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Bill Sebald

I'm Taking SEM Back

Bill Sebald

In the early days (of guest books and java applet littering) there was confusion about the acronym SEM. Before it became tied to search engine advertising exclusively, it was a concept that lived with natural search optimization – at least in some pockets.

I want it back.

SEO has a timeline. It matured from technical practices to encompass content driven strategies as well. I recall "keyword density" and semantic "WC3 standards" debates through pages and pages of forums. In this case the content we discussed was for persuading Google's rankings, not influencing the actions of the visitors. So, much like how advertising and marketing often get mushed together, we defaulted to SEM being, well, PPC. We weren’t doing real marketing in the early days so the acronym eventually drifted into the possession of advertising platforms.

In 2007 I was tasked with starting an SEO channel at an eCommerce agency. The UX team wanted me. The product development team wanted me. The marketing team ultimately won the tug of war. It's nice to be wanted, but in the end, I was Stretch Armstrong. While I was a shared resource in a highly political environment, I was still in the position of making SEO a marketing channel. In hindsight, that was an awesome fate.

I proposed opportunities to use SEO to partner with PPC for a better SERP experience and develop mindshare and impressions of authority. I proposed using it to improve the popularity of a new product. I proposed it as a reputation management function. I was on to something - more SEOs eventually started backing these same values independently.

While the industry has indeed changed, today we're not at a point where every SEO considers it a marketing channel. That's fine. Some big concepts don't get exclusively labeled in the digital space, and live as an interconnected (though different) species. I argue we should spend less time caring about the labels, and more time mastering the benefits of everything in our wheelhouse.


For Those Who Embrace The Marketing Side

Because of my lot in life, I hopped onto the content marketing train early. I'm enjoying its extra attention so far this year. But in hindsight I missed a lot of link building and technical SEO lessons. I'm mediocre at scraping, I'm not a scalable link builder (though fall in love with everyone who is - I'm fascinated by that brilliance), and can't write enough code that isn't front-end web development. Instead I'm more into the psychology of what we can affect with search engines. Frankly, when doing SEO for eCommerce most my professional life, the "sell" was my SEO priority. Making a page load faster than three seconds or cleaning out bloated code was secondary to good title tags, good descriptions, and a good UX that pulled people through the cart.

My job was to keep them from clicking the back button - my words were my SEO, and needed to beat any of the other common deterrents customers encounter on a website. My job was to learn from content marketers and, well, be one of them. There is so much opportunity in that marriage with SEO alone, which is why I also argued that every marketer does not need to be technical.

It's not natural for everyone

I had made a comment on a post about popularity as a factor in SEO. What the author did there was preach marketing, albeit SEO marketing. In college my marketing classes were all about building popularity. It makes total sense to me. I always like these types of posts as it channels more and more people into this valuable division of SEO.

Let’s remember our timeline. Not every SEO needed to take the path of marketing. Marketing isn't something everyone is good at, or studied. It’s pretty cerebral. While I struggle with quantitatives, some struggle with creativity. We all have our strengths. We don’t want to be snakeoil salesmen on the marketing front if we just don’t have the marketing chops. Practice what you know, continue learning what you don’t. Hire out to fill the gaps.

If anything is going to kill content marketing in 2013, it’ll be all the companies and consultants who say they’re good at it, and aren’t. Unsatisfied clients are the ones who tend to dictate our reputation.

Marketing is nothing without strategy

Peter Drucker said, “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” That doesn’t sound like beating up algorithms to get rankings. It fits closer to PPC (where most of us know the customer based on a few quick keyword research sessions), but in that regard, SEO should be mirroring. It should also be taking it many steps further.

If you’re considering yourself a marketer, and using natural search as one (if not your only) weapon of choice, you need to step up to the pressure of competition and strategy. You’re going to be weighed against the much heavier industry of digital marketing. You’re going to have to be an innovator. You still have to create a marketing plan.

And that takes us full circle to the first pages of any marketing textbook. Let natural search be a marketing channel, and consider all the marketing concepts that tie so nicely into your strategies. Maybe you’ve heard some SEOs say, “rankings aren’t everything.” I predict this will only continue to become more accurate in our industry, where true search engine marketing continues to thrive.

Bill Sebald is the owner of Greenlane Search Marketing, a Philadelphia based SEO Company. He has been working in SEO since 2001.

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