I love your posts John, but "Hacker" implies a level of coding in my opinion, and I think most here on HN would agree.
As someone who talks to a few dozen SEOs a week, 99% of them cannot code in a fashion needed to be a "Growth Hacker". It's not that they can't contribute to growth, it's just that the traditional methods SEOs use (content, technical fixes, social) would not be considered hacks, but just solid online marketing.
What about the branding decisions made long before? Or the work put into the marketing framework? The work that went into creatives? And I'm not even getting into the coding that goes into bringing everything together.
SEO can provide growth, but only after you've used everything else in your arsenal to get the platform to the point that you are ready to start optimizing.
Oh, how many times have I seen this mistake! SEO is one of your marketing tools, but (done right) it is not a premature optimization.
So unless you really do not care about the crawlability and understandability of your site/app, you should be optimizing for bots in parallel with human usability.
Growth hacking is a bedrock of the best SEO practices out there. The best SEO is inherently viral to compel and force people to link to your content. Think about Youtube, and everyone embedding videos with links back to youtube... This is literally the definition of SEO strategy...finding ways to build into your product inherent link-bait.
I would argue that Growth Hacking is a prerequisite to execute excellent SEO.
How does that follow from "solid marketing doesn't make it a hack"?
"I think SEOs understand how people and the Internet work"
Yet you don't even understand the difference between "every ford is a car" and "every car is a ford" ... huh? What did I just read?
SEOs are there to solve a problem. The problem of course is much deeper than getting your site noticed. It's a vision consisting of strategies with the following goals:
1. Get the most traffic from search engines you can (obviously)
2. Ensure the traffic you get is from the people you want to reach
3. Ensure that you are providing what searchers are looking for
4. Try to build a brand and a vision people can understand
5. Build an audience that will keep returning to your site
Now these things are solid online marketing, sure but there are other goals too, that are more "hacker" in nature.
6. Perform analytics to find out which methods are working
7. Finding the most optimum content to attract new traffic
8. Find what landing pages are creating customers
9. Finding the most optimum paths to lead to engagement
Now this is starting to sound like hacking. We're all problem solvers here. This is gathering information and using it to get the best results possible. Like optimizing routines to save cycles.
As a developer, what are you trying to do for a company?
1. Build software that solves problems for the most people possible (usually)
2. Ensure that your software is targeted towards the people who need it
3. Ensuring your software is solving their problems effectively
4. Making the user interface as effective as it can be (usually by some form of analytics)
5. Finding the best ways to save cycles and utilize hardware (again found with analytics)
Do you see the parallels? This is exactly why I keep one foot in SEO, and one foot in Web Development, because they seem like entirely separate disciplines, but they have more in common than not. The name of the game here is optimization, and both fields strive for optimizing an experience.
Calling someone a software "hacker" means they learn as much as they can about a process and refine it. Tweak, push, pull and stretch. They optimize software to better meet the needs of those who use it. A SEO is a "hacker" because they optimize the website to meet the needs of those who use it. It's not about writing code, it's about finding ways to do more with less.
This is what I gather he's trying to say.
[for your convenience]:
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 reach the emerald city.
I absolutely agree on the implementation part, but we can build some pretty cool stuff. Though as a consultant you're always at the whim of the client to get it implemented, no matter what.
We're also getting back to the "What is an SEO" discussion, which I'm tired of. SEO is so much more than linkbuilding. It touches content, CRO, social, analytics, email, everything. And we need to recognize that, otherwise we'll be marginalized and made ineffective quickly.
Totally agree on the exhausted subject of what is SEO, so let's not beat a dead horse.
Is your issue that you're assuming if you can't code, you can't execute? While a good portion of what an SEO would handle is a bit on the technical side and might require some coding, a lot of the execution can be accomplished with zero coding ability.
Maybe the trouble is in the use of of "hacker" which is usually associated with "code".
CRO, UX, Advanced Analytics Implementations, Advanced Social Implementations, Doing anything innovated with an API -- these are off the table for a GH unless they can code at least a little, and who want's a Growth Hacker who can only do the bare minimum?
SEOs can absolutely get by with minimal coding knowledge, I give you no argument there, but that's part of what makes the who disciplines different.
Some have said that SEOs were not hackers because they could not code, I would argue they are not hackers because their work is all about decreasing the signal/noise ratio for the sake of profit. Hackers should know better.
For hackers the web is a way to free information, not a gimmick to make a quick buck by polluting other people's information streams.
At least two major things you gloss over, don't give SEO's enough credit for is:
1) Analytics and market research
Improving quality of content and on-page SEO follows well established accessibility guidelines. SEO's can make sites better for all users: humans AND search bots. With a fine SEO'd site, you'd be able to navigate it and consume it, while being blind, drunk or using noscript.
If you have a good (online) product or service, it would be a crime against the efforts that went into creating them, to forget SEO and online marketing. You'd be decreasing the perceived value. You'd give the edge to your competition.
