Generalists Vs. Specialists In SEO: What’s The Best Approach?


A couple of months ago, I talked about how the role of an SEO professional is undergoing a serious transformation.

Yes, our primary job is still to drive organic traffic and increase organic revenue – but the way that we do that now has changed so much that we’ve had to acquire additional skills in order to make that happen. Nowadays, you have to think and act like a content developer, user experience advocate, digital strategist, creative marketer and cheerleader if you’re going to survive in SEO.

That piece caused a bit of a stir, and it sparked some crucial discussions with a lot of people I deeply respect. Two key trends popped up in particular:

  1. Do we specialize in one facet of digital, or has the industry changed so much that we’re forced to be cross-functional?
  2. Should SEO be considered marketing? Are there SEO professionals who don’t want to adapt, who don’t want to see SEO as marketing?

Two Sides To SEO

Joe Hall wrote a rebuttal talking about how our job as an SEO should only be SEO, citing some great case studies for tactics that are “purely SEO” — things like redirects, URL structure, code review on a full AJAX site, and Panda/Penguin cleanup.

Joe’s article isn’t wrong. Mine isn’t either. But neither one of them, as individual articles, tells the full story of what SEOs are completely responsible for in 2015. Combined, they’re getting close.

Are there some instances when you can just implement tech improvements for a site-wide increase in organic traffic? Yes. Are there some instances when you can just implement digital marketing tactics for a site-wide increase in organic traffic? Yes. Are there even more instances when you have to do both? Hell yes.

You have to at least have a thorough understanding of how both sides operate to survive in this industry. The problem is that while everyone is demanding marketers to be more technical/analytical, I don’t see that same plea for the tech folks to think like marketers.

And that’s not entirely fair. It’s just making the gap larger, where both sides think their way is the only way to do SEO: marketing (content development, UX researcher, digital strategist) or technical (URL structure, code review, penalty cleanup).

The fact of the matter is that as long as Google keeps changing its algorithm, SEOs will have to keep changing their tactics.

Generalists vs Specialists

That led us to debating between generalists and specialists: What’s better? Do we silo ourselves into doing one thing really, really well while outsourcing or passing on referrals for what we can’t accomplish? Or do we become cross-functional digital marketers that have the ability to work across many different media and tactics?

Michelle makes a good point: Hiring a specialist increases your likelihood that that one thing you hired them for will be done correctly. And that’s probably the right course of action when it comes to penalty cleanups. But, what about when companies are more general and just need to increase their organic search traffic? Do they have to hire two people do to the job of what was once just one person?

That’s not entirely economical, and I think most companies are looking for those cross-platform digital marketers that understand enough about many different channels rather than a lot in one channel because that’s where the entire digital industry is going, whether you call it T-shaped marketer or “general specialists,” a term I adopted from Marty Weintraub of aimClear.

That said, I don’t know of many other industries that demand understanding of such competing different skill sets, and that’s where the problem lies. Creative marketing skills and technical skills couldn’t be further away on the scale of “if you’re good at this, you’ll also be good at this.” They require such drastically different ways of thinking, and it’s absurd to expect – or even ask — for one side to learn the other’s skills.

Is SEO Marketing?

Ten years ago, I don’t know if you could consider SEO “real marketing.” I mean that in the sense that it primarily involved keyword optimization and code structure of your website. (I’ll look to the SEOs that have been doing this for 10 years to comment on what things were actually like in 2005.)

The “real marketing” that Ryan was referencing really hit the forefront when Google took a stronger stance on fighting webspam with Panda and Penguin updates. Google improved its algorithm to be more user focused, so we had to think more like marketers in addition to covering our bases with the on-site fundamentals. But because SEO became the trendy thing to do, because it became a critical skill that companies were looking for when hiring digital professionals, we had people claiming they knew SEO when they weren’t really qualified to be making that claim at all.

So, where does that leave us?

First, the easy one: Marketing is educating potential customers about your product or service and persuading them to buy it, so of course SEO is marketing, and it’s quickly becoming one of the biggest traffic-driving channels out there. If your organization doesn’t see the value of SEO or view it is an actual marketing tactic, either they need to change their viewpoint or you should find an organization that does.

Second, “good SEO” will never exist without a mixture of marketing and technical skills. There are too many case studies proving that you can’t just focus only on the technical architecture or the content strategy of a website. You will never succeed.

But in terms of what’s better professionally, knowing one thing really well or being cross-functional? I see both sides, and there’s not as much of a clear, cut-and-dry answer.

What do you think? Are we better off being highly specialized in one tactic, or being able to implement across many digital tactics?

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