What an SEO Can Learn from History

Whether you call yourself an SEO, SEM, inbound marketer, online marketing specialist, or any one of a number of terms, your ultimate goal is the same: increasing sales or conversions for your clients. To do this, you need to bring a host of skill sets to bear. Sometimes, the skills of a historian come in handy.

This thought crossed my mind after reading Mike Fleming’s excellent post for Search Engine Guide on the various “professions” an inbound marketer must, er, employ. Like Fleming, I received a “liberal arts education,” but I majored in history. So when he talked about how he was recently “feeling a bit ‘stretched’ out of my comfort zone when I realized just how many hats inbound marketers are called to wear throughout the daily trappings of their careers,” I felt an immediate pang of familiarity.

Please understand that I don’t do inbound marketing myself, beyond reading and writing about it for about eight years now as a major part of my job. Still, when Fleming listed the “hats” of scientist, psychologist, investigator, consultant, accountant, researcher, writer, speaker, salesman, reporter, customer service representative and (stretching a point a little bit) doctor, I found myself nodding a bit, but waiting for the other shoe to drop. Where on this list is the humble historian?

Not everyone understands what historians do. We hunt for the data; we analyze it and look for trends; we form hypotheses and theories; we try to explain the causes of things at various levels. There’s a reason that history is said to be “the science of that which never happens twice.” In short, historians use many of the skills that Fleming lists – plus one very critical one that can be invaluable to any marketer working with a client.

To explain that skill, however, I need to back up to one of my college history courses. It was a historiography course, and only history majors took it. Historiography, loosely defined, is the history of history. In the case of my course, we examined the causes of the English Civil War – or more precisely, what historians said were the causes of the English Civil War at five different points in history, starting with immediately after the war itself and going through a diversity of eras (such as the Marxist interpretation and others).

I quickly learned that the cause of a situation may not be as simple as it first appears. I also learned that others looking at the same situation, and given the same apparent facts, can easily interpret it differently. But most importantly, I learned that the reason for these different interpretations has to do with the historian’s mental filter – that it’s almost impossible to remove yourself from your own time period and its influences, attitudes, or “prejudices,” if you will. This filter is enough to explain differences in interpretation without necessarily assuming the historian has a particular ax to grind (though that’s also possible, of course) or holds any particular malice toward anyone (though again, this is possible).

So how is this useful for SEOs to keep in mind? You come to your client, and approach his data, with a particular view based on what you know. Your client views his business in a particular way based on what he knows. Each of these are filters of a sort. If you want to get your message through to your client, you need to clear your own filter – as much as you can – and look at the data you have collected through HIS filter. If you want to convince him to try something, you need to convey it to him in a way that gets through his filter such that he’ll not only UNDERSTAND it, but AGREE with you about the right course of action.

It’s even more complicated than that, of course. There are other filters you need to keep in mind: the ones in front of the eyes of your client’s customers. And oh yes, there are Google’s filters as well. I could go on, but I’ve run out of space and time – rather embarrassing for a historian, I must admit. But perhaps you can see how this study of the past can help your clients prepare for a better future. Good luck!

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