What is SEO?

Let's take a step back for our less-experienced readers and briefly answer the question, What is SEO?

Search Engines Graphic

SEO is a broad topic and as technology changes, it's becoming an increasingly large field. SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization and, according to, SEO is "the process of adjusting the content, structure, etc, of a website so that it will be displayed prominently by a search engine."

That's a pretty clear definition, but it only covers one part of SEO, what we'd call On-Site SEO. There is another, much larger part of SEO and that is Off-Site SEO. So what's the difference between the two and which, if either, is more important?

On-Site SEO

On-Site SEO covers exactly what the definition suggests. Any work done on the site itself is on-site SEO. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the following:

  • Adjusting meta tags to more effectively target particular keywords
  • Adjusting keyword density, or the number of times a keyword appears on a page, of page body copy
  • Adjusting image alt tags to clearly and concisely describe an image
  • Linking together pages on a website using keywords as anchor text (internal linking)
  • Linking to relevant, external resources in page body copy (external linking)
  • Adjusting the overall organization of pages into a clear, often hierarchical structure
  • Adjusting website code to ensure search engines don't run into any dead ends when crawling your site (i.e. JavaScript navigation is bad)
  • Adding sitemaps to help search engines easily index all pages on the site

On-site SEO tends to be more technical in nature when compared to off-site SEO. When conducting on-site SEO, you're optimizing for a machine - a search engine bot - and so there are some concrete guidelines to follow to ensure a search bot is able to easily find all pages on your site and easily determine the topic of all the pages, as well as your site as a whole.

However, clear guidelines don't make on-site SEO easy. The key challenge in on-site SEO is balancing optimizing for search engines and optimizing for human beings. You can never forget that the primary goal of your site is to convert visitors into customers, so it's important to find a balance. Focus too much on the search engines and your site will read like an encyclopedia. Focus too much on humans and you may not get the rankings you need to sustain your business.

Think of on-site SEO as the concrete foundation of your website. A house with a solid foundation is a great starting point, and without a solid foundation, the rest of the house could come crumbling down. But try selling a house with nothing but the ain't gonna happen.

Off-Site SEO

If on-site SEO is the foundation, off-site SEO is the hardwood floors and granite counter tops of search engine rankings. It's what really determines where you end up amongst your competitors. While on-site SEO is important, it generally won't help you rank all by itself.

While the search engines use your website content to automatically determine what keywords you have the potential to rank for, they use other websites to determine where you should rank. Google's success was, in large part, built upon their realization that on-site content is not enough to determine the quality of a website; they needed another concrete measure of website quality that even a robot could understand.

So, what to do? Well, when you're in a situation where you have very limited information with which to make a decision, what do you do? If you're like me, you seek out the advice of others; you ask for recommendations. That's exactly what Google did to solve it's problem. Google started looking for recommendations to determine the quality of a website. And in the online world, a link from one site to another is a pretty good indication that the former is recommending the latter in some way. Now, of course a link is not always a recommendation, but it's a concrete, efficient metric that a search engine bot can understand and, perhaps more importantly, it was better than any other method of determining quality at the time.

And when it comes to recommendations, everyone knows they aren't all created equal. A recommendation on a reliable car is going to hold more weight coming from your mechanic than it is coming from the girl you struck up a conversation with in the supermarket checkout line. Likewise, Google gives more weight to recommendations (links) from other sites if those sites have more and higher quality recommendations (links) themselves.

PageRank is the name Google gave it's method of determining web page quality based on the number and quality of links pointing to that web page and it's the primary reason Google is the dominant search engine today. Other search engines took a queue from Google and have been factoring links into their ranking algorithms for some time, but Google had a big head start and, arguably, still does it better.

So now that we understand the way search engines rank web pages, we can understand the purpose of off-site SEO, and that is, primarily, to generate links.

Off-site SEO encompasses an enormous array of tasks; here are just a few of those:

  • Publishing quality content: Quality content could be an interesting article like the one you're reading now, or it could be a free tool like Wordtracker's SEO Blogger tool. It could be on your site or published elsewhere, and since quality content is the starting point for off-site SEO, I've included it here. Anything that people find genuinely useful will fall into this category. Unfortunately, in the beginning, you run into the chicken or the egg dilemma. If you don't rank well for any search terms, nobody will find your site. But if nobody finds your site, they can't link to your quality content and so you can't rank well for any search terms. So the rest of off-site SEO involves getting eyeballs to your website.
  • Commenting on related blogs: Once you've got great content, people have to find it. Comments on related blogs will be clicked on, leading those visitors to discover your quality content.
  • Commenting in related forums: Same idea as commenting on blogs.
  • Social networking and bookmarking: Sites like Facebook and offer other avenues for web surfers to find your site.
  • Ask for links: A lot of people are afraid to do this, but if you have something genuinely useful to offer, other website operators and bloggers will be glad to share it with their readers.
  • Guest Blogging: Many bloggers are receptive to you submitting blog posts for publication on their sites. This one takes a lot of work. You might spend a few hours or more writing a quality post for another blog, but it's a great way to get very high quality links from websites that might not otherwise link to you at first as well as bringing in traffic and potential customers from the other blog.

What is SEO to you?

Some may argue that SEO encompasses a much wider variety of tasks that just those mentioned above. What do you think? What is SEO to you? Does it include posting to Twitter and Facebook? What about offline tasks like speaking with reporters or publishing articles in your local newspaper? Could these also be considered SEO?

John Crenshaw
John Crenshaw
UFO company founder. 15+ years experience in performance marketing.
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