SEOs, let’s be honest here

Not a week goes by when I don’t read a SEO blog or status update or tweet claiming that good SEO is all about ‘building a strong online brand’, or ‘using personas to target specific audience needs’, or ‘improving your website UX to deliver lasting customer value’, or any of those other vaguely worded phrases that make the author seem enlightened and operating on a higher level of SEO awareness.

It’s all a load of bollocks, of course.

At its core SEO is about one thing, and one thing only: drive traffic to a website through organic search.

This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but in the end the primary means to achieve this are to rank the website highly in search results for a range of relevant keywords. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.

But admitting this means admitting that SEO is inherently an antagonistic enterprise that pits SEO practitioners against search engines. And increasingly, for a host of reasons, SEOs are unwilling to do this.

Instead SEOs, increasingly calling themselves something else entirely (inbound marketers?) to disguise the fact they actually do SEO, are wallowing in Google-approved marketing waffle to give the public perception that they’re all on board with this ‘legit’ way of making websites successful.

Because pinning your colours to the SEO mast and admitting, honestly and openly, that you build links to improve a website’s rankings in Google, feels a lot like waving a red flag in the faces of Google’s spam hunters.

And that is a terrifying thought for many, especially those who have bought in to Google’s anti-SEO propaganda. But it’s a cowardly stance to take, one that has a range of negative repercussions for our entire industry.

If we as SEOs want to escape the negative public perception of our craft, we would do well to be clear and open about what we actually do.

Because if we can’t be honest to ourselves about the service we provide, how can we ever expect anyone to trust us?

I don’t deny that SEO crosses over with a lot of other aspects of digital marketing, including social media, UX & conversion optimisation, web analytics, and so forth. But these peripheral aspects of SEO are exactly that: peripheral.

We shouldn’t muddy the waters to such an extent that SEO becomes unrecognisable for ourselves as well as for our clients. Our fear of the Google penalty hammer should not lead us down a path of ambiguity and obtuseness.

If anything, our fear of Google’s wrath should encourage us to be smarter, to work harder, and to be clearer and more transparent to our clients as well as among ourselves.

Only by making it very clear what we do and how we do it can we hope to win over clients and dispel the shadows surrounding our industry. Only then can we take the fight to Google, instead of living in fear.

I don’t want to be one of those SEOs that cowers in the corner, hiding what they do and pretending it’s not really SEO. And I reckon you don’t either.



  1. One of the best articles on SEO I’ve read this year. The industry does need a reality-check and to take a long, hard look at its core values.

    One problem I see is that SEOs recognise that there are many factors that can influence search engine rankings which are outside of their sphere of influence, and are trying to redefine SEO to incorporate these things within their realm.

    The problem is, they are drifting into the realms of brand-building and every aspect of marketing contributes to this. TV advertising, pricing & promotions, customer service, etc, all play a big part here. So do PPC, display, affiliates, etc. SEOs who try to spread themselves over this diaspora of activity are fated to dilute themselves into non-existence.

    I think the SEO industry needs to do some reflection and recall what it was like when every man and his dog was offering SEO services, from web design companies, to PR firms and social media operations. No one did it as well as a specialist SEO. The same is true in reverse; if SEOs start offering customer service advice or trying to dictate brand positioning to a brand team, they are going to look like interfering amateurs. They are also going to lose focus on what really matters in SEO and fade into irrelevance.

    If this high-level branding-view is really where your heart is, move out of SEO and into a broader remit. Apply for Digital Marketing Director/Manager roles, or even Marketing Director roles. If that’s an uncomfortable career shift, work with those roles to better integrate the channels and specialisms. Don’t try to drag everything else under the SEO umbrella – it won’t work and it’s disrespectful to so many other roles and specialisms.

  2. Great post Barry – pretty much ‘bob on’. SEO became a “dirty” word, i rember at 2013 SASCON (among others) there was huge discussion about ‘what do we call ourselves now’ as SEO’s tried to move away from being called SEO’s … but that wasn’t the right question to ask and so the answer of “change your name to ABC” failed again and again – it made the issue worse and turned water into mud for the industry.

    As a person with SEO in his blog title (SEOAndy) you would expect I do straight up SEO, and I do, but I also make clear that the SEO I do should be part of the bigger picture of Digital Marketing – which requires a holisitic approach to ensure that not only does your site gain traffic but also that traffic converts in the short and long term … SEO is part of the bigger picture, this is again something that actual SEO’s fail to explain and thus muddy waters again.

    Today, I think you are right, the SEO industry (itself) has a question to ask itself – and it’s not “what do we call ourselves” – it is “how do we clean up the name of SEO” and the answer is best pratice best practice best practice, not rebranding 100 times or creating new buzzwords or anything like that.

    Simply SEO’s need to set an example and through leadership, such as your own Barry, SEO can take pride of place as part of digital marketing. But until SEO’s stop pretending they are something they aren’t SEO will be a dirty word and for honest folks in the industry life will remain hard.

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