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SEOs are Growth Hackers

John Doherty —  November 27, 2012
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Growth hacking has become a buzzterm in the past 6 months, ever since this post written back in April by Andrew Chen. There’s even a growth hacking agency in New York City (linked at the bottom of the post) and startups are starting to hire growth hackers to help them scale up their user base faster.

I’ve heard the growth hacker term thrown around a lot, and have experienced both positive and negative reactions to it from people I know.

The goal of this post is to define down what a growth hacker is, how this integrates well into online marketing, and then to give a few examples of some growth hacks I’ve either seen or heard about that have helped tech startups grow.

What Is Growth Hacking

Growth hacking is, at its essence, “data driven marketing.” It’s coming up with new ways to engage your audience, to incentivize them to share, to find ways to keep them engaged on the site longer and clicking more “things” (whatever that is – ads, links to forum posts, Buy Now buttons). Growth hacking is BOTH about growth (duh) and retention (keeping your existing customers happier and around longer, as this is how you ultimately grow).

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that growth is not about numbers. Growth is about people (read Jack Dorsey’s take on it here. Or as Sean Ellis says here:

After product-market fit and an efficient conversion process, the next critical step is finding scalable, repeatable and sustainable ways to grow the business. If you can’t do this, nothing else really matters.

Growth hacking is not about having your users sign up to your service through LinkedIn or Facebook, with promises that you won’t post anything to their Facebook or LinkedIn feeds, and then emailing all of their contacts and invite from you. It’s not about spamming Facebook NewsFeeds (think about the days of SocialCam destroying your NewsFeed on an hourly basis) in order to gain customers. You may gain them for a while, but you’ll also anger a lot of people and ultimately, I would submit, will lose potential customers because they think badly about your product and approach.

Why Growth Hacking Matters For Online Marketing

We’re all working hard trying to grow either our company’s website and online presence or that of our clients. We’re working hard as inbound marketers to increase traffic through search, social, email, and other mediums, all while building a loyal userbase.

This means:

1. Coming up with new ideas for ways to reach new users, whether that’s guest content on an influencer’s blog, ranking for some important terms or dominating a type of search term in your space (“How to (x)” for example), triggering emails to the opted-in users when a product they have subscribed to is updated, etc), building a split-testing engine for email marketing, or any number of other things.
2. Getting the resources, building towards that goal, and executing on the plan; and
3. Measuring the effectiveness, iterating on the campaign execution, and continuing to measure;
4. Rinse, repeast.

SEOs Are Growth Hackers

Is it just me, or is everything above that I mentioned exactly what SEOs do? Or rather, isn’t this exactly what SEOs should be doing instead of being pigeonholed as “the SEO guy” or “the SEO girl”?

Let’s look at a couple examples:

We know that technical fixes can make a big difference in traffic:

We spot opportunities so that we can get more rankings and better clickthrough rates:

We measure using custom reports in GA to see what keywords (and which types of keywords) are converting well:

We can look for other channels that could be converting better, such as I talked about here concerning mobile optimization and testing.

We get A/B testing and CRO:

Image via Conversion Rate Experts

We understand that when you send targeted content to users, engagement increases:

We should also understand that hooking your app into a network like Facebook can lead to great growth:

But this growth can also be taken away and thus we need to diversify traffic sources:

Growth Hacking is Smart Customer Acquisition

That’s it. Growth hacking is leveraging the channels of opportunity that drive users. This can be technical (hence the “hacker” language), but can also involve social, content, email, or any of the other inbound marketing channels.

You should also remember that I’m an all-around marketer, not just an SEO. I think this is the way that you should be thinking if you don’t want to stay as just an SEO analyst or consultant forever, but want to move up in position and ultimately become a CMO or Director of Marketing somewhere.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

If you’re looking for some great resources on growth hacking, let me suggest you read the following:
Paul Graham on Growth
TechCrunch on Defining A Growth Hacker
Anything on GrowHack

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

60 responses to SEOs are Growth Hackers

  1. I enjoy the post almost didn’t read it as I cringe at the phrase Growth Hacker, it seems too much like an industry that’s trying to sound cool and hip.
    Growth hacking as you defined it is what any marketer should be doing to build and maintain business.

    • Exactly. I’m trying to both broaden and define the definition. It’s not just pulling some technical strings and doing some API wizardry that helps you grow. There are so many other things you can do. I think of growth hacking as data-driven marketing and leveraging all your channels.

      But maybe I’m redefining it and shouldn’t.

  2. Finally, SEO is being recognized more and more as marketing. When you think of everything a real SEO does, it really more marketing and less SEO tactics.

    All well said John.

  3. I definitely agree that growth hacking has a lot of overlap with SEO and Inbound Marketing, but I think there are a couple of critical distinctions:

    For one thing, Growth Hackers have to be *the* expert across a huge number of platforms, because of the environment they work in. Growth Hackers are most prevalent in startups, where they wont have the convenience of a larger team of specialists. A 10-man startup (still relatively small) the Growth Hacker has to be able to do the SEO, the Analytics, the CRO, the Social, the PPC, the Retargeting, the Media, and be on the bleeding edge of new customer acquisition technologies as they arrive. New team members may take on some of this work as the startup grows, but for the most part, it’s all Growth Hacker.

