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Am I Still An SEO If….?

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 12th October 2012

Identity Confusion The SEO industry is suffering an identity crisis. On the one hand there are people who say it’s dead, then there’s those who want to rename it “Inbound marketing” or any other offshoot. Likewise what SEOs do today is very different to what they did five years ago. Which begs the question, if an industry has fundamentally changed (or is “dead”), can we still call ourselves SEOs any more?

In theory, a lot of the things Google asks for in their Webmaster Guidelines could be taken care of by other roles such as Web Developers and Copywriters. It’s the fact that they aren’t done, and that people want to push them further for better results that SEO was even created in the first place.

So here’s the conundrum. At what point does someone start becoming an SEO or stop becoming an SEO? Let’s look at some examples.

1)      If someone does on-page changes to the technical architecture of a site, are they an SEO or are they simply a web developer? Likewise, at what point does a web developer become an SEO if they make these changes?

2)      If someone in PR does outreach or follows up a press release with a link, are they an SEO? Likewise, if an SEO does outreach for a major news website are they still an SEO?

3)      If someone uses Google Analytics to pull off data at what point to do they become an SEO and not an analyst?

4)      If I write content I’m a copywriter or journalist, but if I write it in the hope it will get links and shares does that suddenly make me an SEO? At what point do the lines between copywriter and inbound marketer blur?

5)      If I make an affiliate website and realise that writing content in a certain way improves my ranking am I an SEO, or just a smart affiliate?

6)      If by making a Conversion Rate Optimisation change I inadvertently improve the site’s ranking, am I an SEO? Or is it only if I pursue that change further and try to replicate it that I become an SEO?

I’ll leave these for you to debate in the comments.

There’s no definite point where SEO overlaps, and part of it stems from the fact that SEO covers such a wide range of skillsets. Often it’s the role of the SEO to delegate many of these tasks, or to broaden their knowledge set. It’s why someone can say “SEOs need to code” but there can be thousands of successful SEOs who think Ruby on Rails is a new punk rock band.

It’s different strokes for different folks.

Dave Trott embodies this perfectly. Despite the fact he openly admitted he didn’t know what SEO was, he gave one of the stand out presentations at Brighton SEO. Almost every SEO could take something away from the talk that we could use.

But Dave is an advertising man. Therefore if he teaches us something and we use it, are we doing SEO or are we doing advertising? Hannah Smith wrote a fantastic post looking at how we could use the lessons in our industry, and it just goes to show that actually SEO is not a closed environment, it’s a rapidly evolving beast filled with smart people who want to grasp anything they can use to give the best results to their clients.

There’s also cases where websites inadvertently make people who have never even heard of SEO in to SEOs. Such as Squidoo, who encourage you to add extra modules and content to your articles. This is so Squidoo could rank better after the Panda update, and their users follow these rules. So is it possible to be an SEO even if you don’t even know it exists?

Part of the conundrum for me personally is that SEO introduced me to a number of different specialisms – Web Design, Analytics, Content Creation, PR, and Social Media – that helped improve rankings. Over time to improve my SEO skills I also improved skills in those areas.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as this image from SEOmoz shows:

 Inbound marketing

With the Koozai site my time is spent more on those aspects above than what you’d call typical SEO, so can I even call myself an SEO any more?  It hasn’t been in my job title for over a year. Yet one of the goals and benefits of doing those five aspects is that it does improve our SEO, as well as performance on other channels.

For me, SEO broadened my horizons and it will always have a role in whatever I do. That’s why when I see blog posts saying someone has “left SEO” I know it’s not true (this is also a great article on the topic). Once you have quit an SEO job it never leaves you, or the way you think about the web. Unless your next job didn’t involve the web in any way then it’s impossible to avoid.

For example:

If I left SEO to become a journalist: I’d still be considerate when giving out links, and I’d write content in a way to ensure it got clicks and shares.

If I left SEO to become an Analyst: I’d still care where traffic came from and how to get more.

If I left SEO to design cereal packets: I’d use CRO ideas to consider how I could sell more.

Even if I left SEO to walk dogs for a living: I’d still need a website to sell my services, and that would bring me back full circle.

When I stopped writing video game reviews I found I couldn’t stop.  I’d think in my head about the scores, pros and cons of products I tried. Even completely random products that were nothing to do with video games. I couldn’t forget that way of thinking, and then it seeped in to other aspects of my life such as critiquing adverts and websites, helping me with design.

If I wanted to join the rank of hardcore SEOs with Tattoos, then I’d get one which read “SEO 4 LIFE”, because once you’re an SEO you’re always an SEO. You can change roles, change industries or change job but the lessons you learn in finding what users and robots want are applicable everywhere. Even if you don’t realise it, SEO will stay with you.

