Over the past decade there have increasingly been professionals in SEO and SEM who specialize, aiming to own a specific niche market within SEO rather than compete on the broader scale. In this article I will examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of that approach, and talk about what it means both for search marketing service providers considering becoming a specialist, and for clients of search engine marketing services.
The Specialist SEO
As any market grows, it also diversifies, and starts to form niche markets within the broader market. This is a good and natural progression within any market.
In search engine marketing this largely began with the introduction of pay per click sponsored listings, such as AdWords, where we saw a rapid division between those who did only SEO with the ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ rankings, and those who specialized in setting up and managing the paid listings in AdWords and other programs. There were companies that did both things, and companies that chose to specialise in only one or the other of these disciplines.
As the aspects and practices of SEO have grown more complex and diverse, incorporating more and more differing skills and areas of knowledge, the market for specialists in singular aspects has also grown. Now there SEO providers that specialise only in copywriting; others that specialise in link building services; specialists in conversion rate optimisation; and a new trend of specialists dealing with social media in ways that feed SEO efforts.
Examples of SEO Specialists
One of the original specialists in SEO is of course Eric Ward, who has been a specialist in building links to sites since before any search engine was known to pay any attention to links for ranking purposes. Eric was famous as the link builder’s guru long before Google was founded. Another very early specialist would be Karon Thackston who was a specialist in copy writing for SEO back in the very early days, and a partner to Jill Whalen.
Then we have Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg who have specialized in conversion rate optimization, and the science of persuasion in marketing online. In a completely different vein, we have Ralph Tegtmeier who has been a specialist in cloaking technologies, generally seen as a ‘black hat’ or high-risk technique in SEO for many years.
Personally, I always tend to think of Industry spokesman Danny Sullivan as a specialist too. He is far more of a reporter on the industry and happenings of SEO than anyone else, becoming the quintessential statesman and ambassador for the industry. This makes him the perfect host for seminars and conferences. I tend to see that as a specialist role.
In more recent years, we have seen more specialists than ever, especially in the link building and link baiting areas while link building was seen as such an important – and difficult to master – aspect of SEO. Last year there was a sudden growth on SEOs who specialized in leveraging video on YouTube, and at the moment of writing this the current hot new trend is for specialists in Social Media.
I tend to think of myself as a marketer who has been able to master all of the aspects of SEO because they grew with my career, over 15 years. However, I have occasionally been called a specialist myself – a specialist in the marketing and strategy side of SEO. Of course, I do not believe that an understanding of broader marketing, or a strong focus on strategy in SEO, should be a specialisation. I will therefore leave it to you, the reader, to decide for yourself whether I am a skilled general practitioner, a marketer who specialises in SEM, or a specialist in the role of an SEO Architect and Strategist to design the broader campaign.
In favour of the Specialist SEO
- Becoming a specialist within SEO is smart, niche marketing. It allows the SEO to focus all their branding, linkbuilding, and PR at one particular focal point, one nich market, rather than compete with all other SEOs on the broad basis.
- Becoming a specialist allows the SEO to focus on just being really good at one thing, letting them become ‘expert’ at that one thing sooner. It is easier to become ‘the best’ at just one thing than try to become the best at many different things.
- Becoming a specialist SEO can be a simple form of apparent USP to differentiate one SEO from the competition.
The interesting part here is that two of these three points in favour of specialization are serving the SEO, not the Client. Only the second point, the building of deeper expertise in one particular skill, is a thing that serves the client, or improves the end product of the SEO.
Points that may be against the specialized SEO
- While it may seem like a wonderful way to reduce competition, it is only delaying it. All specialised niches (of which there are still only a bare score) will get more competitive just as the broader market does, and often in similar proportion.
- Being too specialised can reduce the ability to be flexible and re-purpose your business to react to change. The general purpose SEO can always build his own sites as he knows the entire spectrum of the work well enough to be professional at all aspects. Some specialists don’t retain (or ever have) enough general skills.
- Being a specialist brain surgeon is great for both kudos and finance, but there always has to be a general practitioner somewhere to refer a case to the specialist. An SEO campaign needs an overall strategy that follows the Marketing Plan effectively. That requires broad knowledge from somewhere.
- You have to commit to being a true expert in the niche. Want to be an expert link builder SEO? Then you have to be better at that one thing of link building than even the really good broader skilled or more general SEOs like Michael Gray, Greg Boser, or… me.
Summary of SEO Specialists?
Becoming an SEO specialist can be a way to differentiate and become an expert in a niche market, making it an attractive seeming route for newer SEOs, or those unable to break the wider market as well as they’d like. But behind all SEO there still needs to be a broad understanding of all the roles and tactics, and an overall SEO Architect sort of role.
Specialist SEOs can be a very smart hire for a company with a good general in-house SEO team, allowing them to deliver on an area where they lack quite the level of expertise or practice they desire. Specialist SEOs are not always as skilled in areas outside their specialisation as a general practitioner, and the general practitioner may be a cheaper hire.
I would also suggest that there is likely to be a set order in which specialists should be hired. I would suggest, once all of the basics are in place, starting with an expert like the Eisenberg brothers – someone to maximise conversions and persuasion architecture. You do that first (after the Strategy and Architecture of course) because raising conversion rates first means that every other specialist will deliver their results to a platform optimised to get the most return on their investment.
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