The Limits of SEO: What Search Engine Optimisation Isn’t

Search engine optimisation is a multidisciplinary function: the work of many different departments has an impact on a company’s SEO success. In this post we look to define the core of SEO.

The general functions of most (performance) marketing channels will already be clear to the actors involved. The levers associated with improving results are obvious and transparent. Improvements often show results quickly and are reproducible: what worked for project A will also lead to success for project B. X amount of invested euros leads to the result of Y.

Why search engine optimisation is different

SEO is different. The search engine operators traditionally keep a big secret about how the ranking algorithms actually work. It is unconfirmed what ranking factors exist and what relevance they exactly have. What led to success for domain A does not have to work for domain B. The time between a change and the expected result is indefinite and often long.

Uncertainty as danger

In addition, SEO as a multidisciplinary function has to interact with almost all departments in a company. Content, technology, sales, strategy and more. As a result, an SEO manager can find tasks and levers in almost every corner of a company that (at least in theory) have an impact on the ranking.

But there is also a risk lurking here – resources. Time and money are limited and must be prioritised on the topics that make the greatest difference for the company. From my perspective, the supposed freedom and limitlessness of SEO often leads to the wrong allocation of resources.

The effects of this can be seen very well in the program lists of the major conferences. There you will find the new, “hot” topics such as the current improvement of the (heavily pushed by Google) Core Web Vitals or often more subjective and opinion-influenced topics like usability-optimisation. Less often, however, are more relevant SEO basics, in my opinion.

What search engine optimisation isn’t

Especially in smaller companies, SEOs often wear several hats and work on many other topics in addition to SEO, but it is precisely then that it is important to be able to separate which of these is SEO in the narrower sense and what working time is used for topics that actually belong to other areas. From experience, this often affects these areas:

  • Conversion rate optimisation: Very few SEOs have the task to attract more visitors to the website. As a rule, the task is about a specific goal: visitors should register, buy a product, download a white paper, for example. In order for this to work, the user that Google sends to the page has to convert. However, improving the conversion rate is not a genuine SEO task.
  • User Experience (UX): If you want to be successful with Google in the long term, you have to understand the user experience of Google visitors and continuously improve it (especially in relation to the competition). As a result, UX optimisation is often seen as part of Google optimisation. Although this topic also has an indirect impact on SEO success, it is not a classic SEO task.
  • Site speed and website performance: Thanks to Google’s public relations work with the page experience update and the Core Web Vitals, the topic is currently being driven through all the conferences and lectures. Of course websites have to be fast and performant. The improvement of these values is not an SEO issue, but is usually linked to the technology.
  • Brand awareness: Since former Google boss Eric Schmidt said many years ago “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool”, it has been clear that well-known and popular brands have an advantage on Google. The users trust them, consequently the click rates and thus the user signals are better. The brand therefore plays into SEO success, but it is not the job of the SEO to build this brand.
  • The best product: At the end of the day, the best product on the internet wins. Google does not continuously rank against the search intentions and interests of its own users, as is clear from the example of Airbnb and Wimdu in Germany. Still, creating the best product is not an SEO task.

There is nothing to prevent SEOs taking on such tasks and you often see that SEOs switch from a rather narrow SEO term to more comprehensive positions in their career paths, which then have more responsibility. But it is important that the boundaries are clear: what is SEO and where does SEO end?

Search machine optimisation is visibility

Google defined SEO as visibility for relevant search terms:

By making sure search engines can find and automatically understand your content, you are improving the visibility of your site for relevant searches. This is called SEO, or search engine optimization, which can result in more interested users coming to your site.

Google developers: Easily Discoverable

These two sentences describe the core of SEO very well: it is about being visible with relevant search terms with the right content in order to direct interested visitors to your own page.

What’s so easy to read requires a whole series of complex steps that have to be completed successfully, from keyword and competitor research, to the creation of relevant content, to presentation on a website that is technically understandable for Google and the announcement via links and quotes, must interlock many cogs.

As understandable as (personal) interest in new, interesting topics is, the big levers for improving visibility on Google are in the basics on almost all websites. Every day of work invested in basics brings more benefits than the same amount of time invested in “trending topics”.

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