What Makes a Person an SEO?

Updated May 16, 2011

Doc Sheldon

I’d like to run a little crowd-sourcing exercise here, and would really appreciate all the input I can get.

What makes a person an SEO?

Many things have various definitions, depending upon who you ask. SEO is no different in this regard. Does it include only on-page and linkbuilding? Does it also involve social media? What about conversion rate optimization? Or maybe a little light coding?

Ask ten people and you’ll likely get ten slightly different answers.

SEO DocIf we can’t agree upon what tasks are to be considered part of SEO, then I suppose it’s no surprise that we don’t all agree on what justifies a person referring to himself or herself as an SEO, either.

To some, apparently, a person isn’t really an SEO unless that’s their principle means of making a living. Whether independent, working for an agency or shop or laboring as an in-house optimizer, if SEO is their main source of income, then that makes them an SEO.

Whether they’re good at it or not? That’s open to debate, I suppose.

On the other hand, what about an affiliate marketer, pulling in 7 or 8 figures a year, after successfully ranking their own site(s) for competitive terms? Are they an SEO? If they’ve demonstrated a good working knowledge of the techniques and strategies, are their abilities to be discounted simply because they make their money selling widgets made by others?

Hardly seems right, does it? Take it a step further, then. What if they’re simply a mommy blogger, hoping to make enough to pay their hosting bill and maybe pick up the odd theme now and then? And in an effort to accomplish that, they study SEO until they can consistently pull in enough traffic to rival well-established “professional” sites? Is their accomplishment any less simply because they didn’t get to invoice their time for doing so?

If such logic held water, then my engineering degree and MBA would now be meaningless, simply because I make my living as a content strategist. And most of the US Congress could no longer call themselves attorneys, because they make their livings… well, I’m not sure exactly what they do.Thank God they’re not SEOs, at least!

So, I’m curious… what do YOU all think justifies calling a person an SEO? I thought about putting together a poll, but decided that makes it too easy to guide responses. I’d really like to hear your opinions. Please elaborate in the comments.


  1. Eren Mckay says:

    We all know there is no such thing as certification for being an SEO. Therefore this definition can cover a broad spectrum depending on the different perspectives.
    Being an SEO is not as simple as many would like to say it is. If it were so simple, then Google wouldn`t be hiring PHDs to be on their team. Mathematical algorithms are not simple… at least they weren`t last time I checked 😉
    Wikipedia defines Search Engine Optimization as : “the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results. ”
    There`s a lot more to the definition but that is the summary. There are a lot of factors that influence rankings (well over 200). Google is constantly changing and updating their algorithm to give the best results to searchers. So in order for someone to be able to rank a page and keep it ranked over time for certain keywords, they need to possess a certain amount of understanding on those 200 plus factors. (At least the ones that hold more weight.) If someone has enough knowledge to be able to do things like; keyword research, competition analysis, on page optimization, basic content management, and also content strategy, they are equipped to rank a page for keywords.
    So if they truly have that knowledge base, they can call themselves SEOs. Let`s take a clear example of someone who does not self proclaim to be an SEO and I know for a fact that she is: Lynn Terry. She has been doing SEO for her own self for over 10 years and makes a pretty big income from it. She is a super affiliate and I consider her an SEO also – although she does not do it for other people, she is fully capable of it (since she does it for herself).
    If someone has the SEO knowledge it`s just a matter of having the resources to be able to transform that knowledge into cash. Anyways, there are also the SEOs who choose not to obey Google`s Webmaster guidelines. These are informally known as blackhats.. but that`s a whole new blog post – LOL.
    Great discussion Doc – thanks for opening it up!
    All the best,

  2. Doc Sheldon says:

    As you can probably tell by my post, I agree with your definition. To me, it’s results that count. Anyone can say “I am”, or “He isn’t”… proof’s in the pudding. 😉

  3. Adam Humphreys says:

    An SEO is someone who actively practices search engine optimization by increasing engagement for targeted queries with both search engines and people resulting in an increased bottom line. This means actively tweaking on-page, and off-page content then monitoring the results with advanced web analytics to further enhance outcome.

    A professional SEO is someone who is well versed in at least the fundamental mechanics of how search operates and code so that they can increase KPI (Key Performance Indicator) outcome. Any professional SEO will tell you it’s a 24/7/365 a year job to continue learning.

