Why 95% Of SEO Posts Are Wrong…And Right

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a web site from search engines via “natural” (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results for targeted keywords.

A few months ago Shoemoney posted to declare that SEO has no future. While the post was most likely nothing more than an attempt at linkbait, the reaction was interesting. Your view of whether Shoe’s post was right or wrong probably had a lot more to do with your definition of SEO than anything Jeremy said in the post.

The post takes a narrow view of SEO and in doing so is generally correct. The SEO Shoe is talking about is going away, but most SEOs would define what they do in much broader terms and when you consider the more liberal definition, SEO isn’t going anywhere.

Shoe’s post is hardly the only one where the argument depends on your definition of SEO, but it’s one of the more recent posts to come to mind.

A couple of weeks ago I asked how do you define SEO? My post was in reaction to criticism Dave received for not including conversions as part of SEO when he talked about the evolution of SEO. I promised to offer some of my own thoughts about what SEO is at the end of my previous post, though before getting to my thoughts what do others think the definition of SEO is?

photo credit: quinn.anya

Who Coined the Phrase Search Engine Optimization?

It shouldn’t be surprising that there isn’t a very clear definition of SEO when you dig into the origins of the phrase, though the question of who coined the phrase has been asked. You might think Danny Sullivan was the first to coin the phrase (I know I did), though Danny himself seems to indicate it was Bruce Clay who first used the word optimization in relation to search engines.

Regardless of who first used the phrase search engine optimization, if you read Danny’s post above, you’ll notice the phrase originated without any formal definition being applied. Despite efforts to promote a better phrase, search engine optimization is the one that stuck.

But does it really describe what an SEO does?

SEO Definitions from the Experts

Shortly after Shoe’s post proclaiming the death of SEO and the resulting criticism about his definition, he asked a number of industry leaders for their definition of SEO. I’ll leave it to you to read through all the definitions and decide which you like best, but I’ll pull a few snippets from their definitions here.

Danny Sullivan

An SEO is someone who understands how people search for information and ensures that they or their clients are visible in the unpaid listings that are provided.

Andy Beal

Making changes to the on-page and off-page relevance of a web page in an effort to increase the volume of quality traffic from the search engines.

Lee Odden

Definitions of SEO will change as search channels and user behaviors change, so it’s a waste of time to try and create a standing definition – in my opinion anyway.

Aaron Wall

As the web has grown and Google has become more sophisticated, the field of SEO has been aggressively merging with traditional marketin

Ted Murphy

SEO is the art of optimizing an online presence in order to maximize relevant search engine traffic.

Todd Malicoat

The irony with SEO is that the acronym is poor marketing created by a new generation of marketers – it should be WSO – Web Site Optimization.

A couple of things stand out to me with the snippets above and the full definitions from Shoe’s posts. SEO as you’d expect is concerned with search engine traffic and as such is often concerned with search engine ranking. Many things though might contribute to what’s considered optimization.

A few things that were mentioned as being part of SEO:

  • information architecture
  • keyword selection and placement
  • link building
  • social media
  • crawl-ability
  • branding
  • viral marketing
  • conversions
  • user experience

The above is far from an exhaustive list. Is it realistic for one firm to be skilled in all the possible items that might be included in helping a page rank? Is it realistic for a lone SEO to be skilled in all?

For fun here’s Google’s Webmaster Help Central page about search engine optimization. Google doesn’t define SEO, nor would you expect them too, but they also list a few services SEOs might offer.

  • Review of your site content or structure
  • Technical advice on website development: for example, hosting, redirects, error pages, use of JavaScript
  • Content development
  • Managment online business development campaigns
  • Keyword research
  • SEO training
  • Expertise in specific markets and geographies

When you consider the definitions from the industry and potential services an SEO might offer you can begin to understand why it’s hard to define SEO.

Your average lone SEO would have a hard time becoming an expert in every potential aspect of helping a web site pull search traffic. It wouldn’t be easy for a full service firm either.

One other thing to note is that so many of these potential services aren’t really improving search traffic directly, but rather indirectly.

For example social media doesn’t really affect ranking directly, unless you consider any direct links you might get. The real SEO value is in the connections you make with people who later link to you.

