The Evolution of the SEO Professional

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The Evolution of the SEO Professional

“Build some links. Update your metadata. Optimize your site speed. Build some cool content. Have you heard about interactive infographics? They are the new thing!”

That’s just not the way digital marketing works anymore. In fact, I’m currently in the process of trying to get my peers to quit using the term “SEO,” not only when they refer to my job title, but when they refer to the practice of website optimization in general.

I will always be grateful for the opportunity I was given by a now rebranded company called Slingshot SEO. They helped kick-start my knowledge of search with link building and my curiosity guided me from there. It wasn’t too long before I found myself in charge of accounts at a small agency in Portland, saying things similar to the comments above to my clients on a monthly and weekly basis. Since my stint in that position, I have been fortunate enough to link up with The New Group, a bigger agency dedicated to bringing brand experiences to life with data and technology. During my time here, I have decided that I no longer want to be an SEO. Why would I? SEO is limited; digital strategy is comprehensive and lucrative. I truly believe that narrowing your job title and expertise to simply search (even when it includes paid as well) is going to leave you in the dust as time progresses.

I mean, part of this perspective is based on fear. I know if I just hang out and keep up on the latest SEO trends, I am going to be passed up by people who have SEO expertise as only a fraction of their overall skill set.

So let’s take a look at the digital strategist’s evolution into a multitalented professional.


Source: Wikimedia Commons – Labeled for Reuse


Stage 1: The Future Spammer

Ah! That moment when our ancestors first noticed how changing keyword density and building anchor text links could impact rankings on the World Wide Web. I am not here to hate on this early technique. Our practice generally evolves as Google adjusts, and these methods were valid at one point. It is just amazing to me that some people have yet to escape the trap that leaves them hunched over like a prehistoric human. This is the group of SEOs who still looks for shortcuts, evolves black-hat software and have a risk-taking approach to their profession.

Stage 2: The Set It and Forget It-er

You have to respect those who understand the fundamentals of SEO, and this group of ancestors has it down pat. They likely realize in the past few months, character limits for meta tags have changed, and they encourage their clients to make strong content. They can conduct a solid audit and also have a strong understanding of paid search. This group knows how to optimize a site, and they know how search, social, and paid work together. The only problem is this knowledge has a barrier. When it comes to ongoing SEO, this person says “Go do PR,” instead of understanding the principles of link development and how PR efforts can make an impact. There is no reason to look back at this ancestor and be ashamed; it is just sad to see someone who could be a strong strategist work with a client one time and send them off into the wild, because there isn’t enough knowledge of measurement and ongoing tactics.

Stage 3: The Wash, Rinse, Repeater

The next stage of our evolution includes a professional who has a pretty good grip on things. Not only can they help get your SEO campaigns off the ground, but they understand measurement and some changes you can make to improve some basic metrics. They know how to deal with duplicate content from a technical standpoint, know how to build links in an ongoing manner, and provide insightful reporting on a monthly basis. In reality, they have all the tools needed to become a full-fledged digital strategist; they just don’t know that search doesn’t have to live alone. They are confident and skilled, but don’t realize they are capable of combining one skill set with others to become an even better marketer.

Stage 4: The Curious Crusher

The curious crusher is starting to figure out digital marketing is made up of different segments, and the benefits of understanding multiple areas can be a powerful professional tool not only for themselves, but for their clients. All of the sudden, this person has moved beyond recommending copy changes, but is starting to make decisions based on the user experience and providing value to the end-user. Where this person once though they were making an SEO recommendation, they now realize that they just made a UX recommendation to try improving the value of their content. The realization is there, but the scope is not. Hopefully, SEOs who have moved into stage 4 will eventually bridge the gap to stages 5 and 6.

Stage 5: The Explorer

The explorer has a very good picture in their head of just how digital strategy works. They are considering the impact their PR and paid media campaigns have on organic visibility, and they often work to mesh campaign themes together for maximum impact. They have a deep understanding of analytics from both a technical and analytical standpoint and have no problem putting together reports that blend online and offline performance to create a clear picture for their clients. They know content strategy can be the glue that holds their marketing plan together, and that site structure and content prioritization can be linked together and tested to continually make improvements to client properties. The understanding is there, but the practice, patience, and perseverance are not.

