What is SEO? The ever-changing definitions of a concept.
Perhaps no other phrase or acronym or phrase online evokes such a strong reaction in the marketing community.
Lately there have been articles that simply decry Search Engine Optimization as the bogeyman of the internet’s ills. Even the recent study about the decline of Google’s search quality lists SEO as one of the reasons for the decline.
I think there needs to be an important discussion about what SEO is and isn’t. And, just like any tool, how it is used to accomplish different outcomes. I would state that many uses of SEO are simply attempts to fool Google through false relevancy – which gets to the heart of what SEO really is.
Is SEO, defined, simply a manipulation of factors to attain rankings? Or is it something more?
For example, a client that retained my firm to market their business. We found out that the business model created problems for the customers, and as a result there were hundreds of negative reviews. Rather than correcting the issues, the business owners wanted my firm to help them outrank or eliminate the negative reviews and gain new customers.
This is the difference between rankings-only SEO’s and website optimization or marketing consultant. SEO’s set on rankings-only would take that job. Marketing and optimization agencies or consultants would likely give their opinion and walk away –
Where would you be? In my mind that determines the divide that we see in the world of SEO, and why it is so undefinable as to what SEO is or what it stands for.
This was confirmed by reading a recent discussion thread on Reddit, which presented a long-held view that is antithetical to what I think SEO really is. The discussion of those who work in SEO was about how their job stops at rankings. Once visitors go to the site, their job ends. What search visitors do at the site really isn’t their responsibility. In their interpretation of SEO, they can’t be held responsible if the website, products, offer, or experience isn’t enough to make the business successful.
I’ve seen this attitude since the beginning of SEO. A one-and-done mentality.
Of course, this type of approach is only half of what makes SEO such a powerful website marketing tool. In fact, it neuters it. It also leads to multiple scams and broken promises because rankings are the goal. When the rankings are the goal, efforts to achieve rankings range from best practices to tactics that directly violate Google’s recommendations in order to achieve sort term results. When the rankings go away (when Google catches up to the tactics), there is a shrug and an unsatisfying explanation along the lines of “Google changes.”
A long-time friend, one of the pioneers of SEO, Jill Whalen, described SEO as, “making websites the best they can be.” In that statement she reflected a distinct departure from the one-and-done tactics to a focus on developing businesses through their websites beyond just rankings and visits, but to provide an outstanding visitor experience that builds trust, shows authority, ultimately – to increase business.
Maybe SEO isn’t the best label for that holistic approach?
Just the words, Search Engine Optimization, simply describe the tactical functions of gaining rankings – where all the attention is focused on the search engine.
While there are shared components of technical programming, redirect management, sitemaps, and keywords, the divergence is about the ultimate goal of the tactics.
Despite the instructions to do things for the user first, there are many tactics that are necessary for accommodating the deficiencies of search engine retrieval technology – such as redirects and maintaining backlinks through a redesign of a website.
Website Optimization might be a better, more descriptive term that encompasses the full scope of the original intention. While it would necessarily include tactics that assist the search engines in accurately spidering and indexing the site, it also implies a focus on the visitor, usability, and accessibility of the website itself.
The factors that make SEO so effective, but seem to be lost in the communication of practice, are many:
- Writing. While this necessarily includes developing optimized content on the site and employing the page structures, the focus is on developing high-quality, informative, and authoritative articles that guide a visitor to their destination. Copy is written to inform and persuade – to sell. This does not mean having SEO’s write content. In fact, some of the most successful sites I have worked with had great writers first, who were trained in the basics of SEO second. Great writers are great thinkers, and they can integrate keywords and concepts into their writing without blatant stuffing or fractured sentences with forced keywords. It’s not uncommon to see websites and blogs rank highly simply because the owner is a great writer – even if they know nothing about SEO.
- Conversion Optimization. This requires a knowledge and application of analytics as a method of measuring the effectiveness of a website – and the effectiveness of the tactics used to acquire visitors. It necessarily makes judgements about the QUALITY of visitors as shown by their behavior on the site. It also focuses on the ease of use, design, instructions, error messaging and other factors to increase the conversions of existing campaigns. This practice alone has an immediate and direct impact on the profitability of a campaign, website, and a business.
- Business Goals and Objectives. Understanding the principles of revenue and profitability and how they apply to each business creates a unique viewpoint of website optimization. By developing business goals rather than ranking goals, the emphasis is on increasing the effectiveness of the website as a comprehensive sales tool. Extending the visitor experience beyond the rankings develops trust and efficacy, which builds a long-term business brand.
