Does the SEO Industry
Have a Branding Problem?

It seems that just when search engine optimization (SEO) is finally gaining mainstream mindshare, the game has changed in such a way that might make the industry designation a misnomer.

There’s no doubt that optimization for better search engine rankings will always be a huge part of the online marketing equation. However, it may be that the top SEO players are finding that pigeonholing themselves with that narrow acronym is not in their best interest.

I started thinking about this earlier today after reading a post over at Lee Odden’s excellent Online Marketing Blog. Here’s the money quote:

I’m banking on the notion that the future of successful optimization is focused on the creative, not the technical aspects [of] search marketing. SEO in the early days had more to do with code manipulation than content. Today we have offline to online integration, social search, viral search marketing (link baiting), tagging, new media public relations and so forth.

While that’s worth reading twice in itself, what really caught my eye was Lee’s attempt to re-brand “link baiting” as “viral search marketing.” Let’s face it — I’m sure he’d rather use his term in a professional setting.

Readers of my free report on viral marketing techniques for bloggers know that I find the term “linkbaiting” a bit inelegant. What’s worse, many long-term bloggers equate it with controversial and aggressive tactics, rather than simply a sobriquet for content that tends to attract links.

The thing about the term “viral search marketing” is that it also is way too limited in scope to actually replace the true value of link bait, a/k/a extremely compelling content. Why? Because extremely compelling content scores non-search traffic well before it (or the main domain) ranks high in the search engines due to the resulting links.

So isn’t “linkbaiting” really just viral marketing — period? The links, Diggs and social bookmarks that result from carefully-crafted, compelling content (which in turn lead to even more links, Diggs and bookmarks) can drive huge traffic, only to later result in longer-term traffic from high placement in the search engine results. After all, your rank in those results is yet again just another highly relevant link, right?

As Lee and the rest of the best and brightest in search engine marketing add an adapted form of traditional copywriting to their formidable skill set, they find themselves ultimately in the general business of traffic. The main skill set necessary to achieve high search engine rankings (attracting high-quality links) is the skill set that also results in valuable referral traffic from a multitude of other sources.

And why stop with traffic?

If you’re going to take the time as an SEO to learn copywriting (or incur the expense of hiring staff copywriters), why not also help clients convert that traffic, whether that be for direct sales, lead generation, or advertising-supported subscriptions? That’s what direct-response copywriting has traditionally been all about, and there seems to be a unique opportunity to create a one-stop-shop solution delivering work product that not only drives traffic, but also translates that traffic directly into revenue.

Compare that with your typical old school advertising agency that still hangs its hat on the 30-second television commercial and pricey print ads. I know which model I’d bet on.

The SEO industry may have a temporary branding problem. But the solution to that problem may well result in the powerhouse advertising agencies of the future.

The really good news is, smart small business bloggers can learn to do it all for themselves.

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Reader Comments (13)

  1. says

    How about ‘gathering’ ?

    Imagine Brian sitting in front of his souped-up workstation thinking to himself…

    ” I wonder if I’ll gather any links if I tell people the secrets I know about _______ ?”

  2. Tim Wouters says

    For all the SEO specialists out there that wish to broaden their “metier”, I’d definitely suggest they read Peter Morville’s “Ambient Findability”. Oh, and Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”.

  3. says

    There has long been a debate that SEO is becoming a part of SEM, which may as well be a part of Internet Marketing, so it is not new.

    And yes, ‘link baiting’ is more like effectively targeting at being ‘socialized’ for anything, not necessarily providing value.

    ‘Viral marketing’, in turn, can also be gained by just providing extreme value to the customers.

  4. says

    The best “SEOs” understand marketing outside of “traffic”, for example it is important to be sensitive to branding, and as you say “traffic” is no good if it doesn’t convert. But then people still do pay for “just SEO”, the end days of SEO-only-practitioners has been predicted for years now and still they exist …

  5. says

    Chris I agree. And it’s many of the clients that are under the mistaken impression that traffic is the cure to all their ills, and that search engines are the only source of quality traffic.

    I just see an opportunity here, given the transition from “technical SEO” to “creative SEO,” for the most talented practicioners to become big players in the general advertising and marketing world.

  6. Lee Odden says

    I appreciate what you’re saying here a lot Brian. The trend seems to be that the more SEO campaigns we engage, the less we actually end up talking about SEO.

    There are often so many other issues to be addressed such as branding, messaging, conversion process and overall marketing strategy.

    Understanding how offline marketing and advertising as well as public and media relations can affect search marketing is important for the kind of integrated campaigns companies are starting to demand.

  7. says

    I’ve been a direct response copywriting/marketing consultant for 20+ years … got online in the mid ’80s … got into SEO in the late ’90s.

    I saw my direct marketing background as a superb foundation for everything web then, and now. It was a direct line extension from writing compelling print copy to traffic generating, SEO-friendly web copy — all built on structure, technique, and metrics.

    It’s amazing to me that in 2006 everyone is beginning — finally — to get the same joke.

    (Terrific blog, btw.)

  8. says

    Hey Lee, thanks for stopping by. I know I’m preaching to the choir with you. After all, you didn’t name your “Online Marketing Blog” the “SEO Blog” for good reason, right? :)

    Hi Roberta. That’s good to hear.  From what I see, though, most direct-response copywriters don’t seem to have any clue as to how their skills can be applied in the realm of traffic generation.  Maybe that will start to change.

  9. says

    “From what I see, though, most direct-response copywriters don’t seem to have any clue as to how their skills can be applied in the realm of traffic generation. Maybe that will start to change.”

    I would definitely agree with you. Why that is? A complete and utter mystery as I always thought it (and continue to think it) as obvious.

    No matter, though. More pie for me.

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