SEO as a Marketing Discipline

by rishil on June 18, 2010

Change You Mindset (Photo Credit:

Change Your Mindset (Photo Credit:

Sometimes as an SEOs its feels that we suffer from ADD. Often our strategies are all over the place, in the ever continuous pursuit of great rankings. We carry out site audits, write content, link build and seem to focus just on those top level keywords that we or our clients aspire to. We sit bogged down in reporting, analysing and processing huge volumes of data. Some individuals are better at planning this process than others – I for one am not really that great at planning a day to day work flow. I tend to work on whatever either interest me today, or whatever is required tomorrow.

Part of the reason I feel is a lack of universally accepted methodologies or frameworks in SEO. The other part of the blame I allocate to the liquid nature of the way SEO works. As we get cleverer at manipulating improving and refining search results, search engines try to get cleverer about dampening those efforts. Due to those ever moving goal posts we may find it hard to create a meaningful discipline.

Should we find it hard to do so?

We mustn’t forget that SEO is a MARKETING discipline – it is an increasingly important strategy that is both quantifiable and accountable to businesses. Yet it is only part of a mix of strategies that are available to businesses.  As a result, it needs to start presenting itself as a real mix in the business, as opposed to a blind scramble towards SERPs that only the board cares about. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as search geeks and data junkies and start fashioning ourselves as real marketers. That is normally the first step towards giving our profession the badge of authenticity it so rightly deserves in any organisation.

We need to craft frameworks that can be used in meaningful deployment of our strategies which can be presented at board level in intelligible ways. This is how we can sequester those big budgets that other marketing departments seem to so easily acquire.

Working with large brands has taught me that there are two fundamental problems with getting SEO the respect that it deserves in business:

  • Ignorance
  • Involvement

We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.  Peter F Drucker


I don’t mean ignorance in a negative way – I mean people genuinely don’t understand the work involved behind SEO – especially at the top level of any organisation. Most people use search engines – but most assume their existence and the results pages as part of life. They don’t take a moment out to wonder how hard it is often to rank for certain keywords – nor do they consider these results as a “Sales Channel”. So while the sales people get massive bonuses for delivering a large order – often the SEO team are given a pat on the back – for actually massive increase in sales across the whole year by the work they have done.

People make incorrect assumptions about the role and capabilities of SEO. They aren’t ready to accept the real, far reaching capabilities of search manipulation that can impact the whole business.


Involvement is actually an issue that many SEO’s create for themselves. We don’t often take the time to get the key stakeholders to buy into the processes, understand the objectives, and get involved in the strategic direction.  We need to become better political animals if we are to take our business to the Jet setters.  All businesses have a level of hierarchy – whether implicit or explicit. If all the levels of authority do not buy into our processes, real SEO cannot be properly deployed. This especially includes your parallels, such as the PR, Branding and Offline Marketing departments.

For example, if you are selling widgets – and are well known for widgets, but do not, say rank for “cheap widgets” should you target that term? Probably based on sales potential, yes would be the answer. But what if the Brand Police do not want the keyword “cheap” associated with the brand? This may mean that you may not be able to use the phrase “Cheap widgets” for onsite elements. This makes it harder to optimise for.

Often such battles can only be fought on paper, with strong arguments for various tactics and strategies. And these can only be adjudicated by people that exceed authority of both, the SEO, and the internal persecutor. And if you failed to enlighten them about SEO, the reach and the impact on the business in the long run, then you have already begun to fail.


I don’t think I have a complete solution, but over the next few months, I will definitely post more about how I tackle various issues at a more senior level. I am also going to revisit my marketing background, and try and bring some structure into the various marketing techniques and processes that have helped me in the past and hopefully share these too. It may be worth checking out my rant a little while back on Big Brands and Corporate Strategy which Jaamit kindly put together.

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Rishi Lakhani is an independent Online Marketing Consultant specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing and Social Media. Explicitly.Me is his Blog. Google Profile

{ 6 trackbacks }

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June 22, 2010 at 2:17 am
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June 22, 2010 at 5:30 pm
People genuinely don’t understand the work involved behind SEO « Optimize Your Web
June 24, 2010 at 9:55 am
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June 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

jaamit June 22, 2010 at 11:31 am

Excellent stuff Rishi, and a great followup to your twitter rant (thx for the link btw!).

