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Why do SEOs forget about REAL marketing?

Written by David Harry   
Wednesday, 28 January 2009 08:13

Where art meets science; the perfect marriage

(The following is a guest post by Ben McKay)

The Industry Mindset

I sometimes think that search engine optimisation is much too often approached with the wrong kind of mindset – almost a tick-box exercise, and one that limits opportunities for the success of great websites.  This brain cramp has important ramifications for the perceived professionalism of the SEO industry, but unfortunately it's not one that cannot be tackled with ease. 

In this meandering rant, I am going to address why this might be the case and (over) optimistically provide you with a way out!

The reasoning...

The reason I ask whether traditional marketing has been forgotten in SEO, is that so much of what we do as SEOs can and should be backed-up by the reasoning 'this will draw the right kind of visitors at the right time with the right intent'.  I believe that with market research, planning, implementation, creative flare, and an ongoing feedback loop of course, you can do just that – the same way you attempt to carry-out more traditional marketing campaigns.


The art and Science of SEO


Traditional Marketers have a NIGHTMARE measuring ROI

Previous generations of marketers were limited regarding the availability of information at their disposal, trying to justify advertising budgets when measuring the return on that nightmare investment was not my favoured task! 

The adage: 'You’ve got to spend money to make money' - Could have been more honest in saying: 'You’ve got to risk losing money to possibly make money'. -- Now that we have a chance to operate as marketers online, with all the tools and information at our disposal, should we not take advantage of this? 

The Make-up of the SEO Industry's inhabitants

I don't know of many industries where there is such a convergence of so many types of skill-sets that come under one role. 

Just think about it, typical career backgrounds include:

  • Site-owners / Webmasters who include SEO as just one of their roles
  • Marketers who see the potential of SEO
  • IT professionals / Web developers who convert to SEOs
  • And others such as public relations folks etc…

With that in mind we are naturally going to be reading about, and writing about, search engine optimisation from many perspectives.  This is not a bad thing, but does create a bit of a contest over the definition and direction of the field...

If the definition of an SEO was:

“The creative flare and scientific research, testing, planning and implementation of on and off-site management to organically market websites to search engines and targeted users”

...then we would have something to work to.  But as things stand, we have far too many lists defining what to do as an SEO (often conflicting) – this is neither good science nor marketing.     


Where the confusion lies...

Because the SEO industry doesn't have a clear-cut foundation, defining in essence 'what it is', we seem to confuse ourselves on where we focus our attention.

It makes blindingly good sense to simply converge the skill-sets of those 3 specialities of SEOs by making marketing decisions (with flare of course) inclusive of great scientific justification; where site management is the foundation for such activity. 



My Ambitious Sentiment and Suggestion to the SEO industry

Take this with a pinch of salt, I'm relatively new – what I recently coined as a '2nd generation SEO' - but regardless, here's my opinion...

SEO Science Class with a Marketing Focus

There has been some SEO superstars promoting the scientific merits, applications, testing and measurements that are required from a SEO specialist, beyond just being able to list X ranking factors...and that is massively important.  Without them we are a 'stab-in-the-dark' industry, and one that is destined to lose trust.

This has been acknowledged to a great degree in various SEO Science resources and of course my host (that Gypsy bloke) who’s been pushing for this cause for many moons now. I don't think he will mind if we add a degree of marketing focus with these scientific aspirations of SEOs.  Search optimization is, after-all, marketing, or as I recently stated in another guest post, SEO is branding.     


Understanding Web Users for Marketing

I kind of think of the SEO joys (and even the perils) as a marketers dream.  I previously worked in more traditional marketing roles, and was impressively dissatisfied with efforts to envelop simple scientific principles to research, measure, predict and respond accurately to the data.  There were simply too many variables.

For instance, in my first marketing role, we carried out a little research project trying to discover which marketing channels worked most successfully.  I asked the sales team to find out where prospective customers had heard of the company that prompted their call (a simple question I thought) quite obviously led to the answer 'the brochure'...but how did they come-to ordering a brochure?     

