The Relationship Between SEO and Inbound Marketing

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I attended Distilled LinkLove this year, and toward the end of the day, Will Critchlow announced that it would actually be the last LinkLove – not because links are dead, but because the things we do should be worth more than a link. Increasingly, he added, LinkLove is more like “Content and Social Love’ because that’s what we’re doing.

SEO is now part of the growing online marketing ecosystem of “inbound marketing.” Inbound marketing tactics include:

  • Content marketing through blogging, video, news articles, and copywriting
  • Search engine marketing through organic channels including local, mobile and vertical search
  • Social media marketing on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and in forums
  • Community engagement, outreach and customer service
  • Building links and non-social external traffic referrals
  • Brand marketing to capitalize on direct traffic and branded search, including news and PR
  • Email marketing
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • User experience through design and interface improvements and page speed
  • Customer retention and lifecycle management
  • A boat load of other activities

However, there are very few companies who have one person per bullet point. After all, you can’t build links without content to point them to. You can’t engage with a community without building it through social media marketing. Things like site speed, information architecture and page design are just as important to designers and UX specialists as they are to SEOs. Even brand marketing is no longer the sole purview of “traditional” marketers, now that search engines are so invested in entities and brand authority as quality signals.

to do list

Image credit: “To Do List by steakpinball, on Flickr”

Who Does Inbound Marketing?

Different teams are going to have different solutions for who does what when it comes to inbound marketing. At a smaller company, inbound marketing strategy may fall entirely to one person to create and execute. A larger team may have more specialized positions in content, social, brand, etc. or really any combination of the above tasks among any number of people, depending on the company’s needs an the team’s strengths.

So where does SEO fit in to all of this? Is search engine optimization as we know it being absorbed into other marketers’ jobs?

Rather than being threatened by other disciplines’ encroaching on our territory, or overwhelmed by the volume of tasks that go into a robust inbound marketing strategy, modern SEOs should be embracing the rise of inbound as a holistic approach since it allows us to do better marketing. The days of being handed a blog post and told to add keywords to it are coming to an end, and that’s a good thing!

thank you

Image credit: “Thank you for being a friend by lululemon athletica, on Flickr”

What happens when a company has a lot of employees with SEO knowledge, but no SEO? I learned what that looked like when I started at SEOmoz. Obviously, lots of folks at SEOmoz understand SEO strategy and why it’s important, but it had been several months since an official SEO had worked at the company.

The result? A lot of elements that were important to SEO had fallen through the cracks or been back-burnered. Content producers knew that keywords were important, but didn’t know which ones to be using and where. New features had been added to the website in ways that were great for users, but created unnecessary headaches for search engines. Even though a lot of people on the marketing team understood the basic tenets of SEO, it was nobody’s job to make sure SEO was taken into account; they all had their own jobs to do. It’s one thing to know that SEO is important – it’s another to know what to pay attention to and look for, especially if your core competency is in another field.

The SEO as Inbound Marketer

Even at a company whose internal education around SEO is top-notch, it’s still
vital to have someone to be a steward of the site’s online presence and search
performance. SEOs need to take a “the buck stops here” attitude toward ensuring
that our designers, content creators, social media managers, PR representatives and
the like are working together on a search-engine-friendly strategy that encompasses
all of their efforts.


Image link: “Buck Stops Here by akasped, on Flickr”

An SEO should be continually helping a larger inbound marketing team do better
marketing in the following ways:

  • Analyzing keyword data and trends, and tracking traffic and links per content piece, to help the content manager create compelling, keyword-rich, linkworthy content.
  • Working with the dev team to keep the site fast, crawlable, error-free and trackable.
  • Building relationships with influencers in the space, and leveraging those relationships for links and shares.
  • Syncing with the Director of Marketing and PR contacts to enact a solid, consistent brand strategy, then making sure it’s seeded to the right places for maximum authority and impact.
  • Diving into analytics to support conversion rates; sharing analytics data with business development and account management teams to aid retention of search-driven customers.
  • Collaborating with the UX and design teams to make sure a site that’s a lovely experience for users is also a useful experience for search engines.
  • Consistently evangelizing SEO internally through ongoing education, and being a staunch advocate for SEO best practices in every meeting – the buck stops with you.

