What is Search Engine Optimisation Really? End of 2012 Edition

Posted by on Dec 11, 2012 in SEO | 5 Comments

Two interesting posts were published on the same day as this one, again with a sort of ‘defining SEO’ subject matter. First of all Paul Boag published: The Inconvenient Truth About SEO, to which a number of people from the SEO industry (most notably @billslawski) pointed out his shortcomings in the post. Later on, Joost de Valk replied with Want SEOs to lose their job? Start doing yours! – which reaffirmed Bill’s points around the true value of SEO – some of these, it’s fair to admit, I forgot about while creating this post.

The last two years have been pretty tumultuous for Search Engine Optimisation. There was a time when it was all about rankings, but now there is a multitude of other ways to gain ‘free’ traffic. I’ve seen posts suggesting rebranding SEO, or redefining it, seen Twitter chats about ‘what an SEO should be’, and others questioning what really is. So I thought I’d write my own take on it:

The Trouble with Search Rankings

Here are some posts guilty of Google+ hype:

Of course, getting excited about the new shiny thing is nothing new in digital media, but I always find it amusing to see demanding headlines that can make people feel bad if they’re not jumping on the band wagon. We had it last year with Pinterest, and the manner that Google+ effected search results for a short time suddenly made a Google+ strategy ‘a must have’. In the UK, the monthly audience of Google+ remains under 3 million. Facebook is 10x the size of that, but for some reason many SEO focused marketers with a blog remain uninterested.

Google Changes During 2012

The Google Panda and Penguin updates during 2011/2012 caused the most marked shift in Search Engine Optimisation. ‘Content Farming’ (best described in this Wired article) got struck first through a series of updates focused on demoting low quality content. In 2012, it was link spammers who got the brunt of the pain. Anchor text usage decreased in value, and large networks (some of which were actually employing people) were de-indexed.

Content Marketing is another phrase that has gained close alignment to SEO in the last year. Because of Panda and Penguin, the importance of creating quality content has become core to SEO. Some agencies have renamed themselves to get away from ‘search only’, others have just called themselves content marketing agencies from the off.

Inbound Marketing

I feel Inbound Marketing is good for explaining a relationship between a number of disciplines – but what hasn’t been helpful is the manner that its proponents have bashed so called ‘outbound marketing’ for being wasteful. I’ve previously created a graphic explaining the problem I think this causes, and I disagree with points of view like below (which was said to me on Google+):

“For anyone who looks at the math, inbound is clearly the better buy and its kicking the crap out of outbound.”

Of course, sweeping generalisations are hard to agree with. I agree with the inbounders that SEO is a tactic to be used as part of a marketing strategy – if you’re working inhouse, I don’t really feel it can be the singular focus of someone’s job (leave that for agency types). Indeed, it would appear that Rand Fishkin agrees with me in this video:

So SEO appears as some sort of digital catch all, and I’ve previously heard that good SEOs ‘are smart, and get shit done‘ (a great talk, for the record). Taking it further, some people have even begun to define themselves as ‘Growth Hackers‘, which I guess only really applies to start-ups, but which I heard from through SEO circles.

I’ve chosen to define this consultancy as ‘Content Strategy’ – which I’m told is another kind of buzzword that’s blown up of late. I feel this is one that actually makes sense. To me Content Strategy (and marketing) is the organisation of content resources towards an audience related goal. SEO is part of that, but it doesn’t define it.

Content is bigger than SEO. We know this from the reams of magazines that sit on our shelves, the music that we listen to, and the TV that we watch. None of these rely on SEO.

To me SEO is best defined as the below:

“SEO is the knowledge of how to improve your site’s visibility on search engines, and the application of that knowledge to web development and marketing strategy. Almost all other digital marketing disciplines are linked to it, but that does not mean they are it.”

With this definition, it’s easy to see why SEO has become so broad, and why people are using terms like Inbound Marketing to help define the profession. Is SEO Content Marketing? I don’t really think so – both contain elements of each other but they are not interchangeable. But really, these discussions and definitions are just turning people around in circles. As I’ve said before:

Inbound, SEO & content marketing – it’s all just semantics to me.