What is SEO? A beginner’s guide to SEO which helps improve search engine rankings and drives web traffic

What is Search Engine Optimisation? A beginner’s guide to SEO

  • K. M. Wade 
  • 13 min read

According to Ubersuggest, 1300 people in the US google ‘ what is search engine optimisation’ each month. 18,100 google ‘what is SEO?’. So you’re not alone in wondering what this term means.

The ultimate aim of search engine optimisation (or SEO for short) is to boost sales (or other desired actions like donations for charities and petition signatures for movements). SEO does this by helping more people become aware of specific pieces of digital content and by improving the experience website visitors have on a whole website — it drives traffic. There’s a lot involved in SEO, but here’s what you need to know if you’re a blogger or are involved in marketing a business or other organisation. By the time you’ve read (or listened to) this article, you’ll know what SEO is, why you should care and whether you should be doing any SEO.

So click below to listen to the audio version of this article, or read on.

SEO definition — What is SEO?

SEO is the process of:

  1. Optimising websites and content so visitors get the best experience; and
  2. Helping search engines find web content and understand its value.

The aim is to get content to show up as early as possible in search results for search terms that are related to the content. And the initial benefit is more traffic that’s more relevant. The flow-on effect, when marketing is done well, is increased sales.

A cartoon of Kelly wade with stars over the eyes. It’s used for break-out tips and commentary.

When people talk about SEO, they’ll often use terms like ‘rank’ and SERPs. Showing up as early as possible = ‘ranking highly’, ‘ranking well’ or even ‘ranking number 1’. Search results = search engine results pages = SERPs.

So if you write an article about fluffy kittens, you could use SEO best practice to encourage Google to show your article at the top of the results it displays when someone does a search for ‘fluffy kittens’. You might also want your article to show up for related search phrases like ‘cute kittens’, ‘adorable kittens’ and ‘cute pets’.

What are SEO keywords?

SEO has two facets:

  • Optimising the site
  • Optimising each piece of content

When you optimise a piece of content, you’re optimising it so it ranks well for particular SEO keywords. So whenever you see anything related to SEO, you can be sure you’ll see something about SEO keywords.

So what are SEO keywords?

SEO keywords are single words, or more often, short phrases that people type into a search engine when they’re looking for a solution to their problem (even if that problem is ‘I’m bored and need some funny dog videos to entertain me’). So you could also think of SEO keywords as search phrases.

In the kitten example, the SEO keywords would be:

  • fluffy kittens
  • cute kittens
  • adorable kittens
  • cute pets

We call them SEO keywords because part of search engine optimisation is taking search terms and optimising content so it’s more likely to rank well for those terms. So they’re the key words the piece of content needs to be optimised with.

How SEO works

Broadly speaking, SEO works by improving search rankings. The flow-on effect of this is:

  1. More search users visit the optimised website. And those people are also more likely to be from the brand’s target market (so are more likely to want to make a purchase).
  2. More visitors have the opportunity to view high-converting sales messages.
  3. More visitors buy at least one product or service from the brand, or they click on at least one affiliate link or sponsored ad.

This is accomplished in two quite different ways.

Off-page SEO

The website optimisation part (often called ‘ off-page SEO’) is all about making a website easy to use. It involves laying out and linking pages in a logical way that makes it easy for people to find the information they need. This also makes it easier for search engines to find pages and figure out how they’re related.

Off-page SEO also involves optimising things like code and image sizes so websites load quickly. Given that the majority of web browsing is now done on mobile devices, off-page SEO includes ensuring websites are mobile friendly too. And encouraging backlinks is another important off-page SEO tactic.

Off-page SEO works because Google and other search engines aim to deliver solutions that provide the best experience to their users. These search engines know their users will get frustrated if they have to wait too long for a page to load or if a website is hard to navigate. So when someone does an internet search, search engines prefer to populate their search results with pieces of content that will offer the best experience to those users.

So by optimising websites so it’s easy for visitors to get the information they’re looking for, off-page SEO encourages high search rankings which can ultimately increase sales.

Backlinks serve a similar purpose in that they tell search engines which websites deal with similar topics. The quality of a website’s backlinks also gives search engines one way to measure the credibility of a website. So, when a website has lots of quality backlinks, search engines will be more likely to prioritise showing the website’s content for relevant SEO keywords.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in building high-quality backlinks from authoritative websites, Julian Goldie has produced a nice video that has a simple 3-step process you might find useful (and he gave me permission to embed it here).

On-page SEO

The content optimisation part of SEO — what we call ‘on-page’ SEO — is about making sure search engines understand the value of a piece of content so they know when it’s in their best interest to show that content in their search results. In the simplest terms, on-page SEO works by strategically placing SEO keywords throughout a piece of content so search engines understand that the content focuses on those search terms.

Certain aspects of on-page SEO also aim to increase the number of people who will click on the content’s search listing (the number of people who click on a listing relevant to the number of people who view it is called the ‘click-through rate’). When lots of people click on a search listing, it tells the search engine that its users feel the content will solve their problems better than the other pieces of content that are displayed and so the search engine will be more likely to show that piece of content more prominently when other users search for the same term.

So, just as off-page SEO improves search rankings, leading to increased sales, so too does on-page SEO — it’s just that the mechanism is slightly different.

What content can be optimised for search engines?

Many people think web pages and blog posts are the only things that SEO applies to, but while these are some of the most common types of content that are displayed in search results, there are plenty of other things that show up as well. For instance, LinkedIn profiles, Pinterest content and podcasts can all show up in search results, in some circumstances, so they can be subjected to an SEO treatment.