    An SEO Expert by definition is a person who has spent a minimum of 10,000 hours at something. So a minimum of 5 years full time applied towards SEO is a prerequisite before one can even consider calling them self an SEO Expert. By experience most SEO Experts spend around 80/20% of their time working/learning and in some cases even higher. Any SEO Expert will tell you that they never stop learning and the ones that think they know it all are to be avoided because Google has openly stated they change their algorithm 3-4 times per day.

  4. Linda Stacy says:

    The succinct answer:
    I am not one. When I have an SEO question I ask Eren Mckay. She either knows the answer or knows how to find the answer. She is an SEO. 🙂

    But I also agree with both of you – results define who is and who isn’t. I suppose theoretically a non-SEO could “accidentally” get good results for a few keywords. But sustainable, good results require tons of know-how and work. And I don’t think money or job description are requirements to be called an SEO.

  5. John S. Britsios says:

    I recently twitted that the terrorists of the internet are Hackers and SEOs. From my observations I can only tell that SEO as a profession has lost its meaning and reputation because the majority SEOs are wannabes, scammers or sort of search engine news journalists reporting as breaking news, news of the last century, or they are reading what some so called SEOs publish and they simply rewrite them to promote themselves.

    my advise is: Don’t waste your time trying to figure out what an SEO is. Sad, but those are the facts.

  6. Doc Sheldon says:

    While I agree with parts of your comment, I think some of your points are very subjective, Adam. Who set, for example, the 10,000 hour threshold? Presumably, this is your opinion, and that’s fine, but I would submit that while it may have taken you five years to get to a certain point of expertise, there’s someone else out there that might need six, and yet another that might need only four. At the same time, it might take someone eight years and another only two. 😉

    Thanks for chiming in. Don’t be a stranger!

  7. Doc Sheldon says:

    Hi, Linda-

    Eren is precisely the sort of person I am talking about. She doesn’t perform SEO services for others, and might be considered a “mommy-blogger”, yet she has been actively studying and practicing SEO on her own sites for some time, with considerable success.
    In my mind, results determine the appropriateness of the title, “SEO”, and by that measure, she’s earned it.

    Thanks for the comment. I hope you’ll stick around.

  8. Doc Sheldon says:

    While I agree with you about hackers being terrorists, I definitely don’t think SEOs, as a group, fall anywhere close to that category, John.

    I think there are some that are charlatans, yes. The same can be said of some priests, policeman, lawyers and politicians (okay, MOST lawyers and politicians). But the SEO community, just like those other groups, also has a share of conscientious professionals that follow a high standard of ethics and possess a good working knowledge of their trade. Let’s not lump them all into the lowest common denominator, just because of some. 😉

    You didn’t really answer the question, though, of what you think justifies calling someone an SEO. Surely not just “terrorist”. 😉

    Thanks for commenting… I’d love to hear your definition.

  9. Doc Sheldon says:

    BTW, I realize that 98% of the lawyers and politicians give the rest a bad name. Remember… my wife is a lawyer. 😉

  10. John S. Britsios says:

    Well the answer is simple:

    For example there are brilliant photographers who make high quality photographs for a hobby, and there are photographers doing the same work for living.

    That said, both are photographers. Does that make sense?

    About your statement: “I think there are some that are charlatans, yes.”

    No Doc, they are not a few. That is the majority! And I do not understand where do you get your statistics from. My statistics are based on the fact that in my 5 years career, I only had 2 customers who were not burned by such irresponsible and unethical people calling themselves SEO.

    Google warns:

    “Deciding to hire an SEO is a big decision that can potentially improve your site and save time, but you can also risk damage to your site and reputation. Make sure to research the potential advantages as well as the damage that an irresponsible SEO can do to your site.”

    Clear enough?

  11. John S. Britsios says:

    Could it be that you are contradicting now?

    So again: I also realize that 98% of the SEOs give the rest a bad name. Remember… I am also an SEO man. 🙂

  12. Doc Sheldon says:

    Okay, from your photographer analogy, I see that we agree on the essence of being an SEO.

    Sadly, you are probably right about the majority being what some call craphats. We can only hope that they’ll eventually sink to the bottom of the pool, where they belong.

    The only statistics I quoted were those regarding lawyers and politicians, which is an old joke (but one that has a lot of truth in it). 😉

  13. Doc Sheldon says:

    “Could it be that you are contradicting now?”

