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Holistic SEO: a Guide to the Future of Organic Online Marketing

Published: October 22, 2014

Author: David Portney

If you’re new to Search Engine Optimization, your head may be spinning a bit as you try to sort out truth from myth, fact from fiction, speculation from reality. And you may be wondering who to trust when even recognized experienced experts don’t all agree on various SEO-related topics.
All of this is a natural extension of the fact that the World Wide Web is constantly in flux, and so are the algorithms employed by Search Engines like Google and Bing – and the fact that those algorithms are closely-guarded secrets not revealed to the public.

But It’s Easy for SEO Veterans… Right?

And if you’re not new to SEO, your head may still be spinning a bit trying to wrap your brain around the ongoing algorithm updates Google’s been tossing about for the past few years. From Penguins to Pandas to Hummingbirds to Pigeons, SEOs are challenged to keep up with what’s happening and what the impact is, and what to do about it.
But wait, don’t order – the practice and skill set of SEO has itself been the subject of change. In “the good old days,” you could just keyword-stuff your way to ranking high in Google, and your job as an SEO was pretty much done. But nowadays, not only have the search engines evolved, but business owners, VPs of Marketing, and the like have wised up and realized that you can’t take ranking or traffic to the bank – they want to see leads and sales coming in as a result of SEO efforts.

Is SEO Still SEO, Or Something Else Now?

Some experts and thought leaders in the online marketing and SEO space have even gone as far as saying it’s time to retire the term SEO and replace that with “inbound marketing,” or just go back to the term “internet marketing,” or, even simpler, “marketing”.
Even well-known SAAS tool provider Moz rebranded itself from SEO Moz, and many agencies that provide services such as paid (PPC), organic (SEO), social, creative, analytics, etc., are more and more using terms such as “Digital Marketing” or “Online Marketing” and not referring to themselves as “an SEO company” as much as they have in the past.
But for now, let’s not get distracted by those issues or what kind of reputation SEO has in public perceptions either; at the end of the day, SEO is about attracting non-paid search traffic to your website because someone types a search into Google or Bing or Yahoo or Baidu or Yandex or Duck Duck Go, etc., and you want your site to come up in the non-paid search results and in a high-up position.

SEO, Where Art Thou?

At the most basic level, SEO is about making sure that your web pages are easily understood by both people (your target market) and also machines (like Google).
If your website is confusing people and they can’t find what they’re looking for easily or accomplish a task smoothly, that’s a huge problem for you and your business. But it’s also a huge problem if your website has technical roadblocks and creates problems for machines like Google and Bing who are trying to find your website’s pages and understand your content.

Holistic SEO for 2015 & Beyond

Let’s get down to the heart of the matter: what should comprise the skillset of an SEO? This is certainly a matter for debate, and I look forward to hearing your opinions; here are my opinions below.

T-Shaped Skill Set

First, let’s get real – it’s very difficult to be an expert at e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g I’m going to list below, so that’s where the concept of T-shaped skills comes in (more on that concept as directly applied to online marketers here and here).
The bottom line for SEOs is you’ve got to be good at the basic “block and tackle” aspects of SEO, but you’re also going to need to have at least passing familiarity with the rest of these skills.
It’s hard to keep everything in your head too – so for the stuff that comprises the vertical skills on your T-shaped skillset that you may not do every day, you also need access to reliable resources for a quick refresher.

Technical SEO

The web is comprised of interconnected bits of technology; web pages are created using stuff like HTML, CSS, & JavaScript. Websites are often created using a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress or Magento. Websites are then hosted on servers, and there are various types of servers, each with their own specific quirks. Browsers (like Chrome, Safari, Firefox, IE, etc.) request those web pages from servers.
SEOs have to know about every bit of how this stuff works because how well your site does in Google’s search results is going to be impacted by factors such as if you’re making it difficult for Google to discover all of the pages on your site, if your pages are slow to load, and if you have other SEO issues like bad links and duplicate content.
Resource: That’s just scratching the surface of technical SEO; if you want more info on that, check out this blog post.

On-page Optimization

From a page-level view of your website (and also all pages in relation to each other), proper on-page optimization is one of the “block and tackle” skills SEOs must possess. You must be thoroughly conversant with stuff like Title Tags, Meta Descriptions, image ALT attributes, heading tags, proper URI structures, structured data, and internal linking.
Resource: here’s a reputable guide to get you going in the right direction.

