A Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Definition
What is search engine optimization (SEO)? It is a process that leverages tools, techniques and best practices to position your unadvertised web page or business listing at or near the top of search engine results when people search for your products or services.
It’s not just about rankings. Search engine optimization is also about ensuring visitors take action after they land on your site – action that satisfies your Internet goals and reinforces or boosts your online positioning and reputation.
What It Takes To Win
At 30,000 feet, successful SEO depends on having:
- the “right” words on your website (so search engines think you’re relevant); and
- enough “votes” to be considered popular.
The “right” words are the words people use when searching for your products and/or services. Votes are links, citations and social mentions of your business or website. The more you have, the more popular you’re perceived to be and the higher you rank.
Why SEO is Important
It’s important to be at the top of search results.
- Approximately 35% of the world’s population, 2.5 billion people, use the Internet (Internet Telecommunication Union, 2012).
- 93% of Internet activity starts with a search engine (Search Engine Journal and Forrester, 2006).
- “Three major engines make up 95%+ of all search traffic in the US – Google and the Yahoo-Bing alliance. For most countries outside the US 80%+ of search traffic comes solely from Google (with a few notable exceptions including both Russia and China.)” (SEO Industry Leader Moz, Measuring and Tracking Success).
- Google prioritizes search results for approximately 100 billion searches a month (Search Engine Land, August 2012).
- The top search result garners 36.4% of all clicks from users. The top 3 results combined get 58.4% of search engine traffic. (Search Engine Journal and Optify, April 2011)
There are hundreds of search engines. Focus your optimization efforts on Google. If you rank well on Google, you tend to rank well on all the search engines.
Now lets break the “what is search engine optimization (SEO)” definition down into its component parts.
SEO is a Process
A Process Definition
In a highly simplified example, if I hammer a nail straight down into a solid piece of wood, the head of the nail is going to end up flush with the wood surface an overwhelming majority of the time. It doesn’t matter how many times I hammer a nail into wood, it’s a good bet that the outcome will almost always be the same.
A well defined and executed search engine optimization process will produce a high-ranking web page an overwhelming majority of the time as well.
The Search Process
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. In Figure 1 below, you can see a high-level illustration of the search process.
At the top are people who search the Internet. They plug words a search engine and wait for results.
In the middle are the search engines. Search engines make a living by ensuring they return the best results possible when someone enters a query. They are all about ensuring searchers are happy and really don’t care about who ranks on top.
At the bottom are all the web pages on the Internet. Google doesn’t actually go out and search the Internet when you press that return button. It would take too long and search engines need to return results quickly. Instead, they maintain an inventory of all the pages on the Internet in massive databases, strategically positioned throughout the world in order to speed response times.
A person enters search terms onto their computer. The search engine skims it’s index to find all the web pages that contain those search terms. It then ranks them according to their perceived relevance, popularity and authority using proprietary algorithms. The results are fed back to the searcher who quickly skims through them and decides what to do next.
The Role of SEO in Search
Figure 2 shows how SEO plays into that interaction.
Google, the only search engine you really need to care about, keeps track of the words (keywords) people use when searching the Internet. They make that data freely available for anyone to look at using the Google Keyword Planner tool.
All you need to login is an active Google account – gmail, Youtube, Picasa, Google Local, Google Docs, Google Scholar or any one of about a dozen other Google tools.
Google planner and other paid and free keyword research tools available on the Internet, can be used to discover all the different keywords and keyword phrases people use to search for YOUR products and/or YOUR services on the Web. You can then decide on the ones you want to target for on-page optimization. Those keywords and keyword phrases, positioned strategically throughout your website, will make you eligible to be found when a search engine is scanning its index looking for matches for a search query that uses the same language.
SEO is Not a One-Time Thing
As a business owner, it’s important to understand that SEO is not something you can do once and forget about it. There are parts of the process that need to be repeated.
As I mentioned earlier, links and social mentions act like votes on the Internet. The more you have, the more popular you’re perceived to be and the higher you’ll rank. For that reason, you should always be looking for new opportunities to attract links and social mentions. You should also always be monitoring the performance of your website because we all know the competition is not likely to sit still and let you continue to command the largest audience forever. Not only that, the rules the search engines use to decide who ranks on top, change daily.
All these reasons add up to a requirement for SEO to be an ongoing process and not a one-time event. Sit still and there’s a good chance you’ll be left behind.
Why Process Matters
Business owners should seek out companies that adopt process when optimizing websites because it means you’ll get a better return on investment.
SEO companies that embrace process:
- employ best practices;
- keep up with the constantly changing market and ranking algorithms; and
- avoid questionable tactics that could run you into trouble down the road.
Process tends to surface problems and opportunities quickly. Humans don’t like doing the same thing over and over again if there is a way to do it faster or to produce a better result. We like to be efficient and productive. SEO companies that embrace process and take the time to reflect on lessons learned tend to adapt and produce more efficient and profitable results. Process helps SEO companies keep their cost structures down, their productivity up, and their outcomes superior.
Ask prospective SEO companies if they have a process for optimizing websites. Ask them to tell you the last time they reviewed it and made improvements.
Search Engine Optimization Tools
SEO Tool Categories
There are 6 categories of paid and free search engine optimization tools that can be used to lessen the time-consuming workload of SEO, and to increase its transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.
- Search engine Webmaster and Analytic tools provide feedback on a website’s configuration, health, and traffic.
- Keyword tools help SEOs discover the words and phrases people use to search for your products and services.
- Competitive Analysis tools help SEOs assess the ranking ease and commerciality of keyword phrases.
- Editing Tools are used to create and edit web pages.
- Link building tools are used to discover link building opportunities and to automate some the more repetitive tasks associated with link acquisition.
- Reporting tools streamline our ability to measure progress and performance.
