There's no question that, in most industries, the best referrals come from the search engines. The news in our social media streams rarely meets our immediate needs. Undoubtedly, subscribers and direct traffic are a good sign of a growing brand, but the best first impression is still typically the result of a Google query.
And yet, over the past several months, I've found myself asking how much longer it's going to make sense to call ourselves search engine optimizers. Rand's recent video at Moz solidified it for me when he concluded that the job of an SEO is, well, anything that helps achieve online business goals. I think this is representative of a huge shift that's been happening in the industry.
Once upon a time, SEO was about:
- Identifying promising keywords
- Writing copy about those keywords
- Pointing links at that copy
Today, a site won't rank for anything competitive (at least long term) unless it:
- Gets mentioned by prominent sites
- Has regular readership
- Is considered high quality by visitors
- Spreads through social media channels
- Sends clear branding signals
- Solves problems for visitors
- Can be considered noteworthy
And the search engines are:
- Ignoring links that serve no "real" purpose
- Reinterpreting queries so that the phrasing of keywords matters less and less
- Building "brains" capable of identifying objects in images
- Answering questions in addition to just showing search results
It's becoming more common for SEOs to suggest that the best path toward visibility in the search results is simply a good overall online marketing strategy. And this begs the question: is SEO really a specialized skill set, or are we just becoming good "online marketers?"
What Does an SEO Do?
If we restrict ourselves to the "old-school" job of an SEO, it's reasonable to say that most of those who were in it for the long haul learned these skills:
- Competitive research
- Keyword analysis
- Online relationship building
- Conversion rate optimization
These are still highly valuable skills. In fact, some of them are more crucial now then they ever were before. This is especially true for relationships, outreach, and CRO. Some skills that "old-school" SEOs might not necessarily have focused so heavily on, however, are:
- Viral content
- User engagement
- Generating buzz
- Building referral traffic
These are not traditionally a part of SEO, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that sites won't be able to compete in the search results for reasonably powerful search terms without these skills as well.
What's interesting, however, is that as we learn these skills in an effort to boost search engine visibility, we often find ourselves in a situation where these skills may be more effective in a completely different framework. For example:
- Relationship building to build links alone isn't a full use of the skill set. It's also a great way to boost exposure in social networks, get subscriptions, boost user engagement, and increase customer retention. All of these things are also likely to contribute to search engine exposure, but thinking of that as the end goal starts to look ridiculous as the other benefits start to have more impact.
- CRO was never used strictly as an SEO tactic, only as a method of making SEO efforts more useful. But it's equally effective for PPC campaigns, in which it's sometimes possible to get to profit faster (even if the long term impact is smaller). Approaching CRO differently, it can also be used as a method of building up a social following and email subscriptions, and converting them into customers.
- Keyword analysis can still tell us what kinds of content we should be asking, but it can also become part of the broader exercise of identifying what users care about, what problems they want solved, and innumerable other things. These skills can be transferred outside of Google Analytics and the Google Ads Keyword Tool now that massive data sets of all kinds are available as a result of social media and many other technological breakthroughs. Identifying problems to solve and patterns in behavior is a crucial skill that goes well beyond SEO.
As time passes, it makes increasingly less sense to think about search engine traffic as an endgame. The skills we've learned are nothing close to obsolete. But are we hurting our image and possibly setting the wrong goals when we identify ourselves as "search engine optimizers?"
Maybe. Does it really matter?
Image credit: Esther Gibbons