The basic rule of thumb is, if it can be searched, it can show up in search engine search results, whether in the main search results or in dedicated results (e.g. image or video results), and thus it can be subjected to SEO. Non-text content just needs things like a title and meta description (the text that is displayed in search engine results pages) to help search engines do their thing.

Why is SEO important?

By now, you’re hopefully getting a sense of why SEO is important or valuable. But let’s examine the benefits in more detail.

There are four main ways people find content:

  1. Their friends, colleagues and acquaintances, as well as organisations they visit, show it to them (this could be on social media, in forums, via email or in person)
  2. They see it in an ad (again this could be a digital ad or a physical ad)
  3. They type a question or statement into a search engine and click through to content that shows up in the search results (note a search engine could be something like Google or Bing, or it could be a search bar on another platform like a forum or social media platform)
  4. They find it referenced somewhere else, like in a book, journal article or blog post

Now here are some key points about each method:

  • In 2015, Buzzsumo and Moz did a study of 100,000 random pieces of content and found that 50% had been shared no more than eight times. So almost no one is sharing half of the content on the internet. This is in part because people don’t always understand the value of promoting their content. But it’s also often because the content is terrible or the brand just doesn’t have time to share it.
  • Ads are expensive (think $1-5 or more per click) and even effective ads quickly lose their impact after only a short period of time.
  • SEO forms the basis of leveraging method #3 and can be used to increase backlinks which is a key part of method #4.

So SEO is certainly not the only way to distribute content, drive website traffic and boost sales — but it is a great way of doing all those things and it’s much cheaper than running ads.

How much does SEO cost?

This is one of those really annoying ‘it depends’ answers. But basically, SEO could cost you:

  1. Time — If you do SEO yourself, it could cost you $0 (though only if you stick to free SEO tools) but the trade-off is that it will cost you a lot of time. Optimising a whole website can take anywhere from hours to days or even weeks depending on the size of the site and how many SEO issues it suffers from. Optimising a single piece of content will probably take three or more hours depending on how long your content is and how practised you are at doing keyword research.
  2. A few hundred dollars — If you’ve only got a small amount of money to devote to SEO, you could get a site audit or one SEO-friendly piece of content. Or you might buy a cheap SEO course so you can learn to do your own SEO more effectively.
  3. A thousand dollars — If you’ve got slightly more money to devote to SEO, you could get a strategy to help ensure your SEO efforts are spent in the most profitable ways. You might buy a broad SEO strategy or a more targeted backlink strategy. Or you might buy a competitor SEO analysis. Alternatively, you might buy a longer SEO-friendly piece of content or a more detailed SEO course.
  4. 1-10 thousand dollars a month — If you’ve got a decent amount of money to devote to SEO, you could get a strategy, regular monitoring and updates and/or all of the SEO-friendly content you need each month (if you’re a small or medium business).
  5. One hundred thousand dollars per year — With this kind of money, you could (in most cases) cover all your SEO needs for a large website.

Is SEO worth it?

Content marketing, which is a type of marketing that heavily relies on SEO, has in the past been shown to generate three times the leads of traditional paid advertising and cost 62% less than traditional advertising. And unique site traffic is nearly eight times higher for content marketing leaders compared to followers (19.7% vs 2.5%).

It’s hard to find people who’ve effectively measured their SEO return on investment (ROI) and are willing to share their measurements, so there aren’t really any big studies into the effects of SEO, but those statistics about content marketing are a good demonstration of how beneficial SEO can be. In addition, individual case studies offer specific examples of the kinds of gains SEO can deliver if it’s done well.

As just one example, a Korean company realised a 15% increase in non-paid (organic) search traffic just by fixing basic crawl errors. With additional search optimisation effort, the same company’s sign-up rate increased by 93% and their conversion rate increase by 9%. SEO might be a long term strategy, but it can certainly yield some impressive results!

Here are a few more examples.

The thing to remember though is that SEO is only worth it if it’s done properly. If you put in a half-hearted effort, give it a go without understanding how to do it properly, or pay $20 for a supposedly SEO-friendly piece of content from a content mill, you’ll be highly unlikely to see a good return on your investment. Any decent return you get will be by accident.

By now you might be wondering…

Should I bother with SEO?

If you’re happy to rely entirely on paid ads and referrals for all your new customers and clients, you can mostly get away with not investing in SEO. Although I would still recommend you give your homepage and main supplemental web pages an SEO overhaul.

Why? Well if one of your customers or clients raves to their friends about the solution they got from you, and those friends decide they want to investigate the product or service as a potential solution for their own problems, there’s a high chance those friends will Google your product, service or brand rather than going directly to the relevant page on your website. So you want those people to be able to find your website when they do that internet search. And for that, you need to have optimised pages.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, then you should definitely invest in SEO in some form. That investment might be in the form of lots of time and the minimal amount of money if you decide to learn to do it yourself. Or it could be putting aside more funds and the minimal amount of time so you can invest in properly optimised content and strategies. The choice will depend on your financial situation and interest in learning SEO.

Even if you decide to outsource all your SEO needs, you may still decide to develop a basic understanding of SEO techniques and foundational principles so you can choose contractors or hire employees that know their stuff. Because, unfortunately, there are a huge number of dodgy SEO businesses out there and I’d hate to see you waste good money on services that aren’t going to help you.

Got questions?

Add a comment below or get in touch with me directly and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you might have. And if you want to learn more about SEO and other related stuff, sign up for the K. M. Wade newsletter.

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Dr Kelly Wade

Dr Kelly Wade is a marketing specialist (strategist, copywriter, content writer, researcher) and author at K. M. Wade. She performs research and crafts content, copy and strategy for the entire sales funnel to help businesses win more sales and generate sustainable growth. She’s also a scientist, gardening enthusiast and mother of two young children.

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