What is SEO and what it is not. A rant

Disclaimer: I want to stand clear that this is not going to be a post against an individual, but more an “ideological” post against certain ideas about SEOs and in favor of what SEO should be in my opinion.

Despite of my “Snap your face” memes, I am a quiet and understanding person, and when I enter into a dialectic about/against something related to our industry (like the Google’s “factors’ lists or outing black hat SEO), I always try to do it offering good reasons in defense of my point of view.

Today, though, is one of those days that I feel I cannot just listen and be quiet.

Since few months ago, I started seeing and reading things about our industry that I increasingly can not stand.

SEO is a collection of good practices (or what is SEO and what it is not) 


This phrase is very dangerous, as everything apparently seems correct.

In fact, we may consider that phrase as mostly “correct”.

On the other hand, though, could not we define every digital marketing discipline that way?

  • Social Media is a collection of good practices;
  • CRO is a collection of good practices;
  • Analytics is a collection of good practices;
  • Content Marketing is a collection of good practices;
  •  …

The issue is in the word “just”, because that word implies that SEO is based only on best practices that someone told us they are so.

In SEO, we can find those best practices presented for instance, by Google in its guidelines or in a more dispersed way in the webmaster help forum threads or even in Google Plus posts by some Googler.

Experience taught me though, that that relying only of the so called “best practices” can lead to huge SEO disasters.


Because “guidelines” are generic by default and refers to mythological standard websites.

The problem is that “standard websites” do not exist at all in real life (if not created by draft), therefore best practices, albeit being the “most desirable things to do”, may not be the most correct thing to do for a web site.

Let me explain this with an example:

In the case of implementing both of hreflang and rel=”canonical”, Google:

  1. At first told us that the hreflang was somehow playing the role of the rel=”canonical” when the same content in the same language was shared by two or more ccTlds / subdomains / subfolders targeting different countries.
  2. Then it said that rel=”canonical” should be present too in those cases, but that it needed to be self-referential, so to maintain visible audience targeting elements like the Title Tag and Meta Description.
  3. After few months Google contradicted itself saying that we should use the cross domain (meant as “cross-site”) rel=”canonical”, because the hreflang is not meant to solve the duplicated content issue, just the geotargeting one.
  4. For a few months now, Google simply prefers to not even mention the problematic of using the hreflang and rel=”canonical” at the same time. The paragraphs about it was literally deleted from this page.

So, what is the best practice here? Google is not really telling it to us, so we have to discover it by ourselves testing, as we should every time Google tell us something is a best practice.

Reducing SEO to just best practices is incorrect and dangerous because:

  • When auditing a web site we could just underline its issues and tell the client that they can be solved following “best practice 1”, which can be found explained in Google Guideline paragraph X… without considering the reality of the technological platform and development peculiarities of the web site itself;
  • We could tell writers that they should do this and that because “I say so and because they are best practices”, with the only consequences of having horrible writing, writers hating us and users bouncing more than a pinball;
  • We could even start disavowing great links just because “John Mueller said so”.

No, SEO is not just a collection of best practices.

Technical SEO, for instance, is:

  1. Analyzing a website;
  2. Diagnosing its issues;
  3. Considering its technical environment;
  4. Proposing and implementing the most suitable solution considering the client’s site situation.

If these solutions are the canonical ones, perfect. If not but effective, perfect too.

However, saying that SEO is just a collection of good practices leads us to another thing I cannot agree with.

SEO functions can be absorbed into and executed by others professional figures 


This is a theory that was largely explained by Samuel Scott in his post about the marketing department of the future on Moz.

Samuel and I respect each other a lot, and there are more things on which we agree than disagree, but his idea of the future of SEO is not one of them, because it is based on the faulty definition of SEO I described before.

In fact, if we consider SEO just a compilation of best practices, than it is perfectly logical that:

  1. Technical SEO can be done by educated developers;
  2. Writers can do on page SEO and collaborate into creating content marketing campaigns;
  3. That PRs will promote with outreach and with paid search too if needed, and so earning links too.

Years of experience though, have taught me that:

  1. Average developers do not care about things like indexability, canonicalization et al. In the worst cases, some do not even care about Information Architecture (and we’d better not talk about Semantics);
  2. Average web designers tend to enhance aesthetics over usability and that is why Ajax is the new Flash;
  3. Writers in general – also because of the disastrous education they received from low-end SEO practitioners – hate concepts like on-page SEO, and they mostly write when things are already trending than before they start being a trend. In other words, they usually do not care about what data are telling them in relation to their own users’ real interests;
  4. Traditional PRs tend to rely on known contacts, while the best link builders tend to discover new opportunities in areas that normal PRs simply ignore or think do not “fit into the Brand scenario”. On the other hand, even though the combination of content marketing and link building is the ideal solution, there are also licit link building opportunities (i.e.: credits reclamation or broken link building) that hardly fit into the tasks of PR.

