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Internet Marketing and the Limitations of Language

Words matter. Words are images, descriptions, and labels. Words convey meaning and nuance; words are symbols. Words are inextricably tied to culture and society. Words can even become an extension of our personal identities. Words matter. So why do the words that describe internet marketing suck so bad? This article explores the reputation problem the search engine optimization industry faces because of shortcomings in the language used to describe it. This is a difficult topic, and probably too theoretical for some. But since my last post on the Fundamentals of Link Building was so practical, I thought I should balance that out. One footnote: you’ll notice throughout this article, I use a variety of terms interchangeably to describe internet marketing. Yes, I do realize the irony of this; I've done it on purpose. It reveals just how fuzzy this topic can be.

Internet Marketing: Defined by the Definer

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Thus penned the philospher Wittgenstein in his 1922 work on the symbolism and nuance of language. Well, I'm nowhere near as smart as old Ludwig, but his quote fits well in our discussion of the language used to describe internet marketing. (I’m sure Ludwig could never have guessed his philosophy would be co-opted for such a relatively elementary topic as this. Sorry dude.) But let's get to the gettin', shall we? I prefer the term internet marketing to describe what I do professionally, but I also use terms such as search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) - often interchangeably. Then there’s the term search marketing (which needs no acronym at all) which I tend to favor for more general usage. But that doesn’t work in all situations, because it still limits the scope of thinking to search. Sometimes I use the term web strategy to define what we do. But it might be too vague, even though it does a good job of enveloping the many facets of web business we're concerned with. And recently, I've begun studying usability and information architecture in depth, and have developed a fondness for the term findability. More on that later. As you can see, I use several different terms to describe my profession. And there’s very little rhyme or reason as to why - it’s as much about what fits into the conversation as anything else. I've noticed this is true for a lot of people in our industry, who tend to use labels for their work based on personal inclinations or the group-think mentality; there’s very little consistency, and there's very little explanation (and often very little thought).

The Scope of Internet Marketing Disciplines

By and large, the internet marketing industry has been labeled using terms that aren't well defined, such as “SEO.” Yet there’s a crucial difference between search marketing and internet marketing. Some SEO is about conversion optimization. Other SEO is social media, online PR, or link building. Some SEO is basic on-page semantic optimization - Mike Grehan’s “text book SEO” (and good luck to them). The problem with the term search engine optimization is that it doesn't mean anything anymore. SEO has gotten complex, and the profession has outgrown its label and needs better definition. So let’s attempt to define internet marketing: Internet marketing is the strategic promotion of online properties in order to drive awareness, visibility, targeted traffic and conversions, using a variety of communication channels. That’s my attempt, it’s not very good, but thankfully there are many others.
Random Sidenote: did you know you can optimize for define: search operators in Google?
I like this one:
The application of the internet and related digital technologies to achieve marketing objectives.
And I also like this one:
Leveraging the Internet as a means of communicating a company’s messaging, attracting prospects and customers, and conducting market research.
It's evident by these definitions that internet marketing is a wide topic encompassing many different disciplines. Here are just a few:
  • SEO: to achieve search engine visibility and traffic, to capture markets and to drive leads via search.
  • Email: to remarket to your customer base, to build brand loyalty and convert existing customers repeatedly.
  • PR: to syndicate news across multiple sources, to build awareness
  • Social Media: to engage a community in discussions
  • Community: to build a community base within your online properties
  • Analytics: to study data in order to provide outcomes that will empower decisions
  • Usability: to create a site that’s easy to use and enjoyable, in order to retain repeat visitors
  • Information Architecture: to build a site methodically for intuitive navigation and to ease crawling and indexing by search spiders
  • Link Building: to maximize traffic, awareness and search rankings through the solicitation of link citations
  • Web Design & Development: to create a web application, to create web designs, for the purpose of maximizing the conversion potential of a targeted lead
  • Paid Search Marketing: to deploy paid advertising campaigns across major search engines and content networks.
And many more... There are many different ways to skin a cat when it comes to promoting a website, and there are professionals working in each of the areas above (and many more) that mostly define themselves by the same moniker: SEO. Therein lies a forked-tongue serpent: 1. SEO is used widely as the general term for all things marketing online, yet it represents only a single aspect of what internet marketing entails. 2. SEO has a reputation for being dirty and evil, the realm of snake oil and cheaters.