You’ll find even more value in social media not directly related to search traffic, of course. Does that then make social media part of SEO or is it something separate that could indirectly lead to improved SEO? Is social media SEO or is it something different?

You could ask the same question of many different services SEOs offer.

understanding light
photo credit: micsalac

My View Of SEO

Neil Patel’s definition from Shoemoney’s post most closely aligns with my own view of SEO.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of understanding search engines and using that knowledge to make a website rank high on search engines.
—Neil Patel

I’d broaden the definition a little:

SEO is the art and science of understanding search engines in order to make more informed decisions about your website and marketing your website.

My definition takes what I consider to be a more holistic approach to SEO and marketing. Ultimately you have a website and you want people to take one or more actions on your site, usually leading to some revenue.

Say I have a site selling widgets. All I really care about is selling more widgets. If more search traffic leads to more widget sales, great. If more sales come as a result of a handful of nofollowed links on some widget sites, that’s great too.

I want to understand as much as possible about search engines because search traffic is potentially quality traffic. But I’m aware that search engines are only one source of traffic and only one aspect of the overall marketing of any site I work on.

Standard Oil
photo credit: Pat Hawks

The problem with defining SEO is that the Wikipedia definition at the start of this post is really as good as it gets, yet that definition doesn’t mention all the possible disciplines that might entail. It also
ignores the idea that most SEOs know that search traffic isn’t the only traffic.

Is it possible some kind of SEO standards could help? Most SEOs don’t really need a definition. We do what we do regardless of what you want to call it. But what about the public? Would the reputation of the industry gain a boost if there was an official definition of SEO?

The next time you come across a post about SEO that affects you strongly take a step back and consider how the author is defining SEO. Odds are they’re both right and wrong depending on how you define SEO.

Optimize: (verb) to make as effective, perfect, or useful as possible.

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  1. sigh… and so it continues. While I do believe some standardized terminology, methodologies and best practices are great – ulitmately I agree with the sentiment of a rose being a rose as U eluded to.

    I think every SEO should have to learn some basics of search engineering right off the top. For a group that is trying to understand (ahem manipulate) search engines – not many have actually studied the art to any extent.

    Ultimately in an industry where we walk in the dark, it might be hard to have any formalization.

    I also believe in the SEO peeps having a strong grasp of analytics, unique selling propositions, pricing strategies and more. That does not mean that programs are inherently tied to conversions.

    I mean, wouldn’t that be ‘pay for performance’ which one would be hard pressed to find an SEO that does… leading back to the unpredictability that is our relationship with search engines.

    • Sorry to bring up the word standards again. I was always dead set against them, but the last go round I started thinking something more like an educational series or articles on the very basics might not be a bad idea.

      I don’t think it makes one bit of difference to SEOs. I know I could really care less how you define things. I’m just going to practice what I believe and know works and offer clients services which I know I can deliver. But I wonder if a site devoted to teaching seo 101 and backed by some big names would be a good thing to help educate the public.

      I’m with you to on what is and isn’t SEO. I think the issue is most of us are aware that SEO is only one part of the equation and so practice more general marketing and sometimes offer those services to clients.

      And it is sometimes funny to watch people fight over two completely different things.

  2. I gave my definition of SEO a while back (last year) on WT.

    Some of those things above you said that were mentioned by the “experts” don’t even come close to SEO IMO. (Social Media, link building, etc.) I know I’ve said it before, but I feel it should be said again, they’re all apart of Search Engine *Marketing*.

    Chris has said it best with his WT signature “Links are advertising NOT optimising!!”

    Personally I think that SEO’s that offer all those different services shouldn’t call themselves, rather just “SEM’s”, or maybe just an “Internet Marketer” in general, and then tell their clients that those services may offer good Search Engine side benefits. Because that’s what those services fall under, from my point of view.

    Maybe it’s just easier to call yourself an “SEO”, or they think it sounds better than offering “SEM services”.

  3. James, It depends on how you look at it. If SEO is about improving the quantity and quality of search traffic than anything you do to improve that quantity and quality could be considered SEO.

    I think links absolutely are part of SEO. With many phrases you won’t rank without links. That’s simply how the algorithms work. Like it or not links affect ranking and search traffic.

    SEO is still very young, though maturing. I think what we’ve already seen and will continue to see is people offering more specific services while others offer general consulting.