By starting to view SEO as a series of collaborations with more specialized colleagues, we can build inbound marketing programs as a team effort.

From Keywords to Sessions

One thing I’ve heard Duane Forrester from Bing speak on several times recently is the search session: the idea that people aren’t using search engines to make one-and-done searches, but rather to make a series of searches over a period of time that could be anywhere from several minutes to several days, before arriving at a decision that might result in a conversion. An example might be a user who starts with “honeymoon destinations” and searches for “beach honeymoon,” “romantic beaches Hawaii” and “Maui vacation packages” before finally searching on “cheap flights to Maui.” That keyword might be the one that gets the conversion, but each search is an opportunity to build brand relationships and influence the final purchase.

Even when consumers aren’t actively searching for things, they’re still building opinions about and relationships with brands via social media – not only through the conversations they’re having, but also through the content they consume. People spend a ton of time on the internet, and most of it isn’t on Google.

A robust, marketing-team-wide inbound marketing strategy is perfectly positioned to market to this new breed of searchers. In order to really start some next-level, better-than-ever organic search marketing, SEOs need to be cognizant of the fact that organic search is just part of a larger experience. To ignore inbound marketing in favor of tunnel-vision focus on SEO means fewer opportunities to engage with customers (not to mention fewer opportunities for links, shares, and other awesome SEO benefits).

We’re all in this together. Let’s get out there and make inbound marketing better.

Ruth Burr
Ruth Burr is the Inbound Marketing Lead at SEOmoz. She loves SEO, inbound marketing, quality content and grilled cheese sandwiches. You should follow her on Twitter.
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  • Charise

    Excellent article on how Inbound marketing and SEO should work together!

  • Puneet

    Thanks for sharing such a great information but can we do submissions in article directories or not after these updations??? Can you please brief me about linking structure??

    • Ruth Burr

      I would recommend focusing on building relationships with influencers in your industry using social media, networking, and just plain talking to them – then work to create excellent content that you can share with them and encourage them to share with others. The problem with article submission can be that very few people will read the article – plus, if you submit the article to a bunch of different sites, it’s duplicate content and will look spammy. I would focus on links that will drive people to your site, not just links for the sake of links.

  • Kathleen Martin

    Thanks for a well articulated article, Ruth! Worthwhile to remind people that (a) We are teams, that together we are worth more than the sum of our parts. Cooperation and collaboration are keys for success across multi-disciplined groups and (b) Nobody does only one thing or another anymore. We’re all combining skills to create new opportunities. Great read!

  • Sahil

    More than ever and SEO, we see Digital Marketing as a set of practices is evolving. A business with a site to keep their B2C or B2B, has to perform the inbound marketing activities which can yield them best possible results in the form of revenue, gaining customers and building user trust.

  • Julia

    Great article, great content. But the reason I’m commenting is to give you props on this site’s mobile experience – I’m impressed!

  • Amit Chaudhary

    Hi Ruth,

    Excellent article about how SEO and inbound marketing can go hand-in-hand.

  • jose

    Good article! great explanation of the mutual benefits of SEO and inbound marketing. Thanks for this.

  • marzena

    SEO is not connected with Inbound Marketing. SEO IS the Inbound Marketing. Running company blog, being active at social media, creating content. All of them are very important, but they will loose all potential if you won’t measure your performance. You may even have a perfect content on your website, but it will be useless if people can’t find you. Good SEO tools (such or can help you to do it all. But good content is vital thou.

  • Rob Willox

    Not sure whether the statement is a valid one as there is no relationship between them as that would imply they were separate activities. I would suggest that SEO has always been an element of Inbound Marketing even before the term was coined.

    Inbound Marketing is an umbrella term (just as marketing was prior to the digital revolution) for all the activities employed to find, attract, engage, convert and retain customers. The approach always taken as a web designer should be from and SEO perspective with the objectives of attracting visitors to client sites with the primary objective of conversion.

    That process leads directly into other areas: analytics, testing, lpo, cro etc all of which may be individual disciplines but all covered by the term, inbound marketing just as design and seo are.

  • Paddy

    I agree with Marzena.
    SEO is inbound marketing – If SEO is a separate activity then please define what seo is ?

    • Ruth Burr

      SEO is part of inbound marketing – I would argue that everything we do as SEOs falls under the umbrella of inbound. However, there are lots of other activities that, in some cases, are done by people who don’t have SEO knowledge at all but still are part of inbound marketing.

