More than a decade ago, I first encountered the 3 letters that would determine the course of my entire career: SEO.
At that time, few people (including me) outside of the marketing world knew what “search engine optimization” meant—much less how it works and how to do it. Once I started my job as an SEO copywriter, most of my friends and family had a hard time understanding what I actually did for a living. They often just assumed that I worked behind the screen tweaking algorithms and search results like some sort of Google puppetmaster (and I’ll admit that it was fun letting them think that for a while, so I didn’t jump to correct them).
Back then, SEO was seemingly an obscure specialty within internet (online) marketing—which was itself a relatively minor subset of a company’s traditional marketing department. Nowadays, digital marketing plays an increasingly prominent and important role in the overall advertising, promotion and branding strategies of brands, and SEO is one of its sharpest tools.
It’s actually getting to where my friends and family kind of understand what I do for a living, and I don’t have to explain what SEO is nearly as often.
More importantly, clients increasingly seem to understand not only what SEO is, but also that optimizing a website for search engines is a long-term, sustainable investment.
That said, there still seems to be plenty of misunderstanding and misinformation out there about what SEO actually is and how it works. This confusion is precisely why so many folks still take the bait from deceptive SEO frauds that make impossible promises and use underhanded tactics to deliver short-term results.
For this reason, we thought it was time to create a carefully curated list of definitions from industry thought leaders explaining what SEO is and why it should be a key component of your marketing strategy (if it isn’t already). For those of us who are deep in the trenches of SEO, these definitions also serve as a much-needed reminder of what it’s all about.
What is SEO?
First, let’s start with the basic fact that SEO is an acronym for “search engine optimization.” The acronym is also commonly used as a job title descriptor for someone who specializes in SEO (as in: The SEO we hired is killing it and deserves a raise).
To help define what SEO is, I asked our founder and very own SEO expert to share his own elevator pitch describing what SEO is after decades in the industry. Here’s what he said:
“SEO is about optimally presenting a website to search engine spiders to maximize rankings and traffic.
Optimization is the process of manipulation of the mathematics of a website in order to influence how a target search engine will rank various pages and groups of pages from that website in SERP. Algorithmic math can include keyword density, semantic relationships, meta information, intra-page linking, third party linking, webpage structure and keyword emphasis, link emphasis, redirect structures, end-user page engagement, content type and flow, and much more.”
– Stone Reuning, President & Director of SEO Strategy
What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?
Another sometimes used synonym for SEO that essentially means the same thing to most marketers is search engine marketing (SEM), though SEM is increasingly being used when also referring to paid search and pay-per-click( PPC) strategies as opposed to strictly organic search.
What are the different types of SEO?
Inserting high-value keywords into page content and metadata tend to be what most people think of as SEO. While that is certainly an important element to search engine optimization, it’s only one of several. Here are the 4 main approaches and specialties within SEO that help provide a clearer picture of what SEO fully entails:
- On-page SEO. This type of SEO encompasses optimization of all on-page elements of a web page, including content marketing, keywords, title, subheadings, HTML code, user experience, calls-to-action, design, accessibility and more.
- Off-page SEO. This type of SEO involves optimizing backlinks and other external site indicators that help show Google and other search engines that your site is authoritative and trustworthy. Link-building is the biggest and most crucial part of off-page SEO.
- Local SEO. For businesses with physical brick-and-mortar locations that wish to target customers and clients in their geographic area, local SEO strategies—such as claiming your Google My Business listing and getting your business listed directly in the Local Pack—help to boost your online visibility.
- Technical SEO. Sometimes categorized as on-page SEO, technical SEO refers to the back-end “behind-the-scenes” work required to optimize your site for the SERPs and make your pages more crawlable. Examples include optimizing your schema markup, page speed, image quality, HTTPS/SSL security, sitemaps, mobile responsiveness, linking structure and other technical elements.
It’s also worth mentioning that many in the industry also use colors as a descriptor of the quality of SEO services provided. For example, white-hat SEO is based on proven strategies, tactics and techniques that are focused on optimizing the human experience rather than “tricking” search engines, whereas black-hat SEO refers to any technique that falls outside of the approved best practices of search engines. (The term gray-hat SEO was also created to describe the optimization tactics that fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to best practices.)
