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SEO vs. Inbound Marketing: What’s the Difference?

SEO vs. Inbound Marketing Rugby scrum

Frank Sinatra once sang, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage … You can’t have one without the other.” 

The Sultan of Swoon wasn’t entirely correct with that last statement (you can have one without the other). But the sentiment is on the mark: Love and marriage, or a horse and carriage, complement one another. They’re better together. 

So it is with SEO vs inbound marketing. They’re not the same thing, but with their powers combined, you attract traffic to your website, turn traffic into leads, and turn leads into customers. 

You may be new to internet marketing (or at least content marketing) so the terms SEO and inbound marketing may sound foreign ... or you may think they are the same. 

Let’s clear up any confusion by exploring what SEO and inbound marketing are and how they’re better together.

Is it Really SEO vs. Inbound Marketing?

There are tactics and methods shared by SEO and inbound marketing, but they’re certainly not the same. 

SEO stands for search engine optimization. SEO alone is the right choice for some businesses, while for others a combined approach will yield a higher ROI. Both seek to bring your target audience to your website and turn traffic into potential customers.

Regardless of the approach you take, consider SEO and inbound marketing as vital parts of your overall marketing strategy, not just "something that happens with your website." These approaches are not in conflict -- instead, use them together for great results.

What Is SEO?

The goal of an SEO strategy is to improve visibility in the search engines when a searcher performs a search term relevant to the business or organization. If your website doesn't show up in Google for the keywords your buyers use, you don't exist online. 

Website traffic is the foundation of lead generation and RFQ submissions. Your site should increase in visits month over month. The quality of the visits should improve as well. How do you increase quality and quantity? With SEO.

A good B2B SEO strategy focuses on your buyer’s search queries. What do they type into Google that should lead them to your website? The words they use -- known as keywords -- often yield millions of results. You want to rank high for keywords your potential buyers are using. In other words, when someone searches for a word or phrase specific to your product/service, or a problem you can solve, you want your page to display on Google’s first results page -- not the 121st page. 

This is done through technical SEO tactics that make your site more easily scanned by Google. Examples include:

  • HTTP response code errors
  • Broken images and media
  • Mixed content
  • Slow page speed
  • Meta description and title errors

Combined with prospect-focused keyword strategies, and a strong B2B content strategy, your site can rise from obscurity to a spot on the coveted first results page. This increases organic traffic to your site.

SEO strategy also focuses on the overall quality of that search traffic to your site. If you ultimately can’t convert that website traffic into a lead and eventually a sale, it's like having a bunch of window shoppers that never actually buy.

SEO is a must, but it can't always succeed on its own. That's where inbound marketing comes into play.

What Is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is a more comprehensive approach to an online marketing strategy. Not only are there focused efforts on generating traffic (SEO, PPC, blogging, social media), but there are also defined tactics to guide that traffic from the visit through close of a sale and beyond. 

By thoroughly understanding who your best buyers are, what problems trigger them to seek your solution, and what content will help support their buying process, you can generate more leads through your website.

Three common aspects of inbound marketing strategies are:

  • Content production
  • Conversion capturing
  • Lead nurturing


Both B2B SEO and inbound marketing use content as a driving force. However, a full B2B inbound marketing strategy focuses on creating content that’s more focused and aligned to a user’s decision-making process (buyer's journey) and the buyer themselves (buyer persona). High-quality content makes your business look more reputable to customers.


Both SEO and inbound marketing are aimed at generating traffic in some way. However, inbound marketing directly focuses on generating conversions through providing engaging, helpful information. This is done by providing high-quality content to the right customers at the right time that moves them further in their buyer’s journey.

There’s a symbiotic relationship here. Creating useful content will increase your lead-capturing opportunities, as well as the odds your visitor spends more time on your page and visits additional pages. Since those are major factors in Google’s search ranking algorithm, great content indirectly improves SEO.

See the circle of life here?


In an SEO-only strategy, there’s often not a clearly defined lead-nurturing process. On the contrary, inbound marketing strategies outline exactly what should happen when a conversion has occurred, using ongoing communication and education to nurture buyers through the decision-making process.

It’s SEO & Inbound Marketing, Not SEO vs. Inbound Marketing

SEO and inbound marketing walk hand-in-hand to turn strangers into potential customers, and ideally, into your best promoters. The strategies combine to attract your target audience and convert them into taking action, leading to opportunities to close the deal and delight customers with your amazing products.

Want to learn more? These posts explain the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing and the difference between inbound marketing and outbound marketing!

Thinking about creating an inbound marketing strategy? We have a guide for you:

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(Editor's note: This blog post was originally published in July 2015 and was recently updated)