

That’s how we fix all of this: Don’t treat SEO as a department, or even a goal. Treat it as one benefit of a truly smart marketing strategy.

It’s not dead

My brief, sputtering flash of insight shouldn’t lead to some huge shakeup in our industry. If you write an “SEO is Dead” article because of this post, I’m going to slap you. SEO is just fine.

I’m not ‘killing’ SEO. Most companies don’t have “Conversion Rate” departments. But they hire conversion rate optimization experts. They don’t generally have oh-crap-our-yoga-pants-are-transparent departments, either. They hire PR agencies.

Companies shouldn’t have “SEO” departments, either. They should have experts that help all departments accomplish the best practices that add up to SEO.

SEO is what it always was: The result of doing a lot of little things right. A fantastic driver of revenue and value. A way to make oodles of money. None of that’s changed.

What about the rankings?

I know: As long as there are rankings, companies will want to rank, and they’ll ask us how to do it. Great! Tell them! Get paid for it! Get paid lots!

Just prioritize a little differently:

What needs to change

Five things we have to change:

  1. Treat SEO as a multi-team goal, like loss reduction, risk management or communications policy. Everyone has a role to play.
  2. Stop pushing companies and clients to create an ‘SEO department’ or team. Start pushing companies to apply the tactics that lead to good SEO across all departments and teams.
  3. Stop talking about specific tactics strictly in terms of rankings or traffic. For example: Point out the parallel benefits of a faster site. If there are no parallel benefits, think carefully before you make that recommendation.
  4. Constantly remind yourself and your clients/bosses where SEO fits into the paid/earned/owned media world. You’re a marketer who knows a lot about SEO. You’re not “an SEO” any more than you could’ve been a “column inch” in the 1970s. But hopefully you know the rest of marketing, too. If not, introduce yourself. Audience analysis? PR? Paid media? Nice to meet you.
  5. Always discuss SEO in context. If possible, restrict the ‘oh my god your SEO sucks’ moments to a single meeting. Then immediately broaden the discussion to include all areas impacted by, and impacting, SEO. For example: Meet with the branding/UX team and talk about how particular phrases in the navigation might improve clickthru, as well as search traffic and sales. Show you’re not that SEO pest who keeps screwing up their drive for a Webby Award.

What will change

If we can make this happen, we’ll become a lot more valuable. We’ll have more credibility. We’ll have a little more room for error, where right now we have none. We’ll also become less of a headache and more of an all-around benefit to any organization. And our industry (which will always be marketing, right?) will continue to thrive.

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42 Comments

  1. Jey

    Your epiphany is ironic to me and sorely needed for our community. I’ve been studying Information Architecture by Peter Morville, the Information Architecture University and Copywriting through ‘Breakthrough Advertising’ by Eugene Schwartz and I realized that we as an industry need to rethink our fundamental approach to SEO on several fronts.

    Yesterday, I had an argument in the Dojo about CTAs in the title tags. The vast majority of SEOs who write CTAs don’t know how to write them and shouldn’t be writing them. These bad SEOS know enough to be dangerous (and are not aware of that fact).

    Two days ago, I had the opportunity to see one written by the ACD on my account and I was blown away by his simplicity and ease of integration between copy, SEO and advertising. 99.9999% of all CTAs are not like that.

    I like your whitehat comeback, I snarked that one at a conference bar several years ago and had a lot of naysayers who couldn’t refute me.

    I hate how everyone keeps drinking the blog koolaid and doesn’t spend any time towards actual mastery of their field. Terry Van Horne said it best, it’s not about how much you know in a single discipline but rather how much you learn about MULTIPLE disciplines so you can apply that cross disciplinary knowledge.

    A few years ago, I watched a Google Tech Talk video about Gaming Dynamics in which the lead described that for any type of game, there are several types of players. There are:

    1. New
    2. Novice
    3. Experienced
    4. Master
    5. Hacker

    I’ve realized that the methodology above can be applied holistically across ALL fields of knowledge. Every time I see a CTA or a KW strategy/tactic, whatever you want to call it, people can be grouped into one of these five subsets.

    I don’t understand, why aren’t there more ‘hackers?’ Isn’t the payoff a lot larger if one can truly understand and align all the elements together? Why are people working as an SEO if they are not willing to put the time to achieve true mastery?

    Really pisses me off lol.

    • I suspect a lot of the issue is you can get a 90% payoff by becoming Experienced. You can get a 95% payoff by becoming a Master. You can get a 100% payoff by becoming a Hacker.

      But the work to get from 3 to 4 to 5 is exponentially greater.

      If folks aren’t inspired to go to #5, that’s a failure of leadership by the people who manage them.

      • Jey

        While that’s true, the 90% cutoff just isn’t good enough for today’s world. When things grow more complex, one is expected to have 100% mastery, not 90 or 50%.