Once an SEO, always an SEO.

Which begs the question: At what point did you class yourself to be an “SEO” and if you aren’t an SEO any more what made you feel you no longer warranted the tag?

Image Source

Businessman standing and gesturing with a cardboard box on his head with question mark via BigStock

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...

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24 Comments

  • Stephen Logan

    Stephen Logan 12th October 2012

    Great post. I think if you look at SEO as a skillset, rather than a job per se, you’re probably along the right lines.

    I wouldn’t ever class myself as an SEO, but I could optimise a site and probably get some decent rankings in the process – probably. Fundamentally, if you’re promoting a business you’re a marketer or advertiser, possibly a copywriter. While there are specialisms within those fields, I don’t think it’s overly important to get hung up on titles.

    As I say, optimising a site is a skill. And, like most skills, you can turn that into a career. However, if you’re primarily a writer, why call yourself an SEO? I do a lot of proof reading within my role, but I wouldn’t ever say that I was a proof reader.

    Essentially, I think you’re only an SEO if that is all you do – optimise sites for search engines – and would define yourself as such. You may use a number of skills within that role, but ultimately it has to come down to your own definition. If I paint pictures of houses, that doesn’t make me an architect. If I’m a copywriter that happens to create content that attracts links and improves rankings, that doesn’t make me an SEO. A painter might well be able to construct plans for a home, just as I can optimise a site, but it’s just a skill that is part of experience and knowledge – not a new career path.

    As you mention, if you’re working online, you have to know about optimisation and you can’t ignore that training – even if you are no longer an SEO. You can go away for a couple of years even, but that basic knowledge and training won’t leave you. That’s why I prefer to look at it as a skill and one that many professions share.

    It’ll be interesting to see what others think, as I expect there will be a few different opinions. Great post Mike.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      That’s a good idea, although as a skillset it’s definitely one that is constantly expanding / often more than one person could do on their own.

      I guess it depends what you want to specialise in. I’d love to say I’m a journalist (as I’ve written for a handful of places) but it wouldn’t be a fair comparison to the people who do it day in and day out. Doing something a bit doesn’t mean you can say you do it / are it.

      That’s why it’s damaging when people say they are SEO’s when they only dabble. I think Malcolm Gladwell has it right that to master something you need 10,000 hours of training. If you do that, then I think you can truly say “I’m a ….”

      Reply to this comment

  • Marcus 12th October 2012

    This is the problem with an umbrella term like SEO or even Web Development. To make matters worse, I started out as web developer and SEO in the same role so that was about as multi skilled as I think you can get.

    Thing is, just because I built websites, does not mean I know all website languages and this is as true for SEO. There are certain areas where I am strong like content marketing, link building and technical SEO due to my technical background (in a LAMP environment) and such and other areas where I am not so well versed.

    Much like any trade, SEO needs to mature, and split into sub niches and the people who buy such services need to understand that just because an invidual states they are an SEO, does not mean they automatically have a thorough grasp of every single aspect of marketing for the search engines.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      Hi Marcus. I think that’s how a lot of people started too; with a mix of web design and SEO. It’s an excellent starting place.

      You are exactly right with your summary. To say you do something you should be able to answer most common questions and have proven results. As there’s no formal qualification for SEO, people have to show a track record.

      Reply to this comment

  • Steve Ollington 12th October 2012

    Thanks… I mean that, I rather enjoyed reading this because it’s a collection of thoughts that often float around in my head, though in a much more disorganized manner!

    I think there is core aspects to SEO but many other disciplines that, as you say, overlap and compliment those aspects… and the more of them you know the more it helps… however, whilst I have over the past six months or so been doing less and less practical/technical SEO and in turn doing and learning more of the other stuff it has been noticeable to me that new things come out which everyone else seems to be aware of and I’m not. With that in mind, whilst I still consider myself as an SEO I would say I’m no longer an SEO ‘Specialist’ and more of a Digital Marketer (incorporating SEO). And that’s in only 6 months so I do fear that I’ll get sufficiently behind with core SEO whilst pursuing more of the other disciplines to the extent that in time I wouldn’t confidently be able to say I’m an SEO at all. Hard to keep up with so many things and so much change in such little time… it’s almost as if you have to pick, be Specialist SEO (or a specialist something else) or be a Digital Marketer that knows SEO but not quite as well as a specialist. Does that all even make sense??

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      Hi Steve,

      I’m glad I could help you put your thoughts in to reality. It’s something that I’d thought about a lot, and I think as an industry we are often quite hung up on what to classify people and skills.

