A New Digital Structure – One without Pyramids… or SEO!

What is SEO? I sometimes wonder this when I go to a party and someone asks me what I do. ‘I work in marketing,’ I reply. Sometimes I say, ‘digital marketing – search engines, social media, that kind of stuff.’ It’s a tricky question, because really, SEO covers off a vast range of digital disciplines. To be the best ‘SEO’ you have a little bit of everything (although you don’t need to be able to do everything – you need a good team for that). Kelvin Newman in his e-book Becoming a Clockwork Pirate says that you need a mixture of skills just for link building:

“The challenge of link building is that it requires a mixture of skills from a number of different disciplines. You need the ability to write a great story like a journalist, build relationships like a public relation expert, spot trends in data like a financial market analyst, produce video like a documentary film maker and build websites like a developer. I like to call the type of person with this raft of different skills a Clockwork Pirate.”

SEO Ninja Guru

Please let's end this

I am not sure you need all of this in link building, but it is desirable if you are going to become good at ‘SEO’. But I actually loathe the term SEO. To me, it has a range of negative connotations. Firstly, I feel that it is aligned with being a nerd, which although some people in the industry are happy with (I’m looking mainly at the vibes I get from Distilled here), I’m not particularly.

Marketers – Not ‘SEO’

I am not a nerd, guru, Jedi, ninja or (sorry Kelvin!) a Clockwork Pirate. I loathe going into meetings with traditional marketers and being introduced as a ‘Google Guru’ – as if what I do is so complex that it has a mythical quality that only certain people who use the force could understand. SEO is not that hard. It requires some level of skill and knowledge. It does not require the qualified knowledge of a lawyer, doctor or accountant. The notion that it is a split discipline away from other marketers is particularly damaging if you work inhouse. If no one understands you, then they won’t know how to improve. I work in marketing. I help communication between business and customer. I am a marketer. Drop the bullshit please.

Toilet Talks Utter SEO Bullshit

It is statistically probable that the 80% of people who work purely in SEO (i.e at a consultant level) are men. The reasons for this are obvious – it’s seen as geeky, analytical and tech heavy. This doesn’t happen in communication based disciplines, such as PR.

Deconstructing the Acronym

If we deconstruct the tired acronym of SEO – it is ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. To me, that is the discipline of optimising websites so they are compliant with search engine guidelines and they can sufficiently rank for certain keywords as best they can.

This definition is a combination of website development and content placement; it is not even link building, so link building is not really SEO. Link building is what you do after the optimisation of your website to build rankings further. Yet somehow we’ve concluded that SEO is a three step process (later four, with the addition of social media) thus:

  • Website architecture
  • Keyword and content placement
  • Link building
  • Social media

A search for SEO pyramid on Google Images provides a baffling array of infographics, many of which make no hierarchical sense whatsoever. Why would keyword placement be at the bottom?

The best we come across is (typically) from SEOmoz:

SEOmoz Pyramid

Here’s the video where Rand explains it all.

But alas, this is the best of a bad bunch; for starters it’s two years old (and thus needs replacing) and these pyramids don’t actually work. Web analytics is not on there, and then link building and social media are for some reason split and the whole thing is a pyramid. The reason for this is that you should “build from the bottom up”. Okay – but that doesn’t need a pyramid. A pyramid might suggest you have to invest more time at the bottom than at the top, which isn’t true.

Instead of this SEO Pyramid, which is flawed, I’m proposing an Inbound Strategy Model. This consists of four main disciplines which are blocks from the bottom up, but which you adjust resource according to requirements.

Addition: I know I’ve lambasted SEOmoz a little above – but actually (as Luca rightly points out in the comments) Rand Fishkin is one of the leading speakers on Inbound Marketing. His whole business is built on it. It sort of contradicts the model above, but as noted – it’s out of date anyway!

From the bottom they are:

  • Web Analytics/Research
  • Web Development
  • Content Placement
  • Inbound Marketing

The Inbound Strategy Model:

The Inbound Strategy Model

Sideward Arrows = spend on a particular discipline. This is adjustable according to requirements.

Upward Arrow = a relationship between departments. Web Analytics effects all departments, but Web Development only really affects Content Placement above it, which correspondingly affects Inbound Marketing above it. For instance, Inbound Marketing requires strong Content Placement to build links, and Content Placement relies on strong Web Development.