      I would define SEO as “activities specifically designed to drive traffic from appearing in organic search results.” Think of a designer building an infographic. An SEO may want to use that infographic as a tool to get links and shares and build awareness, to ultimately increase search traffic. The designer, on the other hand, is most concerned with creating epic content. They’re both important, and use the same resources, but the SEO’s activities around the infographic are specifically related to using it to drive organic search traffic. The designer doesn’t have to know how to do that in order to know that it’s important and that we need to work together to build something cool.

      • Dave

        I have major issues with certain portions of digital marketing forcing the acceptance of the term inbound marketing.

        Email marketing as inbound marketing? How? I get that to do it ethically permission should be granted but that is passive. The first real action is sending an email ( or more). This is outbound and even though it is cheap it does cost money.

        Link building as inbound? Sure the traffic from links is inbound but the effort to get that link surely was something going out be it an email or a tweet or something.

        Conversion Rate Optimization as inbound makes some logical sense because the visitor has come to the website. But what if that visitor came from a PPC ad? A display ad? An offline print ad or radio commercial. Should we reclassify those as inbound too.

        The whole thing feels like a land grab some days.

  • Glenn Baliong

    Great article. Although I don’t agree with the posters above. “SEO is PART of Inbound Marketing”, not “SEO is Inbound Marketing”.

    These days, the term SEO just gets thrown around as a buzz word.

  • Luis Garcia


    I see your point about “inbound marketing” however you seem to suggest – in your first set of bullet points – that “content marketing”, “social media marketing” and “brand marketing” are not part of SEO? Aren’t these some of the basics of SEO?

    You are right in saying that the SEO team should be “working together on a search-engine-friendly strategy”. But as SEO professionals you are getting paid to rank high in the search results. PERIOD! It is not the responsibility of the SEO company to close sales or increase traffic.

    As nice as it sounds, inbound marketing doesn’t really seem to be more than internet marketing. If this is not case, how do you exactly define it?

  • Harrys

    Totally agree, with your point view.

    Thanks for your article.

  • Ellen Feinberg

    Great Article Ruth – thank you!

    One question for you – how do you recommend a smaller marketing agency go about this. Many small business owners like myself are shops with just a handful of people at most and so creating a team is not really possible. Often it is a lot to manage and I wonder what your suggestions would be.


    • Ruth Burr

      Hi Ellen,

      With a smaller team, you have to rely more heavily on your client’s resources. If they have devs, copywriters, etc. you can enlist their help and make them part of your team (or make your team part of theirs). It’s just a matter of baking those expectations in up front, during the contract phase, so everyone knows what’s expected of them.

      If that’s not possible and the client doesn’t have the internal resources necessary, a full inbound marketing program may not be right for them – it would certainly get them the best results, but there’s no point in trying to achieve the impossible. In that case, I would try to get a laser focus on a few aspects of SEO where you really feel your team can move the needle, and set expectations accordingly. While you’re working on these smaller deals you can gently remind the client of how valuable an inbound marketing program can be; that way, when they do have the resources, you’re well-positioned to continue helping them do better marketing.

  • Kerry

    Hi Ruth, Great post. I think some of the other comments like one above that focuses on ‘relationships’ with customers are the way to go. I believe that simply talking to folks can engender a powerful feeling of connection and lead to longevity in trust down the road.

    I think most look for a way NOT to talk to their customers thus alienating them and losing them to their competitors.

    A big mistake.

  • João Zito H Sollberg

    Hi Ruth.
    My name is João Zito Sollberg.I’m the Content Manager of a Brazilian inbound marketing agency called Aotopo ( ).
    I came here to ask your permission to translate and post one of your articles ( )
    Your work is a very important reference for our readers and translating it will help those who don’t speak English to understand it.
    Obviously, we always post a link to the original content, to make clear who is the original author, and we believe this the way we’re making good link building and advertising of your post here in Brazil. Thus, without creating duplicate content – here is video from Matt Cutts that prove it:
    Could you please tell us if you agree?

    • Ruth Burr

      Hi Joao,

      Because this was a post on Search Engine Journal, this content belongs to them – the editors of SEJ are who you should be asking for the reprint. Hope that helps!