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SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION

SEO Isn't Everything

Sure, SEO is important--but it shouldn't be the only tool in your toolbox. Consider this modest proposal for ending your keyword dependency.
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Search engine optimization has become a mainstay of online marketing. Skip it and you might as well give up on virtual sales channels. There are those who say that SEO is dead and should be replaced with a more conscious focus on really understanding customers and addressing their needs and desires.

Say that and, as I learned quickly after publishing the article linked above, and you'll rile up many, many devotees and experts. Some are knowledgeable and honest people who are in the SEO space and actually do understand that there are fundamentals you have to address. Some want to pretend that they know it all and lash out at what they see as criticism because it might cause someone to question their brand of snake oil.

Unfortunately, there is an underlying fallacy in the way too many address and consider SEO. Does it make sense to employ it? Certainly. If you are going to have a website, you might as well maximize the chance that you'll attract the people you are looking for.

Where the smart practice ends and the fallacy begins is in how too many view the importance of SEO in a larger context. A tool is something that is useful for achieving an end. But one tool is not the entire toolbox.

A Modest Proposal

Can you succeed online without top SEO? Say for a moment that you couldn't. That would mean to succeed you'd really have to be on one of the first few result pages for the critical keywords that people would use to find a company like yours. But how many thousands of companies are all in the same business? The vast majority don't suddenly go out of business.

Sure, there are ways to narrow the search. Maybe a company comes up higher in a local search. But plenty of businesses of all sizes compete on a national or even international basis, whether they show up on those first few pages or not.

Another issue is that SEO is ultimately a customer acquisition strategy, not one that necessarily helps all that much when customers bring return business. Customer acquisition is important, of course, but it's an expensive way to do business compared to building strong lifetime value from ongoing customer relationships.

Again, there are companies that use SEO intelligently, where it's not meant to be the whole of an online strategy. There will be many people who wring their hands, saying "This isn't modern SEO" or "Of course all the professionals know this."

Except, too many companies don't. I've spoken with some that still count keywords. Others know in theory things have changed over the last few years but are so stuck in an old SEO mindset that they can't see how to go from where they now are.

If your company feels stuck, go back to marketing and business basics, understand what you need to achieve, and then see how all the tools fit into place. Smart consultants can help, but you still need to know enough to control your overall marketing and understand what role every aspect, including online and SEO, needs to play. Otherwise, you are at the beck and call of experts and software, not the other way around.

Last updated: Jan 2, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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