SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization.”
It refers to a wide range of practices with one common goal: attracting traffic to your website from search engines. Put another way, these strategies OPTIMIZE websites for SEARCH ENGINES.
That, in a nutshell, is the meaning of SEO.
But if you’re curious about what SEO is, you probably want to know a bit more – especially what SEO can do for your business.
So, What’s SEO?
Search engine optimization is all about trying to attract traffic from search engines – mostly Google – so you can turn those visitors into customers.
There are different types of SEO (more on that in a moment) and which strategies work best for your business will depend on your unique industry.
For example, if you sell clothes, you’ll take a very different approach than someone who sells legal services.
What’s a Search Engine Algorithm?
One of the most important concepts to understand when learning about SEO is how search engines decide which sites should receive traffic.
Fortunately, it’s a relatively easy concept to grasp.
While much, MUCH longer texts can – and have – been written on all of the details behind a search engine algorithm, we’re going to keep it simple.
Google and other search engines rely on an intricate collection of formulas for judging a website's value to its users. One formula may time how long it takes for a page to load. Another might look at backlinks. Others seek to understand what each page is about and whether or not its content makes sense for a user.
We refer to this collection of formulas as a search engine’s “algorithm”, which is its unique process for ranking websites. Different search engines have different algorithms and the formulas for each evolve over time.
For example, at the time of this writing, Google is releasing its helpful content update, which seeks to improve the search engine’s understanding of how valuable (or “helpful”) the content on a website is.
Search engines are updating their algorithms all the time, sometimes making small changes, sometimes making much larger ones (often called “core algorithm updates”).
When learning about SEO, you’ll eventually run into a similar term, SEM, which stands for Search Engine Marketing.
Some people use the terms SEO and SEM interchangeably, but this has become increasingly rare. SEM is more of an umbrella term that covers SEO and PPC (Pay-Per-Click) marketing.
So, if it involves marketing to customers who use search engines, it’s SEM. If it’s marketing to these customers by using a search engine’s ads, it’s PPC. If it’s trying to get “organic” clicks, it’s SEO.
SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?
What Is anSEO?
While SEO usually refers to the collection of strategies and best practices that fall under the term, Search Engine Optimization, it can also refer to the actual professionals who utilize them for a living.
Therefore, someone who does “SEO for a living” may also say, “I’m an SEO.”
The term can refer to the profession and the professional.
What Does Google Think About SEO?
As we mentioned, SEO strategies should help improve your rankings with every search engine.
And yet, if you asked most SEOs about which of these search engines matter most to them, you’d get one clear answer: Google.
The search engine giant still controls about 86% of the market, so it makes sense that those of us who care about SEO primarily care about what Google thinks.
Google’s goal with their search engine is returning the best possible results to the users who come to it with their queries. So, on the one hand, it might make sense that Google supports SEOs in trying to improve their websites for this very purpose.
Google’s own Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, even holds monthly “office hours” to answer people’s questions about the search engine and how it treats their websites.
And yet, it’s not that simple.
We’ll get into this a bit more when we cover “white hat vs. black hat”, but sufficed to say, Google doesn’t always love the way SEOs go about improving their websites’ rankings. At the end of the day, Google wants business owners to improve their websites for the sake of their customers – not simply for better rankings.
This is why Google will release a certain amount of information to help SEOs improve their sites, but they’ll never release a specific step-by-step guide for achieving endless amounts of traffic. They know some SEOs will simply “hack” that kind of information to look for the path of least resistance to lots of traffic – even if their site isn’t very helpful to users.
Is SEO Different for Different Search Engines?
In short, yes.
The good news is that these differences aren’t substantial enough that you need to worry about creating different strategies for different search engines.
As we just touched on, Google is really the most important search engine of them all anyway. So, if you simply focus your SEO efforts on Google’s algorithm, you’ll see the kinds of results you want.
Does Your CMS Matter for SEO?
