What Is SEO?

Quick answer:

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s the process of optimizing the content and code of your website for search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and even Yandex.

Contrary to popular belief, SEO is not gaming the search engines to rank higher. 

Search engine optimization is the continuous and thoughtful process of building a website that puts user and business needs first, through content, design, and technical optimization. 

The history of SEO is surrounded by a lot of fiction, but the term originated in the mid-90s and after the rise of Google it has been a driving force for the world’s biggest brands. 

SEO terms that we’ll be using in this article

Here’s a quick SEO glossary that will come in handy to understand what we’re talking about when using different terms and abbreviations. 

  • SEO – Search Engine Optimization
  • SERP – Search Engine Results Page (basically what you get when you google something) 
  • SEM – Search Engine Marketing
  • Organic ranking – A non-paid appearance on the SERP. 
  • On-page SEO – The process of optimizing the content and UI of a website.
  • Off-site SEO – The process of building backlinks to your website from other websites. 
  • PPC – Pay-per-click or paid appearance on the SERP.
  • Query – A Google search/Something that a user searches for.
  • Click-through rate – CTR measures the percentage of people who click on a specific link or ad.

SEO vs SEM

Often confused, both search engine optimization and search engine marketing aim to increase the visibility of a website on the SERP. They approach this task in a different way. 

SEO as a technique is focused on optimizing a website to be more user-friendly and provide answers to people who search on Google. This requires extensive research and understanding of what the user searches for with every query. The aim is to rank the website organically through on-page and off-page optimization and the traffic you get on your website is free

SEM, or search engine marketing, aims to rank a website higher on the SERP through paid advertising (often called Pay-Per-Click or PPC). With SEM you pay for each visitor. Ad spend must be optimized and as soon as you stop your paid campaigns traffic to your website disappears. 

Okay, now that we have all that out of the way and you’re starting to grasp what SEO is let’s move on to how SEO impacts your day-to-day business, then the inner workings of optimizing a website that contributes to the bottom line.

How SEO impacts your everyday life

The best way to understand what Search Engine Optimization is to understand how SEO impacts your daily life as a user of the internet. 

I bet that you google a lot. Sometimes you google on your laptop. Sometimes when you’re out and about you do it on your phone. And sometimes you ask a digital voice assistant like Siri to do the googling for you and serve you the answer. 

Every single answer you get from a search engine is because of SEO. Someone optimized that web page to provide an answer that’s so good Google decided to show it as the top answer for your query. 

Furthermore, SEO helps you choose the restaurants you decide to eat at, it helps you choose the best bar or club when you’re going out, and it can help you choose where to buy a product online. 

There’s a reason why businesses invest billions of dollars into the SEO industry every year. In fact, the SEO industry is expected to grow to $130 Billion by 2030. SEO influences user behavior which in turn drives sales. 

But let’s take a look at some concrete examples. Imagine you’re planning your dream vacation to Italy. As a tourist, you’ll need a place to stay – AirBnB or Booking.com it is. 

Now, there’s a reason why you chose either of those two places to book a place. When looking at the SERP those two brands were the most recognizable. There were local options, sure, but do you feel like you can trust them? I bet not as much as you can trust Booking or AirBnB. 

And that’s how SEO works. It’s a perpetual cycle of serving you companies that have optimized their website to appear on top of the SERP -> you remember those brands -> you prefer to stick with said brands (as long as the first experience was good). Seeing those brands within the first five results on the SERP greatly increases the chance of you returning to them and becoming a paying customer. 

And voila! That was a brief explanation of how SEO is impacting you in your daily life. Google has also played an important role in influencing purchasing decisions. Let’s go a bit further down the rabbit hole and take a look at different SERP features and how SEO professionals use them to drive more traffic to their websites. 

SERP features – Google’s results page features that you need to know

Google has 20-ish different SERP features that they use to highlight content, help you find information quickly on a business or a location, or simply to give you the answer plain and simple on the results page. They also constantly test new features that roll out to a small portion of users, majority of those tests don’t result in a complete rollout.

But while we’re on the topic of tests, for the past 6 months or so (at the time of writing this article) Google has been testing the hot new thing on the block — search generative experience (SGE).

