WARNING: In preparing for this post I read Anansi’s Boys by Neil Gaiman and several posts by mcs. Niel and mcs are both brilliant but tend to… well, you’ll see.

I’d also like to take a moment to thank Todd Malicoat aka Stuntdubl who’s very excellent blog got me thinking in the right direction. If you haven’t checked out this site you are missing out.

SEO is a School of Thought

In my quest to define SEO for my own peace of mind (and so that I can properly market it) I’ve come to the conclusion SEO is a lot of things, and also not a lot of things. I’ve posted my opinion in my Future of SEO article which sparked discussions at Cre8asiteforums, SEOMoz, and of course here.

SEO is more than just a list of tasks. And it’s more than just getting good SERPs in Google, Yahoo! and MSN.

SEO is a subset of marketing that is particular to web sites. And as Stuntdubl pointed out, the intent of SEO is to drive traffic to a web site, through search engines, to get more conversions for the site owner (he didn’t say it in those words, but that’s what I got from it).

While there are many different levels of web developers out there, many with their own methods of promotion, there is two things about SEOs that set *us* apart from *them*. And that is how we do our promotion and the mentality we hold as we do it.

There are three keys to good SEO: communication, content and backlinks.

Communication is critical for us. And we are always looking for new ways to add to our communication arsenal and improve the communication tools we already have. It doesn’t matter how great your web site is if nobody knows it’s there. Besides, the Internet is a communication tool itself!

SEOs are cross-disciplinary and it shows up in how we communicate. We write content. We improve content that was written by someone else (we call it “optimizing”). We write and send press releases. We write and send emails. We write and critique new ways of doing things (like on this forum). We write ads - though we don’t always call them that. Some of us even use phones conversations and personal networking to communicate.

And even with all the people we communicate to we also communicate with the search engines! We communicate our content to the spiders.

Content is king (well, I think communication is king, but oppinions vary). Content can be a well written article, a useful tool or program, a community or even an awesome design. The point is, the content isn’t about the package so much as the value to the viewer. With great content comes backlinks.

Ah, backlinks! Now we’re into the more comfortable, traditional realm of SEO. As every SEO knows, the key to getting top spots in the search engines is plenty of backlinks. Sure there are other factors, but most of them can be overlooked when you’ve got enough quality links going to your site. Heck, sometimes quality doesn’t even matter provided you have the quantity!

But this is where SEO and everyone else separate.

SEOs will do incredible things to get just… one… more… link to their site! And this is where classifying SEO became problematic for me.

A lot of tactics used by SEOs to generate links are really advertising, promotion and marketing strategies. But nobody wanted to classify themselves an “online marketeer”. SEOs like the name “SEO”. And that’s the problem. Everyone does different stuff different ways using disciplines beyond any classifiable structure. That makes it difficult to nail down. And even harder to explain to clients (we’ve all had *that* conversation…).

Anything done that *might* gain a backlink has became part of the SEO realm. Which makes sense; in a long stretched-truth sort of way. Yea, it’s technically accurate, but… can you really justify PPC ads as SEO? Or offline promotion tactics? “Buzz” creation? A lot goes into those and they’re really disciplines in their own right.

And yet SEOs grabbed them and ran with it making it their own.

So how the hell do you explain that having an airplane skywrite your domain is going to give you better placement in the SERPs to a client?

I finally have an easy answer: you don’t.

SEO isn’t about the tactics, it’s about the results:

• Gain Traffic
• Through Search Engines
• Increase profit through conversions

If any one of these elements is missing it isn’t really SEO. There’s lots of ways to gain traffic and many of them are clearly not SEO because they don’t bring in the specific traffic needed to make conversions happen. Untargeted traffic is a waste of time, energy and (most important) cash.

And if conversions aren’t happening all of our efforts are wasted. I think this is an important part of SEO that we tend to overlook. But this is what we are paid for. And if it isn’t happening do you really think the client is going to care about the number of eyeballs that have seen their site?

Business is business. And if there aren’t sales, you’re fired.

So back to SEO being a school of thought…

Princeton defines “school of thought” as a doctrine: a belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school.

SEO has a very clear and distinct community. And we all believe our web sites deserve to be at the top of the SERPs if we do the work to get them there. Our doctrine may look like this:

• Web sites must be attractive to both the SEs and the humans visiting them.
• Web sites must be viewable by the largest viewing audience as disregarding potential sales is dumb.
• Web sites must be crawlable.
• Content attracts visitors, keeps them around, brings them back and sells to them and should be treated like gold.
• All links going to my sites are good. Some links are better than others.
• All SEO tactics are good; some are more cost-effective than others.
• Anything worth doing is worth testing.
• Anything that may get me more backlinks is worth a try.
• Traffic is good. Targeted traffic is better.

Take note, this doctrine does not state who is doing the work. The SEO may be the designer or the supervisor. Nor is this doctrine complete. I’m sure everyone reading this can think of other points all SEOs agree on that would fit on this list.

SEO isn’t a way to build web sites because we do more than that. It isn’t marketing because we do less than that. It isn’t a philosophy because ethics don’t really play a role (think: white hat or black?).

So now I have some answers I can live with:

What is SEO? It’s a way of building and promoting web sites through search engines to gain more targeted traffic for a web site and increase conversions making more money for the site owner.

What is an SEO An SEO is a person who plans, implements and promotes a web site by increasing it’s presence within the Search Engines so that targeted traffic is delivered to the web site increasing conversions and making the site owner more money.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a very valuable service to me. Something I can get behind, explain to my customers and even charge a decent rate for.