I’ve talked before about which eCommerce platforms are best for SEO before, but the truth is that, for the most part, they’re all equally good. Sure, there are some things to consider. For example, if you have a larger eCommerce site, you should probably go with Magento. It’ll make it easier to create a site that large in a way that is very SEO-friendly.
And how you carry out these steps will certainly differ depending on the platform you use. For example, we’ve put together an SEO checklist specifically for Shopify sites because how you update title tags and H1s is different for Shopify than how you’d do it for Magento or WooCommerce.
But regardless of the CMS you use, all of the best practices remain the same. Your goals with SEO won’t change and the best ways to reach those goals don’t change because you’re using one platform or another to build your site.
Understanding the Different Types of SEO
We’ve touched on a few times now that SEO isn’t one single thing. It’s a collection of different strategies – some VERY different from one another.
That’s why it’ll be helpful to spend a few minutes covering some of these important differences.
On Page vs. Off Page
But this can also refer to webpage elements that the user wouldn’t actually see – though they will notice.
For example, your page’s loading time, the structure of your URLs, and how mobile-friendly your site is are all examples of “on page SEO” that affect what search engines will think about it.
Off-page SEO is anything you do off of your website that will benefit its rankings.
This generally refers to the practice of building backlinks to your website. Any time another site links to yours, this is called backlinking. The more Google likes the site linking to yours and the more relevant the page is that contains the link, the better the result will be for your rankings.
Backlinks can be “built” by submitting a guest post to another site, one that includes a link to your site, or by hiring companies that go out and actively look for websites that will provide these kinds of links. Depending on the type of industry you work in, a directory of local businesses may provide a great opportunity for backlinks.
Whatever the case, you need to be careful with backlinking.
Many companies think any backlink is a “good” backlink, so they literally just buy them from spammy sites. They may even purchase hundreds of them at a time. This overt attempt to win traffic from Google – without improving their actual websites – is how many companies have ensured the search engine will just ignore them altogether.
Technical SEO is a type of on-page SEO that refers almost entirely to those elements your users can’t actually see.
However, search engines most certainly can.
Things like how fast your site is able to load a page, how pages are related to one another (e.g., canonical tags), and what language they’re in (i.e., hreflang tags) are all readily apparent to a search engine and help it decide if a page is right for its users.
This is why website development needs to not only aim to create user-friendly websites that your customers will love but also provide specific signals that make the same thing clear to search engines.
SEO usually refers to the strategies you use to rank a company for national or even international markets.
If you run a brick-and-mortar business that serves customers in your regional area, then what you’re looking for is generally referred to as “local SEO.”
There’s plenty of overlap between the two disciplines – for example, you’ll still need a technically-sound website – but there are some important distinctions you need to understand, too.
For one thing, local SEO will aim at local search results, meaning the kind that shows up when Google thinks their user is probably looking to jump in the car and go make a purchase in-person. To land these enviable positions in Google, you’re going to need to launch a Google My Business account and should probably work on getting some impressive reviews.
As I mentioned above, getting links from local directories is going to be important, too.
Starting a popular blog, however, may not be. Unless you’re able to use it to target local shoppers, you may simply spend a lot of time and effort on attracting traffic from people all over the world who can never become customers.
White Hat vs. Black Hat
Finally, as we’ve touched on a couple of times now, if you want more traffic from search engines, you need to think about what their users want – and deliver.
This means creating user-friendly websites that work well on every type of device (mobile and desktop).
That might seem easy enough, but as many businesses have found out, effective SEO can also take a significant investment of money and time.
And while the results will be worth it (we’ll cover that next), it’s not surprising that many business owners look for shortcuts in their quest to increase website traffic.
Maybe this sounds familiar?
While there are definitely many ways to speed up results, some SEOs try to “cut the line” by using what are commonly known as “black hat” tactics.
“Black hat SEO” refers to tactics that either outright breaks a search engine’s guidelines for SEOs or otherwise seeks to deceive their users in order to get more traffic.
