The scope and limitations of SEO
Search Engine Optimisation

The scope and limitations of SEO

28th April 2010

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several discussions with fellow SEOs, especially over at the (excellent) SEO Training Dojo, about what exactly the scope and remit of SEO is supposed to be. These debates were often sparked by a preceding discussion on valid SEO KPIs – what metrics we measure as indications of SEO success.

Some SEOs, which I’ll call ‘purists’, stick with a tight definition of SEO, placing the emphasis firmly on the first two words of the acronym: search engines. These purist SEOs see their scope as delivering targeted search engine traffic, and that’s where their remit ends. Turning this traffic in to actual conversions is a different discipline – conversion rate optimisation.

But many modern SEOs say that conversions are valid SEO KPIs, and as such their work as an SEO encompasses more than just search engines. Conversions are dependant on much more than just traffic, so if you are using conversions as a KPI you’ll need to be able to exert more influence on the site. Aspects like design and calls-to-action come in to play, and you’re more than just an SEO, you’re a CRO as well.

So how do we approach this? Do we embrace a wider scope for our work and venture in to conversion rate optimisation, web analytics, and social media marketing? Most of us certainly do. But are we really SEOs then? Should we start calling ourselves something else?

Or do we take the purist approach and focus nearly exclusively on delivering search engine traffic? Some ultra-purist SEOs go as far as proclaiming everything off-site as not part of SEO, including link building which they see as a form of promotion.

What do we promise when we pitch to a potential client? How do we define what we do? Where do we draw the line?

Some have argued that the SEO acronym has evolved over time and now applies to much more than just optimising sites for search engines. I’m not sure I agree with that. I firmly believe that how we name things influence how we perceive them, and that we should take great care to label things as they are. SEO is an acronym with search engines firmly at its core, and when we unilaterally expand this acronym to mean much more, we are creating confusion in the marketplace.

Personally I call myself a search engine optimiser, but I do so much more. I try to educate my clients to make them aware of all the links in the chain that lead to a successful website. SEO is a big link in this chain, but by no means the whole chain. I focus primarily on delivering relevant search engine traffic, but I also dabble in CRO, PPC, SMM, and even email marketing.

Should I still call myself an SEO? Is that acronym applicable to what we do? Or should we call ourselves (gag) ‘online marketers’?

There are a lot of questions in this blog post, and precious few answers. I’m eager to hear what my fellow SEOs have to say about this. Your input is highly appreciated, so please do leave a comment.


Written By
Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.
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