0. Search generative experience

Search generative experience default view, when expanded it takes the full viewport.

For the time being, the SGE feature is available to select markets (US and India) with no clear plans for where and when it will roll out fully. It’s based on Gemini and it tends to appear in two ways — as a huge (albeit collapsed by default) snippet on top of the page (image above); or as a typing field underneath the people also ask box. (image below)

Search generative experience in the people also ask component.

Here are the SERP features that you need to know about: 

1. Organic results

Organic search result

This is the most common type of feature that you will see on Google. As long as your website or page is indexed you have an Organic Result. As the traditional Google listing the algorithm determines how good your page is and based on that score ranks you between the first position and… idk, infinity.

Oh, and did I mention – it’s free. 

2. Paid results

Paid results on Google

The so-called PPC. This is what search engine marketers do – they set up campaigns on Google Ads so the website or page appears within the Paid Results. 

Paid Results look very much like Organic Results. The only difference is a small “Ad” tag somewhere around the title of the listing. You can find Paid Results either on top of the SERP, near the bottom or within other SERP features (more on that below).

3. Featured snippets (FS)

These are special boxes that appear at the top of the SERP and provide a quick answer to a user’s query, drawn from a webpage. Some time ago Google pushed an update that shows your website listed only once if you capture a Featured Snippet (a.k.a. FS within the industry). 

Capturing a Featured Snippet is a double-edged sword. Yes, it pushes your website to the top of the SERP but as it provides the user with a straightforward answer loss in click-through rate (CTR) could happen. 

4. People Also Ask boxes (PAA)

People also ask box on the SERP

These are dropdown lists of related questions that users might be interested in based on their initial query. The PAA box also generates new questions as the user clicks. 

It’s a free feature and could be an excerpt from a webpage on the same topic or it could very well be a question about a related topic. 

5. Local pack (Local 3-Pack)

Local business pack in the results page

This is a section that features local business listings related to the search query. It usually shows a map with three business listings. We’ve seen updates around this feature in the past year with expansion to more than three businesses. 

This SERP feature appears in line with the other results and it always pushes the first Organic Result down the page. 

6. Knowledge panel

Knowledge panel in the SERP

This SERP feature provides a high-level information about a specific query directly sourced from Google’s Knowledge Graph. It often appears on the right side of the SERP and it comes from very quality sources –– like Wikipedia for example. 

7. Image pack

Top-of-SERP image pack, but sometimes they’re between the results.

A collection of images related to the search query. This feature always appears close to the top and pushes down Organic Results. It’s always a good idea to aim to appear in the Image Pack as well as the Organic Results. 

8. News box (top stories)

News box

The News Box contains news articles related to the search query. This feature appears on queries that are tied to events within news sources.

9. Video results

A video box on the SERP

These are video listings related to the user’s search query, often sourced from YouTube but can include other video platforms as well (although rarely, duh). 

10. Shopping results

These are product listings that are related to the search query. Typically those shopping results are part of a PPC campaign or in other words –– sponsored. 

11. Sitelinks

Sitelinks provide users with the opportunity to find the right page from the SERP.

These are additional links under a search result, leading to specific pages on the website. They help users navigate to relevant sections of the site directly from the SERP.

Sitelinks are also notoriously pesky to set up properly as they come from a proper website structure, so if you’re having trouble doing this yourself, idk, consider hiring a professional SEO consultant or something.

12. Related searches

Related searches helps you narrow your search.

These are suggested search queries related to the original search. These Related Searches can be anything from relevant questions or even the same query with modifiers like “free” or “premium”. 

You can see Related Searches at the bottom of each SERP page. Furthermore, you can see a version of Related Searches in the search box while you’re typing your query.

13. Reviews and ratings

Reviews and ratings appear in many different ways.

These are star ratings and reviews for products and services that can appear in organic search results. In order to have these Reviews and Ratings appear with your Organic Result you need proper Schema tagging on your website coupled with the right sections present on your page.

14. Scholarly articles

Scholarly articles can always be found at the top of relevant queries.

For academic or scientific queries, Google may display a special section of scholarly articles. They’re usually on top of all features and have a more compact layout than organic searches. 