        What are some steps that you take to help motivate people to go from 2 to 3? I’ve found that most people don’t even get to 3 unless they spend 20% of their time proactively learning outside of the job.

  2. Great post Ian! Couldn’t agree with you more when you said “Good SEO is the outcome of a disciplined, coherent marketing & technology strategy.” Really good read, thanks!

  3. Hear! Hear! We need a lot more of us all singing this tune, especially since it’s hard to communicate to clients and c-level execs. Gone are the days when I can just go away and “SEO” a site. There are no more tricks, no more loopholes, no more secret knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. How do do things that affect search traffic is becoming far more important (and difficult) than the “what” to do. I see it as becoming more segmented actually.

    There is the technical side of SEO; the things that happen on the site, which is becoming more and more complicated with site speed, semantic markup etc. and then there is the “quality” and promotion sides. In truth, anyone can learn the technical side. It’s a set of rules and guidelines, it’s concrete and though it’s ever changing, it really is doable by anyone with the time to learn. This is the stuff that a good technical audit can find and fix, and honestly, it’s probably the easiest part.

    Then there is the quality side. To be successful in driving search traffic you have to be really good at SOMETHING. If you aren’t, chances are I can’t “SEO” your site to the top. You have to have great content, or products, or service, or prices, or user experience, or something that makes you stand out. If you don’t, why do you think you deserve to rank at the top in the first place? The engines are far from perfect but getting better everyday at ranking those that deserve it for some reason.

    This is the really hard part of SEO because, as you say above, it affects all parts of the organization. You have to actually be outstanding first, then rank. That means the SEO (who I agree will disappear over time) needs to be an advocate for better UX, UI, customer service, merchandizing, etc… all the things that actually make you better than the competition.

    To some degree I think “content marketing” is really a band-aid to make up for the fact that you aren’t actually better. You are going out of your way to publish content (which usually isn’t your core business) to drive the interest and conversation that your business normally wouldn’t.

    Once you are actually better than everyone at SOMETHING then you can go out and do the third leg of SEO, promotion. This is going to be the other skill that SEOs (or former SEOs) need to learn and it’s a real opportunity for those in traditional PR to learn and take on a new role. This is going to replace the link building we used to and still continue to do. Get people talking about you, engage them, network with them, etc.

    I agree wholeheartedly that SEO will morph into being a more general marketing discipline and be absorbed into all areas of the organization. Building a great product or service at all levels and talking to your customers, stakeholders, writers, suppliers etc will become the new SEO.

    The way I try to explain it to clients and the c-suite is that “You used to be able to go out and do SEO and that could make you a successful company. Now you have to be successful first, then I can do the things that will ensure you rank where you deserve to. You have take a hard look and ask yourself if you truly deserve to rank #1. Are you the best in your field? If not, you need to fix that first”.

    The issue for a lot of current SEOs is that this is going to be a LOT harder than tweaking title tags, updating site copy, and knowing what easy to get links still pass link equity.

    SEO = build your site the right way + do something great + tell people about it

    Thus endeth my rant…

    • And a fine rant it is!!!

  4. Nailed it. ‘Nuff said.

  5. THIS x 1000!!!

    At my new job I’m responsible for SEO and overall web strategy. That’s the key part: web strategy. We have teams of designers and web devs and writers and email marketers and product marketers and PR specialists, and it’s my job to guide them in their day-to-day activities to ensure THEY are making our site fast with clean code and great CTAs and write using the words our clients use. I guide and I educate and I oversee. And I measure. And then I guide and educate and oversee some more. I don’t “do” some magical tactic called SEO.

    • Where is this strange paradise, and how do I go work there?

  6. The problem, as always, is getting people to move from the “what’s the least I can get away with” mindset to “what’s the best I can do.”

    • Yup. Painfully true. I’m not saying it’ll HAPPEN. But I sure would like more people to aspire.

  7. Hallelujah!

    The SEO job is now much more about influencing and – sometimes – educating the business and its functions. But that’s much harder than going out and getting some links or – as Rob alludes to – creating some content for content’s sake.

    And that’s why enterprise SEO projects can be so tough to crack.

  8. I’ve always said, “I am not an SEO – I am an Internet Marketing Consultant”, and just as often have said “SEO is ten percent of what I do, even though it is ninety percent of what I’m asked for”. Your post here near-perfectly spells out why I say those things.

    However, the one place I disagree is in saying that SEO is not a strategy. Oh, I know what you are getting at, but there can be strategies within strategies, and so there can be a SEO strategy, within a Marketing strategy, within a Business strategy.

    SEO is no one thing. But it can be slanted in a particular way to make a strategy that is purely of SEO. SEO is not (always) a strategy, but that’s not to say there is no such thing as an SEO strategy. SEO is not a strategy, except when it is applied as one.

