Columnist Winston Burton discusses how search engine optimization (SEO) has evolved over time and wonders whether the job title is truly representative of the work we now do.
An SEO’s role and job duties have changed significantly since I began working in the field 12 years ago — and I think it’s time that we got a new title. In my view, our current job title does not accurately reflect the role that we now play in digital marketing.
A few years back, we focused on optimizing existing landing page elements (title, meta description, headings, body content updates and so on), building links using link development tactics and conducting website audits to fix technical issues.
We still do these things today, of course — but we also do so much more.
These days, a practitioner of search engine optimization is more of a content experience analyst who focuses on optimizing and deploying content across multiple devices and platforms. It’s all about building high-quality, useful, intent-based content for all stages of the buyer journey so as to be there in a consumer’s moment of need.
Why has our role changed?
In the past, a big part of our job as SEOs was to review a website and make sure there were no technical issues that could prevent the site from being indexed. These issues often presented the biggest hindrance to search engine visibility, so we spent a great deal of time and focus on them.
Though we still conduct technical audits and make recommendations based on our findings, SEOs today spend more time on links/content and less time on technical issues. But why?
Other technologies have evolved as well. Many content management systems these days have SEO capabilities built in (or readily available via plugins) that make it easy to incorporate basic SEO elements or fix basic technical issues without hand coding. Additionally, tools like Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) have grown more sophisticated, and technical issues that might once have taken hours to detect are now easy to see at a glance.
Finally, SEO is becoming more integrated into the website development process. The web developer of the past was only interested in front-end usability and back-end integration, and often knew little to nothing about SEO best practices.
Now, if you look at job ads for webmasters/developers, you’ll see that a basic knowledge of SEO is generally desired (and often required). Slowly but surely, the tech work an SEO used to do to make a website crawler-friendly has been shifting into the purview of the web developer.
But if the web developer is now taking responsibility for much of the tech side of the SEO, what is the SEO of today actually doing?
Through search, new roles have evolved
Talk to anyone who’s been doing SEO for a while, and you’ll note that many of them are wearing multiple hats these days. Most of us have at least a basic proficiency in related areas like content marketing, social media marketing, conversion rate optimization and/or user experience (UX) design. Many of these disciplines are younger than SEO, and some may even have stemmed from it.
In other words, SEO today is a complex role — one that goes far beyond simply ensuring that search engine crawlers can access and parse your website. Doing the job well requires a working knowledge of many different online marketing channels, along with an understanding of how these various channels work together to enhance search engine visibility and create a great user experience.
As stated above, an SEO’s role has largely evolved into that of a content experience analyst, who is basically a professional charged with optimizing a brand’s content across multiple devices, platforms and web properties to attract consumers at all stages of the customer journey.
In the early days of SEO, there was almost an “us vs. them” relationship between the SEO community and Google, with little or no communication at all from the search giant. Over the years, that changed dramatically. Google has made great strides in transparency and communication with SEOs, helping to legitimize the profession.
Still, Google’s communications seem to have a distinct lack of reference to search engine optimizers. Rarely is “SEO” referred to by Google in outreach; it’s almost always references to “webmasters.” Perhaps this omission is simply a holdover from the “us vs. them” days, but it does speak to the fact that what we do is much broader than just optimizing webpages for search.
If other professionals can change with time and evolve naturally into newer roles as their industry changes, then we can, too. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate what we call ourselves and determine if SEO is still the right name/term for what we do. What are your thoughts?
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