Clicking on a Scholarly Articles feature will take you to the scholarly part of Google. 

15. Twitter/X boxes

Twitter (or X) boxes

For some trending or current event-related queries, recent Tweets may appear in a dedicated box. These are directly extracted from Twitter and clicking on them takes you to the tweet. 

16. Books boxes

Books boxes always appear at the top.

For book-related searches, Google can display a box featuring relevant books along with their cover art. 

17. Flight boxes

Conveniently, flight boxes allow you to book your flight from the SERP.

For travel-related queries, Google might display a box that allows users to search for flights directly from the SERP. Also, when you search for a specific flight by number or destination you might get a live update of the flight. 

18. Hotel boxes

Hotel boxes allow you to find, choose, and book a hotel easily.

Similar to flight boxes but for hotel bookings. You may also see this called “Google Hotel Finder”. It’s an interactive SERP feature that allows you to book hotels for different dates. 

Hotel Boxes work because of well-written metadata markup and Google Ads. 

19. Recipe results

Recipe boxes provide ratings, prep time, calories, and more at a glance.

Recipe results appear on food-related queries. Google displays rich results that include recipes, star ratings, cooking times, and images. You can also see the number of calories and step-by-step explanation extracted from the article straight on the SERP.

Google serves all of these features on its Results Pages but what is the importance of aiming for a specific SERP feature in your SEO strategy?

Google rolls out specific SERP features based on what will be best for the user and Google’s business. That often means your business might suffer because of the introduction of new features on the result’s page. 

Some features are specifically made to serve paid results to users (Shopping Results). Other features are meant to answer specific questions immediately or solve a problem quickly (Featured Snippets, People Also Ask). 

Good SEO strategies aim to create a balancing act between being featured in different SERP features (like PAA and FS) and earning actual organic results. It’s important to note that SEO professionals should work with performance marketers to ensure maximum exposure on the SERP through Google Ads for competitive queries that contribute to the bottom line. 

Types of SEO

Now, you’re more aware of what is SEO. You know about the different features Google has and how an SEO strategy should target to help a business grow. But that’s just the tippie toes of SEO – let’s go over the different types of SEO in more detail.

There are two main types of SEO that you need to know about –> Technical SEO and On-Page SEO. Let’s take a look at the first type: 

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is the process of optimizing a website for search engines but with an explicit focus on the technical side of a website. Technical SEO works on the website structure, the code of a website, and a website’s performance. 

Technical SEO professionals work hand in hand with developers to ensure a website can be easily crawled and indexed by search engines, and furthermore, web crawlers can understand the content that’s on the website. 

Some key things technical SEOs focus on: 

  • Website crawlability: Ensuring that bots and crawlers can easily understand what a website is about. This is done by optimizing a website’s XML sitemap(s), robots.txt file, and the internal linking structure of the website.
  • Website indexing: Making sure that all of the relevant pages of a website can be indexed. This process goes over things like duplicate content, canonicalization, ensuring important pages aren’t blocked from indexing, and making sure a website loads fast to provide a better user experience.
  • Mobile friendliness: In 2023 one of the most important factors for SEO is ensuring a mobile-friendly website. This includes proper scalability on different resolutions and ease of use, especially for smaller screens. 
  • URL structure: In SEO your URL is one of the most important things. Your URLs need to be descriptive, readable, and include relevant keywords. It’s helpful to search engines and humans alike. 🙂 
  • Site architecture: Often done at the beginning stages of making a website, having a good website architecture is key for scaling and ranking. A logical and organized structure makes it easier for search engines to understand the hierarchy and relationship between pages. 
  • Schema markup: You can provide additional context and information about a website and its content to search engines through the implementation of structured data markup (see schema.org). With schema, you can enhance search results with rich snippets, knowledge graphs, and other visual elements. 
  • Technical errors and redirects: A big chunk of a technical SEO’s time is taken up by identifying and resolving issues such as broken links, server errors, redirect chains, and 404 errors.
  • HTTPS & Security: For a couple of years HTTPS has become the norm online. Technical SEOs ensure that a secure connection between the website and users is present. 

If these sound like alien speak to you, don’t worry. Things become fairly simple once you start learning a bit more about what SEO is. 

