SEO vs. Inbound Marketing: Battle of the Brands



Inbound MarketingFor a while now, there’s been chatter about whether “inbound marketing” should replace the term “SEO.” The conversation came to a head this week (if heads are something that conversations can come to) when Rand Fishkin blogged about it at SEOmoz in “The Brand of SEO and the Trend of Inbound Marketing.”

Rand starts by noting the SEO industry’s bad reputation:

Last night, a startup friend of mine was over, reviewing a slide deck I'm building for another round of fundraising pain, when he received a spam email trying to buy some links on his site.

"Ha. You SEO guys never quit do you?"

Then today, in an interview with a candidate, I asked her about her background in SEO and she replied, "I told my husband about SEOmoz and he said 'SEO company? Watch out, those guys are spammy and untrustworthy."

Rand thinks this is a real problem – but at the same time, just abandoning the term “SEO” is not a real option. Instead, he proposes shifting to a term that encompasses more of the ancillary activities that most SEOs participate in, from blogging to content marketing to social media to conversion rate optimization to web analytics. Last week, he put out a call on Twitter for such an umbrella term: “Is there a phrase (besides "inbound marketing") that describes combined processes of SEO, Social, Content, CRO & Analytics to earn traffic?”

AJ Kohn replied: “I still believe SEO encompasses all those things. If not, then Internet Marketing. Remember when that used to sound cutting edge?”

Rand sort of agrees, but sort of doesn’t:

If you're a modern SEO and you don't also embrace content creation, social media marketing, link outreach for brand and direct traffic value (beyond their algorithmic contributions), PR, CRO and analytics, you're probably not achieving all that you could by combining these practices (at least a little). And yet, there's no way to explain to the outside world (even those in web marketing but not directly tied to SEO) that "search engine optimization" also includes "social media" or "conversion rate optimization" or "public relations" or "content marketing." SEO necessarily equates to search engine-based stuff … Hence, we need a term/phrase that accurately describes this combination (but is not "Internet Marketing" since that phrase encompasses vastly more than what we're trying to get across, paid channels in particular).

He thinks “inbound marketing” – a term coined and used by HubSpot but gaining traction elsewhere – is the best option for now, a term that encompasses the “free/earned/organic” portions of Internet marketing, but, in his mind, excludes stuff like paid search.

Rand’s post has almost 170 comments so far, with some commenters taking issue with the idea of rebranding SEO, and others objecting to the term “inbound marketing” itself – one commenter says “I loathe the term 'inbound marketing'"; another says, “We are Hubspot partners and SEOmoz raving fans, but calling ourselves inbound marketers makes us feel like we've lost our identity.” And another: “‘Inbound Marketing’ just sounds terrible, brings up all sorts of spammy/salesman connotations. Both Earned Media and Organic Marketing sound better, or even Earned Marketing.”

Ian Lurie Demurs

Ian of the blog Conversation Marketing is not a fan of the term either. In a post called “My problem(s) with ‘inbound marketing,’” he argues that the paid versus organic distinction is false:

Rand commented below to emphasize that to him the split is between interruption and non-interruption, paid versus non-paid marketing. I get that. I really do. But to me there are many forms of paid online advertising that would fit ‘inbound’. In fact, there’s a dwindling list of internet marketing tactics that could be considered ‘interruption’ based.

He equates “coining a new marketing concept” to “marketing by confusion”:

It’s a branding ploy by several firms in an effort to make themselves stand out from the crowd. It’s a kind of key phrase gamble: Introduce a new concept, write a ton of content about it, then spread the word and hope it goes viral. If it does, woo hoo! You’ve got a top ranking for a hot marketing phrase!

Ian also points out that, while “inbound marketing” has gained traction relative to phrases like “earned media” and “organic marketing,” they are all still miles away from catching up with “Internet marketing”:

So we’re coming up with yet another marketing term exactly why? ‘Internet marketing’ describes strategic application of SEO, PPC, analytics, etc. to offer something of value to an audience. It has broad acceptance. It’s flexible and accurate.

You could argue that ‘inbound’ marketing is strictly permission-based, not interruption-based, stuff. I’d answer by saying there’s ‘good’ internet marketing and ‘stupid’ internet marketing. Popups, adware and other interruption based garbage falls into the latter category.

The below image is via Ian’s post:

Internet marketing vs. inbound marketing

What do you think? Personally, I think “earned media,” “organic marketing” and “inbound marketing” all sound equally made up – by which I mean, they sound more “branded” than generic and I don’t think regular people (non-marketers) would really know what any of them mean. Terms like internet marketing, SEO and social media, however, may be widely used enough to make sense to people who don’t work in our industry.

