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Nomenclature: The Industry Case For and Against SEO

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zombie-weaponSEO is dead. No, for real this time, I swear. Maybe. Well, you see, now it’s like... zombie SEO. It’s rumored to have died a few horrible deaths over a few years. And the SEO debate has been eating my braaaaain since Andy Betts published his beautiful monster of a post, Future of SEO: Change, Convergence, Collaboration.

More than kicking off a conversation, he revived an ongoing one, bringing it current and back to the tops of our minds in a big way.

Betts and I had a conversation about the reaction to his article and decided to take a sort of informal poll, to see how others felt about the convergence of search and social and the future of SEO. We connected with many of the people you know and respect in the industry, from SEO Training Dojo, Raven, SEOMoz, Bruce Clay Inc., Incisive Media, TopRank Marketing, Outspoken Media and more, to see what their thoughts are on:

  • Is SEO Dead and Does It Really Need to Be Put Down 
  • Whether We’ve Outgrown the Term SEO 
  • Inbound Marketer as the Right Term for Our New Role
  • If Not SEO, Then What - SEO, IMO, QCO... EMO? 
  • Where Are We Going

The Repeated Death and Reincarnation of SEO

The SEO is Dead sentiment and speculation on the changing search ecosystem, as well as our individual roles within it, has ebbed and flowed for years. Back in 2007, Mark Jackson declared the term, "SEO is Dead," well... dead. Sadly, it didn’t stick and he had to address this particularly persistent statement again last summer.

Also back in 2007, Mike Grehan penned SEO is Dead. Long Live, er, the Other SEO after witnessing the panic caused by the universal search rollout. Even then, he was clearly sick of the term SEO, warning that we’d reached the tipping point and would have to get a whole lot better at marketing than the more technical aspects of SEO to survive. He wrote, "We just moved one step forward in search, and it deserves a fresh description given by real marketers."

How many steps have we taken, often reluctantly, pulled kicking and screaming by Google at times, since then? In the past four years or so, we’ve seen varying levels of hysteria over Google Suggest (later renamed Autocomplete), Search Options, Social Search at the bottom of the SERPs and later incorporated in organic results, Realtime Search, Google Places integration, Google Instant, Instant Previews, Google +1s, Google Plus, Schema.org, expanded site links, encrypted signed-in search, and Google Search Plus Your World.

It’s Google’s world. We’re just hanging out in it.

So why do we cry, "SEO is dead!" every time Google tweaks or updates or otherwise stays one step ahead of us? Well, as Grehan said, there was a time when optimization was all you needed. This is clearly not the case anymore and hasn’t been for quite a while. We don’t have an awesome reputation, as an industry... check out this set of Autocomplete suggestions Simon Heseltine pointed out last April. I took a new screenshot of what it looks like now, just to show you how screwed we still are on that front:

seo-is-dead-google-search

Anyway, we know what the argument is, we know where the problems lie. It’s been revisited over and over and over again, ad nauseam.

We just can’t seem to agree on how to best move forward. Not that we necessarily have to take a vote; it would be naive to think some agreed upon moniker is going to reshape the entire industry. Though some kind of standardization seems important, especially if the end goal here is to rebuild lost credibility and move the industry forward in a positive way.

Honey, We Need to Talk

Right now, imagine you are Joe Q. Public, looking for information on SEO services. You’re searching and surfing around, and this guy over here says his SEO company guarantees top ranking on three search engines. Over there, that woman describes the same sort of services, but she’s an Inbound Marketer. This one sounds sort of similar, without the guarantee but they say they are Online Marketing Experts. There’s another guy, talking about white hats and black hats, but he says SEO is dead; he’s a Content Optimization Ninja.

dragon-slayer

Now imagine calling the police and having several people show up, all out of uniform, and claiming to be, respectively, a Personal Security Enhancement Specialist, a Danger Dissolution Officer, a Crisis Abatement Guru and a Dragon Slayer.

Which one of those goofs is getting into your house?

Danny Sullivan took a good crack at the name game back in December and pointed out a glaring problem, on top of the fact that the industry is ever changing, SEO as a term may not fit the role anymore, and the term itself has a black eye. No one knows what in the hell we’re talking about anymore.

There are some who believe, as Matthew McGowan does, that it’s time to retire SEO as a term instead of trying to morph it into an all-encompassing umbrella term.

