What is SEO? Search Engine Optimization Explained

By Andy Kerns

If you’re reading this you either don’t know what SEO is, you kinda sorta know, or you’re looking for a world-class example of how to explain it. The good news is, you’re all welcome to stay!

If you don’t know what SEO is, you’re not alone. Ready to learn more?

SEO is not search engine optimization.

Yeah, SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” but it’s got nothing to do with optimizing search engines. You know who optimizes Google? Google does. Every year Google pours many millions of dollars into making their search algorithm an incredible beast that pushes the boundaries of computer technology. They do this because they have a billion customers to please on a daily basis. Google wants search to be accurate, reliable and blindingly fast.

SEO is not about optimizing search engines. SEO is about you.

Let’s say you’re lucky and you’ve got yourself a nice little website. Well like it or not, Google’s gonna interact with that website, and SEO is about optimizing that interaction. The stakes are dizzyingly high: if Google likes you, it’ll help its customers find you. If Google doesn’t like you, you might as well not exist. (Are there fascist undertones to all this? Sure. But you have more control than you think.)

Google don't like you meme.

SEO is not just another thing on a list of things to do for your business.

Over the past 15 years, the exponential increase in the importance of search engine visibility to businesses constitutes the most ground-shifting development in the history of marketing. Seriously. This is the new reality: there are businesses for which search engine optimization is extremely important, and there are businesses for which it’s a life or death matter.

Let’s talk dollars…

As you may or may not know, Google allows any business to pay its way to the top of search results, using a program called AdWords (this is the quick-and-dirty way to achieve some of the same goals you’d pursue with SEO work).  Pick a keyword you wanna show up for, make sure you’re the highest bidder and boom, when someone searches that keyword, you’re at the top of the page. Then, if that someone clicks on your ad, you pay Google the amount you bid.

Wanna know how much Google made from businesses bidding for those top spots last year?

$67 billion.

Sixty-seven billion dollars. As in significantly more than last year’s global box office revenue or global music industry revenue. Yup.

Oh and check this out…

Last night I made Google charge some law firm more than $600, for no reason, with one click of my mouse.

According to this infographic, “San Antonio car wreck attorney” is the most expensive keyword on Earth, ringing in at $670.44. What does that mean? It means lawyers in San Antonio who work in the lucrative personal injury business want so badly for people searching this phrase to visit their sites, they’ll pay $640.77 for any single person Google can deliver, no matter the reason that person a) searches or b) clicks on the ad. Including me, last night.

Most expensive keywords

OK, so right now I’d bet more than a few of you are thinking…

“Oh yeah, I remember, SEO’s like that thing where you put words all over your website and in your blogs, then when people search those words Google puts your website higher up in the results.”

If that’s what you’re thinking, congratulations, you’re right and terribly wrong. Yes people use words to articulate searches and yes, words on a website help search engines understand what that website’s all about. But the series of things considered between the time a search is initiated and a few microseconds later when Google offers its response, represents a highly complex, esoteric world that’s always changing, frequently misunderstood, and the total focus of SEO work everywhere.

It’s also a lot like a crowded nightclub in South Beach, Miami…

The process search engines go through to produce search results, and the way they consider individual websites, is a lot like your standard nightclub scene. That’s not a coincidence. While Google is a fascinating artificial intelligence that continually reshapes our world, it’s also a very blunt reflection of basic human nature.

When Google is tasked with performing a search, it becomes something like a hot young single who has just entered a nightclub. What do hot young singles do when they enter nightclubs? They scan the crowd. And what are they concerned with? Two things:

  1. How people present themselves
  2. Who people associate with

A hot young single looks at smiles, clothes and dance moves. It watches to see what people drink, it listens to what they say, it checks to see if they have tight shoe game. This is exactly what Google does when it scans and judges websites. It measures how sites look, how they perform and what kind of substance they have.

The other thing hot young singles are concerned with, is associations. As a hot young single considers each person in a club, it considers a number of things beyond appearance and performance. Does a person have friends with them? How many friends? Do their friends seem cool? What about staff at the club, does the person know the bartender, the bouncer? And what about the holy grail… do they know the DJ?

How google works visualization.

This is how Google works.

So here’s what SEO experts do:

SEO experts provide real intelligence to businesses so those businesses can cooperate with Google’s artificial intelligence and hopefully get a fair shake in the world of search. There are three ways SEO experts do this:

1) Design and development

A website should appeal to search engines and visitors alike. Returning to our nightclub analogy, a site needs to dance well, have a nice smile and generally not be a hot mess that’s spilling drinks everywhere. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into this. Way, way, way more than you think, even once you’ve advanced past the idea that this is all about keywords. We’ll look at some of that stuff in a minute.