    Nope. Just quoting an old joke. 😉

  14. teatree says:

    Some of the best SEOs never sell their services, nor speak about what they know – because they make far more money just implementing their knowledge on their own sites.

    In fact, if you gain an insight into how the search algos work, the easiest way to trash that knowledge is to talk about it.

    As soon as you talk, there is a rush of people who try the technique out. Once everyone is doing it one of two things happen: a) the search engine decides to take corrective action by changing their algo or b) so many people practice implement the technique, that your advantage is competed away. And you can always count on some doofus abusing the technique in order to make it worthless for everyone else.

    People should guard their hard-won SEO insights like Coke guards it’s formula.

  15. Doc Sheldon says:

    I can see that being valid advice if a person is practicing shady techniques (I don’t like Hat categories much 😉 ) but if they’re not taking a walk on the wild side, then there’s really nothing to hide, is there?
    I belong to the SEO Dojo, and we share a lot in there, which has given a lot of us an opportunity to learn much faster than normal. Given the choice, I think I prefer that.
    Thanks a lot for the comment, TeaTree… I hope you stop by again.

  16. John S. Britsios says:

    Doc, it not only when someone is practicing shady techniques. You should also consider the ones who are sharing techniques that do not work in long terms or at all.

    As you know, I was a member at SEO Dojo, and my experiences there weren’t as positive as yours. I am sure you know exactly what I am talking about.

  17. khareen says:

    I think being an SEO person is not just you know how to make a website or making code or running a program but also have an ability to catch other peoples attention, you can make easily a website but it’s hard to know what the people thinking and their wants.
    That is all I can say…
    Thanks for the post I like reading it.

  18. Doc Sheldon says:

    True about it not just being about shady techniques, John. There are plenty of wannabes out there using outdated or downright wrong techniques, for sure!

  19. Doc Sheldon says:

    But SEO isn’t about web development or marketing, Khareen, although there are certainly elements of them in a successful SEO campaign. It’s about making a page more relevant to a specific search, while keeping the content easily digestible by the users.

  20. Robert Nelson says:

    Another vote for the person I also turn to for SEO and indeed, all kinds of help, is Eren Mckay. As proof, there is her great reply( &/or comment) to this post by DocSheldon. Kudos!

  21. Doc Sheldon says:

    Hi, Robert- Thanks for making yourself heard. Eren is, indeed, one of those that enjoys helping others. And it seems she’s always testing some SEO aspect or another, to share with her friends.

    Don’t be a stranger! Stop back by anytime.

  22. For me – I have to see proof that what you are telling me as an SEO will work. You have done it and got a positive result and if I do what you did I will get the same positive result.

    As said before – “the proof is in the pudding” and furthermore – just because I’m wearing an apron, doesn’t mean I am the cook.

    I was lucky enough to have been introduced to SEO by Roy Montero and Eren Mckay at a time when I was so new to this world in the cloud and didn’t have the foggiest clue! They are my yard stick and certainly first point of reference for anything SEO.

  23. Unfortunately the Internet does make is very easy for charlatans and the misinformed to prey upon the unsuspecting. However, I still would rather not paint an entire industry with the same brush based on the fact that many charlatans exist in it. Would you call all email marketers spammers because there seem to be many who are?

    But then again, I also include people who aren’t charging for services in my definition of what is an SEO. I’m surmising that you don’t, John. So perhaps that makes me a little more optimistic that there are more “good” SEOs than “bad.”

    And finally, you say only 2 of your customers in the past 5 years have not been burned by other SEOs. How many of your customers used other services before they came to you? I would think many of your customers are using SEO services for the first time. Plus you aren’t getting inquiries from people who are happy with another SEO service they are using.

    Oops… thought of one more question, so that last paragraph wasn’t really “finally.” 😉

    How much responsibility do you think consumers have in contributing to the problem? I don’t blame the victims, but wouldn’t doing a little more better due diligence when hiring an SEO make it more difficult for the charlatans to take advantage of people?

  24. Doc Sheldon says:

    Hi, Elise. Thanks for commenting. I certainly agree with the proof being in the pudding. Many call themselves SEO, some actually are. 😉 My only reservation would be regarding the assumption that because something worked for me, that it would then also work for you. Maybe, maybe not. As I’m sure you know, many different outcomes can be reached through the same techniques, depending upon the other variables.
    Please don’t be a stranger… stop by more often.