What does an SEO do?
“So what exactly do you do?”
I’m confident every SEO reading this will have gotten this question too many times to count, and every non-SEO might still be wondering about the answer.
Search engine optimization (SEO) has been around as long as search engines have. If we’re talking about Google optimization (and that’s almost always what I’m talking about, considering they have over 90% market share), SEOs have existed since at least 1998 (although there’s plenty that happened prior to that).
So why are we still asking this question after two decades? And in what appears to be increasing frequency?
I have three main theories:
Search algorithms have matured
The profession has become more specialized
Websites have become more sophisticated
Search algorithms have matured
I don’t think I could explain this better than I did in The Beginner’s Guide to SEO, so I’ll restate it here:
Search engines have always wanted the same thing: to provide useful answers to searcher’s questions in the most helpful formats. If that’s true, then why does it appear that SEO is different now than in years past?
Think about it in terms of someone learning a new language.
At first, their understanding of the language is very rudimentary — “See Spot Run.” Over time, their understanding starts to deepen, and they learn semantics—- the meaning behind language and the relationship between words and phrases. Eventually, with enough practice, the student knows the language well enough to even understand nuance and is able to provide answers to even vague or incomplete questions.
When search engines were just beginning to learn our language, it was much easier to take advantage of their immaturity by using tactics that actually go against quality guidelines.
I entered the SEO industry in 2012. At that time, what Google called webspam was what a lot of people called SEO. Most SEO directives sounded like:
“Put the keyword in the content X times”
“Make the content at least 300 words”
“Submit your site to this directory using the link anchor text you want to rank for”
It seemed like a total hack… and it was. The downside was that it worked. It took me a long time to realize those things weren’t what Google wanted. They were just what happened to be effective at manipulating the search engines at the time.
Fast forward six years and, even though the Google of today is vastly better than it was, Google’s not even where they want to be yet! The algorithm has gotten so much more sophisticated over the years, but there’s still room to grow.
If you want to see what I’m talking about, take a peek at Google’s quality rater guidelines and see how well they stack up to actual search engine results pages (SERPs). Chances are, you’ll notice that Google’s ideal (as reflected in the guidelines) isn’t always the type of results that their search engine surfaces. That’s why Google continues to make tweaks to their algorithm.
Google’s algorithm is a programmatic representation of the searcher. If the algorithm is trying to model what a human visitor would pick as the best result, the answer to “how to rank” is to do what’s best for searchers, with the understanding of the current limitations of the search engine.
All of that to say, the constantly-improving search engine would make it seem that SEOs’ job descriptions will change just as often.
The profession has become more specialized
I recently evaluated close to 100 SEO job postings on LinkedIn (these are the types of riveting rabbit trails I find myself on) to see what qualities people were looking for in SEOs.
What emerged were five big themes.
Content: These are your content marketers, content strategists, and keyword research aficionados. Their main goal is ideating and creating search engine optimized web content to attract visitors for the purpose of links & conversions/assisted-conversions.
Analysts: These are your analytical aces. These SEOs have a bent toward data, insights, and reporting. They’re often the ones that are proficient in analytics tools and methods like Google Analytics, Tableau/PowerBI, GTM, CRO, A/B testing. They’re skilled in reporting, gleaning insights from data, and recommending changes based on their findings.
Technical roles: This brand of SEO either works on a dev team or closely with one. These are SEOs with deep knowledge of HTML, CSS, JS and how they can impact search performance. They have a deep understanding of web accessibility/usability goals. They’re often tasked with finding crawl inefficiencies and indexation issues.
Link builders: These SEOs are heavily focused on link acquisition and building a site’s authority/increasing organic rankings and traffic through links.
Local SEOs: Primarily focused on local pack ranking, understanding of GMB and Google’s local knowledge panel. These are your go-to SEOs for NAP, citations, GMB guidelines, etc.
