SEO Generalist or Specialist – Which is better?


Last week i read the post: The New SEO Process (Quit Being Kanye).  This post reminded me of the old post by Rand: The Responsibilities of SEO Have Been Upgraded.  Both of the posts talk about how different elements of inbound marketing impact SEO and the new roles of SEOs. These are great posts no doubt but somehow they give the impression that:

1. To be a good SEO, you need to be a jack of all trades

2. SEO is purely business development

3. Just because something may impact web rankings you must develop expertise in it.

I normally don’t write rebuttals. But since last year or so, there has been a trend going on to become a generalist for all the wrong reasons in the name of inbound marketing. The theory of being a marketing generalist has done nothing much on a positive side but has disrupted the normal and actual SEO process and has morbidly increased the expectations of our clients.

When a newspaper put your ad on page 1 it doesn’t promise you any sales or leads. When a billboard company put your ads at all prominent locations throughout your city, it doesn’t promise you any sales or leads. Yet somehow SEO is expected to generate sales and leads from page 1 rankings.


Being a generalist is not bad but being a specialist is not for insects either.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein


The SEO equivalent of above quote:

To do effective SEO now, at the very least, you have to be a digital strategist, social media marketer, a content strategist, conversion rate optimizer, and a PR specialist. 


Are you working your ass off to be: a social media marketer, a web analyst, CRO specialist, PR specialist, a programmer and a Jack of all trades? You really don’t need to be that Jack. Here is why:


You are losing money

Your client wanted to hire you as a SEO but you offered yourself as a business partner (in the name of inbound marketing) who will hold himself responsible for client’s sales ability on his own free will but yet charge a monthly retainer instead of partnership in profits.


You are disappointing your client

Your client wanted to increase the relevant organic traffic (traffic which has the potential to buy) via search engines to his website. But you offered him much more (& that too at no extra cost): social media marketing, conversion rate optimization, reputation management…. all in the name of SEO. Consequently you have raised his expectations. With so many marketing channels being leveraged, he is sure to earn a lot of money. Isn’t he?

Here is what can happen ->> You brought your client to page 1 of Google, you did all the A/B testing and PR gimmick, still nothing much happened sales wise and your client screamed ‘ripped off’. May be the client’ product has no market value to begin with. But you overlooked all these factors and sold yourself as a business partner all in the name of SEO.


You are working in a vacuum

When you work as someone who provides holistic solutions (in the name of inbound marketing) to develop a successful business, you are overlooking important aspects of your client’s business:

1. Client’s reputation in the market

2. Client’s market value

3. Client’s after sales service

4. Products pricing & range

5. Products’ quality and perceived value

6. Market saturation


All these factors are beyond the control of a SEO but yet we tend to come up with an inbound strategy which will make our client’s business a success. 90% of online businesses fail each year just because they overlook the aforesaid factors. Are you the SEO of a business which is bound to fail?  You don’t need to make yourself responsible for client’s sales ability unless this is what your client wants and this is why you are hired.


You are getting away from the actual SEO process

SEO is all about making websites SEO friendly, doing keyword research, developing contents around the target keywords and building links to rank high. When I say ‘all about’ I never mean that this process is easy or small. Fixing crawling and indexing issues esp. of a big website has never been an easy task. Similarly keyword research and link building are specialized fields on their own. Companies need people who are specialized in link building for a particular niche let alone SEO.


You are narrowing the definition of SEO

By saying SEO includes conversion rate optimization, social media marketing, coding, reputation management…… are narrowing the definition of SEO.  SEO has never been easy or quick fix process even without these marketing channels.


You are not building synergy but disrupting most digital strategies

Being a jack of all trades, you know bits of everything (at least this is what implied to many, including your client/employer) but since you are not an expert your suggestions may not always align with the recommendations and strategies of the subject matter experts (PR Specialist, offline marketing managers, product managers). This may not work in your favor if you are not the only marketer in your company. So think about it.


You are stepping foot on other people’s toes

As you expand your knowledge in other areas (like web design, coding, and Social media) which impact SEO in some way, your eagerness to give suggestions to subject matter experts (web designers, coders, community managers) will increase by many folds. These suggestions (which are often SEO biased & look at only one aspect) may not always be well received by others.


