Defining SEO

Search engine optimization is all about data, engagement, audiences, and discovery.

By Andrew Girdwood

Organic Search

SEO is the single most effective channel for consumers discovering your brand, goods and services when they come looking. As we will read later SEO is now also about reaching out to consumers and tastemakers.

Traditionally the acronym SEO stands for search engine optimization. Let’s keep the focus on “optimization,” as that is where the debate begins.

Today we can all agree that SEO involves search engines. We don’t all agree what “optimization” entails; for some it refers to technical tweaks to a site, for others keyword research and data handling; others are interested in building links; and then there are those who are interested in earning a range of signals that search engines reward. Equally, there are many who would consider SEO to be a blend of all or some of those things.

I suggest thinking of SEO as “search engine objective”. Even if experts in the field have different approaches to getting the results the end story is about those results. If your objective is to benefit more from search engines – without paying for traffic, by doing well in the natural search results – then you will be interested in SEO. Those digital marketers with SEO skills are, conveniently, also known as SEOs.

SEO Is An Expertise

Today the following statement is controversial, but I believe it to be true; SEO is an expertise layer of social media.

Let’s push aside the fact that social media is in itself an incredibly broad topic in dire need of sub-division and expertise therein. Let’s look at the core issues.

Social media is about engaging with an audience in such a way that that engagement benefits your brand. SEO is about engaging with an audience in such a way that the search engines respond and that benefits your brand.

In other words, to be effective at SEO you need pretty much all the skill sets of a good social media professional, and then some.

Technical considerations are still important for SEO. Yes, true, (as was the case) the amount of websites that the search engines could make neither head nor tail of is a small percentage.

At the time of writing the text included in “click to appear” elements in non-AJAX sites is being downplayed by Google because the search engine wishes to do so and not because the search engine is unaware that that text is there. It still takes technical SEO knowledge to know that Google behaves in that way and which types of text are in or out of scope of that judgment.

Right now, Google is highlighting sites that perform well on mobile devices with “mobile friendly” labels on mobile searches. This effect click-through rates and traffic from the largest, and growing, chunk of search. Want a piece of that? You will need to talk to a technical SEO.

It will likely be SEOs with technical skills that will notice when Google experiments again. Any good SEO will tell you that Google experiments all the time.

Outreach And Engagement

I said at the start of this article that SEO is about reaching consumers. This is the hard part.

SEO projects have two types of audiences to consider, overlapping groups if you’re lucky. The first group represents those people who are or could be customers. The second group are those consumers who might be persuaded to talk about, share, or otherwise engage with your brand.

We care about this second group of consumers because search engines look for the signals they produce; editorially given links from one site to another being the most well-known of them.

A post discussing how this sort of “signal earning” can be achieved, especially with links in mind, would be another 1,500 words. But for the purposes of a clear definition of SEO, and that how that contrasts to SEO, let us go with one example.

I would argue a form of style SEO, one designed to engage with an audience and earn editorially given links and brand mentions, would include creative PR stunts. Such an activity might not be appropriate for your first audience type – your potential and actual customers. Branding matters as well.

Here’s an example: hire two students to wear fuzzy gorilla suits, with unicorn masks, wearing beauty pageant sashes with the phrase “SEO Now” printed on them to climb on stage, between popular speaker slots, during a high profile digital marketing conference. This is SEO. You’ll find your gorilla-unicorns and their message of “SEO Now” will be tweeted, photographed, mentioned by the live bloggers at the conference and in the wrap-up blog posts afterwards. You’ll get links. You’ll earn links and will give the editors a strong steer towards the keyword phrase “SEO Now” too.

Social media experts and SEOs would both have ideas on how to make the gorilla-unicorn stunt do well online. SEOs would also have the skills to make sure that any online success translated to better search engine performance.

Dark SEO: Black Hats And The Law

There will be some concerns for SEO as well. The working definition of SEO will still include unsavoury activities like “black hat” SEO wherein the digital marketer bets the reputation of their employer against Google’s ability to detect manipulation of results.

What’s manipulation? Buying links or content with links to fake editorial coverage is an example. It will still happen and it’ll still be called SEO.

Shades of grey will grow darker. For example, having rubbish content – like poor copywriting – has long been considered poor SEO, the sort of activity Google and the other engines would dislike. Google being as aggressive towards poor content as it traditionally is to spam will continue and we will see that with links.

Pitch black hat SEO will also continue, sadly. This includes the evil of site hacking, hiding stuffed links in the design of exploited sites in order to trick search engines. The definition of SEO now includes web security.

We can also expect regulators to be more interested in the definition of SEO as well. There is growing concern on the behaviour of bloggers on the topic of disclosure. In the UK there have been primetime TV news coverage of the Advertising Standards Authority warning vloggers to disclose when they’ve been incentivized by a brand.

The more common problem we’ll see are brands and agencies incentivizing bloggers to write about and link to sites and the bloggers failing to disclose this. Blame is shared between the bloggers not knowing the rules and those agencies and brands who are happy to encourage the behaviour. This will be an issue for the FTC or ASA look at and it is possible a serious case will stray into the realms of bribery laws.


In someone (OK, probably at least a dozen people) will claim SEO is dead. This happens every year. As long as people search online, there will still be SEO. Afterwards there will still be SEO skills.

That said, the word “dead” itself becomes a good acronym for modern SEO:

D = Data
E = Engagement
A = Audiences
D = Discovery

  • Data refers to issues like keywords, search frequencies, integration with paid search, affiliate marketing, and other digital disciplines. Data informs content strategy, measures success, and identifies opportunities.
  • Engagement is how brands and site owners begin to earn their search engine rankings. Search engines want to see which sites and brands experts and tastemakers are recommending. If you build it – they won’t come. If you have rubbish customer service – people and algorithms will notice. Engagement ensures people notice your brand strength.
  • Audiences are those consumers who will enjoy your content and interact with your brand. We’re all publishers these days. Any publisher needs to know who their audiences are, needs to know what their audiences enjoy, and what their audiences recommend.
  • Discovery is the art of being found. SEO might include little splashes of paid media promotion in order to put the right content under the fingertips of the right audience. Discovery is also about marking content up in the correct way, technical SEO skills again, so that it looks good and is easy to find on social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, as well as earning the most possible number of clicks from wherever it ranks on search engines.

So, SEO will be about your search engine objective and DEAD is how you might go about approaching it.

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