SEO Generalists vs. SEO Specialists

A few weeks ago, during a bid process for an SEO (define) project, I encountered a Web site design firm with a unique selling proposition. According to this firm, it’s better to have its SEO professionals only specialize in SEO and its usability professionals only specialize in Web site usability.

Which got me to thinking: is it better to only have SEO professionals specialize in the optimization procedure or have multitalented optimization professionals on staff?

SEO Specialists

I have to admit my first response upon reading this was, well, laughter. In my opinion, beginner, intermediate, and advanced SEO professionals have a wide variety of skills. A beginner SEO professional, for example, has keyword research and search-friendly copywriting skills. An intermediate and advanced SEO professional has additional technical skills, including coding and programming.

There are even SEO specialties within the industry. Some SEO professionals focus on the entire copywriting aspect of the optimization process. I have a great deal of admiration for this group, because it can be tricky to make a client happy with copy that doesn’t conform to the way the client has been trained or educated.

I find it very, very difficult to work with journalists and PR professionals, for example. I understand news items and press releases need catchy headlines. I understand news articles must conform to an inverted-pyramid (most important information first) writing style, which is actually a good way of writing for SEO, too. However, I also understand that if a news article doesn’t contain the words and phrases people type into search queries, that article might not receive qualified search engine traffic. I’ve a great deal of respect for my colleagues who can get their clients to strike the balance between search-friendly copy and journalistic style.

Likewise, as a Web developer I have to work with other developers and usability professionals who clearly do not understand search-friendly Web site design. Somehow, the definition of search-friendly design has come to mean a site navigation scheme formatted as text links (only) and a keyword-stuffed URL structure with an ASP/CFM/PHP workaround for dynamic-looking URLs. And therein lies the problem with being a person who only specializes in SEO.

When people only write and design sites for the commercial Web search engines, they forget the entire user experience. Web site usability doesn’t even enter the picture. Search engine spammers define conversion points as ranking and click-throughs only. I could easily program a click bot (define) to do that.

It reminds me of an outstanding presentation Dana Todd from SiteLab gave at a Search Engine Strategies conference. In her presentation, Todd outlined some of the complaints ad agencies have about working with SEO firms. One major complaint was that SEO firms ruin a site’s design.

My gut reaction was to act all offended, but then I realized she makes a great point. Too many SEO specialists have such a poor understanding of Web site usability, branding efforts (through the design elements), and content management systems. They really can ruin a site’s positive user experience.

In other words, SEO specialists often don’t look at the big picture.

SEO Generalists

On the flip side, SEO generalists have a wide variety of skills. They have keyword research and copywriting skills. They can code and program Web sites. In other words, many SEO generalists are Web developers or Web site usability professionals who have optimization skills. SEO generalists often see the big picture.

My last column about Mike the Genius was about some of the best SEO professional I’ve ever met. Their understanding of how people search and browse Web sites is exceptional. Granted, one doesn’t often encounter a Mike/Michelle the Genius in the SEO industry, but they are a good example of generalists who clearly understand the search process.

If I could wave a magic wand and create more Web developers and usability professionals who clearly understand the search process, I would. In fact, whenever I train large companies on SEO, I don’t separate the copywriters (content providers), designers (creative), and IT staff. It’s important for each person to understand the others’ roles in creating a search-friendly Web site.

If a copywriter forgets to write a title tag, for example, at least the IT staffer will know and remember how important title-tag content is for optimization. Of course, I’d never expect non-technical staff to understand how to implement a ColdFusion URL workaround. However, I can expect non-technical staff to understand a URL structure that isn’t spider-friendly can and does interfere with a search engine’s ability to retrieve content.


Does it sound like I prefer SEO generalists to SEO specialists? On the surface, it may seem so, except that the term “SEO specialist” can be misleading. A top-of-the-line SEO specialist has a wide variety of skills. Some people might label an SEO specialist as an SEO generalist because of the skill set.

The bottom line for me isn’t whether an SEO professional is a generalist or specialist. It’s delivering a Web site that meets user goals, business goals, and search engine goals. A truly great SEO professional is a person who can apply his or her skills to attain all those goals.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in Toronto, April 25-26, 2006.

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