SEO definitions from other industry leaders
Considering that Google dominates the search engine world with roughly 92.05 percent market share as of February 2021, a good place to start when defining SEO is Google’s own “Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide” which explains the acronym as follows:
“Search engine optimization [is] the process of making your site better for search engines…SEO is often about making small modifications to parts of your website. When viewed individually, these changes might seem like incremental improvements, but when combined with other optimizations, they could have a noticeable impact on your site’s user experience and performance in organic search results… SEO is about helping search engines understand and present content.”
According to Webopedia:
“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving a website or web page so it increases organic traffic quality and quantity from search engines. Successful SEO means a web page will be more likely to appear higher on a search engine results page (SERP).”
Search Engine Land defines SEO in a similar way:
“In simple terms, it means the process of improving your site to increase its visibility when people search for products or services related to your business in Google, Bing, and other search engines. The better visibility your pages have in search results, the more likely you are to garner attention and attract prospective and existing customers to your business.”
Brian Dean of Backlinko goes a little further in his definition by listing a few of the most important examples of common SEO activities:
“SEO is all about improving a site’s rankings in the organic (non-paid) section of the search results… Common tasks associated with SEO include creating high-quality content, optimizing content around specific keywords, and building backlinks.”
Ahrefs mirrors Brian Dean’s emphasis on quality in their definition of SEO as:
“…the practice of optimizing a website or webpage to increase the quantity and quality of its traffic from a search engine’s organic results.”
Digital marketing guru Niel Patel impressively manages to make me hungry while simultaneously providing a perfect example of what SEO is in his definition:
“When someone types ‘vegan lasagna’ into Google, they’re likely looking for a recipe, ingredients, and instructions on how to make it. If you wrote an article about making vegan lasagna, you’d want people to find your recipe. For anyone to find it, you need to rank above all the other websites with recipes for vegan lasagna. It’s not easy, but that’s what SEO marketing is all about.”
Another definition that gets me thinking about lunch comes from Search Engine Journal:
“At its core, SEO is the process of making your site rank as high as possible in Google when someone types in ‘burrito blanket’ (or whatever it is you sell, promote, or talk about.) The higher your site ranks, the more visible your business is, and the more traffic and sales your business is likely to generate.”
Semrush has one of my personal favorite definitions:
“SEO is the art and science of persuading search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, to recommend your content to their users as the best solution to their problem.”
HubSpot similarly defines SEO as a “solution” for online searchers:
“It refers to techniques that help your website rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs). This makes your website more visible to people who are looking for solutions that your brand, product, or service can provide via search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.”
As the creator of one of the most popular and established SEO plugins and software, Yoast offers the following explanation of search engine optimization:
“It’s the practice of optimizing your web pages to make them reach a high position in the search results of Google or other search engines. SEO focuses on improving the rankings in the organic – aka non-paid – search results.”
And last but not least, Mailchimp defines SEO as:
“…the process used to optimize a website’s technical configuration, content relevance and link popularity so its pages can become easily findable, more relevant and popular towards user search queries, and as a consequence, search engines rank them better.”
Glossary of basic SEO terminology and buzzwords
When defining what search engine optimization is, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the related terms that commonly arise.
- Authority. Authority is a qualitative measurement of your site that Google and other search engines calculate to determine your ranking and visibility. Domain authority refers to how known and trusted your domain name is, whereas page authority is determined by how authoritative a single page on your site is (i.e. a blog post, landing page, whitepaper, etc.). Improving a site’s authority is one of the most important jobs of an SEO.
- Backlinks. Also referred to as “inbound links” or “incoming links,” backlinks are links from one website to another. For example, if another website links to your page, you have received 1 backlink. Backlinks are an important ranking factor and therefore important to SEO.
- Black-hat SEO. Any search engine optimization technique that falls outside of the scope of approved best practices and violates a search engine’s quality guidelines—such as keyword stuffing, doorway pages, hidden text, cloaking, reporting a competitor (negative SEO) and automating content—is considered black-hat.
- Bounce rate. This is one of the many metrics SEOs use to evaluate the effectiveness of their optimization efforts. Bounce rate measures how often users visit your page and exit without visiting any other pages. The higher the bounce rate, the more negatively it will impact site SEO and rankings.
- Crawl. To discover new or updated sites and pages, Google has automated software that continuously fetches or “crawls” the internet and adds new content to its index. How often Google will crawl your site varies daily and based on individual factors. Some sites have thousands or even millions of pages crawled daily, whereas other URLs only have a few pages crawled each day. This is known as your “crawl budget.”
- EAT. An acronym for Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness, EAT is how Google determines when a page is reputable and worth ranking. The better the EAT score, the more likely your page will rank well in the SERPs.
