"A generalist is someone who knows less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything, while a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.”
In some fields, neurosurgery for example, nothing short of a specialist will do. There’s a reason we have a Surgeon General and not “surgeon generalists” in the United States—nobody would trust a surgeon who claims, “I’m better than average at cutting into and sewing up pretty much any body part. I even do animals.” Paging Doctor Frankenstein.
In other areas, like SEO, the tables are completely turned. The role of an SEO specialist doesn't feel very specialized some days when I feel like anybody could perform the same SEO tasks I do, because let’s be frank—SEO isn’t brain surgery. Then I remember I’m compensated not for my depth of concentrated training, but for my breadth of skill. I’m trained to nimbly jump from one tactic to the next, seamlessly creating videos for one client one minute, doing conversion optimization for another client the next, and blogging at the end of the day. I've wondered whether they should change my job title to SEO generalist.
True SEO specialists definitely exist. They do only on-site and off-site optimization. They do keyword research. They build links. They generally have very boring jobs—the kind that robots will be doing soon. I get the impression that these “specialists” desperately want to convince the world that the search industry is a specialist niche, when it isn’t. Until we understand this, we’ll see the same topics being rehashed again and again in SEO blog posts and presentations while conferences like SMX Advanced will be “buzzing” with revelatory changes in myopic areas like PageRank sculpting.
I suspect that the SEO pool isn’t deep enough for a bunch of specialists. It's not deep enough to make ultra-specialization practical or profitable (or I’m not seeing how brain surgeon-level SEO expertise translates into markedly improved rankings).
Even while SEO spending is on the rise, SEO-only companies may find it increasingly difficult to make a buck, particularly when every hosting, web design, or marketing company outside the search realm is finding it profitable and easy to expand into the SEO market – GoDaddy.com being the recent scary reminder.
So how do SEO companies take a generalist rather than a specialist approach to SEO? You have to be willing to do more for your clients.
We’re an SEO company, yes, but when an indirect opportunity comes along for our clients to get a traffic or rank boost, we draw on our acquired set of skills that includes advertising, public relations, web design, social media, etc., as if we were a full-service web marketing firm. For instance, my boss just spent time on the phone finding geo-targeted newspapers willing to publish one client’s press release and drive traffic to his site—something you would be hard-pressed to find at an SEO-only company.
This kind of Swiss Army knife approach keeps us creative enough to cater to specific client needs. It’s our version of an above-the-rim milkshake with the cherry on top. As a result, we get happier clients and higher rankings because we build better links and drive more targeted traffic.
My opinion is obviously that generalists are better equipped to accomplish the objectives associated with SEO than their specialist counterparts are, as surprising as that may be. Generalists of the SEO.com breed have enough specialization to get and maintain top search placement for competitive keywords, so what does that say about SEO-only specialists?
Search engine optimizers don’t need the education of a brain surgeon to be the best–just an expanded multi-functional skill set, which ultimately proves to be far more impactful and exciting for the client, the company, and employees like me.