Now, let’s look at other SEO types and broaden your understanding of strategy and search engine optimization. 

On-site SEO (a.k.a. On-page SEO)

On-page search engine optimization, or on-site SEO as you’ll commonly see it referred to, is the process of optimizing parts of the website that are on the page. Unlike technical SEO, on-page optimization is strictly looking into the content of the website and how it helps a user solve their problems. 

The key aspects on-page SEO focuses on are: 

  • Keyword optimization: Keyword optimization is the process of analyzing content on a website and figuring out which keywords would be beneficial to be included by expansion or rewriting of the content. But that’s half the story…
  • Quality content: You also need high-quality content to rank. No, chatGPT isn’t a substitute for a copywriter. In fact, you need a human perspective to structure that content and come up with a clever way to include keywords and cater to the audience’s needs. That’s what on-page SEO is all about. 
  • Meta tags: Often done through a plugin called YOAST (on WordPress), meta tags are often what Google (and other platforms like Twitter) choose to display. SEO professionals optimize the meta title and meta description of a page to increase the click-through rate from the SERPs. 
  • Image optimization: The process of optimizing an image includes compressing the image size, choosing the right image format as well as optimizing image file names. 
  • Internal linking: Like technical SEOs, on-page professionals work on internal linking. They do it both to improve the website architecture and to provide users with relevant further reading.

Now, that you have a basic understanding of what on-site and technical SEO is let’s go into the next big niche in SEO…

Off-site SEO

Now we’re going into the grey-hat SEO territory – off-site SEO. 

Off-site SEO mostly refers to the process of link building. Your website should have high-quality backlinks from other websites linking to yours. Ideally, these links should be organic –> you create great content –> other websites link to you as a resource. 

In reality, the majority of backlinks in the industry are paid backlinks – a practice frowned upon by big chief Google. Now, there’s more to link building than paying for links. A lot more. Let’s go over a few key aspects of off-site SEO.

  • Link building: The process of actively seeking opportunities to build links to your website from reputable sources. Methods like guest posting, outreach, and content promotion are regular parts of link building. 
  • Online directories and listings: The fastest way to acquire backlinks is to be present on quality online directories and listings that are relevant to your location and industry. 
  • Digital PR campaigns: The best way to acquire links to your website is to create resources that journalists and bloggers can refer to and link to when doing their research. Creating original studies on topics closely related to your industry is a great way to start. Digital PRs are best backed by outreach campaigns for maximum efficiency. 
  • Online community engagement: Participation in forums, discussion boards, and online communities in your industry to build authority and brand awareness. 

Much like other types of SEO, off-site SEO is an ongoing process. You have to continuously include off-site initiatives to grow your website and rank higher on the search engine results pages. 

Other types of SEO

I want us to go over a few other types of SEO, but I don’t think they deserve their whole section in this article. The following list consists of SEO niches and strategies that incorporate the above-mentioned three main types of SEO. 

  • E-commerce SEO refers to the optimization of online stores and their product pages to improve visibility in search engines. This could involve everything from optimizing internal linking to writing SEO-friendly product descriptions. 
  • Enterprise SEO includes search engine optimization strategies that are specifically tailored to the needs of large-scale businesses. This involves building complex website structures to support the multi-lingual and multi-lingual needs of the business and working with multiple departments and stakeholders. 
  • International SEO is that part of SEO that deals with translating and localizing a website to a market that’s different from the main one the company operates on. This involves a mixture of both on-page and technical SEO.
  • Local SEO is optimizing a website to increase its visibility for queries relevant to a specific geographical area. Mobile devices have contributed a lot to location-based search and Google has taken actions to address the needs of those users. 
  • News SEO refers to the process of optimizing news content and websites. One of the major goals is to ensure a news website is easily crawlable so Google can index news pages as quickly as possible. All on-page SEO optimizations play a role in News SEO.

The search engine side of SEO – how search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo work and rank content.

Search engines are, obviously, very complex systems that serve the purpose of retrieving and organizing vast amounts of information from the internet. They use algorithms to do that and generally speaking, all search engines follow roughly the same process of crawling, indexing, and ranking content. 