One of the reasons “What do SEOs do?” can be so difficult to answer is the reality that the profession has matured so much in two decades that there are now multiple specializations within it. Some SEOs wear multiple hats (or all of them) – that’s usually the case with SEOs for small-to-medium businesses.
The larger, better funded, and more SEO-mature an organization is, the more specialties within SEO they’ll likely employ. The point is, SEO now contains various specialties - and SEOs, it’s OK to pick a niche. You can be a great SEO without being an expert in all things (thanks, Casie).
Websites have become more sophisticated
Websites have come a long way from simple HTML files.
In the spirit of knowing my limitations, I won’t attempt to articulate exactly what the current state of advanced web development looks like, but the consensus is that advancements in web development can outpace Google’s ability to understand them. This is one of the biggest areas where “just do what’s best for searchers” falls flat. Google’s algorithm wants to programmatically reflect a real human searcher, but it’s still a machine. It can’t view images the same way we do, it can’t click tabs and fill out forms like we can… some things look good for searchers, but can’t be understood by Google.
We live in a world where we need Tech SEOs to tell us how all the wonderful advancements in web development can be best understood by search engines. With 40–60 billion searches happening on Google U.S. each month, we can’t afford to ignore search engine interpretation of our websites if we want those searchers to find us.
If SEOs exist to optimize websites for search engines, our jobs are going to change with every advancement in web technology.
So what does an SEO do?
Okay so now we know why defining the role of an SEO specialist is so difficult, but that still hasn’t answered our main question – what does an SEO do?
I’ve thought about this for a long time (7 years, actually). I’ve finally landed on something that feels right and that I can get behind.
What is SEO? Marketing, with search engines.
Marketing = actions that promote a business or its products/services
SEO = promoting a business or its products/services by earning visibility in organic search results.
Just like traditional marketing, SEO is concerned with optimizing the entire funnel, from awareness to consideration to purchase.
How do you rank in the organic search results, encourage searchers to click, facilitate a positive website experience, and convert visitors into new business? That’s where your SEO specialist comes in.
I believe there’s two sides to an SEO’s job: driving and supporting.
When someone searches a word or phrase related to a business, I make sure the business’s website shows up in the non-ad results. I do that through:
Content that provides the information the target audience is looking for at all stages of their purchase journey - informing, helping them consider, and soliciting a purchase.
Links that help both crawlers and searchers find your content, and signal authority/popularity to search engines, and
Accessibility/Usability that ensures your site is crawlable, indexed the way you intend it to be indexed, fast, easy to navigate, and provides visitors with an overall amazing experience.
On this side of the coin, SEO can drive marketing initiatives through understanding audience demand (through keyword research) and addressing it (through content that ranks, answers questions, and facilitates positive engagement).
SEO can not only drive marketing initiatives; it can support them. When the marketing lead comes up with a strategy that they’ve arrived on through market research, past performance, user testing, or otherwise, SEO can be relied upon to help apply that strategy specifically for search engines.
Additionally, love it or hate it, SEOs also serve as your “Google magic 8 ball.” Want to know whether a website change will have a positive or negative impact on search engine performance? We’re here for you!
When we’re not brought in before changes are made or initiatives are launched, we can also serve as your diagnostic and improvement resource. At their best, SEOs assume positive intent even when changes negatively impact search performance, and not only prescribe fixes for the issue, but work with all necessary parties to ensure the same doesn’t happen again (through training, education, and processes).
How do other SEOs describe what they do?
I was pretty happy with my explanation but was dying to know how other SEOs explained what they do. How much would it diverge or align with my own conclusions? To find out, I turned to Twitter.
Originally, I just had two definitions I was deciding between.
[Driving] SEO is marketing done with a deep understanding of both the challenges & opportunities of search engines.
[Supporting] SEO is more mindset than channel - it allows you to maximize the impact of every marketing initiative.
But I also knew that Twitter is full of super-smart SEOs who would probably have some other, really great definitions, so I opened up an option C (share yours!) as well.
