I think I should eventually ban these three letters from my vocabulary and make the effort not to use the term, or way more carefully. I think, eventually, we should all make the effort. I realize more and more the term is a source of confusion and one of the least understood disciplines of online marketing. In almost 3 out of 4 discussions where I would use the term, the person I am talking to has a different understanding of what SEO means compared to mine. More than that, there is a real sentiment about the term. People are really opinionated about it in all directions, without always knowing what it is about in more detail. Maybe I should call it “Natural Traffic Generation” or something of the like. A natural first step taking to demand and lead generation.
One evening not long ago for instance, I had dinner with a fellow content management consultant and we were talking about the relaunch of the online marketing activity for a company he works for (including website, email marketing, etc.) to transform it into a demand generation machine. When I mentioned that the current SEO was terrible and an important thing to do was to focus on it, my fellow partner tended to depreciate this view as if it was not what really mattered, which I found in the moment a bit annoying, especially in regard to the potential for a minimum of search engine marketing for this case. After giving it a second thought, I think my discussion partner simply didn’t understand what I meant, because SEO was so much something else in his way of thinking, and not what I understood. I think he was obviously thinking of old SEO techniques of cheating search engines and that is all that was associated to the discipline. Most of the people just don’t get what modern SEO is and how SEO has evolved. I had similar confused discussions many times and I am sure they happen every day to plenty of people.
Which serious Online Marketer would skip the opportunity to generate more natural traffic?
Maybe the one who simply doesn’t get the the exact purpose of SEO. Yes, as a start, the name should speak of the goal and not the action! Don’t optimize for the sake of optimizing. It is just a means to an end and the overall goal is clearly to generate concrete real demand or traffic. Search is here and here to stay in users’ habits. My intention is not to demonstrate this (plenty of resources such as this blog post – 24 eye popping statistics about seo will give you some good hints about the role of search in inbound traffic). In this period when everybody acknowledges the power of Content Marketing, no doubt we are talking here of something crucial for online marketers.
The wrong KPIs as a proof that SEO is not understood
I have seen marketers happy and satisfied when seeing in their SEO dashboard that their domain name was showing a better authority than its competitors or even that their ranking on their brand was in top position, stopping then any effort and considering the SEO task completed… (don’t ask me why this is not enough, please). This clearly means the purpose of SEO is in many cases not understood. The only deliverables of the discipline is traffic and how this traffic behaves further on in your funnel. This is the only thing that can help assess the quantity and quality of the demand generation machine you’re building! That is in the end the only thing an Online Marketing Manager should look at.
More importantly, SEO can be your way to do information architecture 2.0
Having worked with some good SEO consultants (full disclosure, the folks at Distilled NY; I am not at all an expert myself), I realized SEO could be much more than optimization, but really working hand in hand with the content and information architecture. Organic Traffic Generation is all about how you plan and organize your content, how you dress it in the different places it will show up, how you plan it on a editorial calendar. So to speak, it is Information Architecture, but looked at through the lens of the global online world and not simply through the one of a single website.
SEO makes your content behave well online!
SEO will make sure your content behaves well online, and this is key! If you stick to a site-centric information architecture, you might miss some very important things which won’t make it perform as much as it could. Things such as basic optimization of your SERP (Search Engine Result Page) are all about that: look at how your content appears in a search result page, in a twitter feed, on a Facebook wall, etc. Ironically, today, by having your content well-understood by machines, you will have a good chance to have it well understood by humans. We can now design our content for both humans and machines at the same time, and this is may be the biggest change in what we call SEO.
Time to wrap-up and summarize. Dear industry experts, Distilled, SEOmoz and company, please come with a solution to change that term for something less confusing! On my end, I will try to use it less, simply because I realize most of the people I talk to have an unclear understanding of what I mean. Instead of that, I will talk about Organic Traffic Generation, the first stage of the online marketing rocket (advertising being simply a booster, in my opinion, but this is a different story).