Is SEO Science or Marketing?

April 4th, 2007 by Chris

More or less everyone who practices SEO today used to do something else. Maybe they went from programming to SEO, design to SEO, marketing to SEO, business to SEO, or some other shift. It is simply too new of a field for someone to just start with it. It may be the previous life experience prepared, or failed to prepare, an individual for this field. It may be the previous life experience biased on individual one way or another. How you see this happening will probably mostly depend on if you view SEO as science or marketing.

Personally, my previous job was doing research in a genetic engineering lab at a university campus. I was dual majoring in computer science & genetics and got a dual-job doing research and working on a website for the lab’s genomic database. So I am very much a man of science, of critical thinking, and logical reasoning. I believe SEO is a science.

One of the problems though is that obviously many people do not feel the same way. I don’t know the background of everyone who professes to be an SEO expert, but I’m sure many moved from non-technical or unscientific fields. So, if SEO is science, then you have people untrained in scientific principles & methods making observations and reporting their conclusions as facts. Is it any wonder you get so much misinformation out there?

An easy example I want to use is one used in one of my earliest college level science classes (I do not remember which). A researcher made a study that showed a direct relationship between quality of home appliances and intelligence in children. The researched concluded that newer or more expensive home appliances must therefore have an affect on intelligence. To go back even further I recall in high school being presented with the statement “Dog eats meat, man eats meat, man must be a dog.” Both examples show how logical reasoning can break down by attributing coincidence as causation.

In the case of the appliances, the truth is wealthier families tend to both have more highly educated parents and nicer appliances. Higher educated parents also tend to have more intelligent children. That the appliances had a direct affect on intelligence was a faulty conclusion to make.

To show a more relevant example; there are those out there who believe that domain age is an important factor for SEO because they have seen a correlation showing older sites ranking well. In actuality older sites tend to have more content, more links, and if they were all that bad they wouldn’t have lasted so long. Older sites, also, tend to have more experienced webmasters, webmasters who probably know more about making a site friendly and accessible.

So you have people out there who do not have the critical thinking skills to realize that they may be attributing a coincidence as causation when they say older domains provide a direct benefit to SERPs. Not that of course that I can prove they don’t, it isn’t possible to do a proper experience showing such, but I think that if someone saying that it helps unequivocally without mention of it possibly just being a coincidence shows a lack of forethought.

Search Engine Marketing, the use of paid placement to achieve promotional goals, is certainly marketing. However, most easily defined, SEO is the reverse engineering of a computer algorithm based on intuitive observation and limited experimentation. If that isn’t science, I don’t know what is. If I had to pin it down I would say it most resembles meteorology. We don’t control the weather anymore than we control the algorithm, all we can do is study it and do some limited experimentation.

You wouldn’t ask a marketing consultant to reverse engineer a Wii, you shouldn’t ask one to do it for Google’s algorithm. I think that my background in science, and as a result my natural skepticism and love of cold hard factual data, has had a lot to do with my track record of being proved right about controversial SEO topics. Meta Tags, Outgoing Links, Special TLD Bonuses, time has shown me to be right on all of these. I think it’ll do the same for domain age and other more recent theories.

So, what do you think? Is SEO more science or marketing? And if it is one or the other, does the one it is not have any business practicing it?

10 Responses to “Is SEO Science or Marketing?”

  1. Ken Barbalace  Says:

    Chris, you have provided what probably is the easiest to understand explanation of scientific study I have ever seen. I am very impressed and you have tremendously increased my respect in your SEO advice.

    Traditionally SEO is more marketing than science because I think very, very few SEO “experts” actually understand the principles of scientific study let alone apply scientific principles to their SEO research.

    If there are any secrets in SEO it is that scientific principles should be applied to SEO research.

  2. Kyle  Says:

    It is both, however the science side is so very limited. The fundamentals are still all you have to worry about when it comes to proper SEO. Everything is fairly obvious when it comes to SEO. The only reason there is any learning curve is due to misinformation, idiot sites confusing the beginners out there (like your examples of people saying without doubt that domain age effects your rankings). I run into this crap a lot when I deal with old clients who read SEO advice on their own time (which is often bad advice).

    The science part is simply coming up with better ways to code your site, making the content cleaner to read (going from tables to CSS could influence rankings). Science would be coming up with more advanced site structures allowing pagerank to flow properly. However, the science side of SEO doesn’t change much. Once you have the a complete understanding of the core of SEO (easy to learn without misinformation), the rest of the work is coming up with new ways to create content. Which in my opinion falls under marketing.

    Experimentation has really gotten screwed over as well. Ever since the Google dances stopped, making changes and waiting for ranking fluctuations is so hard to monitor. Especially when you throw in “sandbox-esque” wait times when ranking on primary keywords for new sites. By sandbox, i mean one or all of the following: 1) Delays in your site obtaining link weight from external links. 2) Delays in ranking for the primary term your site is targetting. 3) Google’s emphasis on weighing incoming links not only on pagerank value, but on how topic-related they are. ALL of these things are so hard to measure, and make observation almost impossible. Which in the end, makes a better case that SEO is more marketing than science (today). What we do know is if a new site on Blue Widgets obtains 50 great incoming links with anchor text “blue widgets”, you will often see a slow increase in rankings over many many months, without change to content OR additional incoming links added. Unlike in the past, where a new site on Blue Widgets would rank instantly if enough incoming links were obtained. If the past Google ranking methods still applied, SEO would still be a science. Google does not want SEO to be a science, and they continue to get better at limiting our abilities to ‘figure things out’.

    Brainstorming new article ideas, which encourage others to link to you, falls under marketing. In reality, this is now where all the SEO work is. Once you have mastered a proper way to structure your site, the rest of the work falls under content creation. I’d have to say that keyword research, as well as keyword selection in articles would all fall under marketing. This includes selecting keywords or article ideas for ecommerce sites, and even affiliate sites.

    If Google dances still went on…and the “sandbox” effects never started happening, SEO would be a very strong science. Now it is more of a joke, where all debate is based on idiots making outrageous claims with confidence.

  3. Kyle  Says:

    I forgot to add something related to experimentation…

    Remember Google has a habit of taking an old, established website, dropping their ranking entirely on their primary keywords, then deciding 1 or 2 months later for them to rank again (without any changes being done by the webmaster).

  4. Marcel Wagemeesters | SEO consultant  Says:

    I think that SEO is a marketing tool. You need science to use the tool.

  5. Marc  Says:

    I’ve always thought of SEO as being like Alchemy.
    Part science, part art, lots gurus and self appointed authorities. And still plenty of unknowns.

  6. Ken Barbalace  Says:

    The reasons for the unknowns is because of a failure to apply the principles of scientific research to SEO. In regards to Marcel’s comment maybe it would be better stated that SEO is a marketing tool and you need science to improve that tool.

  7. SEO Best Practices  Says:

    SEO is a relatively new field; it’s just emerging as a science. Science is built through a process, time, and principles. So I would say is very young to qualify as a science, it’s definitely an important part of the whole online marketing process.

  8. jhay  Says:

    Science or art as long as it works for set goals of a site owner then it’s good.

  9. Marc Taylor  Says:

    In my opinion SEO will be treated, or, if you wish be judged by the background of the persons working with SEO. Someone with a strong developed scientific mind will have a scientific approach on SEO and an artist will go for the idea that SEO is a kind of art and you need, for example, intuition to reach your goal.
    In fact I think SEO, as many other items in this world, is a mixture of several areas, and results are more driven by common sense rather then by a specific approach.

  10. Medith  Says:

    i must say SEO is a scientific technology very much applicable to make marketing on the web effective..

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