The Basics: What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

The acronym “SEO” stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s a field that is nearly as old as the Internet, dating back to at least the time when people first began to think this:

“Hey, there are a LOT of web sites out there. How do the search engines figure out which ones to put first?”

So, that’s what it is — getting your site to appear higher up in the search results. Of course, there are two ways to get there: (1) organically, meaning you’re in the actual results area of the page, or (2) by advertising, meaning you pay to get there.

While #2 is a simple matter of paying Google for positioning, this article focuses more on the former. “Organic” does sound rather innocent, like your top-billing has just happened very naturally. But, it’s more often than not a result of serious effort. So, let’s look at that a bit more deeply.

In the beginning of the Internet, it was possible to reverse-engineer how search engines ranked their results. Google didn’t even exist at the time. It was mainly companies like America Online, Yahoo, Lycos, Netscape, and a bunch of other now-forgotten pioneers of that field.

In those old days — even up through the early 2000’s — it was possible to “trick” search engines into giving a site high placement for the keywords of your choice. Some of these tactics included setting up thousands of bogus incoming links to a web site from vast server farms maintained by SEO companies. The idea was to fool the search engines into thinking that your site was popular, and thus ranking it higher.

Fast-forward to today, and the behemoth company is of course Google. And, while they are certainly no where near as scary as “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s novel 1984, they are nonetheless almost unimaginably influential in today’s society, and representative of some remarkably intelligent technology.

This sort of tactic mentioned above (and other similar ones) is referred to now by Google as “black hat” SEO. And, while there are still underhanded and shady tricks that may work for a time, trust me: You do NOT want to get involved in any kind of search engine manipulation scheme. Not only are such things ethically wrong, but they could substantially harm your online presence in the long-run. Google is intelligent already, and it will only become increasingly so.

So, it’s no longer possible to reverse-engineer their algorithms for how they order search results — not that there aren’t countless companies trying to do so. If anyone could figure out how to guarantee a sustainable, number-one rating on Google for any search term, they would rule Google (and Google will not allow that).

Resources

That said, there are certainly best practices. Google itself should be the #1 stop for this. Their “Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide” contains everything they feel is important — and, if Google says it’s important, then it’s definitely relevant!

Many other sites specialize in SEO as well, so it’s worth researching best practices prior to implementing a plan.

The shortest explanation I can give to newcomers is that SEO is a two-fold initiative. At least, that’s the way I see it.

Part One: Your Web Site Infrastructure

Most of this sort of thing is covered in the PDF I’ve linked to above from Google. It’s about properly structuring your URLs, HTML, and content to help your site better communicate to Google (and other search engines). It’s also about what kind of content to generate. You’ll find that, for each page of advice Google offers, the rabbit hole (so to speak) usually goes much deeper. So, you can spend quite a lot of time optimizing your site to make it the absolute best it can be SEO-wise.

Part Two: Off-site Factors

This part of SEO is made up of things like the number of incoming links to your site, the quality of those links, the relevancy of those links, etc. In short, these things quantify the popularity of your web site. The more popular you are, the better.


Once a structure and process is in place, both of the above items (on-site and off-site) then work together going forward — you create good keyword-rich content, and then that content gets shared online.

For example, you might start a YouTube channel and make regular videos. The videos link back to your blog, where the videos are also embedded. You might have the video transcribed to create text content. That goes on the blog and in the video description. You would then share the blog post on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., all using the proper descriptions and keywords.

Then you would repeat that process 500 more times. Yes, it’s a long-game strategy. But, in my experience, it pays off if one is consistent.

Further Reading:

The second half of the following article relates to the Part One item above. Those interested in ranking high need a plan, and they need to stick with it.

The following article is also relevant here, and repeats the point about sticking with it.



Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “Accomplished Top of Mountain” by ThoroughlyReviewed (Flickr, Creative Commons). Please💚 this article if you liked it (by clicking the heart icon below).