Taking this example, you could see from your Analytics where your visitors have been referred from, or using slightly more advanced URL referral techniques you can get an understanding of referrals in more detail.


Solution: Lessons from Traditional Marketing

You can pick-up just about any marketing models and principles and work with them to help build direction and focus into your SEO work. 

I picked out Ansoff's Product / Market Growth Matrix as an example on a strategic level, but there are day-to-day analytical examples too, as seen below.  Let's take a look:

Ansoff's Matrix

Traditionally, marketers would have 4 main strategic options that they would use to focus their marketing budgets and attention, and of course grow their business.  Here are how these four strategies translate to modern-day SEO and search marketing in general:


1. Market Penetration: This effectively means that you market your products/services to the same market you currently operate in. 

Effectively to SEOs, this means that you might be repositioning your brand and reworking content depending on seasonal / market trends, but targeting the same market with the same proposition. 

On a day-to-day basis this still means you will need a close understanding of who maintains the shape of the market, who are the influencers / early adopters, how different segments of the market uses the internet and your website, the language that they use beyond just keywords,


2. Market Development: Here we market our existing products to a new market. 

This might mean that your websites' proposition essentially stays the same but expands into new markets, presenting this information to new customers. 

SEOs will see the importance of this straight away I hope. 

Entering new markets literally means entering a new online neighbourhood...TouchGraph gives a vague overview of the community you are currently part of, in more depth, so too does your link profile, but entering a new market obviously means   Entering a new market is easier than starting a new website as you have a pre-established website to be working with; one that is aged, that holds authority and has some presence that can be used as leverage. 

On the other hand, SEOs need to be careful to not dilute websites communications to both search engines and users in trying to enter a new online neighbourhood. 


3. Product Development: In this instance we are marketing a new product to our existing users.

In many instances this is my favourite project in strategic search marketing.  Here SEOs can enjoy the benefits of expanding an already established website to incrementally provide new services / products to the same market.  It also means that SEOs and social media guys have people that might help them promote the products on their behalf.  For instance how many people went on to Twitter to chat about SEOBooks SEO Toolbar or bookmarked it on Delicious?  How else can your website users be encouraged to pick-up your content and take it with them of the site?  Social media seems to be one example.


4. Diversification: This essentially involves entering a new market with a new product/service offering.

For an SEO, this might mean building a strategic plan around the launch of new website.  This could include designing and developing a new website, keyword research, market analysis, link-building plan, pre-launch PR, etc.

It's the clarity in knowing exactly what you want to achieve at a strategic level, that can provide clarity on a day-to-day my opinion, it's why looking at traditional marketing models and principles can still add value – they force us to think about how our efforts are being directed.  On a more day-to-day level we can still see traditional marketing concepts being valuable too.

traditional V search marketing

Traditional Marketing meets Day-to-Day SEO

Here are some ideas on how traditional marketing ideas might translate into day-to-day search engine optimization activities:

  • Identify Prospects – via deep keyword research – beyond keyword tools and immersing yourself in that niche's online community, language and character.
  • Sell your products to those visitors by ensuring they arrive at the correct landing page for their search query and their intent.
  • Measure the response of other (online) marketing efforts such as PPC or banner ads – what can you learn from this for SEO?
  • Visitor loyalty – although analytics programs may not be totally accurate, they can give you a good guide of who is returning and what they're returning in order to expand key services / products. 
  • In the same way marketers have famously floundered with 'scientific' panel testing, how about taking advantage of multivariate / split-testing with Google's Website Optimiser?  This could ultimately improve conversion rates by scientifically knowing which option works most effectively. 
  • Define your market: find your ideal neighbourhood and work to build a respectable presence in that area via social media, conversations and link-building profiles to be proud of.
  • Build and analyse your database to get to know your users – knowing your customers helps you to target them appropriately in the right places.
  • Who are your ideal customers?  By setting visitor tracking and goals, you can see which keywords are most converting, and where are those visitors are arriving from...
  • Talk to your ideal visitors / customers (those that keep on buying without hassle).  They are the most likely to be happy to provide positive feedback to something that they find value in – they might suggest a great tool / service / item of linkbait).
  • How do people use your product (or website) – click-path analysis tells you a great deal about what sort of information people are interested in along with the prompts that they respond to.
  • Increase customer value - dazzle / surprise visitors and customers in a way that they will want to share across their networks via growing social media channels.  Send them away with a reason to share something about your company / website.
  • There are a stack of other examples too...please feel free to share...

