Beyond SEO: Inbound Marketing in a Post-Google World


There’s been a lot of kerfuffle in the industry in the last year or two over whether or not we should still call what we do “SEO” A lot of people (myself included) have settled on the term inbound marketing as a useful catch-all way to talk about the increasingly diverse set of tactics web marketers are using to bring customers to their sites.  Rand Fishkin made a handy, only slightly overwhelming little graphic about it:

From Inbound Marketing is Taking Off by Rand Fishkin

Why not just SEO?

One of the main arguments I’ve heard against calling it inbound marketing (other than people who just plain don’t like the term) is that SEO is already a thing.  If we’re still spending our time optimizing a website for maximum organic traffic from search engines, why do we need a new term?

For many of us, SEO is an important part of what we do nowadays but it’s still only part of what we’re tasked with.  A modern website marketer’s main task is far more likely to be “drive as much traffic to the website as possible from non-advertising sources, then get that traffic to convert better” than it is specifically “get more and better traffic from search engines.”  Some of us are lucky enough to work on teams of people getting the dizzying array of inbound marketing tasks done; for many web marketers, it’s all up to us.

Where the Boys (and Girls) Are

When I started doing SEO, the main three sources of unpaid traffic were organic search, direct traffic, and referrals.  Then social media became a bigger and bigger source of traffic, until it no longer really made sense to treat it as referral traffic.  Now all kinds of websites are adding a social element to capture people’s interests, eyeballs and dollars. Sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as more niche offerings like Pinterest and Instagram, are providing whole platforms for users to consume content – all without visiting search engines or your website.

How big a deal is this?  According to ComScore, Facebook has the 4th highest uniques in the U.S. – and is the number one non-search-engine property.  Facebook is also second only to YouTube in online video content viewing. Pinterest has over 10 million users. Instagram has over 30 million.

We need to expand beyond search engine optimization because search engines aren’t the only way people discover or consume content anymore.

For informational queries (where is it, what is it, where can I buy one, what’s that movie where John Candy eats the giant steak) search engines may still reign supreme.  But social content portals provide a huge benefit for top-of-funnel marketing: getting your products/services/content in front of users who don’t already know about them.  Your content and brand is now discoverable and consumable on social platforms, which means having an online marketing strategy that includes content on 3rd-party sites is more and more crucial.

Inbound Marketing is Good for SEO

Online branding is of increased importance in SEO, too.  We’ve all seen Google playing with making brands more important in SERPs by showing multiple results for one site for some queries. The rise of personalized search means that engaging users on social platforms increases the likelihood that you’ll show up in their/their friends’ SERPs, too.  Expanding our digital marketing efforts to include building brand awareness on third-party sites is a rising tide that raises all boats.

The Next Steps

Content marketing is, of course, a huge part of SEO and of inbound marketing.  As online marketers, we need to start thinking about content consumption on third-party sites and working it in to our existing content marketing strategies.  This includes:

  • Adding relevant sharing buttons to our on-site content
  • Creating unique content for different channels, such as separate videos for Google+ and for YouTube or creating unique images we only share on Pinterest
  • Treating relevant content-sharing networks as new social media platforms and building a presence to engage users directly on them
  • Instituting brand monitoring and sentiment analysis to track our branding efforts off-site

It’s a bold new world out there.  I, for one, am excited at the prospect of inbound channels that don’t rhyme with “moogle.”

Your Comments

  • Paige C. Willey

    I know so many people who cringe when they hear the term “inbound marketing,” yet as SEOs, we are asked to do so many things beyond what we used to do. CRO, ORM, social strategy. We certainly can’t ignore these other channels and need to expand our skill set to provide value to clients.

  • Jill Tooley

    “Only slightly overwhelming” is right, Ruth! Rand’s graphic is helpful because it clearly outlines the distinction between inbound marketing and all of those other marketing-related buzzwords we hear every day. Finding a balance between all of the possibilities is the real trick. I think it’s especially overwhelming to people who maybe just learned how to use SEO, because they’re not only getting used to that process but they’re also being forced to play catch-up on all of these other terms they may not have known before.

    P.S. +10 imaginary points for the last sentence of your post! I’m excited about that prospect as well.

    • Ruth Burr

      Thanks, Jill – I agree, learning SEO can be totally overwhelming, but so worth it in the long run! (I almost had a typo there saying “in the long fun” – also true). Hooray imaginary points!

  • Leo

    Nicely done. This post explains the changing face of Internet marketing in a simple, straightforward, yet surprisingly refreshing way.

    Question for you: Philosophically, I agree with your point that we should be creating unique content for each third-party platform. However, I still see some of the “big boys” basically reposting the same stuff on all of their networks. And to be honest, it seems to be working pretty well for some of them. How do you feel about this?

    • Ruth Burr

      My grandma always used to say “you can only do what you can do,” so I would say if you’ve got a resource restriction that makes it difficult to create that much content, just do the best you can.

