Come for the SEO, Stay for the Marketing
How to elongate SEO into a sustainable, satisfying career-choice
SEO is like a drug.
If you’re an SEO professional or are just starting out on your learning journey, you likely know the euphoric experience that I’m referencing.
Publish optimized content. Indexation happens. Your Google Search Console impression’s line spikes. Then the clicks and rankings follow suit.
It’s the feeling of vanity metrics injected into the main vein and straight to your brain.
I managed to get a rhyme in there.
You built it, manipulated it, and generated results. This is 90% (I made this number up) of the satisfaction in this line of work.
And you don’t even need your clients’ responses to experience the rush.
In fact, showing them these results might not even prompt the correct emotional response - as they likely have no idea what it takes to achieve this success in the first place.
Or, even more likely, they might not know that what they’re seeing is a success at all.
From a Thrilling High to Factory Work: SEO’s Basic Principles Will Leave You Wanting
The real joy of SEO is in learning the craft.
How do you use keywords on a page and understand what they represent? “Ahhh, got it, intent.”
How do you evaluate why a page saw significant traffic drops? “Oh no, my own pages are competing”
What are 301 redirects for? “Nifty. I can pass my keywords over to this page.”
Canonicals? “Ooooo. This is only a suggestion and Google doesn’t have to listen.”
Should this keyword be targeted with a service page, product page, or article? “This belongs to your core service page. Let’s not target this on the blog.”
How challenging might it be to rank for these queries? “Damn you HubSpot. Let’s find a longtail keyword we can confidently target first.”
How do I get backlinks? “Maybe I’ll reach out to a specialist.”
Do I need backlinks? “Wow, okay, not always necessary, but definitely generates quicker results on competitive SERPs.”
How do I reverse engineer my competitors’ success? “Hello, ScreamingFrog, visualization tools, internal links, and information structures.”
And this is a fraction of the learnings that will take place within the first couple of years. You can get into technical SEO, python scripts and automation, local GMB and Google Maps, international and multi-lingual websites, etc.
That’s all fun to dig into!
You’ll be rapidly learning how to do SEO and developing processes for consistent, repeatable success. And your endorphins will have you refreshing the SERPs every 10 seconds and in your GSC accounts daily.
Investigate, create, publish, results. Rinse and repeat.
Again, rinse and repeat.
Again, rinse and repeat.
Again, rinse and repeat.
But what happens when all the bullets listed above begin to cement themselves into your brain?
The risk with routine work like this is the development of complacency and unsustained motivation.
The hollow practice of a sterile SEO routine will begin to look like some form of digital “factory” work.
Tasks won’t be challenging, but rather, they’ll just need to be completed.
When I explain this to friends or colleagues, I often make a car analogy (see below).
Imagine you have to drive across the state to visit a close friend who recently relocated.
That first trip will be the most enjoyable. You’ll likely be seeing all new scenery. You might even get lost for a moment.
The second and third trip might be less exciting, but you’re still learning a few clever alternative routes to get where you’re going.
After a couple more trips you’ve likely established the “best” way to go and are no longer using Google Maps.
The drive is no longer an experience that stimulates the creative parts of your brain. It’s now become a task with an understood length of time to complete.
And with each consecutive time that you take that drive - you’ll begin to resent that no matter how thoroughly you know the route, it will continue to take you the same amount of time to complete.
How To Maintain Your Enthusiasm for Your SEO Career
There are essentially 2 important phases for you once the allure and mystery of SEO fades away:
Understand career tracks and pursue more senior roles/your own company
Become a better marketer. Period.
Exploring Senior Roles as an SEO
I’ll touch on this, but honestly - I recommend you pay attention to the SEO MBA newsletter and course for this topic:
Examples from Tom Critchlow’s newsletter that highlights the complexities and “how-to’s” of moving up in SEO:
Once you’re proficient and you’re feeling more confident in your processes, you’ll find that you’re likely developing the confidence to consult and train other SEOs.
This is often the stage where people become managers, potentially directors, or go freelance.
I do think there is value for anyone who might be wanting more from a specialist position to consider another way of thinking about their career.
There is a manager track. AND there is also an ICP track.
You don’t have to feel like your only option in SEO is to go on to manage entire teams or departments of people. Some folks hate that type of work. You move out of doing SEO and into managing people who do SEO. It’s a fundamentally different job. It’s okay to hate it.
The challenge for you will be finding an organization that is large enough to offer an ICP type of role or that even organizes itself this way. But they do exist. You’ll need to reach out to companies that are hiring to ask about these types of options.
Side note: Some small companies with only one SEO position might initially feel very much like an ICP role. But if you achieve any type of success for them via organic traffic, the leaders of the company will likely want to expand the department.
The Secret to SEO Career Satisfaction is Becoming a Really Great Marketer
SEO isn’t siloed from marketing. It is, after all, a marketing channel.
But people who begin their marketing careers in SEO have a natural tendency toward serving the bot and the rankings, first. And then serving the customer/user/reader, second.
The bot and the rankings are “easy.” That’s right, I said it.
Once you’ve got the basics down, SEO is more of a party-trick. It’s so heavily bot centric that even the user metrics that weigh into some of the ranking algorithms often aren’t enough to outmaneuver pages with simple structures and phrase matching.
But your clients, if they’re invested, are going to start asking, “So what? What’s the new traffic doing? How are you planning on getting that traffic to convert into customers or loyal fans? Will you drive them into email leads? How do you know your work is driving value?”
Your role as the marketer is the actual reason that clients hire you. It’s the reason they’ll grow to trust you. AND IT WILL BE HARD.
What does the marketer do outside of their SEO responsibilities?
Builds and pursues the development of buyer personas
Consults with sales/customer success teams about what they need and know
Builds funnels/cycles to encourage bottom-line conversions ($$$)
Implements effective CRO strategies for different buyer stages
Understands distribution strategies
Develops a working knowledge of how to leverage other marketing channels
The above bullets are challenging because they’re based on user/buyer psychology, your best assumptions, require A/B testing that often won’t be statistically significant and will result in occasional failure.
But I encourage anyone who wants to maintain their enthusiasm for something as technologically simple/repeatable as SEO to dig into the art of marketing well.