What is SEO?


Whether you already have a website or are in the market for a new one, Search Engine Optimization is an important consideration in your marketing strategy.  Unlike paid advertising, SEO is a way to boost your website that doesn’t end when you stop paying.  Quite the opposite, your results will get better and better over time!   SEO web design uses on-page, off-page and content creation best practices to help you rank higher in the searches your potential customers are making.   

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is:

“The practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.”

Why is this important?  Say you create a website for your business, “ABC Clothing Company”.  You set it all up, buy your domain name, save it, and are happy with the way it looks.  The next day you Google “ABC Clothing Company” and are surprised to see that your website is nowhere to be found.  How can that be?  Why doesn’t your website show up in search results, even when typing in your company’s own exact name?

The answer is that Google uses a very large, very complicated algorithm to show you what it thinks are the best web pages for the search terms that you typed in. 

SEO 101

Before we dive into strategy and tactics, it is important to have a foundational understanding of search engine optimization.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. It is the art and science of getting your website found in the free or organic space of Google, Yahoo and Bing. The objective is to increase sales, generate leads, and improve brand awareness.

To understand SEO, you first need to understand how the search engines work. Search engines use computer programs called web crawlers, spiders, or bots to crawl the web. When they find a new page, they add it to an index. We think of the index as being similar to an old-fashioned Rolodex. When someone types something into a search bar, Google uses an algorithm consisting of ranking factors to determine which pages get pulled from the index and into the search engine results. The goal of the search engines is to provide the best possible webpage for each search (also known as a search query or query). Notice I’m saying webpage, not website. Search engines don’t rank entire websites. Instead, they rank individual webpages. 

An algorithm is nothing more than a process or set of rules to be followed when solving a problem. In SEO, the problems are the search queries and the answers are the webpages in search engine results. The algorithms are the computer programs in between that match them up. 

The algorithms that calculate search engine rank are complex, ever-evolving and secret. That can make SEO feel overwhelming. Don’t let it. Google’s mission stays the same “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” By taking a holistic SEO strategy, you ensure that the pages on your website help Google fulfill its mission today and tomorrow. Always remember that at the end of the day, what’s good for the user is good for Google. I keep that core concept at the heart of all I do as an SEO.

To further simplify the concept of SEO we break it into three pillars. The three pillars of SEO include technical (on-site) SEO, off-site SEO and content.  

Let’s  explore each of these pillars.

Pillar 1 – Technical & On-Site SEO

The first pillar is technical SEO. Technical and on-site SEO are sometimes used interchangeably because they focus on the elements on your website that are within your control. Technical SEO is the first thing I look at with a new client. Why? In order for the search engines to show your web pages in the search results, they first need to find, crawl, and index them.

As we learned, Google, Yahoo and Bing use spiders to crawl the internet and collect information about the webpages they come across. There are files and directives (snippets of code) in your website that give search engine spiders a set of  instructions for how they would like to be crawled and indexed.

A robots.txt file tells the search engines where not to go. Most of the time, you want to allow the search engines to crawl all of your web content. Sometimes, you’ll use the robots.txt file to keep the crawlers out of sections of your website which may have duplicate, thin, or private content you don’t want appearing in search results. For now, all you need to know is that the robots.txt file tells spiders “No, don’t go there. Don’t index these webpages.”

An XML sitemap is the opposite of the robots.txt file. It provides the search engines with a list of all of the pages on your website that you do want to be crawled, indexed, and shown in search results. Think of it as your website’s resume. It contains the high-level information that is needed to get the conversation started such as when a web page was last updated and its relative priority compared to other pages.

There are also meta directives in the form of code snippets that live in the header of each webpage. These directives aren’t visible to website visitors. Instead, they provide search engines bots page by page instructions as to how to index the content on the page.

We include security, responsiveness (mobile-friendly) and speed within technical SEO. These three key technical factors impact usability. 

It should come as no surprise that the search engines like websites that are served via secure HTTPS connections.  

And, with over 60% of searches coming from mobile devices, it’s essential that your website displays well on all devices – desktops, tablets and mobile phones.  

Lastly, speed matters. It doesn’t matter how great the content on a page is if it loads slowly. People are quick to leave a page that loads slowly (more than 2 seconds) and in turn, they’ll be frustrated with Google for sending them there. Hence why the search engines reward high speed sites.

The last element of technical SEO is site structure. The search engines need to understand the relative priority of pages on your website and how your site fits together. You can think of structure as being a pyramid with your homepage on the top and your main navigation in the layer below. The structure of your website should be user-friendly, making it easy for visitors to find what they are looking for.

Technical SEO can seem overwhelming at first. However, if you break it down into these component parts and understand the why behind each one, then, it becomes digestible.  And, it becomes much easier to carry out the tactics that will improve it. 