You tend to be a control freak

Do you believe that as an SEO you should be given the control of social media campaigns, content development , PR campaigns and even product development because no one understand search better than you? If you do, then you are on your way to be a control freak. Just because something is impacting SEO, you should automatically get control of it is a wrong mindset, at least as long as you work in a company which is run by 2 or more people and other people are not SEO.


You are spreading yourself too thin

Do you constantly find yourself  saying “I am not learning enough”. Reading dozens of blog posts every day on every topic related to internet marketing won’t make you a better SEO. Continuously streamlining your SEO process will.


You are losing Job Opportunities

Being a ‘jack of all trades’ rarely goes well in resume shortlisting. “I know Social media marketing, conversion rate optimization, web analytics, link building, coding and even PPC really well”.  But can someone believe you? To prove your worth, you need to talk first. For that you must be shortlised in the first place. Being a jack means you know a bit of everthing but are not an expert in any field. Do companies really look out for generalist? No. They don’t want a SEO who claims to code a website better than their developer or run a social media campaign better than their community manager. They want to hire a person who is specialized in SEO.


Does that mean I should stop learning anything not directly related to SEO

No. Learn everything which impact SEO but only to the point where it helps in communicating with other specialist and help you in looking at the bigger picture. For example learn coding but don’t get carried away and try to become a pro coder. The secondary knowledge that you are picking up in the form of articles on conversion rate optimization, social media marketing, and web analytics will help you in your SEO but you will also reach a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly. For example learning to code will help you in your technical SEO but only to an extent, after certain point you are just wasting your time if coding is not your bread and butter.

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  • @jimwatson9

    Some great points there..

  • Mike G

    “Reading dozens of blog posts every day on every topic related to internet marketing won’t make you a better SEO. Continuously streamlining your SEO process will.”

    BINGO. So many SEOs fall into the trap of reading every single article they can find and then regurgitating – oops I meant ‘curating’ – the same news on Twitter and Google+ until they are blue in the face – instead of actually doing some hands-on work or testing a new theory.

  • Singapore Seo Services

    I am on your blog for the first time Himanshu, and I think you have great talent. I do think that SEOs don’t make themselves appear as business partner in the eyes of clients. I have done this mistake in the past, and your post made me realize that.

    Thanks. Keep it up!

  • Ben Johnston

    Nice post.

    I think the main issue I have with this whole “new process” trend that’s been doing the rounds recently is that it’s not really new at all. Working in SEO has always required a degree of adaptability and since a lot of people fall into the industry, there is generally a cross-over skillset. Using myself as an example, I have a copywriting background, I’m happy to wear the hat of SEO and content strategist/ copywriter.

    What I’m not happy to do – and this is where I’m in complete agreement with your post – is try to head up my clients’ marketing department. Give me a site, I’ll rank it. Give me an idea about your market and I’ll find the right keywords. Tell me what your KPI’s are and I’ll track them and I’m more than happy to liaise with other agencies to integrate SEO with other marketing activities, but I’m not telling them how to do their job.

  • Jose Lopez

    I agree, too many SEO work so hard to sell their services that they hype up the expectations to their clients just to land that job. I see too many SEO firms promising 1st page on Google. When these firm can’t deliver on their promises, it make all of us look bad. Stop this madness! I also blame those client expecting the best SEO in the world on a $500 budget.

  • meenakshi

    It is true that some of the SEOs do that.But having special skill in one of the areas will be better for SEO efforts.I agree with Ben Johnston’s view.

  • Anja Gerz

    Thx for the enlightment, I often wonder “how to become an SEO specialist when so many outside factors seem relevant”. Always a new challence

  • R

    Thanks a lot Himanshu..Totally agree with all your points…personally face these conundrums everyday at work especially the “not learning enough” bit.

  • Web Design

    Working in SEO has always required a degree of adaptability and since a lot of people fall into the industry,I have a copywriting background, I’m happy to wear the hat of SEO and content strategist/ copywriter.
    there is generally a cross-over skillset. Using myself as an example,