      In terms of what the “big boys” do – a bigger, more-established brand can afford to be less best-practices-y because they’ve already got so much brand equity. A lot of big brands aren’t harnessing the full power of third-party networks because they don’t really need to; they’re using them more to maintain rather than to build their brand equity and audience. I think the more focused you are on growth the more important it is to be creating platform-specific campaigns.

  • Matthew Egan

    I was on an international conference call early this morning and one of the clients had taken about a twenty page PDF that we’d just gone through and asked me what the “one thing” they needed to do from our recommendations right away.

    I couldn’t let me chuckle be heard on the call, but I did smile. One thing?!

    I love this post, because it breaks out where we’re at today. SEOs are trying to identify themselves in a world no longer driven by sheer non-branded traffic hits alone. It’s a really sexy time, and I like the dialogue on all of it.

    I especially like that Inbound Marketing, as a header, is an oxymoron for SEOs as if we dump “SEO” for “Inbound Marketing” wouldn’t that mean it had search volume to back up the change? As long as customers search using “SEO”, we’re going to be wearing that label. Hopefully that’ll change as more people learn about Inbound Marketing and what sets it apart.

    LOVED the post Ruth, thank you for writing it!

  • David Hitt

    I’ve never been fond of the term “SEO” either as I always thought it defined a very limited set of onpage and offpage optimization tasks. But I’m not that comfortable with “inbound marketing” as a buzzword either. Why do we need the “inbound” qualifier? Isn’t all marketing, by definition, supposed to be “inbound” in nature? If you’re not driving consumers to your brand, you’re not a good marketer.

    How about just the good ole fashioned “internet marketing” phrase as a descriptor of what we do? It gives us the one differentiating qualifier we really need (ie, that this sort of marketing is about the internet) but doesn’t saddle the phrase with an unnecessary, implied-by-definition, adjective…

    • Ruth Burr

      The problem, as I see it, with using just “internet marketing” is that it doesn’t make a distinction between free vs. paid tactics. SEO is part of a very different overlapping skill set than PPC is.

  • Danny Sullivan

    SEO was never a term for covering all types of internet marketing.

    The kerfuffle you’re hearing is because you have people who do SEO, are happy with SEO and don’t want to think they have to do other things.

    And that’s fine. They don’t. An SEO doesn’t have to also become a video marketing expert, and email marketing expert and so on. They don’t have to be an “inbound marketer,” if they don’t want.

    In fact, it’s difficult for anyone to do all the things that inbound — which is really just a new term for “earned media” — covers.

    But a smart SEO will understand more than what SEO covers, may do more depending on the time they have, the project they’re involved with or importantly, work with others so that SEO is supported by both other inbound marketing activities as well as paid media activities.

    In short:
    Marketing > Inbound Marketing > SEO

    No one does all that marketing encompasses, nor can they. But they can excel at the type of marketing they specialize in, whatever that is, and ensure that they are working with other types to get the best results.

    • Ruth Burr

      Very well said, Danny. I couldn’t agree more.

    • aaron wall

      It’s also that some of the people pushing “inbound marketing” have a pattern of taking old concepts & giving them new names. And then some of these people as a step 2 try to slag off SEO in order to some how pretend what they are doing is somehow better than SEO & differentiated from SEO.

      It is easier to change the words used to describe something than it is to create new strategies.

      • Ruth Burr

        I think that both are important – if nothing else, I would like for it to be better understood outside of our industry echo chamber that SEO can be just part of a larger online strategy. I use inbound/outbound marketing as the differentiators because that’s what makes sense to me, how I think about it.

        There are plenty of people (myself included), who just do SEO and nothing else. It’s still a vital part of every website’s success. My point is not to slag off on SEO so much as it is to point out that there are other ways besides search that people are using to find and engage with our content, and it’s important to acknowledge and leverage that.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      No one does all that marketing encompasses, nor can they. But they can excel at the type of marketing they specialize in, whatever that is, and ensure that they are working with other types to get the best results.


  • Nick Stamoulis

    What is comes down to is that SEO is no longer a technical function and it absolutely cannot operate in a silo. If you don’t have a content or social strategy as part of an SEO campaign, the SEO campaign will be very limited and have limited results.

  • Jeff Bronson

    The role of an “SEO” is indeed rapidly changing, and I think for the better.
    SEO as a whole, in it’s purest sense has become a commodity which is sometimes sold to the lowest bidder. A limited set of functions to be performed.

    Inbound Marketing on the other hand (like the name or not), cannot be reduced to a color by number playbook of predefined template tasks to apply over and over.

    I like that it takes more effort, more creativity, more focus on branding and conversion, to do Inbound Marketing.

    While I’ve been doing this over 8 years, I can see how the newbie will have a really rough time adjusting to all of the recent industry changes, especially over the last couple of years.