    Part of the problem is many of those things you don’t see as SEO do help web site pull more search traffic. You could argue they aren’t the realm of SEO and shouldn’t be offered by SEO firms, but at the same time you could argue that if an SEO knew something could help shouldn’t they make their clients aware of that something.

    • But then again, I wouldn’t consider “rankings” and “getting search traffic” SEO either. They’re benefits of doing SEO right.

      I view SEO as following guidelines put forth by SE’s like Google, Yahoo, Ask, etc. and making your site as accessible to the spiders and crawlers as possible.

      You could have the most optimized website on the web, yet rankings, traffic, and such would be in the gutter if you do zero marketing and/or don’t have anyone linking to you.

      I don’t have any problem with companies offering those other marketing features which may affect search traffic. I just don’t believe it should be called “SEO” (what though, I don’t know, maybe “SEM”?).

      SEO is all about good web design and coding, in my opinion.

      • That’s an extremely limited view of SEO.

        Since the beginning SEO has been about getting search engine traffic. You can’t arbitrarily take that part out of it. It would be like suddenly deciding that apples only include oranges and so now no apple is an apple just because you’re redefining it.

        The term search engine optimization has never been a good one. It was a term coined to describe what a group of people were doing to increase the traffic they could bring to their sites from search engines. Unfortunately it never really described what those people were doing, yet the name stuck anyway.

        • I don’t think that’s an “extremely limited” view of SEO, a strict definition perhaps, but not limited, that’s what it is. I’m not saying nobody should do just SEO, as you won’t get anywhere with only SEO.

          Take the wikipedia page you referenced for example, in the next paragraph it states:

          SEO efforts may involve a site’s coding, presentation, and structure, as well as fixing problems that could prevent search engine indexing programs from fully spidering a site.

          It doesn’t say a thing about “link building”, “Social Media”, etc. In fact, the entire page doesn’t even mention them.

          Sure, links and other forms of marketing may affect traffic and rankings, but just because they help doesn’t automatically mean they should be lumped together with SEO.

          Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing Search Engine Marketing, as it’s vital for gaining traffic, rankings, etc. from search engines, and you basically couldn’t survive without it (in the SE’s).

          I agree Steve, the term “Search Engine Optimization” isn’t a good one to describe the industry, yet it stuck anyway. Maybe if it were to admit that it has evolved beyond just SEO….

          • That part I thought limited was the idea about ranking and search traffic not being part of seo. I know there are others who would agree with you on the link building.

            But look at the definition I pulled again. It’s all about search traffic. That is the goal of seo. Links drive ranking at the moment and are a necessary part of seo.

            I think some of the problem when it comes to what is and isn’t SEO is really just what you and I are talking about now. A lot of things end up affecting search rank, but are they all seo. Depends on your point of view.

            Ethics aside most clients could care less how you get their pages to rank. They just want them to rank. If I can do that through social media I will. If I can do that through link building I will. The end result the client getting better and more search traffic.

          • Yeah, like you said, rankings, traffic, etc. are “goals” of SEO, but they’re not a part of SEO in and of itself.

            Take a car race for example (OK, maybe not the greatest analogy, but I just came up it). Racers want the fastest, most durable, and flexible car possible. So what they’ll do is hire a mechanic (SEO) to work on their car (website)and it’s engine parts, etc. But without oil and gas (SM and links), their car won’t go anywhere.

            Everybody wants to cross the finish line and claim their trophy and prizes (Gain traffic and rankings). That’s the goal of getting to the finish line first (really high rankings), it’s not the mechanic’s job yo make sure your car crosses the finish line.

            People want their site(s) “optimized” for the SE’s so they have as few limitations and conflictions with the SE’s as possible.

            If clients want to rank and gain targeted traffic (which pretty much all do), then I’d say they should hire you as a search engine “marketer”, because that’s what you’re doing for them, marketing their site(s) to the SE’s.

  4. @James – Our conversation is getting squished do I’ll continue it down here to give us some more room.

    I understand what you’re saying and it’s kind of my point. The problem is search engine optimization isn’t really an accurate description of what SEOs do. SEOs have been marketing since the beginning, but for whatever reason the word optimization is the one that stuck.

