An Open Letter To The New SEO Generation


SEO is almost 20 years old. Can you believe it? There’s some argument about when the practice started, as well as when the term itself was coined, including a failed patent attempt from 2007; but most industry old-timers put the birth of SEO at around 1995.

So, after almost 20 years, what do we have to show for it? SEO has matured in some aspects; it’s now a line item on the budget of most Fortune 500 companies. I’ve been in SEO since 2000, and I am grateful that now when I tell people what I do, I can just use the terms “SEO” or “internet marketer,” and don’t have to rely on my old standby of “I work with computers. I could explain more, but I’d need charts and an easel.”

It always got a laugh but made me feel distinctly out of place. Now at any given gathering, I’m likely to find someone who says “SEO? Oh, we’re seeking a new firm. Do you have a card?”

In other ways, SEO has earned a bad name, with pretty much everyone having been burned by some unscrupulous “SEO” that has promised the moon but delivered an everything bagel (even if you do like these, which I don’t, it’s a far cry from the moon).


If you work with people that have earned penalties, it can be disheartening to see the heavy hand of Google at work. After all, most of these companies simply followed the crowd in the tactics they implemented several years ago, and now they’re being burned at the stake for it.

Many small businesses have simply closed up shop, unable to compete. And larger businesses often find they’re behind the 8-ball with critical integrations like mobile readiness. Without a well-known name or a large, well-respected agency at your back, it can be hard to achieve legitimacy in this industry.

But I’m here to tell you a secret. It’s been 20 years, and the old-timers are getting tired. Lots of them are leaving SEO, including the incomparable Jill Whalen and Jonathan Colman. Some are retiring, having made their fortunes. Others are renaming themselves, trying to leave the name, the limiting factors and the stigma of “SEO” behind. For our purposes, we’ll still call ourselves SEOs.

In my SEO-happy city of Raleigh, NC, you can see this phenomenon playing out, too. Several meetup groups or Google Plus communities are looking for new leaders. The old leaders have been doing it for several years, and they’re tired, ready to try something new, or just so successful that they no longer have the time to devote.

It’s time for the next generation of SEOs to step up and take the helm.

You may be discouraged at first, as you try to become a voice in an increasingly noisy and saturated market, but I’m here to offer you some advice on how to make yourself stand out in the crowd by helping you understand what SEO is really all about.

SEO Is Marketing

The funny thing about SEO is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The tactics shift, the penalties increase, and the blackhats get smarter; but, SEO is still fundamentally just marketing.


The Dot-Com Bubble Bursts, 2000

Marketing is about being amazing. At the end of the day, make sure you’re building, making, creating and selling something great. Make people happy or help them solve their problems. Make their lives just a little bit easier.

The internet is not a get-rich-quick scheme. That ship sailed back in 2000 when the dot-com bubble burst. You need to have a legitimate product or service that is as well-supported offline as it is online. I’m not saying you have to open a brick and mortar, but your company must have real people behind it to succeed. The days of selling vaporware are over.

SEO Is Relevance

Far beyond getting a certain number or ratio of links or using keywords a certain number of times, your site must be relevant to obtain good positioning on search engines. And to get into the top 10, it’s got to be far more than just “relevant.” There’s a lot of competition out there for virtually every search term, so you need to be outstanding in some way — whether it’s customer loyalty and love, superior product quality or something truly innovative.

Make sure your site is not just readable on mobile, but mobile friendly. Go the extra mile to provide a pleasant experience with your email campaigns, your coupon experiences, your customer service. There is nothing better for SEO than a bunch of happy customers.

SEO Is Strategic

You must think about the future. Wearables like Google Glass and the iWatch are only the beginning. We have already pushed well beyond search engines into Experience Optimization on review sites, Facebook, Pinterest and more. Soon, we will push beyond the limiting edges of websites, too.

SEO is not a series of tactics, or a system you can game.  Studying Google’s algorithms, patents and updates is fun if you’re into data. But if you’re doing it just to reverse-engineer the algorithm, you’re going to fail.