Why SEO Tools Matter
Tools matter because they allow you to do more with less. That’s true no matter what you do.
When it comes to SEO, small business owners should want to business with SEOs who leverage tools to keep their costs down and their results superior. They should also want to work with SEOs that use tools to ease understanding the whole process and outcomes.
Ask prospective SEOs to show you examples of their work. Are they easy to understand? Do they get to the point quickly? Will you be able to recognize if improvements are being made over time? Focus on the questions that are most important to you and make sure your SEO has the tools to communicate in a way that is succinct and clear.
SEO Technique Categories
Techniques used to optimize a web page fall into three main categories:
- White hat techniques comply with Google’s guidelines and will stand the test of time. An example of a white hat optimization technique is finding the words (keywords) people use to search for your product or service on the Web, and using those words sparingly, and in the right places, in your content.
- Black hat is the opposite. Google has explicitly expressed disapproval of the technique, and threatens banishment or penalty if you’re caught. An example of a black hat technique is over-using (stuffing) or hiding keywords in your content.
- Grey hat is a blend of the two, a tactic that doesn’t clearly fall into one or the other camps. It’s not clear how search engines will react. These practices are best avoided.
Why Different Techniques Matter
Business owners should steer clear of SEO companies that toy with grey and/or black hat optimization techniques. Always ask a SEO if he or she follows Google guidelines. Google offers additional tips and suggestions for how to vet a SEO company about half way down their what is SEO page.
SEO Best Practices
A Best Practice Definition
Best practices are the techniques that have become a defacto standard for search engine optimization. They consistently deliver results that are superior to those produced by alternative means.
In the SEO industry, there are generally agreed-upon best practices for:
- URLs (Uniform Resource Locator or the unique address of a Web page);
- content (also referred to as on-page SEO and copywriting);
- meta tags (descriptive data about the page itself, for example, the page topic, focus and description); and
- internal and external links.
SEOMoz (now Moz) is a respected leader in the SEO world and a good source for best practices. A Google search for SEOMoz and “best practice” is an easy way to find their suggestions.
We offer our own best practices for SEO copywriting. Ours are written specifically for small business owners, whereas SEOMoz typically targets an audience of SEO professionals. The two complement one another.
Why SEO Best Practices Matter
Business owners should ask prospective SEO companies about their best practices, which ones they use and why. It will you give a sense of how mainstream and industry compliant the company is. It will give you an added reassurance that their efforts will produce positive results.
A Web Page Definition
A web page is unit of content that can be
uniquely referenced and viewed on the World Wide Web using a browser such as Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, Mozilla Firefox and others. From a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, it’s important to know that web pages are optimized, not web sites.
Why Web Pages Matter
Web pages are what appear in search results. Your web page must contain the words people are searching for before they can appear in search results.
A Target Audience Definition
The target audience of any SEO effort should always be the business owner’s prospects and customers:
- not search engines;
- not “anybody”;
- but a very specific and defined categorization of people who are in the market to shop for and purchase your goods and/or your services.
Why Understanding Your Target Audience Matters
A sound understanding of your audience is imperative for good SEO. Remember SEO is not just about ranking. It’s about conversions. The more information you can share about your best prospects and customers with your SEO, the greater the likelihood that he or she will be able to convince searchers to click through to your site and to take action beyond that.
Ask prospective SEO companies to tell you the type of information they will want to gather at your first meeting. If they express no interest in trying to understand your unique value proposition, customers and goals, they may not have an appropriate focus. Ask them to tell you how they will ensure your website attracts the “right” audience. Ask them how they decide which keywords to recommend. Use answers to these questions to gauge their business savvy. SEO and technical understanding is simply not enough.
Search Engine Results
A Search Engine Results Definition
Search engine results are best explained by way of an example. I’ll use Google, because, as stated earlier, it commands the largest search audience.
- Sponsored or Pay-Per-Click (PPC) search results are shown on the top left of the page with a manila-shaded background. Website owners bid for the right to appear in paid search results, and pay a fee every time a searcher clicks on one of their links.
- Below that are organic (unsponsored) search results. These results represent web pages that meet Google’s organic requirements for relevancy, popularity and authority for the search term “pizza near Philadelphia”. In other words, Google thinks these are the best results available to match the searcher’s intent. Google does not charge page owners a fee if a searcher clicks on an organic search result.
- On the right and bottom are local search results. Local results are displayed when a local business listing satisfies Google’s matching requirements for a given keyword, keyword phrase and location. If no listings qualify, then no local results are displayed. Google does not charge for click-thrus on local listings.
Why Search Engine Results Matter
Pew Internet reports that search is the second most popular activity on the Internet. (Email is number 1.) “On any given day in early 2012, more than half of adults using the internet use a search engine (59%)… [and] 91% of search engine users say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines.”
According to a June 2013 report by Chitika, a Westborough Massachusetts Internet research firm, the web page that ranks at the top of Google’s organic search results earns 33 percent of online traffic for the term. If you want to know the words people use when searching for your produces and/or services as well as the number of searches conducted each month check out Google’s free Planner tool. All you need is a Google login.
Summary and Conclusions
Search engine optimization or SEO is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not about optimizing search engines at all. It’s really about making the best or most effective use of process, tools, techniques, best practices, web pages, and keywords to:
- increase your visibility on the Internet;
- attract visitors; and
- compel those visitors to take action that benefits your business.
Search engine optimization increases the rankings, click-thrus and profits of individual pages on your website and your site as a whole.
Rankings and clicks matter. The top 3 websites in any industry earn 65% of the total industry’s online revenue.
SEO is a repeatable process that produces remarkable outcomes when the right tools, techniques and best practices are put to good use. Business owners should seek out companies who have a strong business orientation and value efficiency and quality in order to earn the best return on investment.
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