Moreover, what about some SEO specialities, like Local Search or SEO for Video? If other professionals can absorb SEO as a function, who will take care of the MyBusiness pages? Developers, writers, PRs?

No – SEO – modern SEO – is not something that can be absorbed by other figures and SEOs more and more will work as consulting professionals able to:

  1. Explain and support developers with actionable solutions able to maintain usability while optimizing the web site for the best indexability and information retrieval by the search engines;
  2. Support writers in chiselling their content so to obtain the best performances in search engines, and being sure those contents are semantically relevant and consistent, hence “natural”;
  3. Support PRs, or even become one with them, educating about the importance of data analysis for discovering new unexpected opportunities.

SEOs – modern SEOs – will still matter because of their ability in understanding data and informing their action around them.

Let me tell it clearer: SEO is not just technical and PR, it is analyzing data, pondering it, deciding on an organic traffic strategy over them and continuously updating it and making the strategy develop in a consistent number of tactics while being able to coordinate its actions with the ones of all the others discipline.

That is why, if we want to think about the future of SEO, we should talk about the need for a renewed CMO figure, who must own significant knowledge of all the digital channels and be able to design a digital marketing plan that will be developed along different channels acting in synergy: the Inbound or Digital Marketing Director.

Finally, not everything Samuel Scott says is wrong (I told you that we tend more to agreeing than disagreeing): SEO agencies maybe will not exist in the future as we see them now:

  1. Some will become “Digital Marketing Agencies” or even “On/Off Marketing Agencies”, entering somehow into competition with the Traditional Marketing Agencies, which want the digital space just for them;
  2. Some will become “Vertical Search Agencies”, specializing in one of the more and more sophisticated vertical search, as it is already so in the case of Local Search.

If you thought that SEO is dead was the worst you could tell about SEO (along with SEO is scam), a new variant is becoming popular.

SEO is not existing, it is an industry invented term.

cat facepalm

It is a wonderful variant, because if something is not existing, hence it cannot even die.

Dear friends: we do not exist!

I will simply copy and paste how Cyrus Shepard replied to someone claiming that truth:

There is no such thing as walking.

“Walking” is a term coined by shoe companies to sell more shoes. It’s really just a combination of moving your feet around in optimized manner to propel you from point A to point B.

So many parents waste countless hours on “teach your kids to walk” scams, when they would get more value by simply promoting leg movement best practices.

Google made SEO useless (Content is King)

Every time I read/hear that phrase, I am sure that a supernova explodes.

If Content is King, why the web is filled by so much wonderful content nobody knows exists?

Users are the only kings, if we really want to use that kind of hyperbole.

I removed SEO from my job description, now I am [put whatever profession here]


We could almost certainly discover a correlation between the fall of the word SEO in job descriptions and the rise of other professional figures (Content Marketers, Inbound Marketers, Growth Hackers…).


Simple: because SEO does not sell well, so “let’s try selling ourselves using another description”.

In other words, it is simple keyword research applied to job description or, better said, interesting use of LinkedIn optimization.

Maybe I am too cynical, but only with reading comments, posts and forum threads it is easy to understand that a very high percentage of new content and inbound marketers are nothing but SEOs, who do not even understand what SEO, Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing is for real, and so create horrendous marketing Frankensteins.

That is unacceptable, because not only it is harmful to SEO, but will also lead to people thinking that Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing are too risky as business.

If you are a SEO, a real SEO, do not be ashamed of what you are.

About Gianluca Fiorelli

Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.

10 thoughts on “What is SEO and what it is not. A rant

  1. Gianluca, thanks for the great article! Yes, I greatly respect you because you’ve been at this longer than I have — your thoughts are always great!

    But yes, I disagree here in part. The phrase “collection of best practices” comes from the fact that people who call themselves “SEOs” are stating that so much falls under the “SEO” umbrella. SEO began (often, unfortunately, as black-hat practices) with a focus on on-site and technical issues along with keywords and links. Then, “SEOs” starting dealing with social media. Then, they started talking about conversion optimization. Then, they started talking about content marketing. And so on and so on.

    If “SEO” means everything, then it means nothing. But it’s a fault of the industry because we have no recognized, official body that can define the phrase once and for all. If an “SEO” is doing everything that I mentioned above, then it’s actually nothing. A word that means everything means nothing. (I think we agree on this, right?)

    “Average developers do not care about things like indexability, canonicalization et al. In the worst cases, some do not even care about Information Architecture (and we’d better not talk about Semantics);

    Average web designers tend to enhance aesthetics over usability and that is why Ajax is the new Flash;”

    I agree with this. Web developers and designers are always a few years behind. Years ago, they had to be told not to use Flash and to include meta tags and more. Today, it’s pretty much standard — but we now have to tell them about mobile design and schema code and more. But in the end, I still argue that it’s specialized web development. (That we tend to know more about at any given time.)