Here’s a rough overview of what that process looks like:

  1. Crawling: Search engines use programs called “spiders” or “web crawlers”. They start by visiting a list of known web pages and following all links that are on a page. In that process, crawlers discover new content. One that isn’t indexed yet. 
  2. Indexing: Once crawled, the content of a webpage is analyzed and indexed. This process involves extracting and analyzing information from the web page which includes the text, images, metadata, and even links. Search engines store that information in a structured format within their database.
  3. Ranking: When a user enters a search query the search engine tries to identify the most relevant result from its index. It uses various ranking algorithms and numerous factors like page quality, user engagement metrics, and backlinks. 
  4. Retrieval: Once a search engine crawls, indexes, and ranks your content comes retrieval. When the search engine presents the search results to the user it goes through a whole process before it presents the 10 most relevant results to the user. 
  5. Continuous improvement: SERPs change constantly. Google and other search engines refine their algorithms to ensure the content they serve is high quality and solves user problems. They take into account user feedback, search patterns, and evolving web standards to update their crawling, indexing, and ranking processes.

Importance of creating a website that facilitates each of these steps.

There’s a lot of technical complexity involved in optimizing a website and its code to ensure that crawling and indexing can be effortlessly executed on the search engine’s side. From strong internal linking to ensuring that you have optimized XML sitemaps, the optimization of a website is a process that takes a lot of time and thought. 

On one side SEO is a process of making a website friendlier for bots and algorithms and computers. But in reality, every little optimization you do that is meant to increase your rankings should be one that improves the experience for the people who’re using your website. That’s why it’s important to optimize your website for search engines.

The business side of SEO – how search engine optimization fits into the business strategy and why companies do SEO

Search engine optimization is a vital part of a business’ growth strategy. Quite often, businesses that invest in SEO don’t only see it as a conversion channel but as the growth engine of the company as well. 

If this sounds a bit wrong, like putting all your eggs in one basket, it’s because it can often stagnate a business’ growth or even be considered a risk. This is because, as great as SEO is, you’re dependent on what Google or Bing will decide to do with an update. With that in mind, some of the most known companies today are very much SEO driven. Just think about Booking.com, Airbnb, Coinbase, and Genius. All of those who have relied on SEO to build their brands and drive billions of people and billions of dollars. So, how does SEO fit within a business strategy? 

Increased online visibility – the more eyeballs you get on your business, the more memorable the brand. 

If we go back to the big brands we namedropped above, there’s a reason why they’re big. All of them have done their due diligence in physical and digital marketing, but they’ve also made sure to be on the first page of Google for queries that are highly relevant to their core product. 

Booking.com pops up for almost any “[CITY] hotels” search you do and often competing with local listing websites or even Google features. This constant appearance on Google gives them the exposure needed to build their brand. Stretch this constant presence into years and you’re sure to build a strong and recognizable brand. 

Targeted traffic helps you stay connected with customers at the exact moment they want to buy. 

In SEO we often use the term “searcher’s intent”. Knowing how to recognize the intent behind a search query is a really important skill –> it can be the difference between helpful and unhelpful content. 

Search engine optimization takes into consideration the so-called targetted traffic and creates pages and content that meet the searcher’s intent. A good SEO professional should be able to create a robust strategy around what pages should be present on a website and exactly what type of pages they should be. For example, informative queries should be more guide-based (like this guide). Transactional queries (like “SEO agency for hire”) should be landing page-focused where, for example, you explain the services you provide. 

SEO is the most cost-efficient long-term marketing strategy you can invest in. 

While in SEO there are no guarantees about how much traffic you’re going to bring in, or how much money you’re going to make, it’s still the most cost-efficient long-term marketing strategy out there.

When done correctly, an SEO strategy will target both short-tail and long-tail keywords. The longer tail keywords are often what you’ll initially rank for and bring traffic to your website. Those pages also require very little improvement in order to stay relevant and in the top 3 results. Meaning, you have the one-time cost of researching, writing, and publishing them. After that, it could be years before you have to do anything while they still bring in traffic to your website. 

Compare the ROI to paid acquisition and you’ll likely see a massive difference in cost-per-acquisition. SEO is more affordable in the long term and will continue to drive traffic even if left unmonitored for a short period of time. 