You could also play the same 'match-the-traditional-marketing-model-up-to-the—area-of-SEO-game' too with AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action – used for landing page multivariate conversion-rate design and testing) or the 7 P's (just think how helpful this could be for planning the perfect link-building campaign?). 

The general essence is that marketing scientifically online provides a great deal of understanding and direction.  SEO needn't be a fluffy or vague topic in any way – it can and should be pinned down as a marketer’s paradise!


Really, I'm not marketing works.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves that all the answers lay within academic marketing principles, which we all know can be pretty lousy in the manic world of 21st century business.  But what academia can do is help create a framework that ensures you consider the opportunities that lie ahead; not preconceived notions. 

A more fulfilling and professional online presence could be found from thinking along structured lines – both in the way you operate with clients and also the way you achieve your SEO goals. 

And of course, if you think I'm way of the mark, feel free to share your thoughts – I wouldn't expect anything less!  ;)


About our guest rider - Ben McKay

Ben McKay, has been in marketing since 2001, in various online and offline campaign management roles. Throughout recent years he has made a more permanent move into search marketing, working in-house and on a consulting basis for clients of Web Design from Scratch, bourn design and greensplash. -- Mad love and props to Ben for riding along today - I hope you all enjoyed his post as much as I did (tho I am more on the science side dontcha know)




0 # Jeremy Rivera 2009-01-28 09:42
:o Sometime I just forget... It's called internet MARKETING... I'm really glad I read this article, because it reminded me that both the scientific and artistic portions of my brain can be satisfied with SEO.

GREAT post!
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-28 10:07
Thanks Jeremy,

The idea's a work in progress, but one that I think at it's root has a strong message. I'm glad you're glad you read it!


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+2 # nick 2009-01-28 11:32
I think this is a great post. The one thing that the guys who do SEO on their own sites, as opposed to 'real' SEOs, don't forget too often is that it is all about getting more clients/conversions/business (and money) - not about some weird ego trip. SEO is just part of the mix.
The only point I disagree with, and it seems to be a theme for me in 2009, is the implication that SEO might either be an art or a science. I have been a scientist and am pretty sure that most scientists wouldn't include SEO in that category. I am not, and probably won't ever be, an artist. But I do go to galleries, films, theatre, live music. Again, I can't see the day when SEO is included in that list.
Get real. SEO isn't science. It isn't art. That doesn't make it easy, valueless or unfulfilling!
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-28 11:55 would be great to see SEO up on stage - I wonder what that would look like?! :-)

Many aspects of SEO can/should draw on marketing flare, (sometimes) intuitive sense of what will work and what won't (think about link-building or the last viral campaign you worked on) - that's really where the parallel is drawn to it being an art...something on an emotional level maybe?

i disagree though on the point that SEO cannot be a science, as I think there are aspects of their role where they can indeed work as objective scientists - maybe not with test tubes and lab coats :lol: - but rather outside of the sites that they are optimising, where they can test in a controlled environment.

SEO isn't typically a perfect form of science as you describe, but a perspective whereby we are moving towards that (with a marketers direction) can be quite helpful in my eyes.

Essentially though, whether or not we call it an art or a science (or a combination of the two), I would suggest that thinking along these lines can be quite helpful in carrying out successful SEO campaigns on a day-to-day basis....

