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Is modern SEO more than the sum of independent parts?
Columnist Jayson DeMers asserts that what we think of as SEO is actually just a combination of different customer experience strategies woven together to create the best online presence possible.
When you think of SEO, what do you actually think about? If you were going to “practice” SEO, what would you be doing? Would you be writing content? Analyzing your performance? Engaging with your audience on social media?
Modern SEO is a complex, multifaceted collection of different sub-strategies, nearly all of which can function independently on their own as a way to boost brand visibility and build customer relationships. As a quick example, content marketing is a necessary strategy for SEO, but even without a deliberate SEO process, it can be valuable in terms of increasing customer engagement and building brand trust.
With that being said, is modern SEO anything more than just the sum of its interconnected parts? Is there any one strategic initiative that functions exclusively to increase a brand’s rankings for various search queries?
The constituents of SEO
I’m not going to try and list every little factor or tactic that could conceivably impact a company’s organic search rankings, so don’t expect this to be comprehensive. Instead, this is going to serve as a general list of strategies that all feed into a brand’s search engine performance, one way or another:
- On-site optimization. This is a general term that covers all kinds of technical improvements and creative choices. Mobile optimization, site speed, site security, meta titles and descriptions, rich snippets and structured data, site architecture, site mapping, navigation structuring and content availability are just some of the ways you can optimize your site directly to be found and favored by search engines. But almost all of these strategies are as much about improving customer experience as they are about making search engines happy: better structured, faster sites are easier to use.
- On-site content. On-site content could be called “content marketing,” but I avoided using the term here because content marketing is sometimes associated with a blog. On-site content, on the other hand, includes all pages of a site. The quality, accuracy, conciseness, detail and uniqueness of your content can all help your search rankings (as can the frequency and consistency of your posts), but primarily, this content serves as a means of building customer loyalty.
- Link building. Link building exists in a few forms. Traditional link building could be considered an SEO-exclusive strategy because that’s its primary function (and most people aren’t interested in referral traffic for these links). However, more advanced, modern link-building tactics involve guest posting and content syndication — and these have far more brand visibility benefits than just ranking higher in search engines.
- Social media. Social media is often lumped into the “SEO strategy” category, but it actually doesn’t influence SEO directly at all. Instead, it’s a kind of SEO conduit. Engaging with a wider audience means more people to see and share your content, leading to more potential inbound links, which can then influence your website’s organic search rankings.
- Local SEO. Local SEO strategies specifically involve getting your business listed accurately on third-party directories and review sites, then managing your online reviews. Doing so can increase your chances of earning a slot in Google’s local 3-pack — but more importantly, these efforts increase your reputation with customers.
Do you notice a pattern here? All of these approaches can be referred to as “SEO strategies,” and all of them can help increase your search visibility. Yet they can (and sometimes do) function independently of SEO to improve customer relationships and experiences.
You can group this suite of services together as “SEO,” but there’s no strategy listed here that’s exclusively focused on improving search rankings.
Keyword-based SEO is dead
It’s also worth mentioning that traditional concepts of SEO — that is, doing a certain amount of online work to rank for a selection of specific keywords — are obsolete. It’s become far more difficult to rank for specific keyword terms these days, thanks to Google’s semantic search functionality, increased sophistication, increased competition, more paid features and the Knowledge Graph.
That being said, traditional concepts of “SEO” are practically dead. Modern SEO is all about using different customer experience strategies together to give your brand the best online presence possible.
Arguing over semantics?
You could accuse me of arguing over semantics here, but understanding that modern SEO isn’t an independent strategy (instead being a collection of other independent strategies) is important both for SEO agencies and for independent practitioners.
It’s the responsibility of SEO agencies to make sure every client understands what really goes into SEO — and selling “SEO services” without selling at least some of those other services (e.g., content marketing) is like selling a car without wheels.
The bottom line
Some tactics — including rich snippets and meta descriptions — are executed for the purpose of altering how search results appear, but it’s still important to realize that modern SEO doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s more about the complex interrelationships between different online visibility and user experience strategies and less about any one tactic that’s meant to increase your rankings.
SEO is still very much alive and still important, but only in its context as an aggregation of other important strategies. Keep this in mind as you optimize your online presence, both on-site and off-site.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.