The SEO Image Problem

The design community envisions SEO as a sketchy uncle who binds the innocent orphan findability and forces upon him a steady diet of keywords. Information architects and usability professionals normally regard SEO as the myopic step-child of web development and design, a (necessary) nuisance but only secondary to the “real” disciplines essential to web strategy. Per Jakob Nielsen:
The importance of good page titles and summaries goes far beyond traditional search engine optimization (SEO) and its narrow focus on getting a high GYM rating (that is, a high ranking on Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft search listings).
Some high-profile bloggers like Jason Calacanis and mainstream news sources like the New York Times regard SEO as dirty and evil, and like to portray those who practice it as cheaters. Examples from Calacanis are numerous (if disingenuous, they’re probably more about attention than truth), but you’d expect more from the NYT than comments like this:
To those in the trade, outsmarting the algorithm is called “search engine optimization.” For the rest of us, it produces Web pages littered with spam.
So why all this negative attention? What's so slimy about SEO? That's a difficult question to answer.

The Concept of Findability

I mentioned Aarron Walter’s excellent article above. In it, Walter raises awareness about findability - adding yet another concept (and label) into the already confused arena of online marketing terminology. (Online marketing - there’s another one. Sorry, I promise I’ll stop.) Findability, Walter writes,
... is a very good boy with a big heart for helping people find the websites they seek, find content within websites, and rediscover valuable content they’d found. He used his arsenal of talent for planning, writing, coding, and analysis to create websites that could connect with a target audience.
... which is synonymous with proper internet marketing - ethical strategies that work to establish relevant content in prominent locations on search engines, social media sites, news sources, and other sites of all kinds.

SEO is the Real Orphan

Like usability, search engine optimization requires no professional credentials or licensing. Anyone who wishes to claim the title of "SEO" may do so, and take payment for their services (as long as they can land a client). That's the first problem. The second problem has a lot to do with the first: there’s a lot of money in search marketing. Money + no standardization = opportunity for scammers to exploit. It’s fashionable for the web design and development industries to dislike SEO, after all it’s not nearly as clean as those disciplines. For one thing, it doesn’t have any firm deliverables - you normally don’t hand over a website when you’re offering SEO services (well, some full-service companies do). Findability is a much better term than SEO. However it’s still only another label designed to replace a worse one. It doesn’t provide more clarity than SEO for the complex and sophisticated approach they both attempt to define. And it doesn’t acknowledge that at the heart of findability, internet marketing beats. Furthermore, substitute everything Walter writes about findability with the term of your choice - SEO, SEM, internet marketing, web strategy - and I’ll give you examples of professionals offering that sophisticated level of service but using the latter monikers to describe it.

Strategy Encompasses Search

My preference is to label our expertise internet marketing. We are web strategists who perform many different techniques to get your company found online. But we also get your product sold, and we drive your site subscriber numbers, and we build your site community. We go way beyond just sending traffic. And we go way beyond just doing SEO. Search is a critical component of online marketing, but it’s only a single component. Within a complete marketing strategy, there are many different essential pieces. Yes, search marketing represents the lion-share of potential in many cases, but there are occassions when it must take a back seat to other initiatives that may have a higher return, or that may be a better fit with business goals. The fallacy has been to label everything to do with internet marketing as search engine optimization. Yet there are some fantastic internet marketers, who may be primarily focused on search, but who offer internet marketing expertise that’s far beyond the narrow (and self-inflicted) identity of a SEO.
Aarron Walter’s findability takes center stage
The concept of Findability is attractive, and I applaud the attempt at raising internet marketing to a higher level and incorporating it into other aspects of web strategy. In fact, maybe the real concept here isn’t findability or internet marketing but web strategy. In the context of an overarching strategy, design, development, and marketing (findability) are all essential components. Walter has a luscious graphic illustrating where he envisions findability in the mix. But I would switch out “Findability” in the center of that image, with “Web Strategy.” Being findable shouldn’t be at the center of all other disciplines: being strategic should be.

Conclusions? Not So Much

Part of what makes this topic so difficult (and what makes my job so challenging) is that internet marketing influences every aspect of website development, design and promotion. How you build the site in the very beginning has consequences in how it will be promoted later, and how successful it will be in organic SERPs, in social media, in speaking to site visitors, in converting a lead. I like the idea of findability; I like its moderate sensibility. But we must actively promote our clients. We must push their sites into the fray. As long as we’re promoting relevance, what we do is scalable and has lasting value. Promoting irrelevance doesn’t have lasting value, but it's what most people associate SEO with. Findability leaves us in the dark if people aren’t searching for us. Findability implies dependence upon searching. It's a passive term. What if people aren’t searching? That’s what internet marketing can do - reach those who aren’t actively searching for you. To do this, however, you have to go way beyond SEO, and into the realm of marketing on the web. Marketing on the web... sorry, there's another one.
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