Granted, there are many business models and practices that are not successful, and in my experience, I have seen many good business ideas, but some have been executed poorly. In these cases, we can act as consultants and guide recommendations, but ultimately it will come point of contention, between the business owner and the optimization specialist (especially one who is comprehensive in their approach.) There have been a few clients where we have had to separate and go our different ways because of their chosen business structures or practices, as I mentioned earlier.
- User Experience and User Interface. This requires a knowledge of design, basic UX & IU principles, and updated industry knowledge from studies, articles, and tests. These are people that stay up to date on industry news and trends. Not search engine trends, but the psychology of humans and how they interact with digital interfaces. Understanding humans more than algorithms, which develops a deeper understanding of interfaces and guiding humans through tasks and conversions.
- Analytics. How will you know that your efforts have worked beyond a few inaccurate ranking reports? Analytics is what separates amateurs from the professionals. Analytics that is used to find understanding, not reporting, understands how to breakdown, segment, and measure actual financial impact of your efforts.
Of course, any SEO that stops at rankings isn’t going to be concerned with the user experience.
“That’s the site owner’s responsibility” they say. It’s not my fault if the website sucks.”
I’ll ask the business owner, is that the kind of player you want as part of your team? One who doesn’t care about the hand off a visitor to the website? I mean, if we’re talking about self-interest, wouldn’t a provider be self-interested in the success of the business in order to keep a client longer and get more work? Is it the fear of a person with a limited skill set staying away from other responsibilities and those that may challenge their work?
Any experienced digital marketer would immediately realize that there are similar issues that they have learned from experience working on multiple websites. After a time, understanding user experience issues and interface issues could result in massive improvements. At what point does SEO stop and user experience start?
Another factor in SEO that create a divisions is the purpose of the SEO as applied to the type of business. In many cases, SEO performed for many affiliate-based sites is a completely different approach than SEO applied to typical lead generation, ecommerce, or news sites.
Throughout the history of SEO, the most aggressive SEO tactics were usually found, performed and recommended by those developing affiliate-based marketing websites. When traditional businesses attempted to use the same tactics, they were burned by the short-term application when the next Google update eliminated their progress.
Affiliate marketing is difficult and highly competitive. New sites are looking for an advantage, but here’s their problem. Google does not care if you are the 500,000th website selling affiliate products – just like the others. Very little separates you from the rest of the affiliate world who are selling the same thing.
Because of that, tactics used by these marketers are more distinct, more aggressive, and focus on chasing the algorithm to find an edge over the rest of the market. And these tactics simply aren’t necessary in many other business applications.
The divide becomes even clearer when the topic of building links is added into the mix. How those links are acquired will tell you everything you need to know about an SEO or SEO company. Do they view links as a commodity that can be bought, sold, traded, or acquired quickly?
Or, do they view building backlinks as an extension of a marketing plan?
Getting links comes back to one basic principle: MARKETING.
How are you promoting/marketing your website? You’ve got articles and content, but are they anything that someone else would want to quote, publish, or comment on?
Have you established relationships with opinion leaders or influential people that would promote you? Do you have anything newsworthy that could be promoted as PR (public relations) to news outlets, industry pubs, or bloggers? Have you created original research, case studies, or surveys that others could quote or use in their content development?
Here’s the Bottom line about marketing for link building: People will link to your content if they like it and they can use it – to promote themselves!
And this is the clear divide. There are fundamental tactics that have been the same for over two decades. Many businesses are still doing well and have never been diminished by updates, as they approached SEO according to the Google Guidelines and developed a long-term strategy to build business. They did the basics, but also executed a strategy that was more about marketing than studying a backlink profile or measuring domain authority.
This is also why many great content creators are able to make affiliate marketing work. Rather than buying backlinks and resorting to the old methods of tricking search engines, they are out there creating content that is entertaining, engaging, and enjoyable.
Conversely, people that chased short term tactics that exposed a feature of the algorithm, would always see short term success until Google caught them in the next update.
These two strategies are simply incompatible and need to be separated, as they define the reputation of SEO and how it is viewed.
Frankly, the industry needs a split. Those of us who view SEO more holistically, as part of a business-focused website optimization. We need to separate from the reputation of SEO as the snake oil, chase the algorithm, temporary success, rankings-only mentality.
We need another word, another discipline, another provision for the practitioners who serve their clients and the businesses who rely on those services. Maybe it is Website Optimization, as you are optimizing a website beyond simply the search engines, but for people and ultimately, business development!
Anymore, I am becoming wary of SEO-defined services, as they tend to be a tunnel vision proposal for search-only optimization. And when that occurs, the vision and practice of the techniques are limited, and they will fail.
Avoid anyone who only optimizes for rankings – build a business instead.
So, what do you think? Are we due for a split in the industry? Where do you stand?