The response was 294 votes and 11 comments - I was thrilled to get so much engagement from my fellow SEOs!
As it turns out, more SEOs preferred the driving definition over the supporting definition.
Lars Österberg, Product Manager at HubSpot, put it this way:
SEO, taken as a reflection of people’s intent, should really drive your marketing initiatives. Then distribution can happen elsewhere. Demand is demand, regardless of channel. Search is one of our best measures of it.
I totally agree. Search is a great way to gain insight into our audience. Keyword research can answer questions about our audience, such as:
What problems are they trying to solve?
What information are they seeking? In what format?
When does my audience need this information?
What options for solutions are they weighing?
And SEO wouldn’t stop there. “Driving” SEO uncovers audience demand and also addresses it by creating content that our audience will find valuable, making sure it ranks/is findable in the organic search results, and that our audience has a positive experience once they land on the site (fast, clean UI, etc.)
But I also loved what other SEOs had to say about “Supporting” SEO.
SEO Manager David Kelley said this:
I try to express it as a mindset to [non-SEOs] so they don't think of it as just a channel responsibility. It's hard to be everywhere at all times, but if they remember "oh that SEO person said this..." then that’s a win.
I have to say, I really identified with this one. It’s so critical for everyone in the organization to be thinking with “how will X impact us in search engines,” not just SEOs. Like he said, SEOs can’t be everywhere at once. That’s why I’m such a huge advocate of cross-departmental training initiatives.
Merkle SEO Masaki Okazawa also favored the “Supporting” SEO definition, but had this to add:
I mention SEO as an extension of the QA, content, and product analyst teams. That's why I think SEO's can serve as great project managers.
Defining the SEO project scope, executing tasks, and measuring results often spans multiple teams, and SEOs, as the subject matter experts, are often responsible for making sure the objectives are met, so I can certainly see project management as a skill SEOs would benefit from.
My SEO Elevator Pitch
Because we often only have a moment to explain what we do (and even when we don’t, it’d benefit us to be as concise as possible), I think it’s important to come up with an “SEO elevator pitch” – AKA, a concise and clear definition of what you do that could be explained in one elevator ride.
Here’s an example scenario of how that might go:
Q: “What do you do?”
A: “I’m a search engine optimization or ‘SEO’ specialist. Are you familiar with that?”
Q: “I think I’ve heard of it before. What exactly does that entail?”
A: “It’s essentially marketing, but with search engines. When someone conducts a Google search for words or phrases related to the products, services, or information my client offers, my work ensures that my client’s website shows up prominently.”
Q: “Got it! So what types of things do you do to ensure the website shows up? Do you bid on certain keywords?”
A: “Unlike PPC where you pay for visibility, SEOs earn website visibility through creating content that our audience wants, earning content popularity and authority with links, and a website that both Google can understand and visitors can easily navigate.”
Q: “Got it. Well, my brother is a business owner. I think he tried SEO once but stopped because he wasn’t getting the ROI he expected. Is that hard to do?”
A: “Because SEO is like traditional marketing, just with search engines, it can target customers at all phases of their purchase journey. For example, good SEO might drive a ton of traffic to potential customers at the beginning stages of their purchase journey. This content likely won’t convert, but it certainly assists conversions! I always like to say that you wouldn’t buy a football team and only pay the players who scored – in the same way, SEO deserves credit not just for direct conversions, but for assists too.”
Q: “I’ve never thought about it that way! So essentially what you’re saying is that you use search engines to target potential customers at all stages of their purchase journey, and you do that through content, links, and a search engine friendly website – right?”
Your elevator pitch can differ depending on your specialty (local SEO, tech SEO, etc.), your audience (a developer, a business owner, etc.), and even where you work (agency, in-house, etc.), but the point is just to have one.
There’s a ton of misunderstanding about our industry, and all the reasons why make sense, but it’s our job to be prepared with an answer so that we’re not caught off guard when someone asks us what we do all day, and why it’s valuable.