The Marketer Identity Crisis. Where Are The SEOs?

Online_Marketing_Concept_shutterstockOnline marketing is dazed and confused. Not in the “dry herbs” style, but in the deer-in-the-headlights style. Or maybe both… to each his own.

To begin with, I must state that I am an old curmudgeon by online marketing standards, having been in the field for over 14 years. I identify myself as an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Expert, and as a search marketer. I’m not ashamed of either title; like “lawyer” and “cop,” there are good and bad ones. I believe I’m one of the good ones.

Who Are We?

Our industry has reached what I can only term as an identity crisis. Inbound and outbound, social media, emerging media, digital media, content marketing and even growth hacker are more likely to appear on a business card these days than SEO, search or online.

In fact, most of these look like they were generated from the BS Title Generator. I know it’s in an effort to appeal to a wider audience, but what happened to getting really good at one thing and doing it well?

Agencies used to specialize – in disciplines like TV, radio, search – or in verticals, like e-commerce, education, or B2B. While I’m definitely an advocate of knowing about the broader context your campaigns fit into, I’m also an advocate of knowing when you’re no longer the best at something and asking for help.

This happens way too rarely, in my opinion. As we marketers try to appeal to a larger and larger audience, doing anything that someone will pay us for, we lose our focus, our power, our edge…

The muddy waters of SEO are a perfect example. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked what area of SEO I specialize in. While I advocate specialties in a particular area, a specialty within an area is dangerous.

Take content marketing. It’s a legitimate discipline that’s well in line with the best principles of what it takes to be positioned well on a search engine today. And local SEO, a hyper focused version of SEO that seeks to appeal only to people in a very small geographic area.

Both of these are essential parts of a good, overall SEO Expert’s capability. But they are both completely useless if the client uploads a robots.txt file that blocks search engines from crawling the site. That’s an extreme example, but it truly makes me shudder when someone declares themselves as an SEO content marketer, or a local SEO expert, but they don’t know their way around an .htaccess file.

In my opinion, this is how SEO has gotten such a bad name over the years — people who claim to know its principles but lack key information that is required to do their job well. A great SEO mix is part development, part content, part usability and part analysis. The idea that one could deliver a successful SEO effort without any of these key areas is ludicrous.

But another key element of being a great SEO is knowing when to ask for help. There’s a reason there are usability experts, content strategists and true developers. Because we can’t be all things to all people.

We’ve Lost Our Way

I admit that we’ve lost our way, and dear reader, as a long-time participant in the field, I apologize to you. We’re marketers, and our nature is to chase after the next shiny object. As our influence has spread into the Mad Men-esque traditional agencies where we were originally looked upon as a joke, we’ve become cocky.

The truth is, my dear online marketers, we don’t know everything. We all have good ideas, and we’re learning more every day. But straying so far from our specialty is bound to catch up with us.

Conferences in our industry are a perfect example. From the original Search Engine Strategies to the well-established SMX Series to the more recent events like MozCon, they’ve been expanding. First, opening beyond SEO and PPC to Mobile (in 2007, with SMX’s Lo/Mo event in Denver) and then to social media, these conferences are still all highly relevant to each other.

But at some point (and I’m sure someone else could give the date), we stepped out beyond online marketing… into a much broader context. The events got harder to plan, the speakers found the audiences harder to appeal to, and the leads for the vendors who exhibited at the shows got fewer and less targeted.

Just take this recent story on Incisive Media and their rebranding struggle – from Search Engine Strategies to SES to ClickZ Live and back again. While I think Danny’s a bit too close to it to be objective, he’s certainly right that there is a lot to search, and there’s plenty of content to fill a day, two days or even three days with just search-focused sessions.

As a search marketer myself, this is the audience I want to appeal to as a speaker. It’s a lot harder to speak to a room where half of them are intermediate SEOs and the other half don’t know what it means.

I had a bit of a reality check on this after my last article on The War on Links, a discussion of the current state of link building and SEO as well as the broader issue of copyright infringement. I didn’t realize this would appeal to a larger audience, and I failed to even define what SEO means (a fact that a new reader pointed out to me by way of an email). You’ll notice I’ve done a better job in this column.

Defining A Role That Makes Sense

As each day passes, it’s harder to define myself as an SEO expert in this crowded and fragmented landscape. I know what I do, and I know that when I get the umpteenth email offering to rank me #1 for SEO Raleigh, I can safely ignore it, because those aren’t my people.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve struggled as an industry to define ourselves. We’re a relatively young discipline, and our industry is still developing every day. But whatever we choose to call ourselves, it needs to be more than BS. Because if it’s not logical, people don’t understand it.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of used under Creative Commons

Take for example Raleigh’s beltline (a highway where I live). It’s a circle that goes around the city. Depending on where you were in the city, you might need to choose from East and West, or from North and South to decide which way you needed to go.

The city planners determined that was too difficult for visitors, and renamed it “inner” and “outer.” The problem with this is that it relied on knowing where the center of the city was; so you had to know if you were on the inner loop or the outer loop. Eventually, they had to change it back.

It’s the same concept with our online marketing titles. Inbound and outbound mean nothing unless you know where the center is.

Defining Ourselves

As I so often do, I end this article with an appeal. We are all marketers. We all know on some level how to get people to define, understand and respond to a thing. So why is it that we can’t figure out how to define, understand and respond to ourselves?

Are we really so lost that we can’t look at a name like “growth hacker” objectively? Talk about a title that implies a short-sighted, incomplete and unsustainable view. If you’re referring to yourself as a growth hacker, please stop. Reserve that term for someone you don’t like. You’re not a hack. Go back to basics and figure it out. What do you do? What is your niche? Your strengths and weaknesses? Own them, line up help for your weaker areas, and call yourself what you are.

 (Stock image via Used under license.)