    Fast forward to now and there are so many interpretations of what SEO is and isn’t or what it should and shouldn’t include and you find an industry that fights with itself even when it agrees and a very confused group of people outside the industry.

    What you’re describing as search engine optimization most people in the industry would refer to as building a search engine friendly site, which would be seen as one component of search engine optimization, but not search engine optimization by itself.

    See Search Friendly vs. Search Optimized

    • Yeah, I thought it was getting a little cramped too. πŸ˜‰ (Nice read too from that link)

      I realize that SEO’s often do more for the site to get them to rank higher, get traffic, etc. but does that mean that they change the core definition of what SEO is?

      Say hypothetically, the NBA began playing their sports games outdoors, they decided to change the shape of their ball and players could only move once the player holding the ball decides to move, the traveling penalty was eliminated, and the sport gets a lot more physical.

      Anyways, for all intensive purposes here, the sports’ rules changed into football, and that’s what everyone is now playing. Would you still call them Basketball Players? Or call them for what they are (Football Players)? Because Basketball is still Basketball, no matter what the NBA (or maybe now the NFA) decides to do with it.

      While I can see that some feel SEO isn’t all about building a SE-Friendly site, and there may be a little more to it (like keyword research), does SEO describe what the industry does? Or does the industry decide what SEO is?

      • I think it would still be called basketball even though the rules changed to the point where it looked like something different.

        Both basketball and football are different from the original rules of the game.

        With SEO the term was applied to what a group of people were already doing. I wasn’t around in the beginning, but I do think more general marketing was already part of what was going on.

        I think it’s also the idea that an SEO is someone who works to improve the quality and quantity of search engine traffic. Early on, perhaps it was enough to tweak some things on page. As search algorithms changed to place more emphasis on links the same group of people who were called SEOs adapted and put more of their focus on acquiring links.

        Again I wasn’t around at the beginning, but I don’t think SEO was ever defined the way you’re defining it. Your definition is more about assigning specific tactics to SEO and anything that falls outside of those specific tactics you’re calling something else.

        I don’t believe the definition of SEO was ever focused on the specific tactics, but more on the goal. So as the algorithms evolved it necessitated a change in tactics, but it was still SEO.

        • So essentially, you’re saying that SEO isn’t necessarily “optimizing the website” moreso as “optimizing yourself” into understanding how SE’s work and how to market more effectively?

          I definitely wasn’t around in the beginning either (just started on WT within the past year or two), but the way I’ve always looked it as a specific method, and SE Marketing was the “art” behind what you can do to promote your site.

          If that is the case, then what is your definition of Search Engine Marketing, as opposed to what you view as SEO?

          • Sorry I took a few days off from the conversation.

            What I’m really saying is that SEO doesn’t have a good definition. The ‘optimizing yourself’ thing is how I look at it, but I wouldn’t say that’s the most common definition.

            Search Engine Marketing usually includes Pay Per Click in addition to optimizing for organic rankings. SEO would be a subset of SEM in that sense, though sometimes I think people refer to SEM as only paid listings and leave SEO to the organic listings.

          • The way I’ve looked at breaking it down would be like this:
            –Web Design
            -Link Building
            -Social Media
            -Brand Awareness

            Some of those things above that I listed may be only consider Internet Marketing to some, and not SE Marketing. But I don’t view it that way, I see it belonging to both (depending on what effects happen).

            Doing all the above well will get you good rankings and SE referral traffic.

            Also don’t know why some would only refer to SEM as Paid listings though, because that’s surely not the only case. I mean, that’s why it’s called “PPC” and not “just SEM”.

  5. Sorry I let the conversation lapse a bit. You might have heard about my laptop problems.

    I won’t disagree with your list above. For me the issue ends up being that many SEOs would see themselves more as internet marketers and have since the beginning. Search engine optimization just happened to be the name that stuck, though it didn’t really do justice to what a certain group of people were doing.

    You see a lot of confusion now about what is and isn’t SEO. The way you organized it makes sense, but know that not everyone is going to be bound by the definition.

    If a company went out, bought a domain name, and branded that name they aren’t likely to run out and change it.

    I think SEOs in general are an adaptive group who are more concerned with results than in making sure what they do fits into a definition.

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