Demystifying Search Engine Optimization: What is SEO?

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Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is an enormous topic that is often misunderstood. In this article, I want to talk about what SEO is, what it does, and more importantly, what it is not. I am also going to add some helpful hints for getting your SEO efforts started and some tools you can use to make it all work.

What is SEO?

A lot of people decide to build their own websites, jump on-site builders, finish their sites, and then start trying to find themselves on Google or Bing. Immediately that sense of disappointment with not being able to find their website sinks in. Why? What happened?

It’s not their fault; 90.63% of web content gets no traffic from Google or other search engines. People get sold on the simplicity of building a website, but not being taught how the internet works…especially search engines.

Search engines use complicated indexing scripts to crawl over the web and archive information about your website. The scripts have a lot of different terms, crawler, web crawler, spiders, bots, etc., but whatever you’ve heard them called their function is the same: they summarize every website on the internet. These summaries are archived, and then searched when users go to a search engine, like Google, Bing, or Yahoo, and enter a keyword. The archive is searched, and websites with the most relevant summaries to the search are then presented according to their ranking scores.

That’s how search engines work.

SEO is the art of making your website relevant to your audience!

Once you understand how web crawlers work, you can apply this understanding to create more relevant content, and then build your page in a way that web crawlers can understand. By making your site easier for web crawlers to interpret, you can control what searches your users are more likely to find your website with. In other words, you can use keywords to define your website and boost its search ranking for a given topic.

So if you launch a site, can’t find it on the search engines and are getting frustrated, then you may have not applied proper SEO techniques to your website. If you feel like you have applied a solid SEO plan on your website and you’re still on page 6 of the Search Engine Results Pages, or SERP, then you may need to take a look at what you’re competitors are doing….but we’ll get to that later.

What does SEO do for your website?

Now that you know that SEO makes your website more web crawler friendly, and show up in higher SERP positions, you need to know one sad truth: SEO is not the magic bullet.

What I mean is that the expectations placed on a website are usually a lot heavier than what a website can deliver. Fighting your way to position #1 on Google can be an uphill battle, and once you get there, you need to know that while SEO will increase your web traffic, it will not guarantee you success. Your website still needs to fulfill the needs of your user, and make an offer that is compelling enough to pull your potential prospect into your sales funnel.

In other words, SEO is not a substitute for having a solid marketing outlook for your business. I’m not saying this to be discouraging, I am saying this because a lot of SEO “experts” aren’t being honest about what good SEO looks like or how to measure success. SEO is extremely important, but it doesn’t have inherently magical powers that will suddenly make you the next Jeff Bezos or Pierre Omidyar.

Do you need an SEO professional?

This is a big question and the answer is…maybe? Your need for an SEO expert is dependent on a project by project factors.

The first thing you should ask yourself is “Do you have the technical capabilities?” A lot of backend SEO considerations are based on how you create your site’s markup, for example, the way you use heading tags <h1, h2, h3…> matters. In order to make these changes, you need to know how to access, edit, and save your markup changes. If you’re using a web builder, like Wix, you may find yourself frustrated to see that how much of your site you can access may be restricted.

You may also need to look at how much time and effort you have to put into your SEO strategy. In order to build great written content, you may need to put hours into your competitive keyword research or dive into what needs your prospective clients are trying to meet. There are a lot of tools that you can use to help with this, but the biggest factor in succeeding comes down to the time and effort you can afford to dedicate to your website.

Finally, you need to get an idea of exactly what kind of return you can expect from your time, efforts, and expense. One of my favorite SEO experts, who has taught me a lot about SEO, is a guy called Will Coombe who runs Sharpe Digital, an SEO agency out of London. In Will’s book, “3 months to no. 1”, he explains that part of his new client onboarding process includes research into what kind of effect SEO can generate for his clients. There are times when SEO won’t generate enough income on its own to warrant spending thousands of dollars on SEO experts…when that happens, Will is comfortable with turning business away instead of trying to bilk a new upstart for an expense it can’t afford or generates a poor return.

Will wrote this in his book and got me to thinking about other things I have heard SEO “experts” say.

What should you look for in an SEO expert?

This is a touchy subject for me because there is a tendency for people who build websites to also bill themselves as SEO “experts”…I put experts in parenthesis because I see these same people make ridiculous claims and bill bloated invoices based on the weight of those claims. Sometimes new clients will tell me that they are paying “experts” $500 to $1000 a month and when I ask what their keyword targets are…they don’t know. I’ll ask what efforts their “expert” is making on a monthly basis…they don’t know that either.

I personally don’t think a client is interested in the technical details of what they pay me to do, but it feels like they should know the highlights of what they are paying for, so at least the top 5 keywords targeted and any long-tail targeted words and how many hours a month their “expert” is working within their site’s promotion.

The only real advice I can offer for separating an expert from an “expert” is to ask questions and listen to the promises a service makes. If a service promises you first on page #1, that’s the first indicator that you’re dealing with an “expert”. Beyond that, get an outline of what your SEO service is providing: ask what keywords your service is targeting, ask about the tools they use, ask about month-to-month tasks, and exactly how much time they are offering. Accountability when shopping for a professional is important. Experts don’t mind being accountable, “experts” might drag their feet on the details.

There are 3 types of SEO.