"SEO is a term with many negative connotations," said McGowan, Incisive Media’s MD Online Marketing & Americas. "Moreover the term itself is limiting. It describes a highly specific marketing strategy that at the end of the day, when you lift the hood, is quite complex. Terms such as ‘Content Strategy,’ ‘Inbound Marketing,’ ‘Content Lead Marketing,’ ‘Keyword/Query Modeling,’ or even ‘Search Marketing’ (drop the Engine) or ‘Online Marketing’ all, in my opinion, are better ways to describe the industry. If we simply left the term ‘SEO’ for the history books (websites, ha!) the industry would be better off."

Is SEO Dead and Does It Really Need to Be Put Down?

I have a dirty little secret: I’ve never been comfortable calling myself an SEO.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. The foray into marketing was a natural one over a period of many years of experience and education, but it wasn’t until I took my job online, learned HTML, studied e-commerce and came out of my hermit hole to join the community that I even considered what I offered the role of an SEO.

Personally, social media marketing and content creation are my stronger points. I prefer to work with others who would rather leave that to me and focus on their strengths, in site architecture, link building, and the more technical aspects of SEO. I could do their job, and they could do mine, but we prefer to leverage each others talents and offer a better service. Each of us brings to the job a mash of skills, but we’re all SEOs.

Doesn’t that just lend to the "anyone can be a SEO" fable that has contributed to our reputation problem, though? Most of us want to do a good job. However, there are those who will try to be everything to everyone, offering a myriad of services all within the definition of SEO, even though only one or two points may actually be within the scope of what they should be offering.

I know what a doctor does. I can look at a firefighter and take a pretty educated guess as to what his daily duties include. A lawyer’s job is well defined. As online marketing continues to grow and evolve, I’m not sure I can put my finger on what it is that an SEO does. Can you?

Taken absolutely literally, the role of an SEO is to optimize for search engines. Does that accurately describe what we’re all about? The range of answers just within this post, let alone everywhere else, leave me wondering if we ever really understood what SEO was in the first place.

So is SEO dead? Well, that depends. Which part?

Terry Van Horne, Partner at SEO Training Dojo, has lost track of how many times SEO has been killed off over the years.

"As long as search engines are part of content discovery, SEOs (at least the technical kind) will have a job making what is invisible to search engines visible," Van Horne said. "That is also why the hooey of us against them is just so much B.S. They know without us, much of the good stuff would never be found. In the 17 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen some major changes and not one has come close to killing SEO! In most cases, these are business expansion opportunities, as new services are added."

Did SEO die? Not exactly, according to Jim Hedger, Creative Partner at Digital Always Media. "Dye" is a far better way to explain the history of SEO, he said.

"Change is a far better metaphor than death with far more precision and far less finality," said Hedger. "The way I figure it, SEO will dyea number of times but underneath all the dye, it's really the same old head of hair. I don't think anyone has ever been fully satisfied with the term 'search engine optimization', even in the earliest days.

"Nevertheless, search is a constant on the web, even in social media environments where recommendation is the primary means of moving traffic," Hedger continued. "Because there will always be numerous ways to improve elements of any given web document to make it easier for a variety of search tools to find, there will always be an industry with tasks and goals similar to what we understand to be SEO."

According to Adam Epstein, President/COO at adMarketplace, the fundamental problem with SEO is – and has always been – very simple: effective SEO relies on the stability of search engine results, but since the search engine gets no value out of SEO, they have no incentive to keep results stable.

"Any investment in SEO can be wasted by an algorithmic change by the search engine and search engines understand that every organic click represents lost revenue," Epstein said. "Almost every change we've seen to search engine results pages has led to fewer organic results – and more prominence given to paid ads. As long as there are organic listings, there will be SEO. But it will continue to work with less inventory that is more volatile."

Have We Outgrown the Term SEO?

seo-in-crosshairs

Let’s separate, for a moment, "SEO is dead," from "the term SEO may no longer apply." The overall impression I’m getting from many interviews, conference sessions, in-person conversations (yes, they still happen the odd time), forums, blog posts and comments, etc., is that no one is really saying the practice of optimizing content and websites for better search engine placement is dead.

Instead, the sentiment that may be growing to something of a consensus is that the term SEO just doesn’t adequately encompass or describe the duties of a modern day SEO. If I’m reading this all wrong, feel free to let me know. I don’t believe anyone is saying the more technical aspects of SEO, nor the traditional role, should go away and are irrelevant.

In his article, Betts pointed out a number of different hats we may wear. Here, search marketers and industry leaders weigh in on whether the term SEO has outlived itself.

"The fast pace of change in the search marketing world can get SEOs a little caught up in the specifics, always grasping for something they can hold on to – only to see it squashed, exploited, or changed by the powers that be, says Lee Odden, author of OptimizeBook.com. "Things like Universal, Panda, Encrypted Search and Google SPYW keeps us on our toes," Odden said. "I see a lot of agencies disassociating themselves with the name SEO and focusing on 'digital', 'media', or just marketing. And in the end, that's what most SEOs are: marketers. Marketing is about connecting brand content with customers that want to buy. The focus on content and customers is what represents a major shift that's underscoring the convergence in online marketing disciplines and tactics."

Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz said the acronym SEO isn't going anywhere.

"It's built into the lexicon of technology, marketing and information workers around the world and it has a clear, concise definition - the practice of improving organic/non-paid traffic from search engines," Fishkin said.

Someone who fires up Urban Spoon, shakes their phone and finds a restaurant – that’s a search. Someone who fires up Foursquare, sees what’s nearby along with tips – that’s a search. And SEO means you figure out how to show up in those natural "results," Sullivan said.

"SEO has never meant to me ‘get traffic from Google web search,’ though I’ve seen plenty of people who’ve taken it this way," Sullivan said. "Rather, it’s meant to me that you, as a marketer, identify where people do any type of search request, figure out how results are generated and try to increase your visibility for those searches. That means, as I’ve talked about for many years, you tap into that audience more than through Google keyword searches."

Mike Gullaksen of Covario doesn't think the term SEO is going anywhere.

"While we’re seeing the onset of "earned media optimization," which is all encompassing of non-paid media (i.e., social, relationship, search, etc.), this is just the evolution of what [SEO] encompasses."

Is Inbound Marketing the Right Term for Our New Role?

One term, in particular, keeps popping up as the logical successor to describe what SEO is becoming/has become: inbound marketer.

The first time I heard the term in relation to online marketing, I cringed, reflecting back to my days as a teenager working in a telemarketing office.

Brian Halligan, HubSpot CEO, is said to have coined the term Inbound Marketing. In the context of working on the web and within his definition, that may be true. However, inbound and outbound are well known telemarketing terms. You can’t disassociate inbound marketing from its antonym, outbound. Outbound marketing = cold calling, with all the negative connotations that carries.

But surely the general public has evolved too, right? Not as far as I can tell, though I’d be interested in seeing a formal poll.

Check out these paid search results from Google and Bing. Those related to online marketing are either Halligan himself or the sort making the kinds of claims that contributed to the sullying of SEO as a term in the first place.

inbound-marketing-ppc-google-bing

So what do others in the space think about inbound marketing?

"The specific moniker of the industry is for marketing purposes only, but marketing is kinda important," Hedger said. "Part of being a good SEO is being a good marketer. I don't think inbound marketing is terribly descriptive. I do not like the term as I believe it is far harder to market the full idea of optimization. I use search marketing, performance analytics, website optimization and pay per click to describe the services Digital Always Media offers, all of which fall under the umbrella term digital marketing."

Fishkin said he is excited for a broader, more integrated approach to these fields.

"What I see happening in the broader marketing & technology fields isn't the disappearance of SEO, but rather the slow realizations that A) web marketing is bigger than search and B) SEO itself is so intrinsically connected to other parts of web marketing that it's counterproductive to treat it as a disparate channel," said Fishkin. "The rise of 'inbound marketing' latches onto this notion that content, search, social and conversion cannot be wholly separate practices, and that practitioners in one arena earn massively outsized returns if they have cross-functional skills and influence in the others."

Van Horne said some SEOs will come up with a new name because "it’s easier than competing for terms they couldn’t get because they simply have no authority to begin to match the originals."

"People don’t seem aware that inbound marketing has been in the traditional marketing lexicon for decades so I think these guys are just verifying what traditional marketers say about us!" Van Horne said. "We prove it by not knowing a marketing term that’s been around forever and means something very different with some definite reputation problems."

If Not SEO, Then What?

marketing-wordle

But if not SEO and not inbound marketing, then what? Not that I’m saying either term are going away; each of us are free to call ourselves whatever we want. But again, some kind of consistency would go a long way in building credibility. The "SEO is Dead!" battle cry has left a lot of dead soldiers laying around the web to fuel the perception that we’re kind of floundering, here.

"SEO at its core is still site optimization and link prospecting, although social has an influence that’s growing every day," said Jon Henshaw, Co-Founder & CPO at Raven Internet Marketing Tools. "'Internet marketing' or 'online marketing' is still the most relevant umbrella term for SEO, SEM and SMM (i.e., social media management or monitoring). Focusing on any one strategy alone is like leaving money on the table."

Bruce Clay, Founder & President of Bruce Clay Inc., said he has been discussing Internet marketing optimization for almost two years, having redesigned his website around it last year and speaking from the podium on it every chance he can.