    There are times when top-ranking for particular terms is not mere vanity but a specific tactic used to leverage the old “We’re number one for X” to get better deals from suppliers. This is not the same as SEO for increased sales. It is one SEO strategy, where there are many other possible strategies.

    So, SEO is not a strategy, in the broad sense, is true. But many readers could mistake this as “There is no such thing as an SEO strategy”, which is patently false.

  9. Nikhil

    Agreed with you Ian! But today the problem is client dont know what Kind of SEO the company are doing.They are just happy when they see rankings and didnt ask company about the tactics they have used.Its good to also educate client before taking a project for SEO.

  10. Right now I am slow clapping. Louder!. Louder!!. Louder!!!

  11. This post is one of the rare ones that are just spot on. I’m just bummed that I spent all that time last weekend rewriting our website’s SEO services descriptions when I could have just linked straight to this post.

    The challenge for us as a agency is that prospects come to us with a strong perceived need to “do” SEO. The more I try to change this mindset, the more I risk losing the prosepct. Do you all sometimes face that at Portent?

    • All the time. We just do what we can. I find that, over time, we’re able to get things on the right track with most folks – it’s constant education. If it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t have jobs…

    • Paris – I’ve had exactly the same experience. I take the view that if a client isn’t ready, they aren’t ready and they’ll come back when they are. In the last two years we’ve had a client come back who decided against working with us originally and another return who we chose to part with after we’d won the original pitch in 2010.

      So keep risking losing prospects, because it’s unlikely to motivate your staff or generate profit if you do say whatever is required to work with them.

  12. In the 1990′s we called in “web site promotion”. My light bulb went off in 2000. By then SEO and getting into engines was the goal, no matter what it took. You could take the path with integrity and no risk or the high risk, any shit will work approach. Neither took people into consideration, or devices needed to use web sites or what happens to servers when a mob comes to visit. I was working on sites driven by software applications built by developers that had no idea who they building for and marketing knew even less.

    SEO is treated like a strategy because at first it was. You could adjust the wording in a title tag, hit refresh, and in Alta Vista see the entire site move. Today, you can’t have a conversation with any company unless you can solve the mysteries in their Google Analytics. The human story behind those numbers is ignored. How many SEO’s do user persona work, know their mobile usage or care about special needs users? How many are asked for this information from clients?

    The search engine marketing industry doesn’t teach anything but strategy. Just look at the agenda for next week’s SES NY. By tradition the industry has refused to see the value of adding the human part to marketing.

    • Jey

      Hear. Hear.

  13. Tim

    Calling SEO a multi-team effort is one of the most important aspects you called out in the post. I can’t tell you how much easy it has become for me now that we look at SEO from a top-down perspective. Great write up Ian!

  14. Deana

    Excellent post Ian, I like point 2. It was only last week I was in a meeting with a company that have a SEO department – they all attended the meeting and each person in that SEO department spent more time on link building and meta description updates then they did content, site speed, architecture and brand.

    Reading this has given me some food for thought to our approach.

    Thanks

  15. Nailed it! great article…specially like this phrase “Good SEO is the outcome of a disciplined, coherent marketing & technology strategy.”
    Spot on!

  16. Jeff

    This is a great post, and something that many people should think about! I never even knew about that JC Penny scam, it’s incredible that they got away with that for as long as they did.

  17. Devon

    Thanks to the joys of tabbed web browsing and cloud-based bookmarks (yay, Diigo) I’m flipping back and forth between this and Jamie’s Moz post from December: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/every-marketer-should-be-technical.

    They’re saying similar things. Whereas Jamie is shouting at SEOs to diversify their personal skills to accomplish projects, Ian is shouting at SEOs to diversify their approach to help a business grow.

    I can’t say that I can argue with either.

    • They go together really well.

  18. Great post!

    I always think its as well to keep in mind where G originated from in Academia and Project Backrub.

    Backrub is a citation model, like a bibliography in a reference work.

    I don’t think you’d ever find any money changing hands or any other transaction occurring to be referred to in a bibliography – it’s spontaneous and purely based on authority.

  19. I strongly disagree with your “Stop pushing companies to create an SEO department/team” point. An in-house SEO department/team can dedicate all of their attention on “applying the tactics that lead to good SEO across all departments and teams”.

    How is that a bad thing?

    • It’s not. Unless, of course, it derails all other SEO initiatives and causes SEO to be silo’d away where it never sees the light of day. Which is what I often see happen.

  20. Loving this post Ian. Completely agree with you. And interesting comments too. Take your point on “smug white hat SEOs” too, but what about those white hat SEOs that have not only been operating authentically, but who have also been slowly but surely helping clients with the change management required in their business to develop a “disciplined, coherent marketing & technology strategy”?!

