A Case for Redefining SEO: Embracing Content Marketing

It’s not a new question, but it’s telling that it’s one so oft repeated and packed full of meaning.

Is the term “SEO” still a good working term for the tasks done and responsibilities held by self-defined SEOs?

Yesterday morning, Laura Lippay asked Twitter what “SEO” means to you today, leading to a dialogue about the reputation of SEO, how SEOs position their services and what responsibilities fall under the increasingly amorphous SEO umbrella.

Laura Lippay and Jill Whalen on Twitter

Since the advent of Web 2.0, we’ve been teasing out this question over drinks and phone calls with industry friends, never settling on a final answer, everyone holding a unique point of view. I believe that we’ve never forced a community decision because an answer isn’t critical to selling SEO services today.

Yet, in the very near future, we may find that the popularity and visibility of social media marketing as a branding and engagement channel may eclipse search as the new media darling that gets all the attention. For SEO to maintain its relevance in the eyes of decision makers, we may need to rethink our unique value proposition. I propose that, along with the evolving expectations of our customers, SEO’s identity is growing to reflect a necessary marriage of persuasive content and data-driven measurement.

What’s In a Name?

The question of whether or not SEO was an adequate label was raised at this month’s Search: Where to Next session at SES San Francisco by a forward-thinking panel.

Rand Schulman, Managing Partner at Schulman+Thorogood Group and a founder of the Web Analytics Association, coined the phrase “content engineer” to refer to an online marketer in the new Web economy.

I talked to Rand yesterday about his vision of the future of content engineering, his proposed (working title) for a future incarnation of Internet marketing. As he sees it, specialists in disciplines like SEO and SMM and Web analytics will always be required, however it will be overseen by those who can conduct and coordinate the many moving pieces so that the message always supports conversions.

“There will always be room for technical skills but it will be much more highly defined and not quite so general. […] Generally speaking, you’ve got to have a broad set of skills to optimize your online efforts and that’s where a content engineer comes in.

They’re going to have to create content for machines and people, content that converts and content that’s relevant.

The title of the session at SES was something like the future of search. My theory of the future of search is around, obviously, relevance, but that there’s a new breed of person that has to create that relevance.”

What’s It All About Anyway?

Reduced to it’s simplest form, what I’ve been talking about could be considered merely a discussion of semantics. Yet, this view undermines the issue at hand for the transforming Internet marketing industry of today.

How useful are labels if they lose their meaning or gain negative connotations? When there are multiple teams dedicated to the various Internet marketing channels, how do you keep straight who should be doing what? That’s where the need for new titles and self-identifiers come in.

To understand the problem and the potential solutions, it helps to get back to basics. This is what we know about our goals of online marketing:

Who: The customer, or customer 2.0
What: Conversions and brand loyalty
Where: Online and on the street
When: Today and the days to come
Why: To make sales and build brand awareness
How: Content, conversation, positive (trans/inter)actions and actionable measurement
How Not: Explicit sales or advertising

In other words, it’s our job as marketers of all stripes to woo customer 2.0, the informed, socially engaged buyer who relies on social media above overt advertising to influence their purchasing decisions, and who has the power to make or break our brands through their online social behaviors.

Looking back at the original question of the appropriateness of SEO as a term to define our industry, the above thesis expands our understanding rather than keeping us in the confines of an outdated framework.

An Evolving Identity: In the End, We’re All Content Marketers

For an updated framework, let’s turn back to my conversation with Rand for some context:

“Content engineering is a discipline where left brain meets right brain, which is enabled these days by the Internet. It’s enabled by the Internet because we’ve got the bandwidth, we’ve got the processing power, and we’ve got the costs that are down that enable people to present advertising things, persuasion, selling things in real time to the person who’s operating or interacting with that session. So that’s happening right now.

Let’s go one step further and look at your question of SEO. The challenge with SEO is writers don’t think in SEO-esque terms. They think in – quote – creative kind of terms, as I’m setting up the problem here. Writers should have the tools – writers being bloggers, communicators, journalists, marketers, people writing for online content – that make it easy enough to create topics, sentence, and use words that you can optimize interactively against.

SEO is about reaching customers in organic search. Organic search is one spoke in the hub of media management overseen by a content engineer-type. Organic search, like all the other hubs including social media and paid advertising, requires outstanding relevant content. Content marketing is the foundation of all marketing channels today.

Here’s a quote from a recent email I received from from Copyblogger that really crystallizes this concept:

“By now, you know that content marketing is the new advertising. […]

And, writing – whether in outline, script, or long form – is what
underpins all other categories of media.

Writing is the cornerstone skill of all great content creation.”

I’d add to that that the greatest content is that which leverages data. The most persuasive language uses concrete knowledge to target the audience’s known needs and behaviors.

No matter what type of marketer you consider yourself, you’d better serve your profession and your clients by understanding the interplay between numbers and words. Business will always demand a specialist who analyzes stats and KPIs. And there will always be a need for a wizard wordsmith. However, the gap between these two sides must be bridged. The more SEO can master both sides of the marketing mind map, the greater the value will be.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (4)
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4 Replies to “A Case for Redefining SEO: Embracing Content Marketing”

I for one have never been comfortable with the title SEO whatever. I’ve been an SEO Analyst, SEO Specialist, SEO Manager, and just SEO. None of which really tell the whole picture of what I do and can do. Over the past 15 years or so since I started doing SEO and Internet Marketing, a lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. The process, the algo, the tools, and other things have changed, but the title and impression has largely been unchanged throughout this time. I’ve heard people say we need to ‘SEO it’, or we need to get a ‘SEO person to look at this’, or we want to get ‘higher rankings for site so we hired a SEO company. All of these things say the same thing but what they don’t say is that ‘we need help with our content’, or ‘how do we make our content better for users’. In the end, that is the real question today and what SEO has to address. SEO has almost never been in control of the content or been involved with the content creation. They are often brought in afterwards to optimize content, or optimize a keyword or ranking, but not when the content is being conceived. Today, the roll of SEO has to be involved at the content creation level and needs to be in direct contact with those making and marketing content. If not, building links and optimizing page templates are not going to go as far today as they used to go. I for one am happy with ‘Content Engineers’, ‘Organic Web Strategist’, or even ‘Internet Marketing Specialist’.

Virginia Nussey

Thank you, Salvatore! You lay out the issue in its practical application so perfectly! It shows just how important the language is to understanding the role and utility of, er, SEO.

Oh Virginia, redefining SEO, count me in there… we may all love and yearn for customer 2.0 but the fact is we still on a daily basis deal with smart business people who with so many misconceptions about SEO say the cutest (most ridiculous) things about their idea of SEO,

In an era of Web 2.0/customer 2.0 it may as well be “SEO 3.0” with so many new definitions to it, its about branding, its about social, content creation on and offsite and overall creating the best user experience, at times, 30 to 40% of it is not even for Google’s sake!!

Virginia Nussey

Joel, thanks. You get at an underlying roadblock in advancing the discussion of priorities for SEO today. Even if we as practitioners know what’s at stake, it does little in changing the deep-seeded culture among decision makers. Luckily, it’s cool to participate in changing the status quo. :)


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