"I am a believer that SEO, while clearly a key methodology and one that is crucial to IMO, is being mostly impacted by personalized search and has evolved to being much more difficult than ever – forcing online marketers to embrace other disciplines," Clay said.

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at bigmouthmedia, said he has started to use two terms: "modern SEO" or "multi-signal SEO" (if he's with a "more educated crowd").

The responsibilities of SEOs are growing so quickly, perhaps it's best that we just label ourselves as "online marketers," according to Rhea Drysdale, CEO Outspoken Media.

"SEO has a reputation management problem, and inbound vs outbound is too limiting when SEOs utilize methods from both schools of thought," Drysdale said.

Is the future of SEO "visibility management"? State of Search's Bas van den Beld thinks so.

"The new name for an SEO could be visibility manager, because it is all about being visible for your audience," said van den Beld. "That goes beyond search engines and also goes for Social Media, e-mail marketing and all other online possibilities. It is about connecting the different marketing channels."

For Matt Roberts, Cofounder and VP Product at Linkdex, said SEO is moving quickly toward "earned media optimization."

"Media you can not buy is being labeled 'earned media', with most definitions being dominated by social channel content like blogs, tweets, likes, and ratings," Roberts said. "All channels featuring strongly in most evolved SEO strategies right now. Are we all EMOs now?"

Greg Jarboe, President of SEO-PR and SEW author, said that SEO has changed dramatically over the past 10 years since Google passed Alta Vista to become the leading search engine in 2002. It changed dramatically again five years ago, when Google announced its critical first steps toward a universal search model that incorporated videos, images, news, maps, books, and websites into a single set of results in 2007.

"So, if we're looking for a new name for SEO, particularly after the Panda algorithm change improved the ranking of high-quality content, then I'd suggest ‘quality content optimization’ or QCO," Jarboe said.

Where Are We Going?

if-you-have-no-sense-of-direction

Quite simply, we’ll go wherever we need to go; as an industry, search is home to the innovative, creative, intelligent and adaptable. The question is, how can we make the journey while improving the image and quality of services offered; should that be up to each as individuals or is there an industry-wide shift that needs to take place?

The evolution of SEO as a term into a sort of inbound/relationship marketing catch-all, in addition to its technical aspects, regardless of how we feel the industry itself is changing, could lead to dilution and further confusion. Then again, it may not.

"At our agency, the way we've been making sense of this shift is to focus on the changes in how customers discover, consume and share content," Odden said. "By understanding those key customer behaviors, we can optimize and socialize content to attract, engage and inspire customers to take action: purchase, refer or share. An adaptable marketing focus on customers and content transcends specific optimization or social media tactics. If SEOs can see that, I think they can see a lot further into the future than they're used to."

While the SEO's role expands, it's also becoming more specialized, Drysdale said.

"This forces many SEOs to lead a larger team or be the go-to person for connections to specialists and contractors," she said. "As we take on more responsibility within a growing field of focus, it's imperative that online marketing gain executive level leadership either as its own department or as a strong component of current marketing departments."

Adapt or be left behind, Clay said.

"Online marketing is no longer able to be done by a fifth grader, and certainly the sophistication of IMO and the cohesive programs it produces requires professional help," he said. "All of this will drive up the price, and hurt small business. But it is the future." Nichola Stott, MD, theMediaFlow and SEW Author, agrees that SEO is continuing to evolve – perhaps at a greater rate than ever before.

"If anything, I think this poses the greatest challenge for the traditional agency model when it comes to the most competitive sectors," Stott said. "As developments continue apace, larger more traditional full-service agencies lack the ability to skill-up or recruit specialists at the required rate. Whilst there is clearly a great need for cross collaboration with true specialists this in itself can be difficult to effect across more cumbersome organizational structures. I see this as an opportunity for smaller specialist agencies to cross-collaborate and scale efficiently; recruiting the required skills to really succeed in these spaces."

The visitor is no longer just a conversion metric but is now a factor in how well, when and where a website ranks, said Dave Davies, CEO of Beanstalk SEO and SEW Author.

"With the recent changes on Google from Search Plus Your World to the addition of remarketing functions into AdWords, it's clear that the future of SEO will be more about understanding who your customers are and how they're making decisions than simply about what keywords they might enter," Davies said. "While this doesn't spell the death of SEO by any means, it marks a fundamental shift in how SEOs need to approach campaigns."

So what do you think? Is SEO as a term so ingrained in the online marketing lexicon that it needs to stay, possibly expanding to include a wider variety of aspects? (It has already, for many). Are we doing ourselves more harm than good by continuing to have this conversation, as necessary as it seems? Let us know.

Andy Betts also contributed to this post.


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