Consider critically how your product or service fits in. How will you leverage new technology in your business or the businesses of your clients? Building these skills and knowledge now will really put you at an advantage over us old-timers, because it’s hard to teach how to “think fourth dimensionally.”

Quote from Back to the Future III

Quote from Back to the Future III

SEO Is Relational

Feel free to scoff at the notion of schema; laugh at the worshippers of FreeBase, and turn your nose up at Wikipedia. Just know that while you’re doing that, they’re laying out the future of how we’ll find things. I hesitate to even call it search, since it won’t be about strings of data, but about understanding things. If you’ve never read the post by Google, Introducing the Knowledge Graph: things, not strings, you need to.

The fundamental problem with the way we’ve always searched is that we use language. And language, by definition, is imperfect and ambiguous. As we leave the four corners of websites behind and strive to understand fundamental connections between things, or “entities,” the rush to schema will make more sense.

Whether we have to keep tagging everything ourselves or search engines just get more advanced at discovering the relationships themselves, entities are the future of how we’ll search. It’s nothing new really, but if I hear one more person refer to Hummingbird as an algorithm update or a penalty…


Hummingbird is a fundamental change in the way the Google database is structured — in the way that the algorithm processes information. It’s the largest change to Google since the introduction of PageRank. To optimize in the age of Hummingbird, it is critical that you understand this.

This by the way, is why guest posting is not dead, directory listings are not passé, and reciprocal links aren’t necessarily evil. Too much of any of these things is bad, and doing them for the purpose of gaining links is bad. But in order for people and search engines to understand where you fit into the universe, they need some of these relational cues.

Do any one of those too much and you’ll encounter the Google algorithm’s wrath. Think about what will help your business, and do that instead. If you have the opportunity to post on an industry publication that is well respected, don’t think twice — do it! If you have a business where location is important, get it listed in the online yellow pages!

SEO Is Frustrating

You must bend to the search engines’ every whim. If they tell you to nofollow, do it. If they give you a new schema tag to use, use it. If they tell you to stand on your head, ask them for how long. Like it or not, the search engines rule SEO.

We are free to ignore their recommendations, to block their robots or ignore their penalties. But it’s like the kid at the playground that you don’t play nicely with. He will just take his ball and go home. Google doesn’t need you. So feel free to question, criticize, or even get irritated by what Google requires. But do it anyway.

SEO Is Collaborative

One of the biggest mistakes new SEOs make is taking things at face value. Dr. Pete wrote this amazing open letter to SEOs where he hits this right on the head. Question. Test. Test Again. Build. Destroy. Just because someone you respect says your Title tag should be 67 characters for maximum click-through potential doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way with your site or your clients’.

But be careful of falling into the trap of testing all the time and never creating. You have a responsibility to your clients and to yourself to deliver results, not just results of tests.

So instead of testing all the time, collaborate with your fellow SEOs. One of the best things about SEOs is that we’re all on social media. So go ahead, hit someone up on Twitter, send a random question out onto Facebook. You’ll find SEOs at any hour of the day that are happy to talk shop with you. That’s pretty amazing, but it happens because there is plenty of work to go around. We don’t have to compete.

SEO Is Holistic

SEO is the perfect combination of creativity and writing, technology and data mining, analysis and implementation. It’s the alpha and the omega, the yin and the yang.

A great SEO won’t be happy just writing tags; she’ll want data on user behavior, conversion quality and product margins. A strong SEO won’t shy away from learning black hat tactics; he’ll delve into them to understand them and how they work. An ethical SEO will refrain from using them other than to help identify and obliterate them.

But just as we need each other, we also need the darker side of SEO. It pushes us (and the search engines) to be better, to do better. We’re all part of a beautiful marketing whole and we balance each other out.

Welcome to our world; to our enigma. We’re happy you’re here and we hope you love it as much as we do. We can’t wait to see where you take SEO next.

Dot-com bubble and Back to the Future images used under Creative Commons; all other images created by JLH Marketing, Inc.

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