What is an SEO strategy and why do companies need one

An SEO strategy is an action plan aiming to improve the search visibility and rankings of your website. Good SEO strategies take into account key business goals and fit in your business strategy not as an afterthought, but as a key driving force. The purpose of an SEO strategy is to attract organic (non-paid) traffic to your website. 

As to why a company needs an SEO strategy, there are a plethora of reasons for that. 

For starters, you grow your brand’s visibility organically. If you employ paid strategies to grow your brand it will cost you times more than it would if you do it organically. With that being said, your best bet is to combine SEO with paid strategies.

Furthermore, you get higher-quality traffic. We mentioned in the article that a good SEO strategy should target users throughout their whole journey. You get to have a touchpoint with your ideal customer through their awareness, evaluation, and purchasing decision stages.

And one aspect that not many SEO folk talk about is the resilience to the changing user behavior. Google and other search engines adjust the results they’re showing based on what their data shows them. Quite often user behaviors change and Google is probably the first place that notices that. They get first-hand data on how users interact with websites after a particular search and how they refine their search if a website doesn’t solve their problem. When enough people do that Google adjusts the websites they show on the SERP for the first query to better meet the user expectations. 

But none of the information above is truly valuable until you know how to translate SEO into business results. Way too often executive leadership isn’t content with the CTR increase because it’s too vague of a statement to show what this contributes to the bottom line. 

In fact, this is where experienced SEO professionals stand out –– they know how to take the results SEO has achieved and translate them into cold-hard contributions to the business’ bank account. 

Doing your very first SEO audit – why, what, and how? 

If you’ve read this far, ideally you already have a grasp on what is SEO, what SEO professionals do, and how SEO can help a business grow. 

It’s a lot, I know… and we’ve barely scratched the surface. So, naturally, you ask yourself where do I start with SEO? Well, hiring us is one place but if you aren’t ready for that yet, making your first website audit might be a good place to dip your fingers. 

Now, don’t expect much. Often, doing something for the first time in your life means you’ll suck at it. That’s okay. But it also means that you’ll have a better understanding of how SEO works and if you end up hiring a consultant to do SEO for you, it will be easier for you to manage them. 

So…

Why do an SEO audit? 

Great question. You do SEO audits to see where exactly you stand with your technical, on-page, and off-page. 

Is it good? Is it lacking? Is it actively hurting your rankings? The point of an SEO audit is to give you answers to those questions. Once you extrapolate the findings, you get to work on an SEO strategy and fix things. 

What tools do I need to run an SEO audit? 

Another great question – wow, you’re on a roll. 

To conduct an SEO audit you need to make sure that you have access to:

Those four are the basics. You can also use any other Chromium-based browser like Arc 🫶 or even Brave (if you care about your security and you aren’t Google’s B). 

Extra tools that are our favorites: 

  • ScreamingFrog – a spider/crawler that will help you see your website the way Googlebot does. For larger websites, a subscription is required, but it’s not that expensive. 
  • AhRefs – an SMM tool that will help you grasp how your website performs and for which keywords your pages rank. This one will break the bank. 

How to do an SEO audit

I’ll keep this short, as there’s a whole article on the topic coming your way, but the most obvious process to follow an SEO audit as a beginner is to: 

  1. Step 1: Follow the checklist
  2. Step 2: Google every check so you know what to look for and which tool to use. 
  3. Step 3: Compile everything into a spreadsheet. 
  4. Step 4: Analyze which checks your website passed and which failed. 

After you have the spreadsheet ready you’ll go over each failed check and prioritize the things to fix first (ideally, those that can negatively affect your rankings). 

Conclusion

You can’t define what is SEO in one or two words, at least not possible if you want to grasp the full idea behind doing SEO. 

  • SEO is the process of optimizing a website to rank higher for key queries that are relevant to your business. 
  • SEO helps you build a brand and provides touch-points with your potential customers throughout their buyer journey. 
  • SEO lays the groundwork for creating a user-friendly website that is accessible and easy to navigate regardless of user background. 
  • SEO is the highest ROI long-term marketing channel a business could invest in.