For me this is a crucial problem that we need to answer as an industry. When you compare it with other media and marketing channels, SEO is just a drop in the ocean in terms of budget, an afterthought in terms of strategy and often led by whims by, as you say CEOs deciding “we need to be #1 for [random single word keyphrase that will take years to rank for and wont convert by itself]!” Beyond that when it comes to companies that havent had to rely on online traffic for their success, natural search is dominated by brand terms and the idea of ranking for non branded terms and having the content required to do so is not even thought of.

For me it basically comes down to proving ROI. SEO is unique amongst all the other marketing channels in that on the whole its success is still not linked to ROI (barring a few exceptional SEOs who insist on it). Even for the likes of TV and offline marketing, media planners manage to cludge toghether some sort of ROI figure despite the untrackable nature of the medium. Yet with SEO we CAN measure this but dont – partly because its not an exact science (you have to estimate just what effect your efforts have made on organic traffic/sales compared to a rough baseline), partly due to I think laziness on the industry’s part, thinking “oh well they seem to be impressed by this increase in page 1 rankings metric, I’ll stick with that”. But for me its clear that if we dont get serious about measuring this, not only will we not be able to command the share of budget other channels get, a lot of SEOs also wont survive the recession (and believe me we wont be immune from it).

That’s my 2p for now. Looking forward to your follow up posts on this important subject.


Alan Bleiweiss June 22, 2010 at 11:07 pm


I’m looking forward to your future posts on this subject. I’ve worked ceaselessly to help clients understand that SEO, and Internet Marketing in general, need to be looked upon as a cornerstone to a business’ ability to not only survive, but thrive in today’s economy. I think it has helped me tremendously that I have a strong marketing and business management background rather than a purely tech background.

Yet at the same time, it’s also helped that I speak enough tech that I can help engineers and IT managers grasp why this is not “just something else I have to find room for on my already overflowing plate of responsibility” – which turns out to be a big relief for them to hear.

Jaamit touches on a fundamental aspect of the process as well – business owners and C level executives care about the ROI as much as anything. Depending on the client I’ll sometimes talk about how big the market opportunity is they can go after, and sometimes I’ll talk about how much of a financial loss they’re suffering by not getting on board.

One last thing I need to mention though is the countless times I encounter business owners who really have no right to be business owners – they’re somebody with X amount of money to invest, think they have a great idea, and then fail to grasp the mountain they need to climb – marketing aspects being just one of them. I had to learn early on to get brutally honest with them right out the gate. The more honest I am, and the more brutal the communication, the less likely they’ll burn ten, twenty, or 100 thousand dollars only to learn they got in over their head.

So ethics is just as much a factor as everything else we need to integrate.


Tim Aldiss June 23, 2010 at 8:43 am

That’s agreat read Rishi – I agree with you and feel for you.

However I think that this has always been part of what SEO is. I don’t know of any SEO that hasn’t struggled to deliver the argument over which search terms work best for a brand.

For the last year I have been fortunate enough to work for an agency that has such fantsatic technical abilities, and sits in a niche with SME clients who are going places, that finding the sweet spot of search terms (i.e. those that we know we will have success for) has not meant comprimising on coverage of vanity search terms.

To an extent the nature of this issue reflects the complexity and scale of the client account. The bigger more established the website the harder it is to effect changes and get things moving. But I also agree ith Jaamit in that presenting the detail is where the true value lies.

When I first read your post I started thinking that you insights are endemnic of the age we are living thorugh i.e. the next generation of heads of marketing/CEO’s will get SEO, but I think because of changes in the landscape and the sheer speed of updates and algorithm changes, we just need to accept the fact that communications is such a critical part of getting buy in and trust for why we do what we do.

Bring on the next challenge!