- Featured snippets. In Google search, some results pages return organic answer boxes—known as featured snippets—at the top. These snippets typically receive a larger share of organic traffic, which is why they are highly sought after by SEOs.
- Index. Every website and page that is “crawled” by Google is read and stored in its massive index. When your site or page is “indexed” by Google or another search engine, this means your site or page will appear in the search results pages for certain searches. De-indexing is when a page or group of pages is removed from Google’s index (not necessarily the source web page).
- Keyword. In digital marketing, a keyword is simply a word or phrase that a person types into Google search or another search engine to find what they are looking for. Getting your site ranked highly for certain target keywords using proven SEO techniques helps draw more users and traffic to your site.
- Keyword clusters. Keyword clustering (or grouping) is a keyword research technique that involves categorizing groups of similar keywords with similar search intent, then optimizing pages for each keyword group by including all of the terms and phrases in that cluster. This approach differs from the traditional technique of dedicating each page to a single keyword.
- Local pack. A handful of local business listings (usually 3) can get featured under Google’s map. Known as the “local pack,” these listings and map usually only appear when a searcher submits a local-intent search like: gas stations near me.
- Meta-tags (or metadata). Meta-tags are hidden on-page SEO elements found in the HTML of a page that provide structured metadata telling search engine crawlers what the page is about. Some meta-tags, like the title tag and meta description, also appear in the SERPs. Including important keywords in a page’s meta-tags is one simple and effective SEO strategy.
- Organic search/traffic. Organic traffic refers to any “natural” traffic that you don’t have to pay for. Any traffic you receive through paid advertising or direct traffic is not considered organic. With over 5.6 billion searches conducted every day, organic search represents a massive chunk of potential traffic to your site.
- PageRank. Developed in 1997 by Google founders, PageRank is Google’s link authority algorithm system for comparing websites and ranking pages based on a number of factors such as incoming backlinks. The goal of PageRank is to determine which pages and sites are more authoritative, important and therefore worth ranking highly.
- PPC. PPC stands for pay-per-click. It describes any digital marketing activity in which the user pays a fee each time an internet searcher clicks on their advertisement. Paid advertising is available through search engines (like Google Ads), as well as on social media platforms (such as Facebook’s Ad Manager).
- SERPs. An acronym for “search engine results page,” SERP refers to the page and listings that the search engine displays when a searcher submits a search query. SERPs include both organic search results and paid listings (PPC ads), as well as sometimes featured snippets and local packs. While many queries submitted pull up hundreds of thousands or even millions of search engine results pages, data has long shown that the first results page captures anywhere from 71 percent to 92 percent of traffic, which is why getting listed on Page 1 is so competitive. The second SERP attracts below 6 percent of all traffic.
- Sitemap. According to Google, a sitemap is “a file where you provide information about the pages, videos, and other files on your site, and the relationships between them. Search engines like Google read this file to crawl your site more efficiently. A sitemap tells Google which pages and files you think are important in your site, and also provides valuable information about these files.”
- SSL/TSL (or HTTPS). SSL, which stands for Secure Sockets Layer, is a cryptographic protocol security system that provides a secure connection between 2 computers or devices communicating over the internet or an internal network. SSL was eventually replaced by TLS (Transport Layer Security). HTTPS stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure, and its communication protocol is encrypted by SSL/TSL to prevent hacks and unauthorized tampering. In addition to improving site security, HTTPS is a ranking signal for Google and therefore optimized sites should have this protocol in place—as shown by the lock icon in the URL address bar.
- White-hat SEO. Proven optimization strategies, tactics and techniques that comply with a search engine’s quality guidelines and are focused on improving the searcher experience rather than “tricking” search engines.
Now your turn!
Whichever definition you like best, I hope these explanations provide a better understanding of what SEO is and why it’s an important part of your digital marketing strategy. Just as the internet has changed significantly over the past decades, the definition of what constitutes SEO will undoubtedly evolve in the years to come.
That’s part of what makes SEO exciting for those of us in the digital marketing trenches.
Of course, this constant changing and adaptation is also what makes mastering SEO an increasingly difficult task—especially for business owners with enough on their plate already. If you need help leveraging the art and science of search engine optimization to boost your online visibility, traffic and revenue, leave it to the experts by contacting us at SEO Advantage.
In the meantime, join the conversation by answering this question in the comments section below:
How do you define “SEO”?
Tell us below or via Facebook.