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Nick!

Ben :D
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0 # Dave 2009-01-28 12:06
The mighty google lead me to definitions including;

Art - "a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation; "the art of conversation"; "it's quite an art"

I dare say, to me, there is an Art form of SEO... it's all semantics, so let's not make the assertions otherwise; a personal perspective

Science - we could use a few;

"skill: ability to produce solutions in some problem domain; "the skill of a well-trained boxer"; "the sweet science of pugilism"

And from Wiki

"Knowledge gained through study or practice; mastery of a particular discipline or area. "

I do actual testing based upon hypothesis in both quantitative and qualitative studies... to me SEO can also be a science.. As a friend of mine is keen of saying;

".. it's not rocket science... it's computer science " - aka IR

I say we can argue it all day... to me they both exist in SEO :woohoo:
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0 # nick 2009-01-28 12:09
I do really believe all you say. SEO has lots of scope for applying scientific method and a bit of artistic flair. Actually, life has lots of opportunity for applying scientific method and artistic flair. And both SEO and life benefit when you manage to combine the two.
I hope my own little rant didn't seem aggressive. It wasn't meant to be. I agree entirely with what you said. I just have a bee in my bonnet about a trend to glorify SEO as something it isn't. I'll stop now :-) but if you're interested then read my post on Sphinn that is titled 'Who is Matt Cutts' which is about this trend despite its title!
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-28 12:37
I'm going to head over there now - thanks Nick

:idea: :arrow:
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0 # Marjory 2009-01-29 07:47
And don't forget about social scientists - I used to be a sociolinguist. :-) And by the way, I love your posts. I learn something new every time.
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0 # rishil 2009-01-29 11:55
Pretty much on spot and target with this one.
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-30 06:41
@Marjory and @rihil - thanks to the both of you! I'm pleased you enjoyed the read...

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0 # Anthony Hereld 2009-01-31 13:34
Excellent, excellent article! I've been writing up a similar analysis for my own SEO blog. I'll definitely be sure to link to some of the points you've made.
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-31 16:36
Thanks Anthony - nice words, thanks ;-)
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0 # kieran 2009-02-01 07:24
Cool post. I have a feeling SEO will move to something like conversion optimization. A lot of seo people focus on traffic. Traffic doesn't mean much if people don't stick around and create page impressions, generate leads, buy products. Good seo is all about test and analysis until you have the site working like a well oiled machine.
I do agree with the marketing flare that is required these days. I think a lot of seo people who move into the role from a scientific background find social media a lot more difficult that working with the stats side.
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-02-03 10:35
That's a great response Kieran. Regarding this:

"I think a lot of seo people who move into the role from a scientific background find social media a lot more difficult that working with the stats side."

...I guess it doesn't mean to say that people can't get better at it though. I say surround yourself by people that are better at it than you and hopefully it will brush off! ;-)

Thanks for the comment, Kieran!
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0 # jobgomel 2009-02-15 08:20
Interesting post. Original decision. Mota on the conditions. :!:
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0 # Shikhar 2009-04-08 11:51
Brilliant Post! I am a SEO expert and I agree with the opinion!

Adding you on my RSS list. :confused:
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0 # SEO Quotes 2009-04-10 08:42
I agree with your statement-Where art meets science; the perfect marriage.I have a feeling SEO will move to something like conversion optimization.Good Seo is all about test and analysis until you have the site working like a well oiled machine.
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0 # Web Designing 2009-08-31 09:05
I agree with your statement. In the modern world the combination of art and science is a need of the hour where we should have enough knowledge about both fields in order to maintain ourselves with the fast growing technology.
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0 # michael 2010-07-06 17:34
Hi Ben. I like you article a lot and I like the idea of applying and translating some of the traditional marketing theories and models onto Search Marketing. Here is my slightly different approach to seo'ing Ansoff Matrix: Hope you will like it...
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