The changing role of SEO professionals in the digital marketing landscape
As recently as two years ago the question of what exactly it is that a search engine optimizer does would have been greeted with puzzlement. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was a usually outsourced service that was bought into a business. It was assumed that the SEO provider would carry out a technical audit of the website, go through and ‘optimize’ its pages, suggest some changes that would have to be made to the website platform’s code, create a cross-linking strategy for the existing content, source some high-quality outside links, work on the keyword density and presto!


Websites that ranked high on search, those days, usually had volume. Volume in terms of content and volume in terms of back links. Of course that’s not the whole story of why they ranked high but it is close enough as an approximation to actually help us understand that it was a system that could easily be abused. Anyone with deep enough pockets could, apparently, hire an expert search engine optimizer to help them game the system.

Web spam, a term that relates to websites that are of poor quality and lead to a poor user experience was common enough for hardly anyone to expect to find the answer to a search query right on the first page of Google. As a result the number of people prepared to look beyond the third page of the search results was significant, as was the number of abandoned searches.

Get Me On The First Page of Google

Businesses that understood the importance of SEO, back then, all wanted the same thing: to see their website on the first page of Google. While it certainly helped as far as online trade is concerned, it was also the kind of ego boost businesses often are prepared to pay for regardless and that certainly helped boost the SEO industry. Websites would appear on the first page of Google for all sorts of keywords and query terms, not all of them related to their business vertical. The practice, that hurt more than helped the reputation of the SEO industry, was widespread enough to generate an industry-wide metric: the site’s search rank for specific keywords.

This was something that worked well enough on the promise and premise of SEO and gave an easy to understand metric to online business owners. At best its value as shown by the spectacularly public case of Overstock and JC Penney who abused the system and got punished, was crucial to online success. At worst it provided an easy means to make money for those SEO companies that were unscrupulous enough to charge customers for first page search rank for uncompetitive keywords or, worse, exact match domains (EMD).

Google Search Changed How Online Business Was Done

It’s Google that changed all this by focusing on the one thing that matters to any company: the quality of its brand. The search company realized that useful and widespread as its search might be it still annoyed those using it when they had to sort through pages of spammy content trying to find the best answer for their search query. And so began a process of improvement in search indexing that has actively targeted poor quality websites, as well as blatantly spammy ones and provided the end user with a number of refinements such as auto-suggest, predictive search and personalized results.

None of this, on its own, is revolutionary, ground-breaking or earth-shattering. Yet, taken in their totality they are part of an ongoing evolution in the world of search that has changed the role of SEO forever.

How? Here’s an easy example. Suppose you get an SEO professional to get your website on the first page of Google for a specific search query. It will give you traffic. But unless your website layout, design and functionality is easy to use and can help those who land on it to use it intuitively it is unlikely that you will get many conversions. Traffic may be great for the ego but it is conversions that get you sales.

What SEO Professionals Do Today

The search engine optimization professional today does not just look at the technical side of SEO. While this may be a starting point he will also look at the nature of your business, the quality of your content, the end-user experience (requiring UI expertise), your site structure and how you stack against the competition in your business vertical.

In short, today’s SEOs need to be:

  • Technical-SEO proficient
  • Writing specialists
  • Content marketers
  • UI experts
  • Business Analysts
  • Marketing Advisers
  • SEO strategists
  • Product specialists

And that is a far from exhaustive list of the skills required. The reason the search engine optimization professional’s role has changed is because search has also changed.

Search Is Fragmenting

Just two years ago it was laughable to think of carrying out any kind of meaningful search away from one’s desktop. Search was the web, the web was accessible on desktop computers. The few devices that could access the internet on the go were so slow and unreliable that they were reserved for emergencies and those diehard early adopters who liked the idea more than the actuality of the mobile web.

In that universe mobile search was the type of search you did when you ducked into an internet café or caught a wi-fi connection on your laptop when you were away from the office. Well, how the world has changed.

Content, these days, is served across different sized screens and devices, at different connection speeds. There are separate search verticals (with some overlap) for mobile search, desktop search and voice search and that’s before we consider the content delivered through the ever expanding universe of apps.

Because search is fragmenting SEOs called in to specifically optimize a website, as an example, are grossly underused and irrespective of how good they may be, it is unlikely that the website owner will reap the full benefit of their experience.

A better description of what search engine optimizers really do is optimize the business so that it becomes more likely to make sales. As Toni Anicic, head of ICG, a consulting group, stated recently the traditional ranking of positions for keywords as a metric of success is something  that is no longer valid, or at least it’s nowhere as valid as it was in the past. This leaves the measurement of success in online search engine optimization to be measured by the only metric that truly matters: sales and the continued growth of the business.

As we live through the final days of 2012 the year ahead looms strong, with Semantic Search just around the corner and Google’s Knowledge Graph beginning to make its power felt, the one certain thing is that SEO, that once, opaque, technical and perhaps a little ‘grey’ discipline, has now become a vibrant activity upon which frequently rides the success or failure of any online business.

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