What does it mean to “optimize” your website? 

The word “optimization” is overused and vague in search engine marketing. It could mean many things – speed up its performance, improve usability, or insert keywords into copy. 

The primary on-site elements that need to be “optimized,” or improved, for users and search engines include:

  • Page titles and meta descriptions are tags in the header of each webpage. The search engines use these to craft the snippets of information you see in the search engines results page. Page title tags influence rank and a person’s likelihood of clicking on the listing (click-through rates). Meta description tags only influence click-through rates.
  • H1 – H6 tags standardize the format of headers and break up your content into easy-to-read parts. The search engines recognize these tags as being the header of a page or a section of content.
  • Alt text on images provide the search engines with a written description of an image. They are first and foremost a principle of accessibility, but help the search engines derive meaning as well.
  • Internal links allow the search engines and website visitors to easily click-through to other pages on your website. The clickable text on a given link (anchor text) conveys the context and meaning of an internal link. They also pass ranking power from one page to another on your website. 
  • Structured data are snippets of code that give search engines precise information about what the content on a webpage is about. It also allows them to easily place webpages in the proper context in search results. Ever wonder how Google quickly displays recipes, movie times or concert information directly in the search results? Structured data a.k.a. schema markup is to credit.

The opposite of on-site SEO is off-site. Let’s take a look at what that entails. 

Pillar 2 – Off-Site SEO

So far we have focused on your website and the various elements that influence the search engine rankings. But, SEO isn’t just about your website. It is also about your website’s trust and authority on the internet.  

You could create the world’s best website for a pizza restaurant in New York City. Great menu, testimonials, lightning fast. You can imagine it. Google isn’t going to trust this website and display it in the search results until it hears an online echo that you are indeed New York’s best. 

There are three main places that Google, Yahoo, and Bing are listening for these off-site signals:

  1. Links that point from other websites to your website. These links are valuable because of their ability to pass authority (ranking power) from one website to another. In the simplest terms, links act as votes of confidence from one website for another. The higher the authority of the website giving a link, the more authority that link will pass to the website it’s pointing at. A link pointing to your site from The New York Times website is going to pass a lot more authority than one pointing to it from your dog groomer’s website.
  2. Local search profiles such as Google Maps. If you have a brick and mortar location or serve a particular area, then a Google Maps listing via Google My Business is a must. Simply verifying your location and contact details with Google builds trust. And, you can build more   trust by getting five star customer reviews and comments.
  3. Social media influences SEO. A link from a Facebook Post to your website doesn’t pass the same trust and authority as a traditional backlink as outlined in #1. But, your social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and beyond do carry value via the link they provide to your website.

Pillar 3 – Content & User Experience

With technical & off-site SEO in place, the search engines can find and index our web pages. What they find on each page is the content. 

Content has been the backbone of SEO since its inception. It includes text, images, video, tables, PDFs and much more. The search engines extract meaning from each webpage based on the content on the page.  

There are five factors to keep in mind as it relates to content and SEO:

  • Quality – Unique, well-written content that provides visitors with great value is a must.
  • Keywords – Content needs to include the phrases you want to gain exposure for in the search results. Cluster related keywords together and use synonyms to provide greater context.
  • Recency – Fresh, new content is popular with search engines. Often, the most frequently updated content on a website is your blog.
  • Type – Depending on the topic of the page, you will want to integrate a meaningful combination of text, images, video and more to ensure the page is dynamic, visually appealing, and engaging.
  • Relevancy – How well the content on your website matches to search queries is content relevancy. The more relevant, the more likely your web page will perform well in the search results.

You can have great content on your site, but if users have a hard time finding and interacting with it, search engines are going to notice. When it comes to user experience, you can make visitors and search engines happy by addressing the following: 

  • Navigation – Your site has a logical information flow that makes it easy for users to find the content they are looking for. 
  • Look – Your site is presented in a simple and visually appealing manner that conveys trust, authority, and the spirit of your brand. 
  • Feel – People enjoy how they interact with your site and how your site interacts with them in return. 
  • Usability – The site is easy to use and functions in a uniform way that aligns with visitor expectations. 

As we move forward on this guided SEO journey, we will ideally be applying tactics to address all three of the pillars of SEO we just covered. I call this a holistic approach. 

So, how do we get started? After onboarding, I always tackle the most impactful tasks in each pillar to jumpstart your organic traffic. I call these “quick wins” because they are things that can be fixed fairly quickly that will contribute to overall success. Then, we’ll dive back into each of these pillars with rotating monthly tasks to continually evolve and improve.

I’ve been riding my whole life, and like to take my horse Lilly out on trail rides behind our house – along with our two goats!

-Emily King, owner