Now it’s time to investigate each of these areas in more detail and investigate the kind of people we need where:

Web Analytics & Research

Like all forms of marketing, digital relies heavily on research. The more you do, then more informed your decisions will be and the fewer mistakes you’ll make. There are really three main forms of digital research:

Website Analytics – Observing website performance and making decisions on further optimisation based on data sets. A good analyst is typically someone who loves Excel and has a good understanding of statistics (think maths or an economics degree). Good ones also need to understand the deployment of the damned analytics urchins so they actually work. In SEO, you need a bit of this, but you don’t need to become an expert. One of the most highly regarded in this field is Avinash Kaushik. I am not much of an analytics specialist.

Keyword Analysis – Observing search engine volumes and trends and making decisions on content optimisation according to data sets. This requires some level of ability on Excel. The observation of the data also requires a creative mind who understands possibilities of content. A master here is Richard Baxter of SEOGadget. Watching his process at a conference can’t help but bring applause.

Competitive Analysis – Observing how competitors perform in the search and social media space. This can include a range of indicators: branded searches, Hitwise traffic data, social media presence, rankings for keyword sets, link analysis, content strategy. You can make this analysis technical if you wish, and Sam Crocker certainly knows a lot about this side. I don’t, but I do think search market competitive analysis is one of my stronger areas.

Web Development

Much of SEOs beginnings can be heralded from web development, and for many people SEO is perceived as a technical discipline. I have applied for jobs in more creative fields to be told, ‘You seem like a good candidate, but your time in SEO would suggest you’re rather too technical.’ (He probably failed to look down the list of jobs where I worked as a writer).

But I know little on the execution of web development. Give me a script and I will do nothing with it. However, I understand the process. You don’t need to be good at web development to do SEO; you just need to understand how websites work and have someone who can carry out the development for you. An understanding of how difficult certain processes may be in relation to website structure is also imperative.

You need to have an understanding of how a Content Management System affects process, front end UX design and ultimately the pitfalls and constraints of web development. A good developer/designer will be able to carry these out. Also, we’re getting to the stage now where web developers need to know SEO as a prerequisite for their job. Web developers need to have an understanding of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and realise why duplicate content is evil and why they need to build a CMS that supports content placement. If you don’t and you want to build a website, well I think you’re sort of doomed in web development.

Content Placement

Here you need a writer, or moreover, a producer. Being a writer is fine, but if you’re not particularly comfortable with a range of Content Management Systems, Image manipulation and usage and video production, then I would say go to a magazine, because online is not for you. A writer needs to be able to do three key things:

  • Place keywords (prioritised from analysis) within titles (<title> and onpage) in a pleasing order that actually makes grammatical sense.
  • Write short descriptions of content and products that sell either the content or product and make the reader either want to click through on a search engine, or click through to buy.
  • Write long articles (400+ words) that are one of the following: informative, insightful, funny, topical or engaging, and hopefully a combination of those.

Oh, and you need to know HTML pretty well too.

Furthermore, a really good producer would be able to:

  • Create images and diagrams to illustrate key points (infographics).
  • Produce and present video and offer advice.

Few people have all of these skills. Most people can either make words sing, or make pictures come to life. It is a remarkable person who can do both.

I advise all writers to put down their SEO pens and read David Ogilvy’s On Advertising and Luke Sullivan’s Hey Whipple, Squeeze This before believing their unpublished manuscript justifies their position writing on an e-commerce website. As you might be able to tell, my main background is in writing. I have done all of these disciplines (apart from infographic creation) and worked for an e-commerce seller of airport parking; an agency where I wrote long copy on subjects including personal finance, travel and gas boilers; a games publisher where I wrote the descriptions on vacuous flash games and produced microsites; and a publisher where I advise (mainly offline) journalists on how to write for the web. I have three unpublished manuscripts and an 80,000 word travel blog that barely anyone has read.

Inbound Marketing

SEOmoz’s diagram puts link building and social as separate disciplines. But why think of link building as another discipline to social media? Inbound marketing is rather more accurate. To think yourself as a pure link builder is a long term path to a P45. You’ve got to think bigger.