Stage 6: The Digital Strategist

The modern-day digital strategist not only knows all of these practices blend together, but understands the pacing and has expertise in all areas. They understand market research can be combined with keyword research to slowly craft personas. They put in hours upon hours to craft an accurate buyer’s journey. They know they will fail at times as they map years’ worth of content  and work to build relationships with key influencers in niche markets. They know every idea should be tested, and ongoing optimization is a never-ending process. They gather information from designers, developers, customers, stakeholders, and others to gain a full understanding of their products and properties. They keep an eye on content value and want to provide the best experience possible for their customers. They are starting to include customer loyalty in their reporting and can manipulate analytics data to gain insights that would never be considered in stages 3 and 4. They never get overwhelmed by the fact that they need to understand up to 10 different practice areas at the same time to generate maximum effectiveness. They can recite SEO best practices in their sleep and always know the latest algorithm changes. Did I mention SEO is one of many areas of expertise for this modern-day assassin?

working as a team

Source: Flickr – Labeled for Reuse


It is too easy to get caught in stages 1 through 5. If we really want to stay on top of the game, we need to work together to ensure our peers are not taking shortcuts, and deep elements of market research, persona development, buyer’s journey development, user experience, information architecture, content strategy, digital analytics, web development, paid media, direct marketing, events, PR, social, and search are always considered in terms of how they relate to each other and how they impact the bottom line. We are no longer here to drive traffic. We are here to drive interest, drive intent, and conduct ongoing tests that maximize the value of our content to end users both on- and offline. Let’s evolve; let’s not get stuck in the mud.

Jeff Bedford

Jeff Bedford

Analytics & Optimization Specialist at The New Group
Jeff Bedford is an Optimization & Analytics Specialist at The New Group, an integrated digital marketing agency in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Indiana University,... Read Full Bio
Jeff Bedford
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  • Barbara McKinney

    The competition in the online world is getting tougher and in order to stay in the game, you have to evolve as a marketer. Successful SEO is not about being on top of search engines. If a good data you have in your Analytics will not convert into a good profit, there must be something wrong in what you are doing.

    • Jeff Bedford

      Thanks Barbara-

      Your comment also makes me thing about a term I have been using called ‘data trust’. I am referring to building a relationship with your peers or clients based on your ability to accurately correct and analyze analytics and other data. Sometimes being insightful about why things are bad can be better than taking guesses as why things look so good.

  • David Prochaska

    That is very well out, Jeff. I don’t necessarily like the term SEO anymore, and I also like to be coined as a digital marketer, because it’s so much more than just optimizing a website anymore. Like you said, “UX recommendations”. It’s all about the user experience and yes, there does need to be some technical optimization going on, but we should focus more on how to provide value to users, not search engines.

    • Jeff Bedford

      Thanks David-

      I am glad there are others thinking this way. While my goal is not to kill the term SEO, I think it is really important for people to realize that making decisions based surely on search can really be bad news. UX to me is always a priority, along with testing.

  • Sudipto Chakraborty

    SEO innovations are often taking place and it will always grow so long as the online world grows. A lot more companies are likely to build websites with Internet world broaden every day. Entrepreneurs know that there is no use of websites if no one found them. Winning the competition on search engines is the ultimate thing and SEO professionals are the best person to perform the task properly. As a way to impact search engines to draw more clients, search engines will always look for SEO companies.

    • Jeff Bedford

      Thanks Sudipto-

      I think you are right, I just personally believe that those who are unable to teach ‘SEO’ without diving in to other areas of digital may be in trouble down the road.

  • Sreenivas Subramaniam

    Brilliant post. SEO has definitely evolved and it has become tougher for the new comers to this field. They have to develop new skills like content writing. SEO professionals are forced to use off page SEO techniques only to generate traffic to their site and not to get their referral links indexed in search engines,

    With a series of latest anti-spamming algorithm changes updated by Google, it is of no use to focus on keyword alone but it is more to do with providing unique content, both in on-page and off-page. A couple of years back, it was easy to get our classified postings indexed in all major search engines for targeting the popular keyword. But now it is history.

    • Jeff Bedford

      It is interesting to think as well about the impact these changes have had on professions such as PR. With some of the recent concerns about resources like HARO and the links that come with them, SEO is naturally pushing itself in to other fields.

  • tfrenkiel

    Another way to look at it: what SEO is, keeps becoming broader. At Happy Idiots we say it like that: begin an SEO means that you have knowledge about branding, links, keywords, targeting the right audience, HTML, microdata and more more more… So in stead of using another name for yourself, be proud to be an SEO.

    • Jeff Bedford

      This is a really good perspective. The thing that scares me about thinking this way is that when you communicate with those who might not know as much, that they could get confused or potentially misunderstand what you are trying to do. Imagine you call yourself an SEO, knowing that you have the skills and talent to conquer market research, ux, ia, etc, but all the other person hears is ‘keywords, keywords, keywords’ because of how SEO has been built over the last five years or so.