    The other distinction is implementation. A Growth Hacker needs to be able to code, or it’s a dilution of the term — a Growth Hacker who can’t code at least a little is a Growth Strategist, still a highly valuable team member, but a different animal.

    The reason this is so important is that in a startup environment, the team is always going to be maxing out their bandwidth. A Growth Hacker can hatch a new plan, and then start building it, bringing in other team members as they’re available.

    A Growth Strategist on the other hand is utterly at the mercy of the other members of their team — if everyone is super busy (and they will be) new growth hacks can take forever to be enacted, and that can spell death for a startup.

    I totally agree that the SEO skillset overlaps with growth hacking, but I think it’s a mistake to equate them 1:1 — any SEO worth his salt stands partway down the yellow brick road that leads to Growth Hackerdom, but there are many leagues to go before we reache the emerald city.

    • I agree with Jesse here.

      To me, the definition of a growth hacker is a sales/marketing automation person. A start-up cannot afford to go down the route of more traditional forms of sales and marketing.

      A growth hacker should have a marketing and sales background AND they should be able to code.

      They need to automate both inbound AND outbound forms of sales and marketing.

      Inbound/SEO is PART of the equation but it’s the most flooded industry out there. It’s also starting to solidify. Big companies can snatch up SEOs and great PR/media types.

      Simply having an SEO isn’t going to cut it for most startups.

  4. Good stuff here. SEO really does seem to bleed into a variety of other disciplines, but at the end of the day, it all falls under the umbrella of marketing. However, it’s definitely important not to pigeon hole oneself in things like rankings instead of revenue or links instead of engagement. Keeping an eye toward the bigger picture can be helpful in this regard.

  5. using the phrase “growth hacker” is like a giant red flag to engineers that you should be avoided at all costs.

    • Not sure I agree with that. Some people cringe at it. Others don’t. It’s about speaking to your audience. One of my clients would absolutely not listen to someone who called themselves a growth hacker. Another one of my clients just hired a Growth Hacker (VP of Marketing). It depends on who the company is.

      • from the perspective of a software engineer, this just seems like a particularly callous re-appropriation of a cultural label that really belongs to programmers. this is basically just treading on turf that doesn’t belong to you. it shows a deep insensitivity to the culture of programmers and engineers.

        Your VC investors might like the term and think it makes your (a marketing guy) sound tech savvy and modern. Nobody else is fooled. You do marketing. Introducing data analysis to marketing doesn’t make it anything but marketing. Nor is the idea of data driven marketing new or an innovation related to the internet.

  6. This is an excellent post. SEO is certainly evolving into something much more complex and driven by business’ needing to drive up click through rates on screen real estate.

  7. In the world of marketing and digital marketing, if you don’t have good SEO practices and knowledge, you’re not going to grow.

    However, I think that calling specialist SEOs “growth hackers” is a mistake. If you want to grow your business, you will have to be well versed in the entire marketing toolkit.

  8. aka marketing

  9. It’s detrimental to our industry to continue to use buzzwords to describe other buzzwords. bzzz. After reading some of this book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0415206405/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_5CPQqb1HNAM7W i’m starting to see why the use of buzzwords can actually detract from the credibility of the marketer.

  10. Many companies have been using the term “Growth Hacker” in the start up world for the last 3 years or so. Personally I am not a fan of the term, maybe for start ups or for very savvy IT teams it may work, but thing if you are doing business for most other businesses the term “hacker” may be miss guided by them.
    Plus feel for all the individuals who have changed their titles/business cards/linkedin from “SEO Manager” to “inbound marketing manager” now they will all be changing to “Growth Hacker Manager”…

  11. Another great article John, I totally agree with you here. Every day my job changes to try to maximize our return on everything we do and keep our customers happy. I love your description “Growth hacking is leveraging the channels of opportunity that drive users.” I feel like I am inventing channels every day.

  12. I think your article is a good complement to Joonna Lord’s recent post on marketing analytics. Thanks for the contribution John.

  13. To be honest I think that the industry should take a step back from moaning about terminology and think more in terms of what it entails.

    There are quite a few things mentioned above that I could do that would improve the service that I offer. If it is called growth hacking, inbound marketing or SEO I don’t really mind.

    Good title Jon :) I was expecting to dislike this post but it’s well written and describes some of what I think is the future of SEO/online marketing/whatever…

  14. I see growth hacking openings all the time on job sites… its a new rebranded “SEO Professional” position that has evolved to a new form of branding. You’re using the medium of internet to grow and it’s not just on search engines anymore, these social sites have developed their own eco-system where content needs to be posted on to capture different audiences along the new streams of services.If i had to formally describe the term growth hacker I would loosely bind it to brand manager.

  15. To me a growth hacker is somebody who invents NEW ways of gaining not only traffic but also buying customers.

    The person is “hacking” current ways making “new” marketing and consumer capture. Why would you need to code to do that? You really need the idea, thats where the worth is.

