How To Cure The Fear Of Specialization In SEO

June 9, 2014

It was not long ago that link building specialists were the most lethal hired gun in SEO. As demand soared, Twitter bios classified their owners as Digital Partnership Builders, Online Authority Publicists and (cringe) Link Building Gurus.

But SEO is not always kind to specialists. The era of link building (blue) specialists is perhaps fading, visible in search volume report from Google Trends, as content marketing (red) becomes the skill du jour.

link building v. content marketing specialty trends

Is that the blessing and curse of any specialist? If so, a boom and bust career is not the relationship that most professionals would like in this industry.

Specialist Fear or Phobia?

It’s not just SEO. The entire digital marketing community is suffering from a fear of specialization (FOS), and not unjustly. Many cases have been made for the marketing generalist. Former Forbes writer Meghan Casserly makes a compelling argument that “the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists… because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts.”

The point is clear and unequivocal. Extinction looms for those who can’t adapt in SEO, where external factors like algorithms, penalties and content trends determine the course of natural selection.

But at what cost do we shy from specialization in favor of self-preservation?

Rand Fishkin, co-founder and thought-leader at Moz, has been vocal about the value of T-shaped marketers, so I asked him to join us here.

I certainly still believe it’s critical to be a specialist in your field. Specialization creates differentiation, branding, and provides unique value. Our field has so much nuance and so much complexity that we desperately need specialists to help dig deep in areas of potential opportunity and undiscovered knowledge.

There’s a lot to like in that statement:

  1. Specialists have a powerful unique value proposition that a broader marketer might not. “I am the best in the organization (or even industry) at XYZ.”
  2. The argument can be made that digital marketing is too broad to do it all. Even SEO has distinct areas of interest: local, international, technical, content, promotion.
  3. There is an idealist component. We need passionate experts to answer the unanswered and advance the industry.

The goal of this article, however, is not to convince professionals to specialize. Instead, I want to focus on how one specializes in a way that minimizes threats and maximizes opportunities.

Types of Specialization

We will cover three types of specialization: by skill, industry and goal/outcome:

Skill specialization is the most common and, perhaps, easiest to understand. In SEO, skill specialists focus on one thing within the field:

  • Technical SEO
  • Content Optimization
  • Link Building

Like we saw with our Link Building Guru earlier, this is risky because a shift in online marketing can change your career overnight. Just ask a guest post specialist (if you can still find one).

The risk is not without the potential for a reward. Here are several appealing perks to skill specialization.

  1. Higher wages
  2. Industry recognition as a thought leader
  3. Rapid career advancement during boom periods
  4. Acquisition: there are some familiar specialists on Moz’s roster

Alyssa Gregory, who wrote a post comparing specialists and generalists, has a recipe for smart digital marketing specialization. I asked her to walk us through it.

It is important to have a comprehensive understanding of all of the various components of digital marketing, and make a consistent effort to remain current with changes as they occur. Then, armed with that foundational knowledge, digital practitioners can zero in on one or two specific skills to build their expertise. Since so much of digital marketing is interconnected, the most successful professionals become sponges who absorb everything possible about [other media] and are then able to use that knowledge to build their expertise.

That seems to be a theme from most specializing advice: be better than everyone else at something, but not at the cost of losing touch with broader marketing ideas, channels and strategies.

Industry specialization carves out a client niche within the broader field. We see this a lot with agencies that focus on SEO for attorneys or startups or universities. Your value as a consultant or employee is based on knowledge of the industry rather than a specific skill.

Greg Gifford works for an automotive software provider and agency called AutoRevo. Since the larger company services auto dealers, his SEO division does, too.

If an agency has 50 clients and only one or two of them is an auto dealer, do you really think they understand the industry? All we do is auto so not only do we thoroughly understand automotive SEO, we have an incredible depth of understanding about the industry. We don’t have to spend hours chatting with a new dealer to understand how the car biz works – we already know! We speak the lingo and actually understand how dealerships work. 

That sounds like a sales dream: “We know the industry as well as you do, there is no one that knows auto SEO like we do, and that efficiency saves you money.” I almost feel sorry for the general SEO agency competing for that project. They would not stand a chance.

What industrial specialization offers in stability and competitive advantage, however, it could lack in flexibility. If you get burnt out working in one vertical, it can be a challenge to change or diversify. That is likely why AutoRevo also specializes in local SEO. Like Alyssa Gregory said earlier, it is best to specialize in 1-2 things and be proficient in the rest.

Goal specialization focuses more on the desired outcome than the channels that lead to it. That might mean:

  • Online leads for service providers
  • Ad impressions for publishers
  • Visits for phone calls for local retailers
  • Transactions for e-commerce sites

Goal specialists would argue that the other two specialization groups are too narrow. Skills are but a piece of the digital marketing puzzle and audiences transcend industries–a user shops online for flowers today and electronics tomorrow.

The potential issue, however, is that goal specialization can limit scope of work without the exclusivity perks. Agencies and professionals from many fields specialize in lead gen, digital advertising and e-commerce. That makes differentiation more difficult, and isn’t that why we specialize?

Why Professionals Specialize

  • Differentiation, like we were saying, is a serious perk. Just think about Greg Gifford knocking it out of the park during a sales call because competitors don’t know the industry like he does.
  • Thought leadership is one of the secrets to Moz’s success. Sure, they produce good tools, but they also foster and lead the SEO conversation in our niche of online marketing. Generalists turn to specialists to guide the industry.
  •  $/hr because specialists are experts, and one expects to pay a premium for expert advice. That means a higher annual salary and/or fewer hours to achieve the same income.
  • Barriers to entry are created by years of experience, which solidify a competitive advantage with each day and project.
  • Referring leads to other (non-competing) specialists grants goodwill, and goodwill is priceless in this business.
  • Referral leads have a way of finding their way back to you, too. Those here’s-a-client-for-you emails are a wonderful inbox welcome.
  • Self-satisfaction should not be overlooked. The confidence and energy that one receives from being the best that they know makes it easy to get out of bed in the morning.

The Specialist 20/80 Rule

The Pareto 80/20 principle states that 80 percent of the output comes from 20 percent of the input. Successful (and sustainable) specialists approach to their work from the inverse, investing 80 percent of their time in 20 percent of their work. The remaining 20 percent of their time goes into the rest of digital marketing because, as Alyssa Gregory put it, “It’s not enough to take a tunnel-vision approach.”

specialist v. generalist chart

Compare the Specialist 20/80 Rule to a generalist, who might split their time into equal portions: 10 percent in content, 10 percent in PR, 10 percent in PPC, etc. These simplified models don’t account for a lot of things, like admin time, reporting or sales. Consider them a high-level overview of an SEOs timecard. Few of ours would look exactly like these, but I imagine that most lean one way or another.

Are you closer to the 20/80 specialist or the 10-10-10 generalist? Let us know in the comments how and why you invest your time. 

Final Thoughts

In journalism school, they taught to quote an expert if the expert can say something better than you can. That is definitely the case with Shari Thurow, who has been doing SEO since the 90s and wrote a post about SEO specialists v. SEO generalists several years ago.

Smart digital marketers will understand their aptitudes and capabilities, and then surround themselves with a team who will supplement their knowledge. I have my own personal Dream Team of people who understand SEO, UX, IA, social media, etc. We respect each others’ knowledge and expertise. I don’t know everything. So I believe the digital marketing specialist’s best skill back in 2006 and now is humility. Admit what you don’t know (or don’t know well enough) and work with people who do know.