What Is SEO, Really?

Lisa Barone wrote an interesting piece entitled "Are SEOs Responsible For Rankings Or Money?". At a recent SMX conference, Matt McGee posed the SEO myth "SEO is about rankingsā€. Lisa was relieved when the panel concluded that SEO was really all about the money.

I agree, but then all business activity is ultimately about money. We could say car racing is all about money, but it's also about engineering. It's about skill, excitement, and winning the game.

So what is SEO these days, anyway?

A Very Brief History Of SEO

Back when SEO started, SEO wasn't called SEO. It was probably best described by those who did it as a form of hacking.

The first search engines weren't particularly clever, so it was relatively easy to figure out their sorting algorithms. There was a time when Infoseek's algorithm was almost entirely based on keyword density and keyword position.

Whilst this hacking was still ultimately about money, it was as much a game as anything else. I'm sure many old school SEOs remember those days with a sense of nostalgia. It was more of a pure technical pursuit back then.

As search engines got more sophisticated, and more money flowed online, the nature of the game changed. SEO moved beyond technical hacking to an exercise in making connections.

In Googles early days, you could buy a few high PR links - or beg for them - and that was enough to get you ranking top ten in most keyword areas. Buy a few more if you really wanted to go hard. Saturate the long tail with auto-gen, just like your competitors were doing, and it was game on. Some may say we haven't completely left this phase, but the sun is setting on this approach.

These days, a more holistic approach is required. The search engines, Google in particular, have become more and more oblique, which means systematic technical approaches are less effective than they once were. This begs the question - what is a client hiring an SEO to do, exactly?

BTW: For those who want to read deeper on a history of SEO, check out this excellent Danny Sullivan interview. He knows more than most about the history of SEO.

Explaining SEO

Ever had trouble explaining to people what you do?

I've worked out a succinct answer that is easy for non-technical people to understand. When people ask me what I do, I tell them "I'm a drug dealer".

It isn't true, of course, but I just figure it's easier for people to grasp. If pushed, I'll launch into a detailed explanation of SEO, internet advertising and web publishing models - an explanation which is universally guaranteed to be met with the response "huh"?.

Often, they'll conclude: "so you rank web sites in Google, then?".

To which my reply is "well, that's part of it". As I explain further, I'm still not sure I'm making any headway, so figure it's time everyone had another drink and talk about something else.

The SMX panel is right. SEO is not about just about ranking websites, it's about so much more. Some SEOs, myself included, use SEO as part of a business strategy, a strategy that is just as much about publishing, domain names, brand building, marketing and traffic acquisition. It involves metrics, tracking, conversions, split/run testing, adwords, adsense, writing, researching, managing and changing the light-bulb in the office when it blows. The commonality is that it is oriented around the search ecosystem. Except for the light-bulb.

Some SEOs focus on very specific areas. It is their job to take a site from nowhere in the search engines to achieving desirable rankings. Their job ends there. I suspect such a role is becoming less common as search companies like Google extend their tentacles into every corner of the web, and search consultants invariably follow.

Ask ten different SEOs what they do, and you'll probably get ten different answers. None of which the lay person will likely understand, unfortunately.

Learning SEO Today

If you're starting out in SEO now, I don't envy your challenge. If you're reading this, and you're an SEO veteran, please feel free to add your comments below. What is your advice to those starting out?

Here's mine. ;)

It helps to understand the big picture first. The reason people engage in SEO is ultimately about making money. Even a non-profit may make money from SEO by saving money they would have spent on some other marketing channel.

They want people to find their web site. They want people to connect with them, rather than their competitors. They want people to do this so they can convert these people to buyers, of their goods, their services, or their ideas. If a site were only to rank - say, on keyword terms no-one searched for, or that weren't directly applicable to the objectives of the business, then the SEO work is largely useless. It matters not if a site appears in Google's index. If no one visits via a search in Google, then all that's happened is the bandwidth costs have increased i.e. Google's spider visits and digests pages, and the ROI for the SEO spend looks dire.

So SEO isn't about rankings.

The rankings must translate to something tangible. In most cases, this means gaining qualified visitor traffic. To get this traffic, a site must do more than rank, a site must appeal to visitors. A visitor who clicks back isn't really a visitor. To appeal to visitors, the SEO must first understand them. What do they want? What problem do they have?

Once the SEO understands visitor intent - and they can do this by getting clues from the search query itself, and testing pages against alternatives - they then direct that visitor around the site in order to turn the visitor into something else i.e. a buyer, a subscriber, a reader. Some might say this goes beyond the job description of an SEO, however whether an SEO works on this part or not, they do need to understand it. If the client doesn't see a positive benefit from an SEOs work, they are unlikely to keep paying for the services.

So, yes, SEO is about money. But it is also about the long process by which money is made.

Published: October 21, 2010 by A Reader in seo tips


October 21, 2010 - 1:52am

Isn't Google's ultimate goal to see a site like a person? As opposed to a bot that can be tricked by a spammer?

So if everyone creates there sites geared towards people, and people begin to like the site, Google should take notice and rank that site higher for the subjects it finds on the site.

I guess that's where SEO comes in, making sure Google can see what the site is all about.

If the content is good, people will spread the word faster than trying to build search rankings for a crappy site though.

October 31, 2010 - 3:00pm

@Get On Google,
i think this has to be the ultimate result indead

October 21, 2010 - 3:21am

I don't know if I qualify as a veteran, but I have been messing with it for years and I still like doing it, no matter how frustrating it gets. And that's what I'd offer. I have done this for almost ten years, every day, and I don't think I know anywhere near what I could know. I learn something new about it constantly...and dig for new ideas all the time. It never stops.
Every day, small things change and only time allows you the ability to step back and see that not every dip needs to be attended. In SEO you must love to devour knowledge, and test - it is that ability to take the theory into the mud that will keep you working.
And periodically, reread Rae Hoffman's wake-up post on getting off your ass, and stop reading and wishing so much.
And start aging your own sites, now. You'll want them later.

October 21, 2010 - 12:26pm

Sure they tell a good story, albeit one that can too easily be manipulated, which is where mediocre SEO gives the legitimate version a black eye.

With the hype surrounding social media, there is increased scrutiny and skepticism surrounding SEO - and rightfully so. Therefore it is critical to understand you clients goals, and to even help shape them if you have the breadth of knowledge to present opportunities for growing not only thier traffic but their revenue as well. (Adsense, affiliate, lead-gen, etc.)

I also find it increasingly valuable to frame SEO in the context of the user-experience, explaining that clean site structure and content hierarchies make it easier for humans to find what they came to you for - and increases the likelihood that they will return. Once they've grasped that notion, its much easier to convince a client that this is what crawlers like as well. Also helps address the inevitable conflict of form vs. function, where people tend to get wrapped up in what their site looks like, as opposed to whether or not it allows visitors to complete a transaction.

Thems my 4 cents...

October 27, 2010 - 2:03am

"I'm a drug dealer" haha love it :D

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