The Source of All SEO Debates
SEOs love to argue about our craft. You can barely read two blog posts about SEO that don’t mention or involve some argument about a particular point of contention.
Generally speaking I believe there are two types of arguments that are pervasive in the SEO industry. The first is what I call ‘tactical‘ arguments. In these tactical debates, the finer points of SEO implementation are argued over, from how to best build links to what an optimal title tag looks like.
I think these sorts of arguments are important and valuable, because they help us improve and refine our craft. Without conflict, nothing ever improves.
But there’s another sort of argument that is pervasive to our industry, one that I believe is less constructive. These I’d classify as ‘meta‘ debates, and they involve the nature of SEO, its place in the marketing mix and in the wider world.
These are the arguments about whether SEO equates to spam or not, whether a tactic is white hat or black hat, or whether we should all change our job titles to ‘inbound marketers’ or other such nonsense.
I believe that these meta arguments about SEO almost invariably stem from the same source. That source is nothing less than how people define SEO.
What Does SEO Mean?
On the surface of things, SEO should be easy to define. Wikipedia says SEO is “the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural,” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”), search results.” Sounds simple enough.
But it’s nowhere near as simple as that. In fact I believe everyone in our industry has a slightly different definition of what SEO is, and what it isn’t. For example, in my lectures I define SEO as “getting more relevant traffic to websites via search engines’ organic results.” Quite different from Wikipedia’s definition. And I’m 100% sure you’d define SEO slightly differently yourself.
It is this inherent difference of perspectives of what SEO is, and what its remit is, that underlies pretty much all meta arguments about SEO.
“SEO is what Google says it is”
For example, in a recent article for Marketingland Danny Sullivan says the following: “It’s easy also, if you don’t know what best practices SEO are about, to assume that [Matt] Cutts is anti-SEO.”
And for his definition of SEO, that is a true statement. If you approach SEO exactly as promoted by Google with its guidelines and best practices and webmaster videos, Matt Cutts is your ally.
But I for one don’t consider that to be all there is about SEO. Google has, with great success, managed to co-opt the definition of SEO to mean what it wants it to mean: ensuring websites have an optimal signal-to-noise ratio for Google’s web search.
But if you genuinely believe that this is all that SEO is, you’re drinking wholesale from Google’s particular brand of kool-aid. You’ve bought Google’s propaganda hook, line, and sinker. And you’re definitely not delivering maximum value for your client sites.
“Linkbuilding is not SEO”
I know some SEOs – whom I have a great deal of respect for – that consider linkbuilding to not be part of SEO. If it doesn’t happen on-site, they argue, it’s not SEO. Linkbuilding is PR, they say. And they make a good case for that. It’s a case I don’t agree with – within my definition, on-site SEO alone is not enough to deliver relevant traffic to websites – but nonetheless it’s a definition they’re content with and that works for them.
There are countless more examples of how SEO practitioners define their craft in slightly different ways. And nearly all of our meta arguments about what to call SEO and how to position it all emerge from those different definitions.
I don’t think those types of meta arguments are doing us any favours. In fact, I believe they’re actively harmful. Whereas tactical arguments help contribute to the quality and experience of SEO practitioners worldwide, meta arguments only serve to obstruct and pollute – never to clarify.
Of course, pinning down a strict definition of SEO – which would serve to prevent a great deal of meta arguments – is just not going to happen. This is a fluid industry, after all, with things changing on a too regular basis for any one fixed definition to hold true for very long.
But we should perhaps keep in mind, next time we rant about SEO vs Inbound or white hat vs black hat, that the other person is very likely to see SEO somewhat differently. A bit more perspective wouldn’t do us any harm indeed.