So for the time being, I think I side with Ian – if you want to convey that you or your company does any or all of the above activities, say you do Internet marketing. If you specialize in one area or another (say, SEO or PPC), then say that. Do we need to start operating under a new brand? I don’t think so – not just yet.

More Web Marketing Highlights

It was not a great PR week for Google or Goldman Sachs – both saw former employees publish editorials on why they left the companies they once passionately loved and recruited for. I was especially interested in James Whittaker’s take on where Google went wrong: “The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

P.S. Here’s Gabriella Sannino on where they went wrong: “The problem with what Google has done is that they've assumed a lot of things. For example, they've assumed that social connection = trust. They've assumed that I want to see everything you recommend, simply because we have something in common and chat (or not) on G+.”

P.P.S. Ryan Healy is also wondering if Google has lost its way: "I can’t help but think how short-sighted Google has been. They’re worried about the threat of Facebook, yet they’re treating their current AdWords advertisers like a virus they want to get rid of. Does anybody else see the irony in this? I’ve advertised on Facebook and I’ve gotten good results. Yes, Facebook is a corporate giant, but — so far — they’ve been easy to work with. They seem to want my advertising dollars. Google, on the other hand, has shunned my advertising dollars for reasons I can’t comprehend. Contrary to Google’s professed fears, it seems Google is doing its level best to make sure Facebook becomes the Internet’s advertising king."

At SXSW this week, BBH Labs used a surprising – even shocking – marketing tactic: using homeless people in Austin as 4G hotspots. It was supposed to raise awareness in an edgy way – that’s the claim. But Adrian Sanders at The Next Web thinks it’s “SocialWashing”: “Homeless Hotspots represents the increasingly uninformed but well intentioned social media pundits that often end up making sad situations worse.”

Two good pieces on keeping calm and carrying on, as the hipsters say: Rebecca Kelley on “why you’re a moron for grabbing your Internet pitchfork” and Lisa Barone on how to save your reputation in the face of a shitstorm.

Webbiquity has picked 17 of the best SEM guides of 2011, and we’re proud to be on it (with our infographic in how the AdWords auction works)!

For those of you, like me, who still haven’t adjusted to the time change, here’s your biannual reminder that Daylight Saving Time is stupid.

Have a good weekend, folks.

Images via McD22 ("Inbound") and Ian Lurie.

Update: Rand Fishkin Now Believes PPC is Inbound Marketing

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Dave Robinson
Mar 17, 2012

I'm persuaded by the argument that the term 'internet marketing' does a rather good job of combining the main activities involved in generating business on-line into a simple phrase that people get. IMHO one of the biggest mistakes any industry can make is to shroud itself in impenetrable jargon or different "made up" words that mean the same thing as the phrase people get.Ultimately what we do in our industry is market our clients using the internet, that sounds like internet marketing to me.

Gregory Smith
Mar 17, 2012

Hello,I have seen your fgace around a bit lately. I reallyenjoyed your post on search engine journal, so Iclicked through, and came to checkout YOUR blog.I am a professional SEO an blogger. Seems we have a lotin common, I would love to be a guest blogger here, on your site.I would also like to see if you would enjoy blogging on RxSEO.netGet in touch via my email. I will be looking forward to hearing from you.thanksgreg smith

Gerald Martin
Mar 18, 2012

SEOs have been put on the bad side of town because of the black hat methods that people keep seeing. You can consider it as some sort of hasty generalization, because once people see something spammy, some of them will quickly put the blame on ALL of the people doing SEO.

Nick Stamoulis
Mar 20, 2012

Good SEO has evolved over the years.  It's no longer just a technical strategy.  If your SEO doesn't include content marketing and social media, the results are probably lacking.  However, I don't see why calling it anything other than SEO is necessary.  Those that "get it" understand that it isn't just a bunch of spammers using shady tactics. 

Rick S.
Mar 20, 2012

Congratulations on your 300th post.

Elisa Gabbert
Mar 20, 2012

Many thanks :)

Jun 05, 2012

I agree SEO is kind of leaning towards spammy. But im not sure on the inbound marketing!

Get BackLInks
Oct 29, 2012

This is a great post and i agree with you , But Seo is hard to keep up with because its always changing!

Spook SEO
Mar 27, 2014

Hi Elisa!I firmly believe that internet marketing describes strategic application of SEO, analytics as well as PPC to offer something to the clients. I have enjoyed reading this post of yours. I am really looking forward to read more of your latest articles.

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