Is “SEO” still an accurate description of what we do?

The term "SEO" captures a lot of different responsibilities. The craft has changed over time to a sort of "product management for marketing."

Last week, I attended a panel together with 5 other high-class SEOs on the question of whether SEO is still a fair description of what we do. We all agreed that we don’t want to change the name of SEO to something else - this discussion comes up every 3-5 years in the community - but that what SEOs do to be successful today is different than 10 years ago. Just as a reminder, 10 years ago Borat came out, Sexy Back dominated the charts, and Facebook rolled out globally. Time flies.

The tagline of my site is “at the intersection of SEO and Growth”, and I often refer to what I do “Organic Growth.” Growth got a bad rep through “Growth Hacking”, a buzz word often used to describe something unethical or hacky. I think a big rason for why Growth Hacking turned from cool word to insult is often associated with Silicon Valley where social networks “hack people’s minds.” But I actually think that Growth is the framework SEO needs.

What does an SEO actually do?

SEO is a beautiful meta-layer that we add to things. It’s a bit like ketchup: it can upgrade a meal but doesn’t do much by itself. As SEOs, we give recommendations to engineering, design, and content. The number of things we can do ourselves, without support from other teams, is small: change meta-data, update location-targeting in Search Console, maybe set some canonical tags it the CMS allows it.

Functionally, SEOs are consultants, wether they work inhouse or as freelancer or in an agency. At the same time, no other discipline except for Product Management is as horizontal as SEO. In fact, the list of responsibilities of Product Managers and SEOs is shockingly similar.

According to Sherif Mansour, Product Manager responsibilities include:

  • Understanding and representing user needs.
  • Monitoring the market and developing competitive analyses.
  • Defining a vision for a product.
  • Aligning stakeholders around the vision for the product.
  • Prioritizing product features and capabilities.
  • Creating a shared brain across larger teams to empower independent decision making.

Martin Eriksson describes product management to live at the intersection of tech, business, and UX. Sounds like SEOs! In fact, SEOs are the product managers of the Marketing world! Which brings me to Growth.

The new rules of Organic Growth

Growth and SEO share many similarities, but more importantly, we can embrace Growth principles for better SEO.

Growing a product with weak or no Product-Market/Fit is an uphill battle. The same is true for SEO: strong products gain more organic backlinks, develop stronger brands, and content becomes easier to rank. You’re more less likely tofall into the content commodity trap. As SEOs, we should do our best to inform the product based on market research, i.e., problems users try to solve on search engines.

We should also aim to drive Brand traffic, referral traffic, and returning visitors up, next to non-brand traffic. All of these metrics are good outputs of brand mentions, links, and high-quality content.

SEO has developed a level of ambiguity similar to Growth. Google’s use of machine learning for NLU and NLP and its understanding of user needs on a query-level mean we can’t apply the same assumption to all sites.

The right mindset to thrive in this environment is a Growth mindset: testing, testing, testing, Systems thinking, and focusing on impact versus distraction. The Growth mindset is humble and impact-focused. “We don’t know if it works, so let’s test it and then make a statement about potential impact.” The idea of Zero-Based SEO is exactly that: forget your assumptions. Every tactic has to prove itself from scratch!

The goal of Growth is to develop self-reinforcing systems: loops! In the same fashion, if SEO is an impactful channel for a company, the goal has to be to scale it up. Aggregators and Integrators have different levers: Aggregators scale on technical SEO, Integrators on content marketing (playbooks).

Organic Growth is a set of methods, principles, and models that helps scale organic traffic generation in an ever changing environment.

Is SEO still an accurate description?

I say "yes". My goal is not to come up with another buzzword or coin a new term. It's much more to show how the role of SEOs has changed over time. We must also consider that more people understand what SEO is and what SEOs do. Introducing a new term and new roles would set SEO back because it creates mental friction from having to understand goals and responsibilities. The SEO job market is hotter than it's ever been. We shouldn't cut that momentum off with a new term.