Are you wondering “what is SEO?”
Well, then you are really new to digital marketing and I need to catch you up ASAP!
In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into what SEO is, where it came from, and most importantly, why it matters so much to marketers.
What is SEO: The Basics
SEO stands for search engine optimization.
It’s the process of optimizing material – whether it’s content on your website, a social media post, a video you produced, etc. – for search engines.
All of this optimization is done organically, which means the traffic you get from your optimization efforts is all free.
This is an important distinction. If you’ve had much interaction with search results pages (which, statistically and realistically speaking, you absolutely have), then you know the SERPs are typically separated into organic and paid results.
With SEO, we’re going for organic. These are based entirely on your own efforts, and how well each search engine thinks your content matches a specific search query. There’s no money changing hands here, and paying doesn’t rank you higher in the organic results.
All of your major search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo rank websites and content according to their own optimization algorithms.
They do so by using “spiders” to crawl your site, find optimized pages, and add them to their index. Then, when people perform searches, Google uses that index to find the most relevant piece of content for the given search query.
Paid results, on the other hand, exist outside of organic results. Their positions are paid for, not optimized for, and they generally appear at the very top of the results page. These fall under the SEM, rather than the SEO, category.
What is SEO: Why SEO Matters
SEO matters because frankly, search engines matter.
It’s where people turn when they need answers, information, or just to kill time.
And because so many people use them, they’re a huge source of traffic for the majority of websites.
In the graphic below, SparkToro breaks down how referral traffic is divided between sources.
As you can see, almost 60% of web traffic comes from Google alone.
And the higher you rank, the more traffic you’ll get.
Here’s what the click-through rate (CTR) looks like by position in the search results:
- Position 1 – 20.5%
- Position 2 – 13.32%
- Position 3 – 13.14%
- Position 4 – 8.98%
- Position 5 – 9.21%
- Position 6 – 6.73%
- Position 7 – 7.61%
The top position gets about 20% of all traffic from Google.
Think about it: the higher your page ranks, the higher the click-through rate (CTR) will be. Generally, users don’t want to scroll through pages of results. They want the best answer, at the very top of the page.
Luckily, Google’s pretty good at delivering just that.
So, why does SEO matter?
Because without it, you’ll never get to that top spot – or even close.
Even if you make it to the first page, you’ll still be missing out on almost half of all search engine traffic if you’re not in the first three spots.
Sounds harsh, I know. But keep in mind: SEO is a long-haul game. Your site probably won’t rank on the first pages initially, but if you keep optimizing and improving it, you’ll keep creeping up in the rankings.
What is SEO: On-Page vs. Off-Page SEO
When it comes to SEO, there are two types we usually talk about: on-page and off-page.
That said, most of that talk surrounds on-page SEO.
On-page SEO refers to anything you do to optimize the content and HTML portion of a page. It’s the things you see and control, like making sure your copy is unique and informative, using proper meta tags and headers, image optimization, etc.
Off-page SEO, on the other hand, happens outside of your page.
Mostly, that means link-building. And these off-page efforts have a big effect on your overall relevance, trustworthiness, and authority.
That’s a pretty big deal, and we’ll cover it more momentarily.
Now, there’s another SEO aspect that technically falls under on-page, but is often referred into its own category.
That’s technical SEO.
Technical SEO is the behind-the-scenes stuff – anything that happens outside of the content itself. This could be slow page load times, duplicate content issues, broken links, improper redirects, etc.
For your SEO to work and continuously maintain or move up in rankings, all of these aspects need to work together.
What is SEO: The SEO Evolution (From Black to White Hat)
SEO is serious business today.
And as we’ve covered, websites stand little chance of being recognized without out it. But before we get into what matters in SEO today, let’s take a look at where it came from.
Web pages themselves have a relatively short history (the first was created in 1991 – and it’s still live today!)
Back then, and throughout most of the early ’90s, there wasn’t much competition, meaning there wasn’t much need for SEO.
But as more sites began to pop up, so did search engines like Yahoo (in 1994) and Google (in 1997).
As that happened, the need for sites to differentiate and make themselves known to these search engines arose. Enter SEO.
But before on-page, off-page and algorithm updates, it was a system with few rules and far fewer ramifications.
That lack of rules created a “wild west” attitude that quickly gave rise to Black Hat SEO – the practice of using tactics against search engine guidelines to improve rankings.
These tactics included keyword stuffing, hidden text or links, guest posting networks, spammy backlinks, link farms, creating domains with duplicate content, etc.
Back in the day, these kinds of tactics often guaranteed a site would skyrocket to the top of the search results. Because of this, those sites that practiced clean, White Hat SEO were often bumped.
And eventually, search engines caught on.
(Shameless plug: if you’re interested in learning more about the evolution of SEO, I made a whole movie about it. Check it out here.)
What is SEO: Google Algorithm Updates and SEO
Google – which quickly established itself as the major search engine in town in the early 2000s – combatted Black Hat SEO by introducing a number of updates to algorithm.
Anyone experienced with SEO knows that Google updates happen often, and some are wider felt than others.
Here are a few that majorly rocked the world of SEO and how we go about it today:
- Panda, February 2011 – this one was major, and targeted low-quality, thin content. Panda ultimately impacted 12% of rankings, and was game-changer as far as how we produce content today (stay tuned for more on that).
