Ok, that’s an inflammatory headline if ever I wrote one, and it’s a little bit misleading. Because even though I think Ian Lurie is wrong, he’s still very much right. Ponder that koan for a second before I start explaining what I mean.

Ok, that’s enough pondering. Time to spring into action. You see, Ian Lurie wrote a post on the Portent blog recently, jovially entitled “WTF is SEO?”. It was a brave re-imagining of the very idea of SEO. A bold call to wake up and mature as an industry. And it’s almost all correct, except that it isn’t, and I think he misses some key points. And oh yeah, there’s a second part to this thought, about content marketing, but we’ll get to that.

A Quick Recap

Let’s start with a recap: The post is a very well-thought-out examination of why SEO is still seen as the black sheep of the marketing world, and what SEOs can do to shed their snake-oil salesman image and move into the light. The main point rests not on SEO itself, but on how it’s packaged and sold to corporate America.

SEO isn’t an activity, or a tactic, or a strategy. GoodSEO is the outcome of a disciplined, coherent marketing & technology strategy.

Well, in one word, no. SEO isn’t an outcome, and this might be the disconnect between online marketers in general (and SEOs in particular) and the larger world. SEO is not an outcome! Not an outcome anyone who wears a tie to work cares about, anyway. At the end of the day, there’s really only one outcome that the people you’re pitching care about: the bottom line. Yes, that’s cliche. Yes, it’s one of those truisms that seems like it reduces a complex situation to an absurd oversimplification. But it’s true, to an extent (some businesses, non-profits for example, have a primary business goal that isn’t profit-oriented. Just substitute the primary goal of the organization your thinking of in place of money and it still makes sense.)

So wtf IS SEO?

The point is that there isn’t a single well-run company that declares that SEO should be their target outcome. It’s a step to something more concrete. A strategy.

It’s not a strategy, either. You can’t have an SEO strategy, any more than you can have a dental hygiene strategy. You execute on details, one detail at a time: You brush. You floss. You don’t gargle maple syrup.

Here’s one of my main points of contention with Mr. Lurie: executing on details, one detail at a time, IS a strategy. That’s the entire point of a strategy – to lay out a series of steps and details that need to be executed, one at a time, to get the desired results. A strategy is comprised of multiple tactics strung together, and can fit into a larger strategy or stand alone. Oversimplifying to “Not being a dolt isn’t a strategy” is quite simply wrong. All business strategy comes down to “don’t be a dolt”. There’s no magic in running a successful company, and there’s no such thing as an “innovative business strategy”. Just doing the right thing, over and over again.

It seems that Mr. Lurie’s main concern is that the way we’ve been treating SEO has set up a lot of false expectations. Ones that SEOs could not possibly meet, and as such it’s tarnishing our reputation. But that doesn’t sound like a problem with calling SEO a “strategy” or what have you. In fact, that doesn’t sound like a problem with SEO itself. That’s a problem with the way SEOs sell themselves, but it’s hardly unique to the field. If you go in demanding big changes for big returns, you’re putting a high level of expectation on yourself, and that’s true whether you’re taking care of a company’s SEO needs or their loss prevention needs. Imagine if you went to Wal-Mart and told them you could cut their shrinkage by 50% if only they give you unilateral power to reconfigure every store they own.

Spare Change

So what’s the solution presented in Lurie’s article? It’s a five step plan, and I think this is where I have the most issues. In fact, it was that five-step plan that made me want to write this article in the first place.

Five things we have to change:

1. Treat SEO as a multi-team goal, like loss reduction, risk management or communications policy. Everyone has a role to play.

2. Stop pushing companies and clients to create an ‘SEO department’ or team. Start pushing companies to apply the tactics that lead to good SEO across all departments and teams.

3. Stop talking about specific tactics strictly in terms of rankings or traffic. For example: Point out the parallel benefits of a faster site. If there are no parallel benefits, think carefully before you make that recommendation.

4. Constantly remind yourself and your clients/bosses where SEO fits into the paid/earned/owned media world. You’re a marketer who knows a lot about SEO. You’re not “an SEO” any more than you could’ve been a “column inch” in the 1970s. But hopefully you know the rest of marketing, too. If not, introduce yourself. Audience analysis? PR? Paid media? Nice to meet you.

5. Always discuss SEO in context. If possible, restrict the ‘oh my god your SEO sucks’ moments to a single meeting. Then immediately broaden the discussion to include all areas impacted by, and impacting, SEO. For example: Meet with the branding/UX team and talk about how particular phrases in the navigation might improve clickthru, as well as search traffic and sales. Show you’re not that SEO pest who keeps screwing up their drive for a Webby Award.

I guess the best way to sum up my reaction would be: “What? You mean you HAVEN’T been doing this all along? No wonder companies hate SEOs.” 

