February 7, 2005

Seth Godin on the SEO Industry Again

In a life-is-stranger-than-fiction moment, published author and marketer Seth Godin asked what, to some, is an odd question: Is there a "search engine industry"? Now that his post has been responded to by Danny Sullivan who picked up on the thread via searchengineblog, Seth has this to say:

Just a short time ago, SEO was seen as a shortcut by marketers unwilling to do the hard work of actually making a product and a site that mattered. In that era, SEO was the quick way to get cheap traffic — cheap so you could afford to waste it.

Today, it’s different. The bar is higher. People have figured out how to make online offers that work. Once you’ve done that homework, it’s important (probably imperative) to streamline your site so that it works better with search engines. Why wouldn’t you?

Well, I hate to say it, but Seth has got it wrong again.

First, he questioned whether there is a "search optimization industry" — why? People have been optimizing websites for search engine rankings for over a decade; there were already SEOs when I arrived on the scene circa 1997-98, before the term "search engine optimization" had been coined. But, for the sake of argument, had an actual SEO "industry" not been in existence, would that fact somehow validate whatever point Seth was trying to make? Websites either can be optimized or they can’t be; the existence or non-existence of an "industry" doesn’t change that fact, does it?

Now Seth goes one further — and gives us a clue about his purpose. Having been advised that there is, indeed, a search engine optimization industry by Danny Sullivan, one of the leading lights of that industry, Seth dismisses it all by stating:

"SEO was seen as a shortcut by marketers unwilling to do the hard work of actually making a product and a site that mattered"

Come on. Knowledgeable marketing means knowing that having a "product and a site that mattered" does not mean potential customers will know about it, find it or anything else. That’s what advertising and promotion are for, whether offline or online. But let’s deconstruct:

First, it does not matter how SEO was "seen" — particularly by people who didn’t grasp its significance or how widespread its use; what matters is what was and is. But this particular spin implies that SEOs were "unwilling to do the hard work" (ouchie) of "actually making a product and a site that mattered" … ah, but you see, Seth doesn’t actually say that SEOs didn’t do the hard work or that they or their clients don’t have products and sites that matter — no, he simply couches it all in a "how it was seen" phraseology that must be deconstructed in order to catch the slipperiness of the accusation. Clever. I guess.

In fact, Seth may one day be surprised to learn just what companies have been using SEO for years to advance their Web marketing for what products. It would have been far better had he, having apparently just discovered the industry of SEO, simply examined what has been accomplished by whom for whom rather than dismissing out of hand both SEO and anyone who used it for any product or service whatever. I’m not sure how he knows this, but if Seth indeed has such research, I’m sure it’s research the SEO community itself would love to have. But let’s make "one day" today: see Digital Impact Signs Definitive Agreement to Acquire Marketleap; paragraph one has some names. As does just about any SEO’s website.

Okay. It’s clear that SEO must be combined with marketing and sales in order to turn out sites that not only attract visitors but convert those visitors to customers. Circa 1999-2001, I sang that song at SearchEngineForums; I included it in a presentation at the Internet Marketing Conference 2001 in Las Vegas, and have continued to say it since then in forums and on our commercial blog (Internet Marketing & Effective Websites). Get visitors; convert visitors to customers. Same stuff we now hear everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. I suppose one cannot fault anyone for not being at SEF in 1999-2001 or reading marketing and SEO forums. However, and let’s get to the point:

=> There’s a technique in marketing called "positioning" whereby one positions a product, service or idea against another known product or service or idea, thereby bringing it to the public’s attention and, in the process, positioning it in their minds against the other product/service/idea. Examples:

  • The Uncola — 7-Up positioning itself against industry leader CocaCola.
  • We Try Harder — Out of the blue, unknown rental car agency Avis pops into public awareness by successfully positioning itself against industry leader Hertz. Decades ago.
  • Think Different — Apple’s Macintosh against then-industry leader IBM.

Then Seth follows his "how SEO is seen" claim that SEOs have failed to do hard work or build good websites or promote good products with this amazing statement:

People have figured out how to make online offers that work

Well, unfortunately for the veracity of this statement, people have been doing precisely this for years, which is why Internet sales stats have been on the rise. For years. One has to wonder what "people" Seth is talking about who have now "figured out how to make online offers that work" or why he is making marketing assumptions against rising marketing stats.

It’s okay, really, that someone is slow to learn about search engine optimization. But is Seth trying to position himself above an entire decade-old industry at one go?

Now, here’s a second point: I’ve lately seen a great many extremely anti-SEO comments from web designers, bloggers and now a marketer. Could it be that these folks are finally grasping how all-encompassing SEO is to Web marketing and therein see a threat?

Well, marketing is marketing. Would that all anyone had to do was play with Photoshop and put up a website. The discovery that effective websites require more than one or two disciplines is not new.

2 Comments to "Seth Godin on the SEO Industry Again"

  1. Search Engine Roundtable says:

    Is There Really An SEO Industry?
    What would you call it, SEO or SEM? Today on Cre8asite forums there is an excellent thread where one of the members, Barry Welford, details an article he blogged on taking an overall aerial view of the SEM/SEO industry and…

  2. DianeV says:

    Just re-read this. Strange that SEO was not recognized as part of Web marketing.

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