For example, years ago, some SEOs would use “hidden text” to make Google think their pages included a lot more or a lot better information than they really did. So, they might write a blog post about “SEO Guidelines”, but they didn’t want to invest the time and money into really covering the topic in a thorough way.
Instead, they would only write about 500 words on the topic and then insert the word “SEO guidelines” over and over at the bottom of the page. That would look weird – maybe even “spammy” – to most users, so these SEOs would “hide” that text by making the words the same color as the background.
Google and other search engines could still “read it” that way, but it wouldn’t look weird to the users. And there was once a time, where this trick would actually help companies rank their pages and get traffic, even though visitors wound up disappointed.
Black hat tactics like this are largely ineffective these days. Google and other search engines have released those aforementioned algorithm updates numerous times over the years in order to address these deceitful strategies.
The opposite of black hat SEO is the version you should be doing. White hat SEO covers practices that seek to increase traffic in a way that is 100% upfront and honest with users. So, when they show up on your site, both of you are getting what you want.
Why SEO Matters (Aside from the Obvious)
At this point, hopefully, it’s become pretty clear that SEO is important for your website.
Obviously, you want traffic.
And, obviously, a lot of people use search engines to find websites, so it makes sense to turn to them for this traffic.
But let’s go into more detail about the value of SEO.
The ROI of SEO
In the U.S. alone, the SEO industry was estimated to be worth $80 billion back in 2020. That covers everything from SEO platforms to agency services, so clearly it’s paying off for a lot of businesses.
But what’s the actual ROI of SEO?
According to the SEO software company, Moz, the average ROI is $2.75 for every $1 spent on eCommerce SEO.
Of course, Moz points out it’s hard to predict exactly what your ROI will be without first studying your industry.
If you want to get some idea of at least what your outcome could be, you can use a platform like Ahrefs to get an estimate of what kind of traffic your competitors are able to get. Then apply your site’s conversion rate to that traffic and your average order value to get a sense of what it might be worth to get the same kind of traffic to your website.
SEO Can Improve Conversions
There’s also an argument to be made that SEO can actually do more than just bring you lots of brand-new traffic.
It might be able to improve your conversion rate, too.
While every industry is different, on average, organic traffic has a 14.6% conversion rate, which is much higher than that of any other channel.
On top of that, organic traffic gets more than 20x as many clicks from searches on Google than paid ads do.
This is why 70% of online marketers report that SEO outpaces PPC for sales.
So, though it can take time to see results, SEO will continue to be a no-brainer for online businesses that are serious about growing – and maintaining – their revenues.
Is SEO Better Than Paid Traffic?
(Can you tell our SEO guy wrote this?)
Alright, truthfully, it’s not that simple, despite the statistics we just gave.
Any effective online marketing strategy should involve a combination of both SEO and PPC marketing.
But to what degree you should be using these marketing channels will depend on your unique market.
However, just about every company has customers who use search engines to look for the products they want, which is why SEO and PPC are almost always good investments for any business.
PPC is a fantastic way to essentially “skip the line” and get right to the top of Google’s results pages even if you just launched your site yesterday. Of course, you have to pay for every time someone clicks on your ad, whether or not the user actually converts, but for many companies, this upfront cost is worth it.
Over time, though, companies should also be using SEO to organically climb the rankings, so they don’t have to pay every single time someone clicks on certain pages. While it takes an investment to get there, once you have the ability to bring in traffic without paying for it each time, the ROI for organic traffic can be absolutely massive.
The Basics of SEO – 5 Best Practices
Learning SEO takes time.
But if you’re itching to jump in with both feet ASAP, here are some important tips that will make the process much easier.
1. Don’t Go At It Alone
No matter how much you know about SEO, you’ll never get results without the right software to help you make decisions about everything from the keywords you use to the sites you want to pursue for backlinks to just your overall strategy.
