Myth-Busting: SEO is Marketing

under Myth-Busting, Search Engine Optimization.

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Okay, there are a lot of trip mines in this topic, so I'm going to need to be careful where I step.

Let me quote something Erin Everhart recently said in a post at Search Engine Land:

First, the easy one: Marketing is educating potential customers about your product or service and persuading them to buy it, so of course SEO is marketing, and it's quickly becoming one of the biggest traffic-driving channels out there. If your organization doesn't see the value of SEO or view it is an actual marketing tactic, either they need to change their viewpoint or you should find an organization that does.

Over the years, I've developed a second instinct: whenever I hear somebody say that an answer is "easy" or "obvious" I immediately have to stop myself and ask whether it actually is obvious, or easy, or right for that matter.

This can make me a bit of a contrarian at times, and it's not a great attitude to have at dinner parties, but I've found it to be rewarding. I arrive at insights I otherwise wouldn't.

To be fair, this isn't just Erin Everhart's opinion, and it's not really about her. It's a widely held belief, widely enough that there's a good chance I've referred to SEO as marketing before. It's certainly a marketing channel. It's also obviously very valuable, potentially, to the point that most of our clients receive far more revenue from SEO than from any other channel.

But is SEO, in and of itself, a form of marketing?

Maybe it's time to revisit the definition of marketing.

What is Marketing?

Wikipedia currently defines marketing as:

...communicating the value of a product, service or brand to customers, for the purpose of promoting or selling that product, service, or brand.

And BusinessDictionary offers a more comprehensive definition:

(1) identification, selection and development of a product,

(2) determination of its price,

(3) selection of a distribution channel to reach the customer's place, and

(4) development and implementation of a promotional strategy.

These are called the 4 P's of marketing. To be fair, even in the business world, marketing usually refers to the last two. At Northcutt, we occasionally touch on all 4 points, but the last 2 are the ones we have the most influence over, and the most expertise with.

So, how is SEO related to all of these?

  • SEO helps communicate the value of products by increasing exposure, clarifying the target audience, etc.
  • SEO can help with the identification of new products to develop through keyword research, analysis of search engine performance for specific types of phrases, etc.
  • I've never encountered a situation where SEO alone was helpful in determining a product's price.
  • SEO plays a part in selecting distribution channels, but only among the subset of channels that are search engines.
  • SEO certainly plays a part in developing and implementing promotional strategies.

So, clearly, SEO is very useful for marketers, no matter what definition you're using. But is it marketing?

I Guess We Should Ask Ourselves What SEO Is, Then

How do we define SEO? Well, there's actually more agreement on that than you might think. Let's take a look at the top 3 search results for "SEO":

Here's how Wikipedia defines it:

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's unpaid results - often referred to as "natural," "organic," or "earned" results.

Here's how Search Engine Land defines it:

SEO stands for "search engine optimization." It is the process of getting traffic from the "free," "organic," "editorial" or "natural" search results on search engines.

And here's how Moz defines it:

SEO is the practice of improving and promoting a website to increase the number of visitors the site receives from search engines.

I would tend to agree with these definitions. SEO is about increasing visibility in search engines, and increasing traffic from search engines, and it's about doing this without capitalizing on search engine advertising.

I don't think this is synonymous with marketing. SEO does not have to communicate the value of a product, service, or brand to be SEO. It doesn't have to promote or sell anything either.

True, that is the reason the vast majority of people, organizations, and companies use SEO. But there are also SEOs who run little experiments, who try to rank sites and learn more about how search engines work, without any financial goals in mind. What they are doing is still SEO.

I think this is an important distinction to make. SEO is a set of tools. It is a skill set. That set of skills happens to be very useful for marketers and as a marketing tactic. The set of skills necessary to make SEO work overlap with the skills of general marketing, perhaps more today than ever before. But they aren't equivalent.

Here's why I think that matters.

The Trouble With Equating SEO and Marketing

There is a reason why we refer to ourselves as an inbound marketing agency, and not an SEO firm. We consider SEO to be only a subset of what we do: part of a more cohesive whole. By separating out SEO, as well as social, content, and outreach, we allow ourselves to specialize on unique skill sets. Together they form a marketing strategy more effective than any of them can be on their own. At the same time, by clearly separating these skill sets, rather than referring to them collectively as "SEO," we allow ourselves to dive deeper and arrive at a more diverse range of solutions.

Everhart's latest post was a followup to a post she wrote a few months ago called "In 2015, Your Job As An SEO Isn't Actually SEO." That post, in turn, inspired a followup by Joe Hall called "In 2015, Your Job As An SEO Should Be Just SEO (or Why Erin Everhart Is Wrong)." Joe lists several examples of companies who lost massive business because they viewed SEO as a mere buzzword to repackage existing marketing skills. He believes conflating SEO with marketing is dangerous for that reason.

SEO requires many skills that are very far detached from what we would typically call marketing:

  • Proper use of directives
  • Optimized link architecture
  • Dealing with crawl errors
  • Keyword research
  • Optimized title tags
  • Proper use of heading tags
  • Measuring impact of site changes on search engine behavior
  • At very least, a rudimentary understanding of algorithms
  • An understanding of the motivations of search engines, and where they align or collide with the motivations of your organization
  • A basic understanding of experimental design
  • Many, many other things

To call all of this "marketing" is misleading. Yes, a good SEO can use their understanding of these, and many other technical aspects of SEO, to increase exposure in search engines, which is obviously useful for a marketing strategy. But these skills are so far removed from what is typically understood as marketing that it's not useful to classify them under that label. If you're going to equate these skills with marketing, you might as well call engineers marketers, because better functioning products are easier to promote.

Now, let me be clear. Everhart has made good points about the way that SEO is, and has been, changing. Google is increasingly good at emulating and predicting human reactions to content and web pages. Search engines aren't just looking at the content and markup on any given page. They're also looking at, and predicting, how human beings react to that content. Time to long click is now considered an important influence on search results.  My own data suggests that these user factors are far more important than many realize.

But even these more advanced, humanistic aspects of SEO shouldn't really be equated with marketing. Modern SEO of this type is about anticipating what users are searching for, and ensuring that those users are satisfied if they find you in the search results. The skills needed to satisfy users are very different from the skills needed to make sure your brand makes a strong impression and becomes memorable, or the skills to convert those users into buyers (short term or long term).

It's dangerous to conflate all of these skills simply because of the fact that they're all about people. For starters, it's still advantageous to have some idea of how the search engines are measuring user satisfaction, as this can lead to insights that wouldn't be possible if you were thinking strictly about the user. More importantly, though, it's dangerous to conflate user satisfaction with good marketing. Yes, it's important for the exposure part of the equation. But a satisfied user doesn't necessarily remember your brand name, or ever come back, let alone buy a product. Good human-centric SEO isn't necessarily good content marketing.

In fact, good content marketing can sometimes conflict with the need to satisfy users. A user who is never quite satiated is more likely to come back, provided you understand some other important aspects of human psychology.

It's certainly possible, and definitely advantageous, to produce content that meets both the needs of SEO and content marketing, but it's much easier to do so if you acknowledge the differences.

This is equally true for SEO's connection with other fields of marketing.

Don't fall into the trap of believing SEO is just good marketing. It's a set of skills that are very advantageous for marketers and marketing strategies. We must acknowledge how the skills of marketing overlap, and contrast, with the skills of SEO, in order for it all to work as a cohesive whole.