What is SEO?

What is SEO? WordcloudRecently on LinkedIn one of the individuals I follow posted a humorous video from Digital Third Coast regarding SEO.  In the video, random people in Chicago are asked the question “what is SEO?”  They attempt to give their answers but really demonstrate people don’t know what SEO is.

I’ve found even within technical savvy circles, there isn’t a lot of consensus of what SEO is, the value it may or may not give to a website, and what it actually means to perform SEO on a website.  I laughed at the video and went on with my day only to return to the question over and over. What is SEO?

Could I answer the question in a truly informative way?

SEO, or search engine optimization as explained by Wikipedia is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” . . .  search results. This definition leaves a lot out of the process, mainly the ‘how’ it is done.

The reality of SEO is if there were a simple formula for how to do it, it could be done via a Python script. Does this mean there is a ‘magical’ part to SEO? No. I really wish we could destroy this aspect of SEO. Nothing an SEO (how is this for confusing, SEO is something an SEO – search engine optimizer – does), is magic or mysterious. The techniques to make a website visible on a search engine are well known and well documented but still require experience to do correctly and efficiently.

In my effort to answer this question I broke down the steps I go through in performing optimization for a website.

Keyword Analysis and Research

What search terms should the website appear for on a search engine result page? Sometimes this is obvious. If I’m creating a website for a house painter in Gotham City, then it is fairly simple.  I can use a tool like Ubersuggest to discover a full list of keywords for which to optimize beyond the obvious “Gotham City house painter” and “house painter in Gotham City”.

  • house painters near me
  • house painter hourly rate
  • house painter cost per hour
  • house painter quotes
  • house painter fees

Great, now I have a starting point but which of these terms actually will produce results? Google AdWord Planner will show us how often people actually search these terms.

Google AdWords  Keyword Planner

House painters near me is useful, house painter cost per hour isn’t.  House painting in Gotham City isn’t common so let’s assume there isn’t much competition.  Now what if I’m doing SEO for a company selling tea online across the nation?

Competition is high for this category. I’m not going to be able to get the company on page one of Google for ‘tea’, ‘green tea’, ‘black tea’, ‘loose leaf tea’, etc.  anytime soon. When  ‘online tea sales’ is searched on Google, one of the first results is Adagio.com. Using the Moz.com tool Open Site Explorer, we can see Adagio has a Domain Authority of 59 and Page Authority of 66.  These numbers are on a scale of 1 to 100. Domain Authority measures how well the site will perform in a search. It is sort of a baseline. Page Authority is how well the page will perform in a search. It is important to realize Google indexes pages, not domains.

If we have a brand new online tea ecommerce site, then the site won’t have much of a Domain Authority or Page Authority. It won’t be able to compete with Adagio right away. This doesn’t mean the site can’t compete at all, it just means it needs to find a more level playing field. More research will be needed to find a search term we can rank for which Adagio and other heavy hitters aren’t.

Keyword research is one of those ongoing SEO tasks as more and more keywords are sought for which the site to rank in the search engines. I call this ‘widening the funnel’. Eventually as the site gets more pages indexed, the domain authority grows and the page authority grows. Eventually the site will be sitting right there along side the heavy hitters.

Data Analysis

SEO requires a mind for data analysis. Search optimization tools like Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, SEMRush, Omniture, Raven Tools, Majestic SEO, and so many more collect massive amounts of data to help determine the health of the site, how well it is doing in search, and what the ‘next step’ for the site is.

Those performing SEO need to sort through all the data, determine which bits are important and which aren’t, and what actions need to be taken. It is easy to get lost in the data and worry about blips and outliers. Data is only useful if it helps you make a decision.


Knowing how to write HTML is critical for a search engine optimizer. Google values proper HTML code and responsive site design. The words put in the title tag of the website, the header tags, the alt tags for images, and the words put in strong and emphasis tags all carry weight for Google and help determine if the page has authority for a keyword phrase.

In SEO terms, this is on-page optimization and is the most basic of search engine optimization.


Content for a website can come from many different sources and optimizers can simple cut-and-paste what they get from these sources and pretty it up with some on-page optimization. A good search engine optimizer needs to be able to write.

Writing creates the very essence of what is being optimized and the ability to write connects the SEO directly with the website. Does the optimizer need to write every word going onto the site? Absolutely not unless maybe it is a personal site. What the optimizer does need to be able to do is write to fill in the cracks to take advantage of new search terms or simply to know whether or not the writing others produced is any good.

Link Building

It is the bane of many people working in SEO and content marketing. One good quality link can boost a site. Link building is where are lot of bad SEO techniques come in. We’ve seen the spam. Forums filled with links for Viagra. We ask ourselves ‘does anyone ever click on those?’ Nope. They don’t. They are only there to get a link back to the site.

Instead of going into depth on how to build links, I’m going to link over to conference notes I took while at ContentJam 2013. Sean McGinnis, the Marketing Director for Sears PartsDirect held a session specifically on Link Building.  Read my notes on Link Building.

Is that all? It actually feels like it is the tip of the iceberg. Search engine optimization is part of the content marketing pie and the aspects do blend. Where does social media marketing fit in with search engine optimization? Isn’t it part of link building? Building community also helps build links, helps create content, and certainly increases traffic from permission based marketing.

A website is never completely optimized. Once it has earned a spot on the first page of the search engine, the competition is painting a target on the site trying to claw ahead of it.

3 thoughts on “What is SEO?

    • I think SEO just happens to be one of those ‘back of the store’ operations which when done right, doesn’t look like anything has been done at all. We’ve all seen pages that ‘try too hard’ in regards to SEO or brilliant pages which could benefit from some on page tweaks, but the general public doesn’t realize it. Sort of like how a designer can see bad kerning in text but everyone else just says “this seems a bit off.”

      I also think SEO people have brought this on themselves by treating SEO like some sort of alchemy – a mysterious art that only people in the special cabal can learn.

      The more we talk about SEO openly and transparently, the better it will be for ourselves and for our future clients. The number of small businesses who have been burned by bad SEO people/companies is staggering, but these businesses are the same people who have no idea what SEO actually is so can’t make the determination of what is good and what is bad.

      • Well said, Sean. Reminds me of what Rand Fishkin Tweeted a while ago – ‘The more advanced Google becomes, the more SEO feels like a bonus for getting marketing & webdev right.’

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