    As Paris has commented, that truly is a tough sell. Competitors are less traditional SEOs but more management consultants and intregrated marketing agencies. But the more of us that are selling it, the less pitch processes will reflect the old world. It feels a bit like the year of the mobile though – each year I expect clients and agencies alike to have their light bulb moment and each year there is little progress.

    More posts like this always help.

    • I was kind of being silly about ‘smug white hat SEOs.’ Dr. Pete wrote the post I linked to – I was giving him a hard time :)

      Plus, I’m a smug white-hat SEO myself.

      Sorry to confuse!

      • Easily done with me!

  21. Ian,

    Thanks for this inspiring post.

    I think most people think about SEO as the acronym for search engine optimization and that it stops there. But, SEO evolves, as it’s the case with everything else in life.

    Plain explanations usually work the best, so I this is my take on SEO:

    1. having targeted audience come to your website
    2. retaining people long enough, so they read/see what you have to say
    3. evoking desired reaction in people after they read/see your content

    Things you do to accomplish this have all sorts of fancy names and acronyms, but it’s all SEO.

  22. Ben B

    Love the idea of “parallel benefits”, I just realised this is what I have been recommending for years without ever putting a name on it!
    Thanks for a great read

  23. Hi Ian,

    What a superb article!

    Not only light hearted but direct and certainly to the point, there is nothing I don’t seem to agree with!

    Maybe we should all (subject to our ethics in SEO…) start a recommended International SEO Association, as the industry is screaming out for one?

    Your thoughts and others who happened to have read my comment…?

    Regards,

    Nic

    • Hi Nic,

      Thanks!

      You know, we already have a good international SEO organization – SEMPO.

      Ian

  24. I laughed myself to tears with the “I’m going to slap you” phrase. I work for a company where the staple computer is windows XP equipped with IE7. When I got there to start an eCommerce website, everything was wrong (and still is).

    What saved me and allowed the company to get in the eCommerce wagon was not by selling SEO, it was by selling the “how can we make more money” package. We’ve still got the XP computers with IE7 but running an ERP coupled with a multi-channelled CMS for print and web which is itself supporting a big Magento website on a super fast tuned server selling over 3 european countries in 3 languages.

    Its SEO based but we never used the term.

  25. Ian, while I agree with you on basically every point you make… I have to argue that very few, if any clients are aware of the JC Penney fiasco.

    It is a very web-specific news story, which didn’t exactly make the 6 o’clock news. Every client that I speak with and explain link building to, I tell them the JC Penney story and they look at me as if I made it up. Then they get scared and confused… but that’s something entirely different.

  26. Ian, it is an interesting conjecture. But not one I can totally endorse.

    Your right. SEO is a small collection of tasks. But the fact is that if you do work for clients what they expect is the end result which is traffic.

    At the moment that happens to mean from an SEO perspective that you need to rank well on Google. So at the moment SEO is not really a collection of small things. It is whatever works to get you ranked on Google.

    Link building still works to get you ranked on Google. That is why people do it. But the fact is that its Google that broke the web, not SEOs, by relying (still) on a method that is now fundamentally flawed.

    Google wants “natural” link building. But that is never going to happen.

    The game now is how to simulate “natural”. Not how to become more “natural”.

    Who “naturally” links to payday loans companies or sites about insurance?

    No-one.

    Until Google changes its focus to ranking based on the best content (which they clearly haven’t, because the listings are rubbish since Panda and Penguin), then no matter how potent the epiphany, not much is going to change.

  27. I guess I’m going to be the one voice of dissent here, and say I disagree. I think SEO, and most marketing disciplines, need to be MORE focused, not less. I think in trying to tie everything together, most marketers end up just making a giant mess of things, or at least that has been my observation. Should a high-level SEO-focused marketer know that they need to coordinate multiple teams to get things done? Sure! But it shouldn’t be the front-line SEO consultants job.

    Also, SEO is a strategy.
    strat·e·gy
    /ˈstratəjē/
    Noun
    A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

    It’s not a “result”. The result, or major/overall aim, is revenue. One strategy to increase revenue is increase total visitors. One strategy to increase visitors is to make tactical changes that result in better rankings. Otherwise, there’s no such thing as a business strategy at all. After all, running a successful company is nothing but doing the right thing over and over again.

    It’s even more confusing because you say “Strategy is an approach that includes all roles in an organization.”, then go on about how SEO needs to be part of every role in an organization as a defense that it isn’t a strategy.

    I guess I’m just really confused about what you mean, since it seems to shift several times, and doesn’t seem to stick to conventions.

    I do agree with your larger post, though, that marketing in general needs to be an organizational goal, with no exceptions for any specific marketing discipline.

  28. amir

    Great blog

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