Here are some of the main reasons why I find it’s such a difficult area to deal with.

The word

SEO, also known as ‘search engine optimisation‘: these three words / letters used to be fairly respectable but now they look a little old and jarring.

Before even getting to the negative connotations, the words don’t really mean that much any more because the critical optimisation isn’t wholly about search engines: it’s hard to do search engine optimisation without also doing social media marketing, content marketing, etc.

Search engines are just a part of that process so SEO has become a side effect of what it claims to be as a whole.

‘Optimisation’ is also a pretentious and unclear word, although it has stuck over time. People who don’t work in the area (e.g. cousins, distant friends) generally look either amazed, confused or embarrassed when you mention it. A better alternative would probably be something like ‘development’ or maybe just the unpretentious ‘boosting’. 

Now to the negative connotations, of which there are many, for sure, caused by the bad old days of buying backlinks, fluffy SEO waffling, hollow guest posts, awkward SEO advice in meetings, etc. And in turn these associations have led to prejudice towards the word and anyone using it in a related industry. That’s frustrating.

It’s too late to change the word now, though, which isn’t so bad as the term’s still meaningful and serviceable. It just means that if you choose to use it, you generally have to make excuses to justify its use, often involving an adjective: ‘white hat SEO’, ‘modern SEO’, ‘integrated SEO’ etc.


In 2013, SEOMoz felt the need to drop the SEO to become plain-old Moz, while many former SEO agencies have moved away from the term. 


2. SEO gobbledygook

If you work in digital marketing then you’ll undoubtedly have had to sit through some technical SEO gobbledygook. I’ve rattled off entire speeches of the stuff that listeners have agreed with, when I might as well have been talking about fireplace inserts.

In some ways the simplification of tools, CMSs and algorithms has led to the demise of this vague ranting because a lot of it isn’t so important anymore.

But in other ways it has made things worse because some SEOs – in a sort of stubborn show of defiance at the trajectory of things – have decided to get even more buried in the details while stopping just short of getting a web developer job.

And even then there’s a catch 22, because regardless of any of the above, while SEO is becoming harder to define, a new style of generalist SEO gobbledygook has emerged, focused on convergence and content marketing rather than gibberish about Google.

Which brings me onto the next point…

3. Convergence

SEO has become a bit like a hot sauce, nicely supplementing a main ‘dish’ but not so sensible on its own unless you’re a real enthusiast.

I’ve alluded to this analogy a bit already: content marketing, social signals etc. have become so conjoined with SEO that it’s become a bit awkward to precisely define what SEO is, if not a supplementary part of a process. You’ve still got the SEO stalwarts: meta data, technical site audits, structured data, site migrations etc.…

But it’s frustrating to deal in a commodity that’s kind of ineffective on its own without a lot of collaboration. And if you disagree, thinking that SEO can predominantly be about going through a site and picking out problems like PageRank flow, still, then your work opportunities could become pretty limited.


There are plenty of diagrams that illustrate what SEO works alongside online, like this example from another 2012 Econsultancy post on The Convergence of SEO, Design & Content.

4. Personalisation

Personalisations are extremely frustrating, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you or a client wants to quickly check the rankings of a given search term then the website ranking of the site will probably be exaggerated because your interest in the site, naturally, logically, means that you should have already visited the site quite a few times and propelled it into an excellent position.

This can be deflating (as well as frustrating) as you momentarily punch the air thinking that your client’s site is in 1st position for a prestige search term.

Reporting’s more difficult too, due to personalisation, and while there are some easy ways to get round the issue, the more it happens, and the more people this personalisation affects, then the more it brings into question the whole concept of ranking for a given search term. Really? For whom exactly? 


The rankings of a company that I work with, The Chalet Company, have been upped because I’ve visited the site a few times.

The unbiased position for this search is usually nine to ten but for me it’s in top position unless I remove the personalisation.

5. Link building, baiting etc.

I’ve covered why I think the word SEO is frustrating earlier but there are some even more annoying words in the underlying SEO lexicon. Two of the worst are linkbuilding and linkbait.

Both words are still used but both should be moribund because they represent the irritating end of what SEO was and sometimes is.

And even if you still feel link building’s a useful term I’d argue that these words at least patronising and tunnel-visioned: why would anyone create content of any value just to get (build, bait) links?

6. Google

Yep, guess what, one of the most frustrating things about SEO is Google itself. The life force of SEO, the search engine that’s symbiotic with the whole idea of search engine optimisation, is also engaged in a kind of passive-aggressive war with it.

This is frustrating because while some of Google’s changes are justified to reduce SPAM others appear to be petulant, pyrrhic victories. The not provided issue is just one example and there will be unnecessary changes in the future, no doubt.

Google’s naming conventions for its endless updates are also frustrating: it just adds a layer of mammals and birds to an area that’s already difficult to talk about.


This, according to not provided count, is how many search terms are obscured under the sweeping ‘not provided’ alias, within Google Analytics.

So what?

This article might read like I think SEO is dead. Wrong! As long as there are search engines then SEO is here to stay. There will be no demise of SEO as long as search engines exist. That’s just logic. So rather than being dead or even dying, SEO is probably one of the most persistent, resilient and immortal parts of marketing that there is.

But while SEO isn’t dead, it’s definitely frustrating and it’s only going to get more so.

And while we admit it, discuss it, and stop trying to murder it, then we’re at least trying to redress some of those issues in an uncomfortable area that should remaining standing for a long, long time. 

Does anyone else find SEO frustrating?