I’ve been writing online for about 4 years now, and I’ve learned a bit about “SEO” - this blog and my side project’s blog (my side project being Boot.dev) now have combined traffic of about 100k visits each month. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about growing relevant organic traffic for businesses than I do, but I’ve become convinced of something that I’d like to run by you.
“Those claiming to be an “SEO” probably provide little marketing value
First, let’s acknowledge that everyone uses job titles to mean different things. That said, almost every time I’ve heard someone claim to work as “an SEO” they consider their responsibilities to include:
- Recommending technical updates to improve search engine rankings
- Doing keyword research
- Distributing organic content to various media channels
- Finding or creating back-links
More importantly, they typically do not consider their responsibilities to include:
- Implementing technical updates to improve search engine rankings
- Doing product/market research to find keywords that are likely to convert users
- Writing blog content that will rank for target keywords
- Guest posting and adding value to various online communities to gain back-links organically
So when you hear me attacking the idea of an “SEO”, I’m referring to people who are willing to take on the responsibilities in the first list, but shy away from those in the second. Let’s talk about each one in a bit more detail.
Recommending technical updates vs implementing technical updates
Let’s get something straight, “technical SEO” is not hard. Most web platforms take care of it for you, and if you’re even a little familiar with how the web works, you can learn about the most important 80% of it in just a few minutes. Your site should:
- Load quickly and efficiently
- Work well on mobile and desktop
- Have a sitemap and an RSS feed
- Have a user-friendly menu structure
- Link internally to related content as appropriate
Did I miss anything? Probably. But most other things are also not super important and would have a fairly negligible impact on your rankings, especially on a smaller site.
The point I’m making is that most “SEOs” use the same stupid 15-item checklist, and will tell you which rules you’re breaking. Unfortunately for you, that’s about 2% of the work. Actually implementing all those changes is where an “SEO” should add value - and some of them do, but many of them don’t.
Oftentimes this means knowing how to code, but sometimes it just means being intimately familiar with the web tools the site uses.
Doing keyword research vs product/market research
This one is a bit trickier - it’s probably best that product research is not the role of an SEO. Product research is a huge job, and a whole team can spend most of their time daily just talking to customers and devising plans for how to sell to them.
In other words, your product marketing person (or team) probably needs to be the one deciding which clusters of keywords are valuable to your business. Your “SEO person” just isn’t going to have enough information to make those decisions. Trouble is, once those clusters are identified with accuracy, doing keyword research is one of the easiest jobs in the world. It’s as simple as pulling up SEMrush, Ahrefs, or even just Google Keyword Planner and looking for related keywords with a good ratio between monthly traffic, ranking difficulty, and relevance to your business.
So what should you do? It’s actually quite simple, you should take your internal product/marketing team and spend the 15 minutes required to teach them how to do keyword research. They will quickly be creating high-quality lists of keywords for your content writers to target that are more relevant than anything a dedicated “SEO” would come up with.
Creating organic content
If an “SEO” does the single most important task for increasing relevant traffic, that is, writing (or outlining) great articles that answer the questions of your customers, then I have nothing to complain about. The problem is that too many SEOs claim to “specialize” in “SEO”, and they consider writing content out of the scope of their work. They want to put together some high-level plan, then dump a list of keywords on the marketing team. This is a very inefficient way to go about gaining organic traffic.
In my opinion, the best SEO marketers will frequently write and edit content themselves, if for no other reason than to figure out what is working and what isn’t. They can then scale up the operation by creating a content schedule for a team of writers.
Content distribution as a task requires no special skills - it can often be automated. By “as a task” I mean the actual work involved with going to various online communities, influencers, or publishers and informing them of your new content.
On the other hand, putting together a plan and then executing that plan efficiently via a well-documented workflow does take some experience. Knowing which communities will be interested in your content, and putting together a repeatable plan to effectively reach those people isn’t a walk in the park. It takes serious customer research. Again, we run into the problem of the average SEO not being an expert on the product personas being targeted.
A good “SEO” is just a good marketer at the end of the day, and to be successful, they need to have a deep understanding of the people they are trying to reach. If they do, they will likely do a great job distributing content.
Growing a backlink profile
In the very early days of search engines, what mattered most was keyword density. You would essentially just use the keyword you want to rank for very liberally in your web pages and would rank well. Ever since Google’s groundbreaking Pagerank algorithm was released, the number (and quality) of other websites that link to your webpage matters a lot more. These days, it’s even more involved than that. Thankfully, Google uses page experience metrics as well.
So at the end of the day, it’s simple, there are 3 main things to make sure you have covered if you want to rank.
- Your page answers the search intent of the keyword you’re targeting (provide value, don’t stuff keywords)
- Your page does a great job delivering that value by being in-depth and having a great user experience Other pages on the internet link to you as an additional signal that you are providing value
If you lurk in /r/seo as I do sometimes, you’ll see the same question frequently asked, “how do I get backlinks to my content”? Most people in the industry refer to this kind of backlink building as “offsite SEO”, and most people will tell you there are 2 main ways to do it.
- Cold emailing website owners and asking/paying for links.
- Guest posting on other people’s websites and sneaking in links back to your site.
I’m convinced that both of these approaches suck.
I’ve never actually cold-emailed anyone to ask them to include a link to my website, but I have ignored 100% of the requests I get from others, and I get a lot of requests. I’ve also watched hundreds of people in several online SEO communities complain that cold outreach has an insanely low success rate.
As far as guest posting goes, I don’t think it’s a terrible approach, but I still think it’s less efficient than what I’ve been doing.
What I do: Make no special effort to get back-links
I’ve had much greater success focusing completely on “onsite SEO” and content distribution. What I mean is, instead of wasting my time cold DMing and emailing people to link to a shitty article, I just do my best to write great articles. Then, if the article is good, and I’m doing a decent job of distributing it to communities that actually give a shit about the topic, then people in that community will link to it. If they don’t like it, they won’t, and I need to write something better.
SEO is a great growth channel, just be careful who you work with
SEO has been a great growth channel for my side project, Boot.dev. It allows me to inexpensively find customers who are interested in what I’m building consistently over time. I’m not knocking SEO as a growth channel, I’m knocking some bad (or maybe just outdated) industry practices that can harm businesses if they aren’t familiar with the space.
To sum up, if your “SEO person” believes their entire role is just to tell other people what they need to implement, create, distribute, or pay for to rank, they probably aren’t great SEO people. On the other hand, if they optimize your site personally, write great content and share it with relevant channels, they might be worth their salt.