How Language Transforms: Should “SEO” Get a New Name?
Content Marketing

How Language Transforms: Should “SEO” Get a New Name?

8th April 2015

Should SEO Get a New Name?


What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

In Shakepeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Juliet pleas that it does not matter that Romeo is from the house of Montague, her sworn enemy. She’s arguing that the name of something doesn’t affect what it really is. Her innocent belief is proven false. It does matter. In the case of our industry, the term SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has become as big a deterrent to success as the forced and failed pairing of the houses of Capulet and Montague.

The genesis of SEO is outlined beautifully in The History of SEO site. It plots the evolution of now-defunct engines as well as modern day engines and how SEO as a discipline evolved.

Our goal in 1998 was to make sure that keywords people were using to search were included in the titles and meta descriptions and that was nearly enough.  When Google went live in 1998 they built an algorithm based in part on the premise that links from sites to other sites was a vote of quality and popularity so link building became a big part of SEO. Our job is now far more complex, needs far more integration into an already fragmented brand digital strategy and requires so many skills they don’t exist in a single practitioner.

At SMX (Search Marketing Expo) West last month – Meet the SEO’s panel SEER Interactive Founder, Wil Reynolds, shared that much of what he learned in his first nine years as an SEO is irrelevant today. Think about that. What other occupation is so bound to a sea of changes it requires brand new refreshing of learning because its’ evolution is so profound?

SEO as a discipline is responsible for an inordinate amount of traffic, revenue and brand success yet it’s the only marketing strategy that some CMO’s have professed to ignore. The signals and foundations for SEO; technical, relevance and authority, can be difficult to gauge and requires multiple disciplines and skills to impact. To complicate things further, SEO isn’t just what happens on a site. It’s the relevance and authority derived from so many other signals.

SEO’s understand this, but unfortunately those outside of the industry don’t. Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist and linguist shares, “Different languages slow the flow of ideas between two groups, they slow the flow of technologies.”  In integrated SEO programs and campaigns, we touch every channel and device that may be a part of the customer journey, from social to local to video to mobile. Yet many traditional marketers and CMO’s in charge of the brand budget don’t see our efforts past “Search Engine Optimization”.

“The wonderful paradox of our tribalism is that we are really remarkably and uniquely cooperative among animals within our tribal groups,” says Pagel, “and yet that cooperation that we engage in, at least throughout our history, has largely been confined to other members of our tribe.” This tendency to keep ourselves in isolation crashes head first into our modern world which pushes globalization and the need for language agreement and understanding between tribes. We as SEO’s understand the complexity of our language, yet we are struggling to impart that complexity to our neighboring brand, PR, social and traditional marketing tribes. Struggling so much in fact that our impact to a brands health and revenue success has very little relationship with the brand budgets we’re given to accomplish the goal of an exceptional search experience.

To complicate things further some of the impact we’re trying to make happens in channels in which the result is attributed to correlation (great brand storytelling and brand content strategy) rather than causation. Google’s renewed access to the Twitter API will result in more indexing of Tweets in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page), so one could argue we should participate in the strategies that leverage Twitter as a channel and tactic. Yet Google declares it doesn’t leverage Facebook signals as part of the algorithm, so one could argue we shouldn’t be engaged in that channel.

It’s imperative that we find a way to share with our connected yet disparate tribes that anytime a customer is searching, we should be there, not just as that searching pertains to engines.

If we were to assign a percentage of an SEO’s workload based on different activities (time spent in other channels, budget, etc) arguably 50% of it would be about a search engine. SEO is about optimizing content, it’s about optimizing profiles, it’s about optimizing device and channels, it’s about optimizing experiences and usability. Search Engine Optimization is a woefully inadequate moniker.

There have been many pleas from search professionals to refine and redefine the language of our disciple. In 2013 in Search Engine Land Jenny Halasz noted an opportunity to change to subject experience optimization.

Eric Enge, Founder of Stone Temple Consulting and co-author of “The Art of SEO” has pleaded for a change from link building to brand building.

In the 19 years I’ve been an online marketer/content developer/inbound marketer/SEO/digital strategist many things have changed, but the thing that hasn’t changed is the desire to help people search and to help our brands be a part of that search experience when relevant. It’s a search for products and brands, sure. But people are searching for more; for answers to problems, for connection, for belonging, for a new experience. They search for ways to be better; better parents, better surfers, better artists, better cooks, better kissers (one of the top YouTube videos since its inception) in short, better people.

That we as an industry are responsible for the quality of that searching, indeed, makes this a noble profession. Given that our language helps other tribes understand this nobility, it’s time for a change. How would you change the title and job description “SEO” to be more reflective of the realities of the job and the outcomes we impact?


Written By
Lisa Williams is the Associate Director of Digital Engagement at Oregon Health & Science University and author of "When Everybody Clicks: Sustainable Digital Marketing". She is a 19-year veteran of online marketing and has been featured in Kiplinger Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Boston Globe and The Oregonian. Lisa is on the...
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