  16. The term “Growth Hacker” makes me cringe a bit…. sounds a bit like a cheater. I guess its smart/legal legitimate cheating or marketing. SEO’s understand the system and yes with our help startups can hack their way to the top very quickly!

  17. To use the term “Growth Hacker” to describe a legitimate business is a fundamental mistake.

  18. thanks John, i didn’t hear the definition “growth hacker” before, i guess i was too busy being one! because yes, SEOs are supposed to do all those things, if they want to have a future (and also a present?).

  19. Hey, hey guys, please remember, you work for your stakeholders and respected clients. Rolling out new sets of abbreviations continuously keeps them excited and paying. Also, it’s important to keep newcomers confused and away. Good job, JD!

  20. Honestly, this is probably the most accurate job description I’ve seen of what I do. Gone are the days of being just an “SEO” who mods title tags and linkbuilds (in a nutshell). Now my job has evolved to be more all-encompassing. Granted, my title now is “Senior Site Manager” – meaning I oversee all the marketing efforts that go into the websites I manage – on-page SEO, off-page SEO, content, social media, conversion rate optimization, dev, design, coordinating with PPC, etc. I have to say, I don’t miss the days of being “just an SEO” – my job is more multi-dimensional and challenging than it’s ever been.

  21. How true JD, love the article man! SEO’s are generally boxed up as the on page tech guy(s) instead of online marketers and innovators of processes incorporating/testing new channels for growth opportunities.

    Granted many who call themselves SEO’s are not internet marketers or growth hackers; hence the need for a new definitive job description.

    Ultimately sustainable growth is reliant on your target audience and finding/mixing the correct channels to drive results is all that matters. Well done, great post!

  22. I was self taught SEO so I could get my site ranked and did well, but since my prime focus is my business and not SEO, if you don’t stay on top if it all the time you lose ground fast. I know the next wave is all social, seen it coming. Google’s penguin updates were rough for many including myself. Unjustly so as I saw many sites that have done nearly nothing and were horrible pages that gained. Thanks for the post and giving heads up on the next wave approach. Might have to look at farming out some of my SEO.

  23. I like the term: Growth Strategist. SEO in and by itself does not work. You can be ranked #1 through #10 on page one but still not be converting traffic. I like marketing much better and of course use SEO as part of the marketing package.

  24. YOuj….Intelligently said; Growth Hacker…………!!!
    Can be white or black……….ha ha ha :)

  25. Terminology, yes or no?, for me the term ‘Growth hacker’ . . .well something sits inherently not quite right with that term.
    It’s kind of okayish but then that isnt a confirmed okay, is it?
    For sure, my ‘traditional’ seo job role has changed trememndously and without a doubt there are all the above ‘marketing’ / data driven ideas involved with that. whats more the ‘traditional’ seo strategies are curently being (Google) crushed with the big ‘P’ updates of late, forcing ‘seo’s’ to either come online into the modern world of marketing the reach of social etc or fall by the wayside very quickly.
    It’s a good post, with some great comments. Somehow though, still, for me ‘Growth hacker’ still doesn’t feel the right term.
    Perhaps ‘inbound marketing strategist’ or ‘Online marketing specialist’ or ‘Internet traffic generation officer/consultant’ or xyz ???
    The truth is that we are in a state of flux and change. Clearly there’s some difference as one commenter made the distinction between a coder and someone who isn’t a code & what that entailed.
    Seems to me that to go for what feels right for your particualr role (mine is something along the lines of above commenter ‘Heather Physioc’) and the industry will then sort itself out with the different developments and skill sets that people seem to be developing.
    I’m still an seo but with online marketing involvement. (with responsibility for both and all of the above commenters items [except email marketing]). I would call myself an ‘Online marketing strategist’ at this time, but who knows in one or two years time whether that would still apply. . .?

  26. Well put and great detail. I personally don’t like the term but the definition of it is important and not just your regular “SEOs”.

  27. Empirical creativity is probably one of the biggest differentiators between growth hacking and traditional marketing. Rather than trying to think his or her way to a “big idea” and building an entire strategy around around that idea, a growth hacker comes up with a dozen possible strategies, testing them on a small scale to see what resonates. As Jim Collins puts it, they fire bullets before firing cannonballs .

  28. along with good content, paying attention on SEO matters too. May be its a headache to maintain SEO and all that but using some good tips we can improve SEO.

  29. This is my first read on Growth Hacking. It’s a good starter.

  30. I love the new term. SEO represents what online marketing was a couple years ago. It seems only fitting that there be a new term for what is quickly becoming such a multi-faceted job – being an online marketer.

  31. v-2 is a great short url that is growing everyday! hope all is well,

  32. Great article and very interesting ! Thanks ! :)

  33. I personally don’t see seo’s as hackers in fact I think they are the leveling fields in online marketing. Physical businesses get the best real estate (think restuarants, hotels, and shops in exclusive places) like wise the businesses with the most resources can exert their power with search engine optimization. Maybe I’m a bit biased since i’m a “seo guy” but interesting post nevertheless :)

  34. wow thats a cool name i wish i was a hacker seo guys sounds nerdy

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