Another reason SEO topics can get complicated is that there are three areas of SEO that should be performed: backend SEO, frontend SEO, and off-page SEO. Their names probably give what they are away, but let’s get into it anyway.

Backend SEO is everything that a user can’t see…but web crawlers can!

When we talk about back-end SEO, we’re referring to the technical details of a website. Typically, this refers to making sure we are using semantic markup that gives the site a clearer meaning for web crawlers. For example, there are two ways that you can italicize body text <i> or <em>, but to a web crawler one of these tags is used for design reasons and the other is used to indicate emphasis. The semantics of the markup gives the web crawler a contextual, or semantic, understanding of the content. Thus, the term semantic markup’s meaning.

Heading tags, like these, can help web crawlers better understand your content
Headings create an outline like structure that help web crawlers understand your content

Using semantic markup is only one way to use backend coding to create meaning to web crawlers; another is your use of headings. Heading tags, like <h1>, H2>, <H3>…, can give your body text larger than normal text, but they should never be used for design purposes. Instead, headings are designed to act as a sort of content outline. So your page should only ever have one <h1> tag that defines your entire page, and then the rest of the headings should be used to dictate their level in your outline. In other words, <h2> tags should support the point of your <h1> tag, and your <h3> tags will support <h2> tags…you can nest headings up to 6 levels deep.

Page speed is another important backend factor. Are your web images optimized to be as small as they can without hurting your website’s user experience? Are you loading scripts in the most effective way possible? If a site doesn’t load in less than 5 seconds, the demographics tell us that users will get aggravated and leave. This is why Google uses page speed as a ranking factor.

These are just a few considerations you need to make on the back end of your website, most of the things you need to do are pretty common sense once you understand how the markup should be properly built. Others, like using your SSL certificate to enforce “HTTPS” encryption are less obvious but still important.

Frontend SEO is everything that your users see and interact with.

Frontend SEO is pretty straightforward on the surface, it’s everything that your users will see and learn from your website. That means that frontend SEO is focused on content and to that end I ask myself two questions: “Is my content keyword-rich?” and “Is it used organically?”

Keyword-rich content is content that utilizes keywords throughout the headings and body text. There are a few important things to know about keyword-rich content: you need to know what keywords you want to target, how valuable your keywords are, what the ideal keyword density is, and how to toe the line between machine-readable keyword-rich content and user engaging keyword content.

Building a keyword strategy is built around researching what your users are searching for and what strategies your competitors are using to rank in your niche. Tools like Semrush or Ahrefs, or the MOZ browser bar, can give you all sorts of looks into how your competitors are building their traffic. Whatever your competitors are doing, that’s the bare minimum you should be doing. If you see an area that they aren’t addressing, fill that void, and when you can, go further! SEO isn’t a one and done battle, it’s a war…so be prepared to bring it!

Keyword density is one of those areas you want to research your competitors on because there is a careful balance with how much you should load your content up with keywords….do too little and you won’t rank, but do too much and Google might interpret your content as spam. If your #1 competitor is using a keyword density of 3.8%, as a rule of thumb, I target about 4.2% to 4.5%.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that as web crawlers have evolved, they’ve gotten better at spotting content that was built for crawlers. Your website’s content should sound organic. Read your content out loud…does it sound like a textbook? Yes? Then trash it and start over. Your audience is made up of people, and you better damn well write for your audience.

Again, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive checklist, so there are a lot of other considerations to make with frontend optimization. The important thing I want to give you with this is a starting point.

Off-page optimization is where the monthly SEO hustle is done.

Once your website is built, and you’re serving up SEO in your code, file optimization, and your content, you then need a plan to promote your website and generate internet traffic. When your website builds traffic, search engines start to identify your website as a leader in your niche. This means you need to set up signals to search engines that your site is getting noticed. What kinds of signals send this message? Backlinks; when search engines find reputable links to your website it increases your search ranking. The more links web crawlers find pointing to your website, the more the web crawlers can infer about the value of your site.

You have to be extremely careful in building your backlink strategy. Google web crawlers have gotten really picky about what links they give value to ever since SEO experts began abusing backlink values through link farming websites. Link farms are websites that exist only to house meaningless collections of links for trying to game search ranking…don’t do this. It’s important to earn your backlinks, and that’s where the off-page optimization hustle begins.

SEO is important, and it’s a system worth the effort.

So by now, you’ve got a glimpse at how much is involved with SEO. It’s a lot. It’s easy to learn, but it requires discipline and careful planning if you want to do it right. Getting found by search engines is always a valuable asset, but it’s important to ask yourself how much you will rely on pure organic traffic or how your website fits into a larger marketing strategy. Once you understand that, you’ll know how much time, effort, and money to want to invest in your SEO efforts.

Responsible and legit SEO experts will help you find these answers and build a good plan. But buyer beware because there are a lot of fakes and phonies running around on the internet, so invest carefully and with due diligence before you break your bank in your race to the top. The only thing worse than not having SEO is having bad SEO. I’m not kidding there; bad SEO can actually reduce your ranking scores and generate search penalties.

Jason Usher

Jason has been studying design and web programming for over 10 years. He's a big fan of brand-oriented design with an emphasis on value for value growth. When he is not neck-deep in market research, he enjoys photography, time with his wife and kids, and a good movie.

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