- Penguin, April 2012 – targeted irrelevant or spammy links, and is now also officially part of Google’s core algorithm; made the inclusion of high-quality, relevant backlinks an important part of SEO
- Hummingbird, August 2013 – penalized sites for keyword stuffing and low-quality content, and overall helped Google rank better interpret search queries and searcher intent
- RankBrain, October 2015 – Google’s machine learning system that became one of its most important ranking factors; made optimizing for relevancy and related concepts an important part of SEO
- Fred, March 2017 – penalized thin content; also speaks to the growing importance of comprehensive content in SEO
- Medic, August 2018 – while Google’s been tight-lipped about this one, it appears to target sites with low E.A.T (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness), pointing towards Google’s growing favoritism of established, trustworthy content
What is SEO: Inside Search Engines and How They Rank
So, now that we know how SEO’s evolved, we can talk about what matters most today.
First thing: Google uses over 200 ranking factors in its algorithm.
That’s a lot to consider when creating a site, but luckily, we know that a few matter more than most.
And even without an official list from Google, we can tell from the tactics its algorithm updates have targeted that it takes quality content, links, and trustworthiness very seriously.
There are plenty of others to consider as well, and we’ll touch on a few of them below.
And, though we’re focusing primarily on Google, keep in most search engines use similar factors when indexing content.
Content and SEO
Low-quality, thin content has been the subject of many of the above algorithm updates and continues to be one of the biggest determiners in how well a site will rank.
Specifically, they’re looking for content that’s relevant and authoritative.
How do you achieve that?
First, you make sure you’re targeting and optimizing for keywords that your target audience is searching for (research tools like SEMrush are a lifesaver here).
Then, you make sure your content in as in-depth and packed with as much useful, unique information as possible.
This is why producing long-form content is so important. Long form (generally, anything over 1,500 words) is seen as more comprehensive and more likely to address a topic completely, and therefore often ranks higher than shorter pieces.
But now more than ever – especially with the updates from Hummingbird and RankBrain – an emphasis is being put on semantic, natural search and language.
Instead of filling a piece with keywords, natural language and longer, search phrases are winning out.
Google is all about finding the most relevant answer to a search query, and as its capabilities expand, it’s able to recognize more subtleties in content – beyond just blatant keywords.
For marketers, that means focusing on producing long, informative content optimized for the reader, not the search engine.
Link Building and SEO
Link building has been an important SEO factor since the beginning.
But as we know from updates like Penguin, Google is constantly getting better at determining high-quality links from low-quality.
In Google’s eyes, a link to your content counts as a vote. If it’s from a site with a poor reputation and domain authority, that vote could count against you.
But if that link comes from a high-quality, reputable site, it will count in your favor.
The more votes you have in your favor, the more trustworthy Google will view your site. And the more trustworthy it is, the more likely Google is to rank it well for related queries.
To get these links, you need a strategy.
The core of that strategy will rely on creating high-quality content and promoting it consistently to the right people. When the “right” people find it (those with authority in your niche), they’ll link back to it if it’s quality enough.
Other ways to proactively get backlinks include outreach campaigns, guest posting, viral campaigns, etc. More on that here.
Authority, Trustworthiness, and SEO
The good news here is that if you have the highest quality content and links, Google’s likely to see your site as pretty authoritative and trustworthy.
Remember, the better your content, the more authoritative it will appear, and the better your links, the more trustworthy.
With the Medic update, even more emphasis seems to have placed on these factors, especially if you operate a site that deals with sensitive or highly academic information (think sites that give financial or medical advice).
In that case, many suggest factors like an About Us page, author bio’s, and content from well-known or respected authors, and a solid collection of reviews could help your site’s E.A.T.
Social Media and SEO
Everyone wants to know what effect social media will have on their search rankings.
Thing is, social media itself is not a ranking factor.
But it does affect your rankings indirectly. More specifically, any links you get from social media do have an effect.
A recent 2016 study from SearchMetrics had this to say:
“The correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high … The top-ranked websites in Google’s rankings displays vastly more social signals than all other pages…. This is primarily due to the overlap between brand websites performing strongly in social networks and being allocated top positions by Google.”
So it stands to reason that the more links you’re getting on social media (from high-quality sources) the higher you might rank.
Another thing to keep in mind: social media is more of a factor when it comes to Bing SEO than on Google.
What is SEO: A Quick Guide to Optimization
I’ll be brief here, but don’t worry, I have full optimization formulas for you in this in-depth article.
After all of this, you’re probably wondering where to start when it comes to SEO.
First, you need to find which keywords are ranking on the first page. A good research tool is key here (again, I recommend SEMrush and it’s Keyword Magic Tool).
Find which keywords are ranking highest in your niche, and create a piece of content around each keyword.
Then, create content optimized to Google’s standard – fact-driven, authoritative, long-form content.
Focus on making yours the most informative and in-depth article around that keyword, and you’ll have a good chance of higher rankings.
Next, you’ll need a good backlink strategy in place. Remember, the number of high-quality links your content produces is a huge ranking factor for Google.
When the content’s ready, it’s time to create some serious buzz. That means promoting all over social media, in your emails, through direct outreach, etc. Your goal is to get as much traffic and as many eyes on your content as possible.
Part of creating buzz is just creating as much content as possible; the more content, the more likely something is to hit the jackpot. Just remember, more content doesn’t mean lower quality. As we’ve seen, quality, in-depth content wins the day.
So if you’re dealing with quantity vs. quality, always go with the latter.
And finally, continuously go back and update any content that performs well. Even if you hit first page rankings, there’ no guarantee you’ll stay there. To ensure you do, periodically refresh with new information, insights or FAQs.
Wrapping Up What is SEO
Hopefully, you know a little more about what is SEO and why it matters.
Have any other questions? We’ve got answers. Let us know in the comments.