The swarm of watchwords making the rounds in the business world seems to grow every day:
You need SEO as part of your marketing strategy—
The key to branding is content creation—
Your advertising campaign must include social media—
The overuse—and misuse—of all these catchphrases runs the risk of making them all meaningless, and unhelpful to anyone actually interested in making their business or company successful. Before directing someone to ‘focus on our SEO marketing strategy,’ it is worth taking a moment to reconsider what these different things actually are, why they matter, and what that means for your particular situation.
This simple truth is one of the first facts that gets lost in the conversation, because SEO and marketing are connected—but they are not the same.
Think about it: SEO is shorthand for Search Engine Optimization: that means making sure your website can be found by people who are looking for it. That’s it.
Marketing is what you do to attract customers, clients, sales prospects, whatever; it is an ongoing, active attempt to keep business flowing.
The key difference is that with SEO, you are helping people find you when they already have an interest in what you offer; with marketing, you are trying to convince people that they need or want what you have. While both efforts will (hopefully) result in more business, sales, customers, and demand for you, it is important to understand that each requires different types of attention and effort on your part.
Advertising is the ‘Hail Mary’ pass of the marketing playbook: you lob your pitch out into the field of potential customers and pray that someone out there will receive the message, perceive both a personal need and a potential value, and decide to respond by giving you business. Considering the vast amount of similar (or competing) pitches being made at the same time, toward the same pool of customers, and it is remarkable that it ever pans out.
Marketing and business professor Mark Burgess of Rutgers University said it best, “90% of people do not trust traditional ads… almost 80% trust recommendations… word of mouth is ten times more powerful than traditional ads.” Not only do you have to reach a large number of people before your real targets hear your marketing message, but those same people have been conditioned to be skeptical of anything that reeks of “marketing.”
So wouldn’t it be incredibly powerful if you could make yourself known specifically to the people who are actively looking for the sort of products or services you offer?
That is exactly what SEO is for.
Content doesn’t drive traffic to your website—interest does. Curiosity does. Humanity does. Honesty does.
Optimizing your site to actually show up in search results starts with an honest look in the mirror: what do you have that people actually want or need? How would people describe their want or need? What are the related products, services, questions, problems, etc. that people would naturally associate with what you have?
Advertisements are famous for creating false, dishonest, or simply artificial associations: burgers with bikinis, cheap beer with wild adventures, shiny new cars with empty city streets. That is the opposite of good SEO.
When you are creating content for your website or blog, the goal is not to promote or sell anything, but simply to provide context for yourself. Tell your story, talk about the challenges you encounter, share what you find interesting, and actually interact with the online world like a real person. Your content is an opportunity to share yourself—and your company—with the world, not cram a message down people’s throats. If you simply create content in the hopes of tricking or luring people to your site, you are doing it wrong.
Remember: SEO is about helping people who actually want what you have find and connect with you. If your content smacks of advertising, that is because it isn’t SEO: it is marketing material.
So if SEO is different from marketing, how are they related?
For one thing, if people searching for the keywords that describe your business find your site, you haven’t earned a customer or made a sale. You still need a marketing strategy to encourage visitors to stick around and start a relationship with you. SEO makes you visible, but marketing makes you profitable.
There is still a time and a place for advertisements, sales outreach, and all the classic elements of a complete marketing campaign. From asking customers for reviews and referrals, to promoting sales and offering special deals, marketing can directly intersect with how you present your business online.
Just never forget that ultimately, SEO shouldn’t be about marketing, it should be about creating and maintain an identity online. You can’t always predict who, when, or where a new customer might suddenly realize he or she has a need for what you offer; but good SEO can make sure that new customers can find you when they need you.
Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached via email here or on Twitter @EdgarTwilson.