The Changing Definition of Inbound Marketing: Why SEOs & SEMs Should Care

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few days about inbound marketing – see this discussion at in response to Rand Fishkin’s post announcing the rebranding of SEOmoz as just “Moz.” In that post, Rand sets up a distinction between “inbound marketing” and “interruption marketing,” as shown here:


Image courtesy of Moz, used with permission


A lot of marketers are rolling their eyes and wondering why we need another term – inbound marketing – when SEO, PPC (or SEM), etc., worked just fine before. Like this guy:


So, what is inbound marketing, anyway? And why should you care?

Inbound Marketing: When Customers Come To You

Just like inbound flights are the ones arriving at the airport, “inbound marketing” refers to marketing activities that bring leads and customers in when they’re ready, rather than you having to go out and wave your arms to try to get people’s attention. SEO is a classic example of inbound marketing, since it typically works like this:

  1. A woman’s alarm clock stops working and she realizes she needs a new one.
  2. She goes online to research alarm clocks that aren’t too expensive and have good reviews. She uses Google to search for [best alarm clock].
  3. She clicks on a few results and decides to order one.


If you happen to be a purveyor of alarm clocks, this is a dream come true for you! You didn’t have to cold call people on the off chance that they might need an alarm clock that week. You didn’t have to spend a lot of money blasting information about your alarm clocks over the radio or on billboards, reaching far more people than necessary. Your target customer found you when she was ready to buy.

Inbound Marketing Is Not About Costs

In the past, some people have excluded all forms of advertising from the category of inbound marketing. The idea was that things like TV, radio and print ads, as well as banner and pop-up ads on the Internet, were not targeted and were usually interrupting the content that people really wanted to see or read, like a TV show or a magazine article.

Somewhere along the line, people got confused about where PPC fits in all this. After all, PPC is advertising! So it must be a form of “interruption marketing,” right?!

Wrong! PPC is much closer to organic search than it is to traditional advertising. That’s because it’s context-driven. In the example above, the woman with the broken alarm clock could easily click on one of the ads – like the product listing ads with images at the top – and find exactly what she’s looking for. Because [best alarm clock] is a commercial search, a PPC ad can answer that need just as well as an organic result – sometimes better.

The point is, the customer is coming to you, whether you have to pay for the click or not. And “free clicks” from organic search have costs, too – all the time and work it takes to rank on the first page and to defend your rankings if you get there. So, inbound marketing isn’t defined by what you spend, it’s defined by the direction of the flow.

SEO & PPC: Different Tactics, Same Goals

So, why should you care about any of this? Here’s why I care: SEOs have neglected the value of PPC for too long. I’ve heard people say that SEO is better because it’s “free,” because it has more long-term value, because it gives searchers what they want and ads don’t, and lots of more silly arguments.

The truth is, SEO and PPC have exactly the same goal: to provide search engine users with the information they’re looking for, when they’re looking for it. Sometimes PPC ads fail to do this, but the same is true of SEO – that’s why Google spends so much effort trying to eliminate search spam from the organic results.

Inbound marketing is a useful term because it helps marketers understand that SEO and PPC are just two sides of the same coin – two different approaches to the same goal, getting interested buyers on your website.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Column


About The Author: is founder and CTO of WordStream, provider of the AdWords Grader and 20 Minute PPC Work Week.

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  • Nick Stamoulis

    “inbound marketing isn’t defined by what you spend, it’s defined by the direction of the flow.”

    I think that’s a great way of explaining inbound marketing. Instead of trying to make people realize they need something inbound marketing sets you brand up to be ready when the customers figure it out on their own and come looking for what you have to offer.

  • Nick Boylan

    Maybe I’m missing something, but…how is a trade show booth interruption marketing? Granted there are some annoying booth workers out there, but I don’t think that makes something where the user has to explicitly go to a trade show, and often pay to get in, an interruptive action.

  • Dale Brose

    I’m totally inline with this view. Good PPC is inbound because it’s goal is to provided content that is aware of the context of the search. I would agree that using the paid vs unpaid comparison is not looking at it from a business owner or brand manager point of view. Seen from that point, NOTHING is free. Not even earned media.

  • John Meadowcroft

    Agree. This whole article, to me, isn’t very well thought out and is quite favourable to web marketing.

    If radio, TV and print ads are classed as interruptive then so surely must PPC at the very least and SEO. The publishing trade has had to survive for decades using interruption marketing and people that buy mags and papers understand that.

    They can flick through a mag before they buy it, they wouldn’t buy a mag filled with just ads which, to me, cancels out the intrusion aspect entirely. Consumers digesting specialist media understand this.

    The amount of money agencies and brands spent (especially pre-penguin/panda) link building to cheat SERPs easily makes it one of the most intrusive forms of advertising over the last five years.

    Organic app store visibility, too. Do they think Angry Birds and the like just happened? A lot of awareness for those types of media were raised from ‘interruption marketing’…

  • Corey Creed

    Agree. The phrase Inbound marketing was made up by HubSpot. Moz is perpetrating it. It’s very subjective and too general, IMO.

  • Lauren Redgrave

    Fishkin knows the obvious – seo is dying. Slowly, but still. They had to develop the idea of inbound marketing. And think it’s great because search engines positions are not all. I realized it while using ColibriTool (, that positions aren’t the most important thing. Seo will survive but only with inbound marketing.


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