Keyword Research

We use words to communicate with each other – and with search engines when we search online. This is a foundational skill set for an SEO. I’m always surprised when I hear someone say “You like doing keyword research? Yuck, that’s so tedious, you’re crazy” – and I hear that more often than you might believe.
Sure, we’re “moving away from keywords and towards concepts,” and in the future Google will be Artificially Intelligent and know what you want before you want it (stay tuned, I’ll be writing more about this in the near future). Right now, algo updates like Hummingbird are harbingers of things to come. The bottom line when it comes to keyword research is matching your message to your target audience, and in a way that search engines can easily parse and understand so that they can return a page on your site as a relevant answer to a searcher’s query.
Resource: if you’re new to keyword research, you can find some help here and here.

Competitive Analysis

It’s too easy to “take your eye off the ball” if you’re constantly obsessing over every little thing your competitors do. On the other hand, they could eat your lunch online if you’re not paying attention.
Whether you’re starting a new site or have had your site for 10 years, analyzing your competitors’ content, backlink profile, on-page optimization, and so forth often yields a wealth of actionable information.
Resource: here’s a darn good guide to researching your competition.


This can be (and actually is) its own job title, but IMO any SEOs worth their salt are going to at the very minimum know their way around Google Analytics (GA) – extra points if you have your GAIQ certificate or can wrangle a report out of Adobe Marketing Cloud (formerly Omniture). Terms like custom reports, advanced segments, event tracking, cross domain and subdomain tracking, Universal Analytics, and Attribution Modeling should have you nodding your head. If not, get cracking; you need to know this stuff.
Resource: Start with the GA training resources and their help sections.

Content Creation

I’m not part of the Grammar Police, nor do I have a degree in journalism, and I do not belong to the Professional Organization of English Majors. But, I am a published writer of a number of books in current publication, and my opinion is that SEOs need to be able to write and write well, even though content creation is a stand-alone job description unto itself. At a minimum this needs to be on the horizontal part of your T-shaped skill set.

User Experience (UX)

My colleague Marianne Sweeny would have my head in a basket if I didn’t mention UX as a core skill set of SEO. However, I mention UX not just out of a strong desire to keep my head attached to my body – I’ve come over to her way of thinking in a very big way after some initial resistance on my part (sometimes I’m a little slow). User Experience is uber-important – for years search engines like Google have been publicly saying “create great content and success will follow; do what’s best for searchers and not search engines,” and many if not most of us in SEO-land just rolled our eyes and went back to building those anchor-text-rich spammy links to get those quick results that clients like to see.
There’s no doubt that Google engineers are working overtime continuously trying to figure out how to get inside a searcher’s head and give them the best possible result to their query, and you can bet your bippy (Google it) that they’re not done. I’ll be writing more about this soon, but the point is that Google is figuring out ways to measure how useful your site is and how satisfied people are with your site after they clicked on a search result in Google.
Resource: This article will get your feet wet if you’re new to UX-land.

Link Building Earning

Google co-founder Larry Page had the idea that since academic research papers had citations listing references to other research papers, it might make sense for a search engine to weigh the type and quality of hyperlinks between websites as a method of ranking search results in response to a query. Lo and behold, it worked quite well, and Google quickly became the search engine of choice because suddenly you could actually find what you were looking for on the internet much more effectively than you could before Google.
SEOs figured this out in short order, and Link Building to improve rankings sprang up as a cottage industry.
Much has changed since 1992 – but Google’s Penguin updates or not, links are still an important signal to search engines, and so an SEO needs to know his/her way around link earning, outreach, and also link pruning (identifying and getting rid of or at least disavowing spammy backlinks).
Resource: Search Engine Land has an excellent article on the topic of link building here.

So That’s All An SEO Needs To Know?

Not exactly. There’s more – there’s always more. Here’s a quick sampling of yet more skills that need to be in that T-shaped skillset of yours:

-Local SEO

-International SEO

-Client- and server-side scripting languages

-Conversion Rate Optimization

-Persona modeling

-Email marketing

-Public relations

-Log file analysis



-Psychological influence factors


It’s no surprise to anyone working in online marketing that the SEO skill set has changed a lot over time and will continue to do so. Whether you’re an in-house SEO or work for an agency or you’re a business owner trying to do it all yourself, it’s a dauntingly large set of skills you have to possess and have to keep refining all the time.
Make sure you get the basics down before you start getting into more exotic stuff. The last thing I’ll say is this: focus on making your website useful to your target market. Look at the most popular websites – the common denominator is that these sites provide their visitors something useful and valuable. Can you really say in your heart of hearts that your website is truly useful and valuable to your target market and current visitors?
What do you think are the critical skills an SEO must have? Do you think taking a “holistic” approach is a good idea or not?
Are you currently working as an SEO? Then what’s your opinion?
Have you received SEO services in the past or do you have SEOs working for you now? What’s your opinion?

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