      The difficulty is that’s it’s impossible to be an SEO who is great at everything. I’m constantly told “SEO’s need to code” and every time I think I’ve learned everything I need I’m told of another coding platform to learn. It dawned on me recently that it would essentially be all I did every day if I learnt everything, and that would take away from other things I wanted to learn.

      That’s why every SEO is unique. We learn the things that are relevant to each project as they are needed, and we allocate the most suitable person to each project. There’s constantly new challenges and therefore you can’t really say “You must learn X” as it’s more about the right skillset for the right project at the right time.

      I hope I haven’t made things more confusing.

      Reply to this comment

  • dan zammit 12th October 2012

    I agree with the above comment, my job title hasn’t got SEO in it but I implement SEO strategies and plans. The problem with this topic is that there are some many different parts to SEO that you won’t have the same amount of knowledge on.

    The way the web works now with constant changes and updates, it is hard to keep on top of what worked 1 year ago and what is best practise now. You cannot be a specialist in all ages of SEO e.g. Analysis, Content Marketing etc but if you know basic knowledge of SEO in general and focus mainly on one specific part of SEO then you can use best practises you would have learnt.

    But I agree with the last part of Mikes post, “once an SEO, always an SEO”

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      Thanks Dan. That’s exactly my view. You can’t be a “perfect SEO” as there’s more skills than any one person could ever learn. As long as you are aware of challenges (and that’s why it’s great the community is so open) you can find the right solution for each project.

      Reply to this comment

  • Sii Cockerill 12th October 2012

    Hi Mike,

    I’m not sure you mean “or are they *simply* a web developer?” ;-) But I completely agree with “Unless your next job didn’t involve the web in any way then [being an SEO is] impossible to avoid”.

    We’re never going to get away from trying to work out who we are. In some respects, identifying yourself as an SEO is a way of working out which group you belong to, and so where you belong. With each day that passes, I see less and less value in that – there are parts of us that belong everywhere and the Internet means that we can be.

    Ultimately, being an SEO has taught people to think in a particular way. It’s results-driven and business oriented – and I think if you ever lost that, you’d wish you hadn’t, as it simply makes you better at your job. I think that along with a plethora of different specialties and job titles, SEO has born a shared ‘can do’ attitude, a passion for sharing with each other and a desire to learn and improve.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      Hah. I mean “are you *just* a web developer. Oh wait. I mean “are you an extremely smart web developer”. Yes that’s the one.

      I think classifications by default are very damaging. Like when bad “SEO’s” get labelled negatively it affects us all. It’s nice therefore to see that SEO conferences often have some of their best speakers from disciplines that are nothing to do with traditional SEO.

      It’s also refreshing that when people write blog posts with great PR strategies, SEO’s don’t ignore them. They grow their skillset, even though it’s not part of the original view of what SEO is. As you say it’s whatever you can do to get results.

      Reply to this comment

  • Steve Ollington 12th October 2012

    Exactly… I cannot code, nor have I ever been able to. When doing an audit for a client it doesn’t matter as I just give the recommendations and they have their own coders do it. When working in an agency or in-house it also doesn’t matter as you have coders you work with who can do that stuff.

    When it does matter (for me at least) is when I have some idea, and want to create something myself… then it’s a pain as I’m unable to build what I want, how I want it on my own. I just have to outsource, etc… and wait until it’s done before I can start doing my bit with the SEO.

    Anyway, saw this a while back which was quite relevant and good: http://www.stateofsearch.com/to-build-or-not-to-build/

    Reply to this comment

  • Alec Sharratt

    Alec Sharratt 12th October 2012

    Great article Mike. I think that if you are trying to improve website viability within the search engines in order to increase traffic, you are, broadly speaking, doing SEO.

    To use the web developer example, as web developer is someone who designs and builds or maintains websites… that is not to say that they cannot or do not do aspects of SEO, but SEO is more than just good website design. To draw an analogy; a car designer / builder may produce a working race car, but a race driver is the one who gives it purpose (winning races). The driver may provide feedback on design issues without being a designer, and the designer may test drive the car or run it to ensure that it works without being a racing driver.

    Reply to this comment

  • Patrick Hathaway 12th October 2012

    Mike – great post man. I really like the point about SEO never leaving you, although I think it could be generalised out to any vocation or significant experience.

    We get learning experiences from all walks of life – family, education, work, socialising etc… and it is this experience that makes us all unique. I studied Maths at uni, and since leaving haven’t done any proper ‘maths’ since. But the skills and mindset learnt through doing maths have helped massively in business, data manipulation, analysis etc…

    I don’t actually think you could EVER truly leave SEO, presuming you have spent a decent amount of time doing it – the different facets of it are so widely applicable to other industries. Even if you walked away from the online world entirely and went to work on a farm, you’d still be looking to drive business somehow, and a lot of the core principles of SEO will be transferable.