To get started, you’ll want a good overall SEO platform like:
Later, you might want to consider adding more specific platforms like Screaming Frog to your arsenal.
Thankfully, between Google Analytics and Google Search Console, you can definitely get started doing SEO without spending a dime.
However, if you’re an even remotely competitive industry, you’ll eventually need to invest in a premium SEO platform in order to fight your way to the top of Google.
2. Usability (It’s Not Just About Search Engines)
We’ve already covered a few acronyms in this blog post (i.e., SEO, SEM, PPC), but let’s add one more: CTR.
This acronym is absolutely essential to SEO success. The better your CTR is, the better your SEO will be.
But what’s CTR?
Obviously, if no one clicks on your pages when they show up in Google’s results, you won’t get any traffic.
But that’s also a metric Google looks at when deciding when your pages should rank. If you somehow managed to make it all the way to the top of Google’s search results without a good CTR, you’d quickly lose that position as Google realizes no one is clicking on your page and, thus, you aren’t a good match for that keyword.
This is why thinking long and hard about your title tag is so important. It’s usually your first impression – your best bet for winning that all-important click.
I say “usually” because there’s also one other very important factor you need to appreciate to improve CTR.
And that’s your brand.
The more your site continues to show up in search results for queries that are relevant to your market, the more your brand’s authority will grow.
The more your brand’s authority grows, the more your market will trust it for relevant results and, thus, click.
This has always been the case, but last year, Google actually started rewriting more than 60% of all title tags!
Basically, if Google thinks your page is a good match for a user, but that a different title tag would do a better job of proving this, the search engine will make one.
So, by all means, do your best with your title tags. They’re still important even if Google decides to rewrite them every now and then.
But don’t forget about the power of your brand, too. The more your market recognizes it as a knowledgeable and authoritative company, the more likely they’ll click on your results regardless of that title tag.
This is why you always need to be creating lots of high-quality blogs around relevant search queries. That’s how you show up again and again in front of your market and build that strong brand.
3. Keep Up-to-Date on How Search Engines Work
We already covered this a bit, but it’s worth reiterating that search engine algorithms change. Google usually releases three core updates a year, but plenty of other minor – but impactful – ones roll out annually, too.
4. Focus on Quality Over Quantity
Earlier, when we talked about black hat SEO, I mentioned how it’s understandable that business owners want to see their traffic skyrocket ASAP.
The problem is that black hat SEO tactics can do more harm than good – and, generally, don’t do any good at all.
While it might not be considered strictly “black hat”, publishing lots and lots of low-quality content can have the same effect. Many companies post multiple blog posts a month that have no real chance of attracting any kind of quality traffic because it’s such low quality. Google can tell it’s being made solely for its algorithm.
Don’t make this mistake.
Take your time with your content. Publish high-quality information that you’d be proud of an actual human reading and you’ll see Google respond positively.
5. Regularly Review Your Website’s Results
Finally, you may have heard the expression that a “watched pot never boils.” This expression definitely applies to your website’s organic traffic, too.
When you’re just starting out with SEO, the temptation to check on your results every single day is going to be strong.
But you have to be patient. Checking back every day won’t do anything. Try to keep yourself to once a week.
At the same time, as your efforts begin to pay off and life gets busier and busier, it can also be easy to take for granted that your website will always attract visitors.
This is when an algorithm change or a new competitor can drop those numbers without your even noticing for weeks – maybe longer.
Don’t let this happen to your site. Get on a schedule of checking in at least twice a month to make sure your pages are performing as expected and that you can turn things around ASAP if any of them are headed in the wrong direction.
If you want help getting started, we offer SEO audit services that will show you where your site has the most room to improve.
Want to Keep Learning About SEO?
Hopefully, you enjoyed the above post about what SEO stands for and what it actually means. If you have any questions about anything related to SEO – in general or specific to your site – please feel free to reach out to us. You can also check back on our blog for more posts about SEO, eCommerce, and digital marketing. reach out to us