SearchLove Boston 2013: The SEO Identity Crisis

Posted on: May 24, 2013

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending SearchLove Boston. It was a great event, and I think the team at Distilled did a fantastic job! If you work in the SEO industry and you’ve never attended one of Distilled’s events, I highly recommend you check out SearchLove San Diego.

There were a number of takeaways from the event including dozens of easily implementable, tactical tips for getting more business from organic search.

On day one, Neil Patel offered some practical tips for consultants and new agencies to improve their businesses. Annie Cushing showed SEOs how to get more credit for the work they do by customizing commonly used tracking tools like Google Analytics. For SEOs and companies operating in the international space, Kate Morris provided a playbook for selecting the right strategy given the situation. Pete Meyers from SEOmoz made the compelling case that few SEO agencies are fully leveraging their data and, as a result, they’re missing out on an incredible marketing opportunity. Eppie Vojt demonstrated that it is possible to scale link outreach without looking like a douchebag.

Day two featured rockstar lookalike Phil Nottingham showing SEOs how much potential they’re leaving on the table with web videos. Ross Hudgens (who looks an awful lot like Marcus Sheridan, but I digress) offered up some actionable content marketing strategies, and Mike Blumenthal dropped some secret insights about how Google’s local results really work.

For all the great tactical takeaways, I couldn’t help but notice an overarching theme woven into the rhetoric of several of the most authoritative speakers.

It seems as though many within the SEO industry are in the midst of a major identity crisis.

The initial point of Wil Reynolds’ speech was awesome and well-received. If you want to get unstuck and get creative, you need to get out of your box and spend more time with people who are NOT like you. For SEOs, this means swapping a trip to SearchLove for a trip to the PRSA conference or spending some time analyzing the advertising feats of folks like Wieden+Kennedy and CP+B.

But somewhere in Wil’s speech he seemed to shift from the previous theme of “if you want to think creative, you need to surround yourself with people that aren’t like you” to “hey—these people are better than us because they charge millions of dollars and have done things that everyone has heard about (like this cool Old Spice commercial and Nike’s Bo Jackson commercial).”

Wil asserted that SEOs sit at the kiddie table of marketing. Why? In part, because we haven’t found a way to charge the millions of dollars per campaign that the dinosaurs (traditional ad agencies) have.

“We gotta level up, people,” Wil exclaimed.

I hope that by “leveling up,” Wil isn’t suggesting that the SEO world evolve into ad agencies. More on that later.

Rand Fishkin gave an exceptional speech on the importance of behavioral psychology as it relates to … not SEO … but inbound marketing.

I thought back to earlier in the day, when I had discovered a half-consumed bottle of Smirnoff in the men’s room adjacent to the main conference hall (no, I did not consume the other half).

I wondered, “What if Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah cornered our man Rand in the bathroom pre-speech, forced him to chug a fifth of vodka and bribed him with York Peppermint Patties to use the term inbound marketing instead of SEO??”

We all know what’s coming at SEOmoz, or should I say

It’s understandable and expected, and I’ve been guilty of it myself, but those in the industry have to admit, it’s also a tad bit comical. Every SEO expert is now also a content and inbound marketing expert. At the end of the day, and no matter what you call it, the goals are (largely) the same:

  • Create digital assets, focusing on those you own (vs. rent)
  • Increase your brand/company’s web visibility
  • Attract more qualified visits to your websites
  • Convert visitors into leads and sales

The final identity crisis indicator came during Will Critchlow’s “The Future of Search Marketers” speech. At some point, Will indicated that he’d love to see some of the attendees evolve to become CMOs. Based on the number of hands that went up when John Doherty asked, “How many of you in this room have a business degree? Do any of you have your MBA?,” I’m not sure anyone in that room would even enjoy being a CMO.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not convinced that the brightest future for the online marketing world is trying to think like and/or become more like the traditional advertising agency of yesteryear. For the last ~100 years, traditional advertising agencies have been able to charge often outrageous sums of money for their work. But they’ve been able to do this, in part, because few tools were available to quantify their efforts and some of these ad firms are run by the world’s best snake oil salesmen.

Is the work they do worth it?

Although the analytics tools have improved, unfortunately, it’s still impossible to say. The world’s largest and most valuable brand, Apple, would almost certainly never have gotten to its current position without the help of its advertising and marketing (from product design to the advertising creative). Google, on the other hand, got there with (by comparison) almost zero advertising.

During the Talk Show segment of SearchLove Boston, Rob Ousbey asked Neil Patel, Rand Fishkin, and Wil Reynolds for an example of a mistake they made.

Both Neil and Rand said, almost simultaneously, “hiring a PR firm.”


Because they didn’t produce results! Rand and Neil claimed that they would have gotten the press coverage with or without the PR firm.

Jesus … don’t you guys sound like the typical ad agency/PR firm clients?!?

So let me get this straight …

As an industry, SEOs should stop doing what works because those things are tacky and will eventually get abused (by those with no sense) to the point where they’re no longer effective. And instead, SEOs need to level up and do more of the “cool stuff” that the people at the big kids’ table have become famous for even though, admittedly, most of it can’t be measured and doesn’t work when it is measured??!

As a business owner, I think I’ll pass.

If given a choice of becoming more like a traditional advertising and PR firm or staying the course with the hyper-accountable, analytical, data-driven marketing we do at Blue Corona, I’m going to choose the latter. If given the choice of investing in Red Ventures or CP+B, I’d choose the former—in a New York minute … even if it means working near a guy who busts out a freestyle rap routine at a networking happy hour and looks ultra-scary with a ‘stache.

Even with the changes Google has made—limiting the data we see in analytics and making life challenging for businesses using call tracking phone numbers—today’s most successful web marketers should steadfastly hold the course. As Wil Reynolds suggests, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from those outside of our industry, but there are at least as many “do not” lessons as there are “do” lessons.

Resist the urge to revert to the advertising practices of the past. Remember that “the first one through the wall always gets bloody.”

If you’re an SEO experiencing an identity crisis and looking for the best way to ensure your long-term viability as a company, let me offer this piece of advice: Become a business expert first, an analytics expert second, and a marketing expert third. And don’t be too quick to leave your place at the kiddie table. The grass isn’t really greener.

Connect With Ben: