When it comes to technology, things get more complicated with time. Search engine optimization (SEO) started as an easy discipline thanks to pioneers like Bruce Clay who taught us where to submit our content for the most coverage — write content, link to it in a structured way, get other people to link to it, done.
These days, there are many SEO specialties because there are many types of websites and many features to rank for on search engine results pages (SERPs). As I look for clients out on the job boards, I can’t help but notice how many specific types of SEO are desired by different organizations (and for good reasons).
Generic articles about the types of SEO usually reference 3-8 kinds. I have no idea which human beings those articles serve, except maybe junior SEOs putting together proposals for clients who know even less about SEO than they do themselves.
My target audience for this content is the business owner who gets advice to consider a more tailored SEO approach than creating a keyword-research-content-generation-machine (maybe you even got that advice from me). Hopefully you’ll walk away with a more nuanced understanding of the kind of SEO you need to grow your business.
Here is a list of the kinds of SEO I know about, I’ll keep it up to date as new disciplines emerge and I see more specializations in my daily reading. I’ve already added three more since I first published this piece.
The first three disciplines are shared by all websites. After that, it’s time to layer on the nuance of reaching target audiences with search engine optimization. You’ll notice a distinct pattern here, SEO is done either for an algorithm or an audience. You mix and match your platforms/algorithms and your audience to create your own SEO mix.
The idea behind Universal SEO is that a website that expects to be crawled by search engine spiders, attract readers or paying customers, and rank on page one needs to do all of these things, and they need to do them very well. Glenn Allsopp of Detailed.com recently published his incredibly thorough and useful opus: How 16 companies dominate the world’s Google search results (2023 edition). If you want to break through the moat of these media behemoths, you better cover all your bases, starting with Universal SEO.
1. On-Page SEO
In its simplest form, this is what the general marketing community (those who don’t work in SEO themselves), think SEO is. This is your fundamental page markup like Page Title, Meta Description and Keywords, H1 and other heading tags, your target keyword(s), and your actual content (including text, images, videos, charts, and graphs). Because it doesn’t fit anywhere neatly into the other two Universal SEO disciplines, I’d also say your site’s navigation, taxonomy, and linking structure are also parts of on-page SEO.
2. Off-Page SEO
Off-page SEO is more commonly referred to as link building or backlinks. There are a few reasons we’ve started calling it off-page SEO: “link builders” have a bad rep and ethical practitioners want to distance themselves from those tactics while acknowledging most sites still need inbound links to succeed; “link building” has evolved into a discipline of outreach, not dissimilar to PR, and the lines between the two are blurring; there are plenty of things you can do to improve how the internet’s many algorithms see your site that happen on other people’s websites (like raising the profile of your site’s authors by having them write for other sites, with or without a backlink).
3. Technical SEO
Check out my fixed-price SEO service packages addressing different aspects of Universal SEO.
Google would very much like us to only build websites for users. And let them crawl said sites, error free. So they can use the content on their own site and not give the site owners/creators enough credit (i.e. traffic). But I digress…
You really should think about your audience and their needs first (not first and only). Each place your audience hangs out probably has their own set of rules (an algorithm) which determines how you get your business to the top of the heap.
4. Local SEO
Perhaps the best known of the SEO disciplines, Local SEO is indeed its own beast. You need to be good at regular SEO, but a local business could also live or die by how it addresses, or doesn’t, Google’s Local features. It’s more than just a fully decked out Google Business Profile and getting as many customers to review your site on Google as you can; there are right ways and wrong ways to reach multiple service areas; and social media can play a big role in your SEO results (especially at Bing-based search engines).
5. International SEO
Sort of the opposite side of the Local SEO coin is the International SEO discipline. If your site runs in multiple languages (including British English vs American English) or services visitors from multiple countries, you need International SEO expertise on your team. The technical bits here include hreflang, your TLD (.com, .co.uk, .cn, etc.), subdomains and subfolders, identifying where your user is located, and more. I caution you, it is too easy to screw this up, don’t do it yourself and don’t hire someone who has never done it before (like me, don’t hire me for this).
6. B2B SEO
(Business to Business, as opposed to Business to Consumer)
A critical component of how we design websites and content these days comes down to the customer journey: awareness, consideration, and purchase. It’s not hard to imagine that a B2B customer probably requires a much longer and more detailed consideration process than someone buying new socks because the stakes are probably higher. Off-page SEO for B2B sites is also different from B2C and often there are industry-specific considerations like privacy, security, and professional ethics to get in the way of an otherwise straightforward SEO program.
7. Niche SEO
Niche SEO, also sometimes called Affiliate SEO, is its own discipline because it is heavily keyword oriented, especially in the long tail. Long tail keyword selection and content development often has an inverse content-creation-effort-to-net-benefit ratio, but for most niche sites, that’s their only choice. If you want to be a really big site, you need to be a generalist. If you want to have really high conversion rates from a highly-targeted audience, you want to be a niche publisher.
Your Money or Your Life
Coined by Google as part of their Search Quality Raters Guidelines, this refers to any content which could significantly impact your financial well-being or your health (physical or mental). If your subject matter falls into the categories of Banking, Financial Planning, Real Estate, Taxes, Medical Advice, Medical Products, Pharmacology, or Psychology you need an expert in YMYL SEO. This area focuses on consensus, disclaimers, expertise (like doctors or certified professional accountants), citations, and depth of content.
For a long time, product reviews were not a separate SEO discipline. Then in April of 2021 Google rolled out the first of several Product Review Algorithm Updates. They now have a dedicated Product Review System which analyzes this kind of content according to different standards than, say, entertainment content. My guess (as someone who has a long history in Product Reviews) is that this is a nudge of these “Commercial” interest toward YMYL (Google doesn’t want to charlatans to encourage you to waste money on products that suck, but they also don’t want to tell you what you should buy (yet). This system includes reviews of individual products or services and roll-ups or listicles which compare many similar products to each other.
User-Generated Content (UGC)
Back in the early days of SEO, UGC was king. Before we had things like “programmatic content” and AI-written content, the cheapest and easiest way to get more content on your site was to get your users to create it for you. Forums and comments were the most common ways to do this, in the days before Social Media sites like MySpace and Facebook existed. There were also sites, not unlike Fandom (or, gasp, GeoCities), which allowed you to create your own mini websites on their platform. Many sites still operate with a lot of UGC (especially review aggregators) and there are special SEO considerations to be made when UGC is a major component of your content.
Update to this one: apparently some people also call this Parasite SEO. I don’t love the name and it’s more of a link-building tactic than an actual form of SEO, but it specifically targets sites whose primary content is UGC (Reddit, Medium, YouTube, etc.).
Adult & Banned Industries
Porn and gambling come to mind here, as do weapons, illicit drugs, etc. I know these are super specific niches within SEO, but I don’t know anything about them. I know just enough to know you need a specialist. Note: Ads policies may or may not be the same for organic search and may differ by platform. Here are Google’s terms and policies.
Algorithm-driven or Platform-driven SEO
8. Image SEO
This is another example of a long-standing SEO specialty. It’s pretty rare an SEO *only* focuses on SEO search, but it is a discrete discipline. The SEO of images, for Google’s Image Search, looks at the text around the image, the alt attribute of the image, the image filename, and possibly to some extent the image contents. There are deeper aspects to being successful at Image Search, but your on-page content really matters, not just your image content.
9. Ecommerce SEO
Ecommerce SEO has definitely grown from being an uncommon discipline to a must-have knowledge base for millions of online stores. This urgency really took a great leap forward when Google started showing multiple product listings on search results and including free Google Shopping Listings products in big blocks on highly-commercial (or ambiguous and potentially commercial) SERPs. On-page optimizations include category-page content, product detail pages, taxonomic concerns, and most definitely Core Web Vitals (CWV) — many studies show that faster sites convert better, even if Google doesn’t recognize your CWV wins.
Within Ecommerce SEO, there is a specialty of Marketplace SEO for places like Google Shopping Listings, Amazon, Walmart, and eBay.
Google Shopping Listings (Free)
This is a fairly new aspect of Ecommerce SEO as the Google Shopping experience was paid (and therefore limited) for a long time. Optimizing for Google Shopping can be labyrinthine (they can reject you because they don’t like your logo which they don’t show anywhere but it can be hard to get them to tell you what’s wrong or how to fix it). You need a raft of data for every product you expect to include, and must have return, shipping, and privacy policies clearly posted on your site.
50% of product searches start at Amazon. If you sell on Amazon you need to understand Amazon’s algorithm like an SEO in order to take advantage of all that traffic. I have a few friends working in this space and when they talk to me about it I always walk away confused. Be sure you hire someone specialized in Amazon SEO, not just Ecommerce SEO, to help optimize your Amazon sales (though they probably won’t call it SEO). Here is an agency I can recommend.
10. Programmatic SEO
About the time SEOs figured out you could make piles of money if you knew how to capture the traffic from searchers, programmatic SEO made its way onto the scene. Programmatic SEO is best described as creating highly-specific web pages based on a huge dataset. A great example of how Yelp! uses programmatic SEO to create pages like “Top 10 Sushi Restaurants with Outdoor Seating in Boston” was written by Kalei White for The CMO.
Programmatic SEO is a hugely useful tool for reaching niche searchers. I’ve used it on my site WineClubReviews.net since 2010, specifically to serve up wine clubs that can ship to a specific state, like Maryland.
11. YouTube SEO
YouTube SEO is part of a larger category loosely called Video SEO (YouTube dominates video like Google dominates search, but there are other players and usage trends shift). YouTube SEO consists of a few parts: optimizing videos themselves, optimizing the pages the videos are on, optimizing your YouTube Channel, and optimizing for getting subscribers (this last one is more like conversion optimization rather than search optimization). A good YouTube SEO is also good at a skill called “content repurposing” — a mainstay of distributing content for media companies.
12. Mobile SEO
Mobile SEO was a thing, and it’s still kind of a thing, but now that Google has a Desktop Page Experience metric, too, you should be doing the same things for your mobile sites and progressive web apps as you do for your desktop site. Google appears to be making moves toward a mobile-only index (as opposed to a mobile-first index) so this may again become a thing. If you need to improve your revenue or engagement metrics for mobile, I recommend investing in mobile UI design before mobile SEO.
13. News SEO
Within a regular website we sometimes talk about fresh content vs evergreen content (I propose we start calling the stuff that’s not evergreen deciduous so the metaphor is complete). Whether or not Google is concerned with the freshness of your content falls under a rubric called Query Deserves Freshness (QDF) and it is a primary part of SEO for news organizations. There are a host of other considerations and they change frequently. News organizations typically have large teams of SEOs and an independent News SEO consultant seems like he or she would be a unicorn.
14. Bookings SEO
This is a lesser-known area of SEO specialization mostly affecting travel and some services businesses. Like Ecommerce SEO, there are two parts to bookings SEO: optimizing Google’s booking engine and optimizing for Marketplace booking engines. Knowing how to get your hotel to show up on Google Maps for the right users still seems like a bit of black box, but for someone who specializes in this sort of super-niche work, it’s probably a ton of fun.
15. App Store Optimization
This could probably be filed under Marketplace SEO, but the peculiarities of mobile apps and the whole “approval” universe of things makes it a standalone discipline. Most often this is a service provided by your app developer who often knows the marketplace better than the marketers.
16. SEO for Social Media
Again, you’re optimizing for an algorithm, so it’s kind of SEO, but there are actually two parts to social media SEO — how to optimize your content for maximum visibility on a given platform and how your social media presence contributes to your overall SEO progress. Notably, Google does not consider social media likes, links, and followers as part of their primary algorithm, but Bing does. Either way, a social media presence increases the likelihood of you getting lots of juicy backlinks and you should do it thoughtfully.
17. WordPress SEO (and Wix SEO,etc.)
SEO practitioners who learn the ins and outs of a particular content management system (CMS) — like WordPress, Wix, Square, LeadPages, and so on — are a treasure. A specialist in WordPress SEO will get the job done 3-5x faster than someone who knows SEO and WordPress but hasn’t tried to do WordPress SEO. This is about managing plugins, taxonomies, and especially Core Web Vitals (which WordPress does poorly and requires a third-party service to get right).
18. Enterprise SEO
The other day a recruiter asked me if I know Coveo SEO. I had to have him spell it because I couldn’t be sure I heard him right. My answer was, predictably, “No, I don’t know Coveo, it sounds like an Enterprise-level SEO tool.” And it is. And unless you’ve worked at a big enough company — usually in-house but not always — that uses enterprise-level SEO tools like Coveo, BrightEdge, Conductor, or SEOClarity, you very likely have no experience with these tools. That this should be a job requirement is generally a little irritating because if you know how to work with SEO tools, it doesn’t matter that much what scale they’re on. Analytical SEOs will thrive with any data you give them, in pretty much any format.
19. Voice SEO
Probably the newest kid on the block, this form of SEO is still a fuzzy concept for most businesses. If for no other reason, getting your content as the answer to a Siri or Hey Google or Alexa query isn’t necessarily going to lead to a site visit, much less a transaction. Voice search runs on the same types of Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Large Language Model (LLM) technologies that ChatGPT, Bard, and Bing all use. Unless you’re a radio station, this probably isn’t area worth focusing on just yet.
SEO Based on your Ethics
So far I’ve talked a lot about the audience your SEO is optimizing for and the algorithms or technology they’re targeting, but we haven’t talked about the SEOs themselves. There are different ways to go about doing SEO which have a lot to do with how much you’re willing to follow rules and how down-and-dirty you’re willing to get to win.
The White-Hat Black-Hat metaphor reflects Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy feature, but has no relationship to the magazine itself.
20. White Hat SEO
White Hat SEOs are the ones who do things “above board” and according to Google’s End User License Agreement (EULA) and Terms of Service (TOS). They’re the SEOs that, no matter how successful they are, will never get you banned from Google (at least not advertently). Generally I consider these the serious practitioners, able to play nicely with other rules and regulations.
21. Black Hat SEO
Black Hat SEOs don’t care what the rules are, they just want to win. They’ll blatantly exploit known loopholes or implementation flaws to game the Google system. They’re the reason we have spam-identification algorithms like Panda, Penguin, and Link Spam. It also includes things like “programmatic content,” AI-written content, thin content, spun content, stolen content, etc. It works until it doesn’t and they’re okay with that. That’s not a great way to run your own business, unless you’re a Black Hat SEO and you like that game. The more growth-hacky an SEO is, the more likely they are to use questionable tactics.
22. Gray Hat SEO
Somewhere between the anarchist Black Hats and the rule-following White Hats are the Gray Hats. It’s quite possible that some of our most innovative SEO techniques came from the gray hats. These folks often think they’re smarter than the rest of us (and they might be) but eventually what is a questionable tactic may become a banned tactic and you’re the one stuck holding the bag, not the Gray Hat SEO consultant.
23. Negative SEO
I think Negative SEO was a thing for a hot minute. Negative SEO is about manipulating the way Google sees someone else’s website with the intention of destroying their rankings. There are still people who try to implement Negative SEO, but Google doesn’t want these folks in their ecosystem any more than their victims do, so instead of punishing you for having a flood of bad backlinks, Google just doesn’t count them at all. This takes away most of the motivation for negative SEO. It’s worth noting, Negative SEO is NOT the same thing as Reputation Management, a completely different discipline.
When I set out to write this piece, I didn’t expect I’d come up with 21 kinds of SEO and that I’d end up writing more than 3000 words on the subject. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have true subject matter expertise — you can’t shut up about it.
Take advantage of my nerdy skill set and let me help you improve your website’s SEO.