    “Traditional PRs tend to rely on known contacts, while the best link builders tend to discover new opportunities in areas that normal PRs simply ignore or think do not “fit into the Brand scenario”. On the other hand, even though the combination of content marketing and link building is the ideal solution, there are also licit link building opportunities (i.e.: credits reclamation or broken link building) that hardly fit into the tasks of PR.”

    Actually, a lot of PRs and publicists go outside of their known contacts. When one creates a media list, it will include every outlet and every reporter or blogger who is relevant — regardless of whether the publicist knows every single person.

    While I agree that SEOs can find non-PR link opportunities — curated lists and broken links, for example — the vast major of good links come from PR (or from doing PR by another name).

    Regardless, this was a great post (as always, Gianluca)! I have to run because it’s now the weekend in my part of the world — but I’ll check back later.

    1. Hi Samuel,

      great to see you here!!

      So… let me try to answer.

      1) […] people who call themselves “SEOs” are stating that so much falls under the “SEO” umbrella […].

      That is an attitude that – as you know (and also all the people, who know me) – I fight a lot and that I usually define as “SEOcentrism”.
      I agree with you that it is deeply wrong to put under the SEO umbrella all the others disciplines, but it also true that the evolution itself of Search Engines obliged SEO to consider more and more things that usually are under the reign of others disciplines.
      Therefore it is also true and justified the interest and somehow the need of being able to partly influence – in what are the specific needs of SEO – those disciplines.
      The same, though, should be considered as a vice versa (content marketing influencing SEO, Social Media influencing SEO…)
      In my vision, all digital marketing disciplines needs to work together and influence one each other in the best possible ways thanks to the existence of a directive figure able to coordinate them all.
      When one of the digital disciplines starts pretending to be the leading one, then problems starts and project can seriously fail or not reach their real potentiality.
      We usually think about SEOcentrism, but the same situation can be with social (Socialtrism) and content marketing (“content is king” syndrome).

      2) Regarding PR, that is the classic border territory where maybe neither PRs and Link Builders as they are now probably will exist in two/three years.
      In fact, what I really see in that position is a sort of mashup figure, who will have the communication skills of PRs and the data analysis Link Builders have for discovering opportunities. In other words, a real technical marketer figure for promotion.

      1. Thanks for the great article Gianluca!!!

        With regards to coordination, Many IT managers think SEO is just about adding few key words and pushing site to search engines. As per the current trends, lot of things needs to be implemented on technical side of portal(product(SAAS))… In future SEO’s may start sitting and working with development team..

        Good day..

  2. Thank you Gianluca for a great post!
    In my case we have had to broaden our work field to become “business optimizers” and aid other departments in how to do their tasks in a correct or in a better way to aid us in our daily SEO tasks. It has become a problem the last 5 years as I see it.

    Perhaps I’m nostalgic (everything was better when I was young) but it seems like webdesign now days means graphic design and no coding knowledge. But to be fair to them the web browsers has become better in rendering faulty code even Google interpret the page from a visual point of view instead of from a formatting point of view. Everyone has become a content writer since the blogs appeared.

    Another trend that has appeared the last 3 years is that marketing managers for example send us articles like you mentioned “SEO is Dead” , “15 SEO trends for 2015” and so on.

  3. Only question I had was…. duplicate content in hreflang (EN-GB/EN-US) or not? Guessing it’s obviously going to be better to NOT have duplicate content but…

  4. ‘Best practice’ is something our industry is obsessed with, yet desperately needs to get away from. Best practice techniques are the commonly known, public domain techniques which everyone uses. Since everyone uses them – they will never be your ‘edge’. To surpass your competition you are required to exceed them in some capacity, not merely to equal their efforts.

    The types of people who will do well in SEO are those who can think both creatively and technically, simultaneously in order to create value-add for their (or their client’s) audience(s). Just as Johann Sebastian Bach saw music as both a creative outlet and a mathematical language – you must see the web as a technical platform for creative success. Just as Leonardo da Vinci was a sculptor and an engineer, you must fix damaged architecture whilst also finding creative ‘moments’ through which to connect with your audience.

    Content is not king, content is a medium through which value-add may be delivered. Without adding some value for your audience (information, education, entertainment) you cannot hope that your content will do well. Content is the flashy jester, but value-add is the true king of the court.

    Do your research. Identify your audiences. Optimise. Connect.

    That is what SEO is. If that’s not what you’re doing, you won’t be around 3 years from now (fact).

  5. In 15 years of writing for a living, and several years since I first started being formally employed for SEO and Social Media skills, I’ve never once uttered the phrase ‘Content is King’.
    Great writing, photography, art, video, film etc are all wonderful. But wonderful content has never guaranteed success – how many great authors and painters pre-internet only became respected and widely-known after their death, and how many million great articles languish in corners of the internet no-one is able to find… And why does every single successful content publishing company have skilled SEO and Social Media specialists..

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