What Even Is An SEO? (Can We Please Stop Talking About HTML)

Posted on Oct 13, 2020


Hi friends, it’s me Dan. Your friendly SEO curmudgeon in training.

Recently the SEO community (cough cough, SEO Twitter) has been caught up in a veritable tizzy about knowing HTML. Beyond the obvious epistemological considerations, I think there is a real ontological question raised by the primacy of HTML as a programming language in the SEOs toolkit.

It’s hard to have these conversations when we probably aren’t all on the same page about what “knowing” something means.

When can I say I “know” a language? How technical do I have to be to be a “Technical” SEO? It requires a conversation within a conversation.

— Kim Doughty (@howdydoughty) September 3, 2020

So I ask you:

What even is an SEO, and can you even be one if you reject the fundamental nature of HTML?

Spoilers, yes and I do.

Let’s start up front, HTML is a front end web development language. If you don’t do front end work, things like HTML don’t really mean much to you. Here is a spoiler for you; not all SEO roles involve front end auditing. I guess I can see why this is a little controversial, as the traditional conception of SEO is based around this idea of an SEO freelancer jill-of-all-trades. However, this doesn’t make much sense as a way to organize modern SEO functions. First of all, because teams are cool, and collaboration is cool. Even if your teams have 10x SEOs (think mythical 10x engineer) the idea of a freelancer centric model of SEO feels very dated. I think Local SEO Guide CEO Andrew Shotland (sound trumpets) is the perfect person to get a quote from here. Andrew has been in the SEO game a long time and here is what he has to say about how it has changed over time:

In some ways, how I help our clients succeed at SEO hasn’t changed since I started doing this strange form of marketing almost fifteen(!) years ago. The advice we are delivering to clients this week could easily be in an audit from 2005. But whereas in 2005 you only needed one guy behind the curtain turning the knobs, these days there is a entire team of Oompa Loompas, and they all are really good at turning their specific knobs, and the don’t need to be masters at every other knob.

Nowhere is this shift in how SEO is organized more clear then the difference between how successful in-house teams work and how SEO agencies generally work. More and more in-house marketing and SEO teams have analytics and data roles and are becoming cross functional. A lot of the work they are doing is to integrate SEO more fully into their internal business intelligence systems. That is often a full time data role, and some of the most cutting edge enterprise SEO orgs have multiple full time team members with analyst-type pokemon skill sets. But don’t take my word for it just look at this job posting Adobe has for an SEO Insights Manager. Nowhere in there is HTML, but Python/R/SQL are def core to this job. I reached out to enterprise SEO badass Jackie Chu (Senior Manager SEO; Uber) to get her thoughts:

Funnily the core charter of my team (Intelligence) is to build bespoke tooling for the SEO team, so I’m no longer in the day to day “traditional SEO activities” around ideating new page types or localization. The majority of my day is spent cleaning up data, feverishly checking Kibana, QAing dashboards and working on setting requirements for the future of tooling for the team. We’re currently hiring for another headcount, but outside of this person my team will mostly be supported by adtech product and engineering to see the bespoke tooling and warehousing of the underlying datasets to fruition.

At other companies like Square and Dropbox, it was pretty standard to get at least partial Analyst support for business exercises like forecasting and reporting, and also for measuring A/B tests, experiments, and the impact of traditional SEO efforts like optimizing page templates or link building. Most of these companies use their own internal data warehouses, and while you inevitably need baseline SQL skills most SEOs won’t be able to pull the data with the same rigor and speed as someone who is in the tables day in and day out. It’s also great to have hard numbers provided by an unbiased 3rd party to use to get resourcing in the future and quantify your contribution to the company’s bottom line. After some successes my old colleague, Chris Yee, even secured data science hours to build bespoke SEO research tools. The pilot was so successful that the Data Science lead later went on to another company and immediately added an SEO-dedicated headcount to his team.

I think when you work in enterprise, you want to break down the walls of SEO being seen as something only the “SEO team” does. Whether your peer’s skillset is Analytics or Engineering, If their success metric is growth realized organically on the website, then they’re part of the SEO team.

I saw Jackie give a talk entitled “Soft SEO: How to Win Friends and Influence Leadership” and I think it’s one of the best SEO talks I have seen recently. Everyone should bug her on Twitter to put the slides online.

This isn’t just relegated to in-house teams. We have 3 backend/analyst roles ourself. While they all “know” html it is totally irrelevant to their day-to-day work (except for Sam who owns our Puppeteer instance.) And it’s not just us. Orgs like Merkle, SEER etc all have dedicated analytics teams that are exclusively data roles. Python/R/SQL are all more useful across these roles than superficial knowledge of HTML. These are the very normal and very traditional tools of the trade for data analysts.

Before you are like “but that isn’t SEO!!”.

Now we are firmly back at the ontological question of the day; What even is an SEO?

Just to be totally transparent, I’m going to just flat out reject definitions related to “what is an SEO” that marginalizes team members across our organization. And that is exactly what people are saying when they say HTML (or insert X skill here) is critical to be an SEO. For some roles HTML or general front end auditing skills are not critical. Some examples of these roles that we have in our org are:

Technical Development
Data Analysis
Linkbuilding
Content Optimization
Content Production
Project Management

In fact, in a not so funny quirk, linkbuilding and technical development/data analysis overlap with us in terms of leadership which should tell you that linkbuilding is super technical, and the most core function of SEO (getting links) is 100% detached from front end auditing. Here, they count as real SEOs.

None of the SEO work we do as an org would be able to happen without being able to integrate people with non-front end skill sets into our SEO flow. For more about this, and how this has led to a huge empowerment of people and teams across our org, I highly recommend you check out my talk at VirtuaCon on going from Automation Zero to Hero. Andrew is going to be giving an updated version of this talk at Whitespark’s Local Search Summit next week. In fact, just yesterday I had a call with Tealium in order to work on integrating some client data into our Google Big Query stack so we can use it to do analysis. No HTML required.

Alright, I’ve said basically everything I have wanted to say here so let’s bring it home. SEO is a rapidly diversifying role/function and needing to know how to do everything doesn’t equate being able to do everything well. To succeed in SEO moving forward the discipline needs to throw off the shackles of its past and embrace new ways of thinking.

Oh, and we are hiring. So if this sounds like an interesting place to work you may want to apply.

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