Maciej June 23, 2010 at 10:47 am

SEO and marketing go hand in hand and I am always trying to educate my clients as well that it is not a science project. Years ago it might have been approached a bit more mathematical but the game has changed and people’s purchasing behaviors have changed.


Darryl June 23, 2010 at 11:44 am

Nice post, I still find it surprising how some big companies don’t think of SEO as a credible marketing strategy. Sure, it’s definitely not as established as the tried and tested methods and there can be a lot of volatility when your fate is in part in the hands of big G, but it’s still one of the most cost effective marketing strategies providing great ROI.


Tad Chef June 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Hey Rishi, while most of what you write is true and I can very much relate to it I hate the derogatory term “manipulation” when it comes to SEO. Stop manipulating and start improving, enhancing or refining. That change of focus will make a huge difference.


rishil June 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm

@Tad – thanks for stopping by Tad – noted and amended. I agree – See how bad the conditioning is? I need to stop seeing SEO as a war against Search Engines…


Kristjan Mar Hauksson June 24, 2010 at 9:57 am

Fantastic article and a recommended read. We keep hitting the wall of upper management when trying to raise the bar for search marketing.


Glenn Friesen June 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Another excellent post. I’m with you, Rishi.

The brand police blocking SEOs from targeted high-conversion keywords – man, that hit home. But perhaps that demonstrates a lack of understanding from us SEOs toward the “opinion-mindset”. You know, those people at the top of some organizations or departments who base their activity and the activities of their subordinates on personal, subjective criteria? Perhaps all us SEOs require study of snake-oil selling and manipulation instead of marketing to the demand of the audience? You know, it may be a cultural thing among certain decision-makers to get what they want (ranking for “telephone”) rather than get what benefits their company most (”local phone service”). Maybe we SEOs are at fault for not meeting the client demand – but forecasting and delivering what would best serve their customer instead?

Of course, I’m being facetious – but there’s some truth in there…. I just don’t get where some of these old school marketing types come from. Perhaps it’s the availability of real-time analytics to prove the worth (or lack of it) of a campaign in today’s SEO world — compared to the sheer lack of analytics or real-time market research from the environment where these people matured.


David H June 24, 2010 at 7:54 pm

In my experience with clients ranging from blue-chip global to local B&Bs there’s a tendency for them to think that they know all they need to know about ‘pleasing Google’ from the first conversation with an SEO expert.

Even if that expert was right at the time, the advice is way out of date. Immediately. So even if they’re not ready to take SEO seriously as a part of the marketing piece, I still try to centre them on the old ‘find out what people want and give it to them’ mantra.

My favourite is when keen CEO comes with the latest idea-from-the-airline-magazine-article and says ‘we just gotta have that’ – more of this is around SEO. Or worse, a big misunderstanding of adwords or Facebook advertising. But that’s another story.

Keep up the great thought-provoking writing, Rishil. It may inspire me yet into getting more writing done!


treuemax July 7, 2010 at 7:22 am

Fantastic article and a recommended read. We keep hitting the wall of upper management when trying to raise the bar for search marketing.


Marketingweb November 16, 2010 at 9:46 am

Great read including all the comments. I hear what you are saying Alan re some business owners who don’t deserve to be – the ones with money you mention are bad enough, what are worse are the ones with no budget at all – the “I want to be #1 in Google for {competitive keyword} within 2 months. My budget is $500, but you need to update my website too for that price” These sort are even worse, and sometimes hard to avoid!

The other problem I think is that SEO is harder to define in some ways than most other marketing concepts, from a “what do I get for” point of view. A TV advertisement or a full page spread in a newspaper may not actually sell anything, BUT you can see it – it’s there! With SEO, the time and money expense is less tangible and definitely not immediate – there is a degree of “trust me while I’m working on it” type thing unfortunately, and this I think is what many traditional business people find most difficult.



Pietro May 8, 2012 at 2:44 am

I was just having a conversation with a partner about ignorance regarding business owners not comprehending the importance of proper optimization if their competitors are already utilizing a service and what goes into a campaign. In the area we work we deal with a lot of business owners that just plain don’t get it and when they finally realize the necessity to implement a solution they want it for pennies.


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