In Inbound Marketing, you either need to be a producer, or make sure your producer is good enough to create the kind of remarkable  content that people want to link to. You then need to be able to distribute that content on forums, blogs, websites and social media in order to get the necessary links back to your site. You need to have the hustle to build relationships and not piss people off by being heavy handed and annoying. You need to not be put off by setbacks and never give up – it can be extremely tedious at times.

Inbound marketing is not really singular a discipline, it’s a collection of disciplines, and much of it is really not much to do with SEO other than it builds links naturally and promotes your brand. Really you need to tie yourself into your marketing department and make sure their adding inbound digital to their thinking – you’ll probably move much faster than being siloed.

People keen to understand this mix should read Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media and Blogs by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan. If you want a working practice of how to do it, then Rand Fishkin is your man. His company runs a huge SEO blog which generates tons of links and builds an audience (which he sells software to), an amazing social media presence, and a company that has great customer service.


So there you have it. Do these disciplines make you a ninja, guru or jedi? Nope – they don’t even make you an SEO! (I managed to go through all the stages without even mentioning the godforsaken acronym). These combined disciplines make you good at Digital Marketing. It’s time for the catchall and outdated ‘SEO’ to be replaced. Funnily enough, who is the likely to be the most knowledgeable at all of these disciplines combined? Why, it’s the SEO of course. Time to change your job title – you do more than optimise for search engines now.

I'm James Carson, founder of Digital Factoid. Google+ Twitter

  • AndyMarchantuk

    Hi James,

    Great article, explaining what I do to the uninitiated is a tiring task, not because of the technicality of our role, but as digital marketers we dip our hands in many, traditionally unrelated, aspects of marketing.

    Whilst I agree with your Inbound Strategy Model, I think that it’s worth stating how ineffective one discipline may be with out another reaching a certain stage towards completion, and for that reason I would say that the web development might have more connection with the other departments than you may have indicated.

    Either way, great article, I enjoy reading them…


    • Anonymous

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the comment – the model indicates a connection for development with content placement and analytics, but i don’t think it’s crucial for inbound marketing. It can certainly be useful, but I don’t think it’s crucial. But yeah, I guess should I should’ve pointed out that each block is dependent on the next. For instance, you can’t do Inbound Marketing without Content.

      The post probably needs an edit after some user input – it was getting pretty massive and I grew tired before posting!

    • Anonymous

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the comment – the model indicates a connection for development with content placement and analytics, but i don’t think it’s crucial for inbound marketing. It can certainly be useful, but I don’t think it’s crucial. But yeah, I guess should I should’ve pointed out that each block is dependent on the next. For instance, you can’t do Inbound Marketing without Content.

      The post probably needs an edit after some user input – it was getting pretty massive and I grew tired before posting!

  • http://www.italiaseo.net Gianluca Fiorelli

    Hi James,
    even though I mostly agree with you… I think you did a bad job in researching the sources. The famous SEO Piramid by SEOmoz is at least two years old, therefore to present it as it was an actually 100% valid information is not really correct. In fact, if you visit the SEOmoz blog, you could see how Moz – at least since almost 1 year – is preaching the benefits of Inbound Marketing (did you know that Rand helped out Dhamesh for the book?), and Rand Fishkin is actually one of the best Inbound Marketing evangelist (check this post, for instance: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/white-hat-seo-it-fing-works-12421 ).

    Finally… don’t commit you all the great mistake to think that SEO is dead… it is not. It has to be thought inside a larger Inbound strategy, but actually if your site is not SEOed, you’re still missing a really big Inbound traffic source… Search Engines :)

    • Anonymous

      Hi Gianluca, well if it’s old then it needs replacing in my opinion!

      I know that SEOmoz is preaching the benefits of Inbound Marketing – I first heard the word from Rand from a conference last year. I’m not criticizing SEOmoz – I’m just saying the pyramid is out of date! Most of SEOmoz’s blogs are about inbound marketing now.

      I have not really said that SEO is dead – if you re-read the last paragraph, then I suggest that the best qualified people on these disciplines will be SEOs. It is not SEO is dead, but SEO needs renaming. We call ourselves Search Engine Optimisers, when most of the time we are not optimising for search engines, we are merely doing inbound marketing.

  • Od