    I think this is why so many of us love the industry, whatever it’s called.

    Reply to this comment

  • Jonathon Colman 12th October 2012

    Really well put, Mike — I definitely take your point about how SEO/Inbound strategies will tend to permeate your future work no matter what your title or role are. That’s a great insight!

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      Thanks Jonathon, and thanks for finding the cracking “one does not simply leave SEO” meme image in your original post (and for writing the post too. It was a good trigger for me to write this, even though it took me four months).

      How is everything going with the graduate programme?

      Reply to this comment

  • Nick Ker 12th October 2012

    I have been doing SEO since before I knew it had a name. Once I started doing it professionally, I sort of struggled with whether or not to call what I do SEO, since it was much more than that – social, online PR, video, coordinating all the things that are now called “inbound”… If you really take it down to the most basic level, even link building is not actually SEO since it really isn’t doing anything to optimize the site or page. And SEO carried a pretty negative connotation of screwed up keyword-stuffed text, spam, and just plain rip-offs.
    I really only recently became more comfortable with calling myself an SEO, now that it seems like everyone else is coming around to the idea that it is more than that.
    “Inbound” seems to be catching on, but other attempts at rebranding as findability, visibility, SEO 2.0, and my own former favorite “web presence management” did not catch on so much.

    I guess the issue is that it is not really clear if SEO is a skill set, job description, service, mindset, way of life, or all of the above.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      That’s true. SEO did originally just focus on page, and link building was the first of many extra services that it encompassed over time.

      I think one of the problems with new names for SEO is even if they catch on in the community, we still have to be visible for the terms prospective clients search for. That’s the real challenge; educating people of a new name. It took people long enough to embrace SEO, trying to teach people a new name is difficult.

      Reply to this comment

  • Emma 12th October 2012

    Hi Mike – I love this post, because it’s very true. I’m sure SEO will never leave me. I use search engines really differently now, I’ll say that much! It’s the same with CRO – anytime I’m booking something on a site I think “Wow, this site has a great booking process” or “Oh my God, this site has terrible CRO, it’s a good thing I’m a loyal customer!”

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 12th October 2012

      Thanks Emma. I’m exactly the same! I purchased car insurance yesterday and the order process could have been improved so easily. I’m tempted to find the marketing manager on Twitter / LinkedIn and send them my notes.

      Reply to this comment

  • Kyle 12th October 2012

    Great post, Mike. I stopped classifying myself as an SEO to my friends months ago because they either looked at me cross-eyed when I tried to go in-depth with what I do or they just called me the “Chandler Bing”, which for all those “Friends” viewers out there, means you have a job no one can definitively tell others about because they have no clue what it is you do:).

    It’s why I just say “marketing” or “attempted influencer for the web”. And to your point about never being able to fully break away from SEO when one decides to move on, I wholeheartedly agree. Even if it’s when I go over to my parent’s house for the holidays and watch them search for a nice restaurant to go to, I’m always thinking keywords and not specific names of the restaurant, and crack a smile when my father types out an epic, 10-word questionnaire on Google.

    P.S., what video game company did you used to write for?

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 12th October 2012

    I love the Chandler Bing comparison! It’s funny because SEO is quite simple to explain “Help sites rank higher on the search engines organically” but once you have to explain the difference between paid ad organic results it gets harder. Then when friends ask how I do it OR why I can’t rank number one for everything, I start to lose them.

    I used to run my own gaming site called Gamerswave.com. It ran from 1999 to 2003 and then I stopped it when I went to University (no Internet in halls!).

    Reply to this comment

  • Arvin Buising 13th October 2012

    I think it depends on the job description. Why does your job even exist?

    Are you employed to get better rankings in the search engines? If so, then you’re an SEO. If not, then you can call yourself something else.

    If your role is to get more brand exposure through online means, then you’re more into marketing.

    But I do think that the lines are getting thinner and blurred especially after the two black and white beasts were released.

    I’ve seen titles like ‘content marketing strategist’, ‘content publicist’, etc. If you ‘publicise’ content primarily to get more links and to get better rankings, then you are an SEO.

    Reply to this comment

  • Arnold Ma 14th October 2012

    Great post Mike, enjoyed reading this.

    SEO is reaching into such a broader marketing mix, more and more channels are becoming aware of it and use it in their own industries – journalism, PR, different stroke for different folks indeed ;)

    Reply to this comment

  • @timothyalcock 16th October 2012

    Seo encompasses it all in my opinion nothing wrong with an umbrella term as long as you add specialities and weaknesses to appropriate sub areas e.g On Page/ CRO.

    I much prefer the term internet marketer myself but it means the same.

    Reply to this comment

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