WTF is SEO?
Ian Lurie Mar 22 2013
Ever had a massive, life-changing epiphany?
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.
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:
- Treat SEO as a multi-team goal, like loss reduction, risk management or communications policy. Everyone has a role to play.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More