Two common buzz phrases that are bandied about within the Internet Marketing community are growth hacking and search engine optimization (SEO). While they’re sometimes used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between the two.
In this article, we’ll examine the definitions of both phrases, look at their similarities, and then provide an overview of their differences.
Growth hacking, simply put, is a means of using technology with innovation to reach your goal quickly. It often employs as-of-yet untested and unpublished means to reach a massive audience and build a brand online. It’s a pioneering effort that combines state-of-the-art application design with ingenuity.
The classic example of growth hacking is brought to us from the history of AirBnB. You’ve probably already heard of that company – it allows people to rent out space as part of the so-called “gig economy.” Property owners who have an extra room, detached unit, duplex, or whole house available will use AirBnB to advertise that it’s for rent so that they can earn some extra income.
AirBnB achieved international stardom with growth hacking. In its early days, the company allowed people who listed their properties for rent to automatically post their listings on Craigslist. This involved a feat of engineering that broke new ground and enabled AirBnB users to reach the massive audience on Craigslist. As a result, AirBnB grew to the widely recognized company that it is today.
Do you see what AirBnB did there? The company combined ingenuity (using Craigslist to reach the masses) with technological innovation (creating a bot to post AirBnB listings to another website). It was both clever and tech-savvy. And it worked.
SEO is an attempt to rank a website or web page highly in the search engine results pages (SERPs) for a certain set of keywords. That way, the site will be noticed by people who are searching for specific terms.
For example, if you’re selling blue widgets, you would really like to be in Google’s #1 spot when someone types “blue widgets” in the Google search bar. However, you also live in an economy governed by a capitalist philosophy dictating that competition among companies is a good thing. So, there are other companies selling blue widgets as well.
So with a multitude of businesses selling blue widgets, how does Google know which company’s web page to show in first place when people Google the phrase “blue widgets”? The search engine giant employs a specific algorithm that determines which site is the most “worthy” of the bunch. That algorithm is a secret to those of us outside of the Googleplex, however it’s clearly based on a number of factors including the usage of the keyword (in this case, “blue widgets”), the number of people who click on the link when they see it in the SERPs, the number of other web pages pointing back to the site, and the overall reputation of the site itself.
As a result, SEO professionals attempt to “help” Google recognize a site’s authority by boosting its reputation with the search engine giant based on the criteria mentioned above. The idea behind SEO is to effectively convince Google that a specific website deserve a high spot in the SERPs.
One of the most effective ways to improve a website’s ranking is with backlinks. Those are hyperlinks that point from other websites to the site that an SEO engineer wants to rank. It’s best if backlinks are on high quality, well-known websites (e.g., The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, etc.). It’s also important that backlinks are within content related to the subject of the keyword itself (these are called “contextual backlinks”). You don’t want to a link back to your e-commerce site that sells laptops from an article about lipstick, for example.
There are other aspects to SEO as well. These include ensuring that the site is indexed, optimizing the speed of the site, proper usage of keywords within the site (not too many and not too few), ensuring that broken links are fixed, preventing redirects, proper use of subheading tags, and ensuring images use proper keywords.
The Dark Side of Growth Hacking and SEO
There are people who employ unethical and arguably villainous practices when it comes to growth hacking and SEO. They’ll use potentially reputation-destroying techniques just to reach their goals quickly.
You could argue that the AirBnB example noted above is a bit underhanded. After all, the company’s use of a bot to post to Craigslist was done without the permission of Craigslist.
However, there is a fine line between leveraging the advantages of modern technology to automate a tedious process and overtly dishonest tactics. It’s often a temptation for aggressive marketers to ignore that line.
There numerous examples of growth hacking gone bad. Sometimes, marketers will spam text messages out to people with a download link. In other cases, they’ll buy fake reviews of their products. Still others will take the use of bots to an extreme – far beyond what AirBnB did. On the social media front, people are known to buy likes, favorites, retweets and even comments just to keep up the pretense that they’re more popular than they really are.
There are also so-called “black hat” SEO practitioners as well. These are engineers who build a tiered system of websites that exist solely to provide backlinks to a particular site. Then, they use bots to spam backlinks to their tiers in an effort to build “link juice” back to the sites they’re trying to rank. It’s often an effective means, until Google discovers what’s happened and penalizes or delists the target site.
The Differences Between Growth Hacking and SEO
While growth hacking and SEO are often used hand-in-hand to build a brand online, there are numerous differences between the two. Generally SEO is a specific marketing practice while growth hacking is more a concept that can translate to many different plans.
Here are some key distinctions.
- SEO is strictly for search engine traffic – People who use SEO do it specifically to rank with search engines. However, growth hacking is an all-encompassing effort to boost a brand using every technological means at your disposal.
- Growth hacking focuses on results, not reach – Growth hacking is used to grow a business quickly. SEO, on the other hand, is used to generate exposure for a business that won’t necessarily result in short-term growth.
- Growth hacking is all about quickness – Growth hackers are looking for shortcuts to achieve maximum growth in a very short period of time. While that is true, it is not always the case that SEO takes longer than growth hacking, because there are so many different kinds of growth hacks and often very low hanging SEO fruit that can result in big gains. But generally, the concept of growth hacking is accomplishing a goal quickly.
- Growth hacking typically requires more imagination – Growth hackers have to combine innovation with technology. By contrast, SEO engineers already know the methods that they need to employ to rank a website, they just need to put those methods to action. Now, on the flip side of this SEO requires a lot of content marketing lately and creativity too. But generally, growth hacking is more thinking outside the box.
Wrapping it up
Growth hacking and SEO are often used together by startups to achieve success. While there is some overlap between the two, they’re really not the same thing at all.
SEO is all about ranking certain keywords and pages in the SERPs. SEO and many of the practices in SEO can really fall under the concept of Growth Hacking. For example, say you want to get 3,000 new sign ups. Maybe your growth hack is to guest blog on all the top sites in your category and offer a free month in your bio. Guest blogging helps SEO too, right?
Learn more about growth hacking in our ultimate guide here. Also, learn a cool growth hack we revealed on Search Engine Land here.
At the end of the day, you should be doing both. Questions? Let me know @johnelincoln