2) Link building

In order for a website to be found by anyone, Google needs to like it and respect it. Taking care of design and development earns respect, and links from other respectable sites make Google like a site. This is the phenomenon of association: How many people do you know? How cool are they? Do you know the DJ?

Link building is a straightforward, time-intensive, salt-of-the-Earth pursuit. There are no fancy tricks, no corners to cut. It involves trading value for value, straight up. A business provides legitimate value to a website–often in the form of content that’s of value to that website’s audience–and that site, in turn, links to the business’s site.

3) Keyword Research

Keyword research is essential, but unlike design, development and link building, it’s less about getting Google to like you and more about what happens after that’s achieved. Once Google likes your website, Google’s ready to show you off… but a search needs to happen first and Google needs to associate you with that search. This the point at which words on the page really start to matter. Yes, you should populate your website with content that indicates who you are and who you want to attract. And no, it’s not as simple as that sounds.

Paid ads aside, Page 1 of Google search results show ten options. As you might imagine, there are often more than ten businesses or other entities competing for attention from a given audience. Successful keyword research and implementation requires a phenomenal creative strategy. More on that in a minute.

Let’s pretend you understand what SEO is. The question now becomes, “What can I do about it?”

If you make your own soap, your own towels and you’ve recently considered whittling your own toothbrush, this section is for you!

There’s something important to be understood about design and development (in nightclub terms, the looking good and performing well part… killer threads, killer dance moves).

Honestly, I’d recommend wiring a home for electricity on your own before optimizing your website on your own. Worst case scenario with the wiring, you get electrocuted… that’s nothing compared to not being found online.  

That said, if you’re one of those really ambitious DIYers, here are some things you can do to optimize your website: Make sure all content is indexable, compress javascript files and images, make sure those files are loading asynchronously, leverage browser caching, make sure link structures are crawlable, confirm CSS is properly inlined, establish rel=nofollow links, optimize title tags, meta tags, H1 tags, image alt tags and URL structures, canonicalize your pages, make use of rich snippets, use tracking services or auto-pinging to defend against scrapers, implement schema, implement OpenGraph for social media, correct all 404 errors and customize your XML sitemap, splitting into submaps if necessary.

And if you’re one of those sane types not opposed to paying experts to be experts, do that.

The lay of the link building land.

There’s nothing tricky about link building, it just takes a ton of work. If you have a solid team of writers and designers, and a ton of media contacts to get your content published on big sites, that’s great, you’re almost halfway there!

All you need now is a series of catchy content ideas that synergize subjects relevant to your business with the fickle consumptive habits of the general public.

The key to keyword research

The reason I said keyword research and implementation isn’t as simple as putting words on the page is because the world of search is indescribably competitive.

OK, maybe not indescribably… I’d say $670.44-per-click for “San Antonio car wreck attorney” is pretty descriptive.

But that’s just it, that’s a perfect example! An emerging personal injury law firm in San Antonio can’t just put “San Antonio car wreck attorney” on their site a couple dozen times and sit back to watch the leads come pouring in. There are fifty other firms doing the exact same thing, many of which have been at it a lot longer, have more substantial websites, and have broader link profiles. And still, even those firms are hedging their bets and also bidding $600+ per click.

The results earned through SEO work are called organic results and the ten spots for organic results on Page 1 are reserved for the hardest working companies in land, or the richest companies, or realistically, some combination of both. But more important than any of that, the pursuit of Page 1 visibility is about finding creative ways to compete for very specific attention from very specific people.

To continue with the nightclub analogy, great keyword work is akin to a brilliant opening line that sets you apart from the crowd. Sometimes it’s earnest and straightforward, sometimes it’s catchy and creative. The point is, not everyone can have the best smile or best dance moves, or the best connections, but if you know your audience and you know exactly what they’re looking for, you can always find creative ways to get results.

One very important point before you leave

When it comes to SEO work, yes, we’re biased–we think businesses should hire experts like us to handle digital marketing. We know how much work and how many resources it takes to make an impact and get results. That said, we also appreciate that some businesses aren’t yet able to afford our services, even the most basic ones. That’s OK! If you’re one of those businesses, don’t leave this post discouraged. We’re more than happy to share wisdom and help you out until you’re ready to make us a partner and rock the search engines. So keep your chin up and check out the many free SEO guides and resources we offer!

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