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What Is SEO and Why Does it Matter? The (Absolute) Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization.

Updated: Mar 15



So you’ve heard this SEO thing is important for your website, but you have no clue what it is?


You’re in the right place.


SEO is complicated and there is lots to know. This post is the beginning of a series on SEO. It will cover:

  • What is SEO?

  • What is a search engine?

  • What are traffic sources?

  • Does SEO really matter?

  • How do I do SEO?

  • What is white hat versus black hat SEO?

  • The best SEO strategy.

  • Create an SEO plan.


What is SEO?

SEO is the fun abbreviation for Search Engine Optimization. It encompasses a variety of strategies to make your website easier for people to find on search engines.

Sometimes SEO can also refer to a “Search Engine Optimizer”, i.e. the person who does the optimization.


Why does that matter? Basically the goal of a website is to communicate information—you want to share information about your product, or you have political ideas you want people to read, or maybe you just want people to watch your videos of your cats. In each case, your want your website to be visited. You want traffic.


To get traffic, people have to find your website. Since many people find websites through search engines, it is important that your website can be easily found on a website. SEO makes it easier for people to find your website through search engines.


What is a search engine?



Okay, great, so search engines can generate lots of traffic for me. But what are they and how do they work?


Search engines are kind of like a librarian where the internet is the library. You ask them to find you something, and then they come back with pages they think are relevant to you.


Search engines not only find you material, but they also constantly look around the internet to find new content. When they find it, they catalogue it. This is called “crawling and indexing”. As they index it, they note a number of characteristics that they match to searches. This helps them choose relevant content for each search.


It is these characteristics that we want to be aware of so that search engines find our website, and catalogue it so that it can be relevant to the kinds of people we want to visit.


It is important to remember that SEO is important not only for search engines, like Google and Bing, but also for other search platforms, like YouTube, Facebook, Yelp, and so on.

What are traffic sources?

Knowing how people visit your site is important for growing your traffic. These are some rough definitions of the most important ways that people can come to your site:


Organic traffic: traffic that comes from search engines

Direct traffic: traffic that comes from people entering your URL directly in their browser

Paid advertising traffic: Traffic that comes from advertisements you’ve paid for

Social traffic: traffic that comes from social media links, like Facebook.


Statistics from Brightedge show that over 51% of website traffic comes from the search engines (organic traffic), as compared to 10% from paid search results, and just 5% from social media.


Does SEO really matter?

Short answer: yes.


More traffic. First, traffic from search engines contribute the majority of traffic a website receives. If optimize your website for search engines, you can greatly increase traffic to your site.


More revenue. Some experts estimate that 40% of revenue from websites comes from organic traffic. That means that being found in search engines should be an important priority for almost every business.


More credibility. Organic search results look more credible to potential customers than paid advertisements. As a result, they receive more clicks. Studies have found that only 2.8% of people click on paid advertisements.


Better value over time. One of the benefits of SEO is that its value grows with time. Good content aimed at targeting the right keywords can continually grow your traffic. Paid advertisements only work while you pay for them.


The potential benefits of a website that is optimized for search engines is very large. It is estimated that SEO results in 20 times more traffic than paid advertisements.


How do I do SEO?



Cool, so SEO is important. But how do I do it?


There is a whole industry dedicated to this question, but very basically: to optimize your website for search engines, you have to understand how search engines catalogue and index. Then, you have to set up your website and content to be consistent with the processes of the search engines.


There are three main ways you can optimize your site for search.


On-page optimization. This is optimization of the content that is on your site. It largely focuses on ensuring your content has keywords that your target audience is likely to search.


Off-page optimization. This includes factors that increase your site’s rank on other pages, including the links that are directed at your site. Both quality and quantity help here: the more links to your site, the better the rank. And, the greater the other site’s rank, the more valuable the links are to your site’s rank.


Technical optimization. This includes factors about your website’s structure and how it is technically set up. The code of a website can influence its ranking.


Search engines like Google and Bing are trying to give users the most relevant results to their query. They want to help you set up your website so that it can be found for relevant queries. Both Google and Bing have guides for webmasters so to help you optimize your website for their platform.


There are a number of specific strategies for SEO, and these will be covered later. For now, the main point is that certain factors make your page rank more highly, and other factors can penalize your site and make it rank lower.


These are some principles for Google:

  • Design the content for users, not just for search engines.

  • Provide the content you say you will

  • Don’t try to trick your users

  • Don’t generate content automatically

  • Don’t copy content; make it original

  • Don’t cloak content (show users different content than search engines)

  • Don’t hide text and links

These are some principles for Bing:

  • Make your content engaging, deep, and easy to find

  • Make title pages relevant to your site

  • Shares on social media increase your site’s rank

  • Links on other sites to your site increase your site’s rank

  • The faster your site, the better the rank

  • The better the user experience, the better the rank

  • Don’t participate in buying links or link schemes

  • Don’t duplicate content

  • Don’t stuff your content with keywords

  • Don’t cloak content (show users different content than search engines)


What is white hat versus black hat SEO?

“White hat SEO” refers to an approach that uses best practices and strategies. This approach focuses on attracting traffic by providing useful content and a good user experience. Since it is good content, it ranks well in searches because it is relevant to lots of users’ queries.


“Black hat SEO” is an approach that attempts to get high rankings without providing good content. It seeks to fool search engines into thinking it is relevant to a search. This strategy can sometimes work, but search engines try to penalize this kind of SEO strategy because it is not useful for serachers. This approach can lead to being de-indexed from search engines.


Black hat SEO strategies include things like purchasing links, duplicating or copying content from other websites, stuffing content with key words so that it is no longer readable, and trying to show users different content than search engines. These are not recommended because ultimately they are likely to result in penalties to your site’s ranking.


The best SEO strategy.



So what is the best SEO strategy? Meeting the expectations of your site’s users.


Ultimately, you will rank well on searches if your website’s content is relevant and useful to people. The best way to get a high ranking on searches? Provide great, useful content. This will not only help you get ranked higher, but it will also contribute to the credibility of your site with your desired audience.


How can you meet your user’s expectations? Here are a few tips:

  • Think about who you’re trying to get to visit your website. Put yourself in their shoes: what are they going to search for? Provide content aimed at their needs.

  • Search for your desired keywords. See what comes up. This gives you a sense of what your target audience might be looking for.

  • Search your competitors and see who is ranking the highest. Think about how you can provide more useful content than them.

  • Provide high-quality content. The better, more useful the content to your target audience, the more likely you will attract them in traffic.

  • Make sure your SEO is consistent with your overall marketing strategy.


Create an SEO plan.

Really, the first step to successful SEO is having a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish and who you want to visit your site. Creating a strategy is the first step. A good SEO strategy has at least three steps:


1. Make goals. This will involved understanding the overarching business objectives of the site. What do you want the site to do? For example, maybe you want your site to increase your sales.

2. Develop Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). KPIs are things you will track and measure to know if you are successful in your goals. Some common KPIs could be the number of sales, subscriptions to email, phone calls, or downloads.

3. Track progress. SEO is a long game. Start tracking your KPIs early to see how you progress with time. Use this data to tweak your strategy!


Future posts will aim to provide more detail about how to best optimize your site for search. For now, check out this great guide for specific SEO techniques.


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