Marketing & Advertising

SEO 101, Part 1: What Is SEO?

You’ve heard how important search engine optimization is as a source of traffic that can be converted to sales. But what is SEO, really? This is the first post in an “SEO 101” series, in which I’ll explore each area of SEO, explaining what it is and how to do it.

SEO is often called organic search or natural search. SEO involves making changes to your ecommerce site that signal its relevance and authority to search engines like Google and Bing, with the intent to increase the number of customers that click through search results to land on your site.

What SEO Is Not

Sometimes it’s easiest to define something by its opposite. SEO is very different from its search marketing counterpart, paid search. Often, paid search is called search engine marketing, but that moniker does not mean that it includes SEO as well as paid search strategies.

You can’t pay for SEO placement. That means that other paid placement elements like Google Shopping also fall outside of the influence of SEO.

Google search for "summer shoes."

Google search for “summer shoes” showing the paid and organic search areas of the search result page.

SEO is also frequently confused with internal site search, which helps your visitors find what they want when they’re already on your site. While some SEO strategies may improve your site search, depending on which internal search platform you use, SEO is entirely focused on driving more visitors to your site from external search engines like Google and Bing rather than helping them find what they want when they’re already on your site.

How Does SEO Work?

Search engine optimization contains three basic pillars: technology, content, and authority.

  • Technology: Get indexed. Indexation is the root of ranking, because a search engine has to be able to algorithmically crawl your site and index it to understand what content it contains and rank it in search results. No indexation means no ranking.

So what is crawling? SEO professionals also call this activity “spidering” — so we’ll use that as an analogy. Think of thousands of tiny, nonthreatening spiders that cruise your site’s code and memorize every bit of textual content before moving to the next page via HTML links. The page is like a dining room, the textual content is the spiders’ food, and the HTML links are the hallways between dining rooms.

Instead of digesting that “food,” the spiders send the textual content they’ve collected and the information about how the pages linked together back to the search engine’s server farm to be indexed and processed algorithmically.

The problem is that some sites are not optimized to allow those spiders to crawl and index their content. Some uses of JavaScript, CSS, and cookies, as well as other server-level settings and bits of code, act as locked doors preventing spiders from crawling content. In most cases, marketers aren’t even aware that those locked doors exist. SEO helps to resolve those issues and open the doors, enabling the indexation that leads to rankings, customer visits, and sales.

  • Content: Be relevant. The most well-known of all SEO pillars, content optimization is the use of keywords that real searchers actually use when they’re searching. When the content on a page is consistent with the phrase that a searcher uses, Google is more likely to rank that page in its search results for the searcher to select from.

But relevance is more than thinking up some keywords and using them repeatedly on your page.

Keyword research shows which keywords to use based on the relative popularity of a phrase. If your page goes on and on about “warm weather footwear” but people are searching for “summer shoes,” the match between the relevance of the content on your page and the phrase people are searching for is lower. As a result, your rankings will likely also be lower.

Once you know which keywords to use, it’s important to weave them skillfully into the content areas that matter. Knowing which elements to focus on for the page and in the page’s code is important, as are creative writing skills. The content needs to be unique and appeal to humans, as well as contain the relevant keywords.

SEO text — content written to serve keywords to spiders — no longer works as a long-term SEO strategy. Neither your customers nor the search engines value content written for spiders. Search engines develop algorithms to specifically target and demote sites that contain large amounts of poor quality content.

  • Authority: Be a source. Links and mentions act like votes of trust on the web. If another site links to your page or mentions your brand, it’s likely that your page or brand is relevant to and authoritative about whatever topic the linking site is discussing. If that linking or mentioning site is authoritative itself, its vote carries more weight.

As search engine spiders crawl the web, they record these links and mentions between different sites, sending them back to the server farm to be analyzed algorithmically with the other signals to determine rankings.

It is, therefore, beneficial to SEO to acquire more of these links and mentions. Unfortunately, growing your site’s link profile has become harder and harder over the last three years as the search engines have developed ever stronger algorithms to detect artificial linking schemes such as poor quality articles and blog posts with links, directory listings, and many others.

The only long-term solution to increase authority is to work at actually increasing your personal or brand authority through content marketing and excellent business practices. We all strive to do these anyway, but capitalizing on these for the benefit of SEO is the important part of the equation when the goal is to improve rankings, visits, and sales.

For the next installment of this “SEO 101” series, see “Part 2: Benefits of SEO.”

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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