The grossness from SEO comes from people that know just enough SEO techniques, but not how to properly implement them. They hear: Links increase ranking, so they start blog spamming links. Or they hear: fresh content does well in search engines, so they article spin some RSS feeds.
Search engines are for the most part black boxes, even to white hat SEO's. To play it safe you have to align yourself with the vision of Google. To study their papers and patents. To follow their engineers every word. To predict their next moves. To test out your hypothesis. Familiarize yourself with new (sometimes undocumented) mark-up etc.
Yet good SEO practice hasn't changed all that much in the recent years. Adhere to the Google Webmaster Guidelines  and the Stanford Credibility Guidelines  and you'll get mighty far. Both sets of guidelines increase the quality and the profit part is indirect.
As a marketer I love the idea of "growth hacking" - manipulating existing systems for the purpose of growth and customer acquisition. But I'm confused by the new mantra growth hackers are using to define themselves. "Growth hacking is, at its essence, data driven marketing..." Seriously? Who the hell has been marketing without data?
There are some really cool hacks that SEOs can use. .GOV and .EDU links are valued much more highly than normal sites - how can you get those links? I've seen some dirty yet beautiful tricks. Building out blog networks with DNS's linked to different IPs in order to manipulate Google - though rarely worth it (trying to out-engineer Google isn't my cup of tea), it's also impressive, and definitely hacking. Creative and unique ways to get press from out-of-your-league sources? Sure, that's a form of social hacking.
But A/B testing? Using proper markup? "Hooking your app into a network like Facebook?" Call it proficiency if you like, you can define it as expertise, I'll even give you savvy, but it's not hacking. Calling it hacking turns into a giant "we're hackers too!" circle-jerk.
Again, I reiterate that there is some solid stuff in the post. But using that information as evidence that SEO is growth hacking just doesn't make sense.
I'm the only "SEO" I know talking about SEO and growth hacking. I wouldn't say we're latching onto it. Most SEOs seem to disagree with me anyways.
IMHO: Growth Hacking is just Inbound Marketing for startups. Going from 0 users to 1MM+. You leverage all the online marketing skills: seo, ppc, email, display (retargeting), ux, social, cro, etc.
BTW, nice post John - glad to see it on here as well as inbound.
WRT SEO's being "growth hackers" by definition, I think is incorrect. I struggle to call the function even marketing as it is more pure advertising. The only analogy of a "growth hacker" in the SEO space I can think of would be those search bar installers that millions of people downloaded from looking
for "smilies" and simultaneously installed a toolbar which re-wrote the organic search results a few years back.
For more perspective on how I feel about "growth hackers".
I'm tired of that argument. Read some real SEO blogs and you'll see that it's not. Do the investigation.
Real hackers build spam filters and search engine so people can find the information they are looking for. Spewing spam and tricking the search engines to prefer your content are two facets of the same disease.
For a short time I worked for a company who was very spammy and outright sketchy. They had a team of dev and ops people who cranked out hundreds of millions of emails and "free ipod ads" per day.
There were heavy API integrations with Commission Junction and the porn affiliate networks, redundant systems, and all that. I leaned a lot in the 45 days I worked there.
All of them "hackers" in this sense. They got the job done, and it worked. But I hated every minute of it.
01. There is a double spooking the world, the double of abstraction. The fortunes of states and armies, companies and communities depend on it. All contending classes - the landlords and farmers, the workers and capitalists - revere yet fear the relentless abstraction of the world on which their fortunes yet depend. All the classes but one. The hacker class.
02. Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things. In art, in science, in philosophy and culture, in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information new possibilities for the world are produced, there are hackers hacking the new out of the old. While hackers create these new worlds, we do not possess them. That which we create is mortgaged to others, and to the interests of others, to states and corporations who control the means for making worlds we alone discover. We do not own what we produce - it owns us.
03. And yet we don't quite know who we are. While we recognise our distinctive existence as a group, as programmers, as artists or writers or scientists or musicians, we rarely see these ways of representing ourselves as mere fragments of a class experience that is still struggling to express itself as itself, as expressions of the process of producing abstraction in the world. Geeks and freaks become what they are negatively, through their exclusion by others. Hackers are a class, but an abstract class, a class as yet to hack itself into manifest existence as itself.
The answer? They aren't offering a guide for tricking anything, they're offering a guide about how to properly structure your site so that it is easily crawlable and identifiable by their spiders so searchers can query for what you have to offer.
The core purpose of SEO is to do exactly what you said here: "The whole premise of the open web is that natural selection would allow rich information to be filtered through because it is good." It's called Search Engine OPTIMIZATION for a reason. The goal is to build very well structured sites by following specific sets of best practices.
Sure, there are lots of spammers out there. But just like a square is a rectangle but a rectangle isn't necessarily a square, a spammer is an SEO but an SEO isn't necessarily a spammer.
Stop spewing FUD.