The scope and limitations of SEO

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.

About Barry Adams

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.

6 thoughts on “The scope and limitations of SEO

  1. I guess it works both ways. On one side there are no (good) SEOs anymore who focus solely on search engine optimization. But clients still search for search engine optimization. It’s a cause and effect question. Are they searching for SEOs because we call ourselves that way or are we calling ourselves that way beacuse they are searching for SEOs?
    I wouldn’t know what we should call ourselves on the other hand. ‘Online marketeer’ is too broad for many SEOs in my opinion. SEO is too small however, but until there’s a good alternative that gets picked up by the majority I’ll settle for SEO.

  2. What’s the point of delivering traffic if it doesn’t convert? You’re either an attention-whore or someone in business to lose money, in which case you won’t be in business long. That goes for charities too, who need to convert by getting donations and volunteers.

    SEO overlaps so much w/ usability (eg legible, user-friendly URLs) that I see the role as tightly intertwined. You can always specialize or generalize, but it’s pointless to argue over the bounds cuz you can’t take action/refuse action accordingly. Others will always be within/out those bounds, so do whatever’s right for the client. (Why am I voicing my opinion of others will be wider/narrower? To help those that have no view make an informed choice.)

  3. @Gab, I know plenty of sites who exist purely on pageviews alone, with little to no secondary conversion moments. Most online advertising is based on page impressions, after all.

  4. Hey Barry! I am an online opportunist! Where the audience goes and what they do is where I wanna be for my clients and my own properties. Do I do SEO? Sure while I’m doing programming, web development, website promotion and it goes on and on. Bottom line is SEO is all things keywords we called it keyword marketing before SEO because that is the foundation of almost all Search Engine Marketing. Links and all that other stuff was just keyword marketers expanding their services. 🙂

  5. Hi Barry! Interesting discussion. IMHO SEO for some sites is no longer just limited to strictly ranking highly for targeted keyword terms (the head of the long tail). For some larger sites it’s becoming more about discoverability of all types of content; pages, videos, images, etc. As well as capturing the long tail. With that comes a different set of measurements. But to your point regarding CRO, PPC, web analytics and SMM, it’s not uncommon for the SEO to be the most well versed in those areas within certain organizations. Maybe we need a new title 😉

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