And Now, Why Content Marketing Sucks

In fact (and this is where the second part of the post starts), this is something that we at S&G have been struggling with since day one: It’s virtually impossible to run a marketing consultancy that is siloed into one specific area of marketing. The closest you can get, maybe, is dealing strictly with PPC. Even then, you still have to worry about things like audience analysis, landing page optimization, etc.

So in that regard, I completely sympathize with Ian Lurie. I mean, I’m a content marketer. WTF is “content” and where does it end? Do I do email? (currently, yes) Then, if I’m already writing the email copy, doesn’t it make sense for me to also schedule that email, design it, and then work to boost its response rates? Do I handle static website copy? If I’m writing website copy, should I have some input on the design of the site? The services that are offered and how they’re presented? The branding? Should I do SEO? I mean, guest-blogging is SEO, right? How about off-line marketing collateral? Should I be designing and writing brochures? I mean, a brochure is basically a pre-internet landing page, right?

Where does it all fit in, and how do you draw a well-defined boundary that represents what you and your company should ideally be taking care of?  The more cutting-edge and immature the marketing discipline you focus on, the more difficult it is to draw lines about what you should and should not be doing, but the more important it is for you to specialize to set yourself apart. This is why the second part of this post title is “Content Marketing Sucks”.

Drawing Lines and Making Points

As much as I think Ian Lurie is wrong in the details, I think he’s very right in the broader message: marketing needs to be an integrated effort. It needs to be connected to everything a company does and is. As an online marketer, especially a content marketer, you need to be on first name terms with your client (or your company’s, if you’re in-house) IT director, Marketing Director/CMO, COO, product manager, designers, sales reps, customer support managers, and fifty other people that I’m forgetting. Just because we work online and have fancy acronyms in our titles doesn’t mean we can silo ourselves and expect to be successful. Which means making a lot of difficult decisions about what services you can realistically offer, and what you should call yourself, because one man simply can’t do it all. Even a small company will struggle with a full-service approach. At a bare minimum, you would need a designer or two, a handful of developers, a couple of writers, some analysts, a few sales people, some SEO gurus, a PPC person or two, photographers, videographers, social media monkeys, and that’s not counting operations staff.

So I guess the takeaways from this post are:

1. SEO isn’t nearly as difficult, nebulous, or hard to pin down as Ian Lurie makes it seem, so long as you…

2. Figure out what, specifically, you are good at and can do consistently, and do that, while you…

3. Identify how and where your specialization plugs into the broader marketing goals of your customers, how it helps them achieve business objectives, but be careful that you…

4. Maintain your specialization. As a company, you have some very clear and specific things you’re good at, and some that you probably downright suck at (ask me about my designing from three years ago!). Don’t do things you aren’t good at just to make an easier sell. Don’t, as Ian says, spread yourself thin by trying to make SEO (or whatever you do) a huge multi-discipline endeavor. Yes, you need to coordinate with multiple teams, but if you think a site needs better design for better SEO, don’t pile that onto your plate if you aren’t good at design. Stress the benefits of your discipline to other marketing goals, but don’t over-promise. If you’re selling SEO, for example, don’t spend a lot of time on how your newly-optimized pages will do great things for your client’s PPC campaign. You can’t promise that, and unless you’re ready to take over that task (usually for no additional money, since “It’s basically the same thing, right, and you’re already doing the optimization. You said so yourself!”), don’t push on it. Deal strictly with what you know, and don’t over-extend.

5. SEO is not a result. Ever. Rankings aren’t even really a result. They’re half-way to a result. Traffic is a little closer, and qualified traffic is a little better still. SALES is the result. SEO is one way, out of many, to getting sales, but it isn’t the only way. SEO HAS to be a strategy, because radio advertising is, and those are the guys you’re competing with for budget. And they are sharks who will devour you the minute you let your guard down.

6. Finally, don’t over-promise. Don’t lie to get clients. Don’t “assume the best”. SEO wouldn’t have the crappy image it does now if WE in the SEO field had done more to manage expectations and policed our little corner of the marketing industry. If we had stressed from the beginning that SEO is a collection of strategies rather than one clear thing you do. If we had made it clear to clients that there was a good chance that they wouldn’t see super-strong ranking results for months, and possibly never, but that they would be getting marginal improvements in other places. If we called out marketers and their clients that did things the quick and dirty way, and weren’t so petrified of being ostracized from the community if we doxxed companies like JCPenny’s that decided to do things the half-ass destructive way.

Where To Now?

So where do we go from here? I don’t know. The barrier to entry in the online marketing space is so low, and the field is still so young, that we’re going to continue to experience turbulence for a while. But this article from Portent gives me hope that we’re finally starting to ask the right kinds of questions that we need to ask to get things settled down. I could be completely wrong about this, and Ian Lurie (who is, in all honesty, probably a lot smarter about SEO and online marketing than I am) on point, and this 2000-word manifesto is misdirected and pointless. I don’t think so, but even if it is, I think it’s encouraging that we’ve reached the point as a specialization that we can have these conversations. It can only mean that good things are on the way.

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