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

What is SEO? A beginner’s guide to what SEO is and why it’s important

  • K. M. Wade 
  • 18 min read

According to Ubersuggest, 18,100 people in the US google ‘what is SEO?’ each month. And 1300 people google ‘what is search engine optimisation?’. 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 stands for …

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation.

Unfortunately, that probably doesn’t tell you much about what SEO actually is though. It’s a huge topic, but when distilled to its very essence, SEO is all about creating online content in such a way that it generates the best internet search results.

To understand what SEO is, let’s look at the definition of SEO.

SEO definition — What is SEO?

For many people who don’t truly understand search engines, the definition of SEO is related to improving website traffic by increasing how visible webpages are to people searching the internet using search engines. But this SEO definition neglects something vital to getting good search results — user experience.

You see, it doesn’t matter how prominent your website content is in search results if the content provides a bad experience to human website visitors. In those kinds of situations, people will click on a given search result, but when they’re confronted with a hard-to-use webpage, they’ll quickly go back to the search results and try an alternative option. Over time, this sends a signal to search engines that the content isn’t solving their users’ problems adequately and the search engines will show other pieces of content more prominently.

So, a holistic SEO definition states that 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 overall objective is to get more web traffic that’s more relevant to the organisation’s goals. And to do that, the aim of SEO is to get content to show up as early as possible in search results for search terms that are related to the content.

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’.

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.

The flow-on effect, when marketing is done well, is increased sales.

Now, some people look at these goals and think they’re useful, but then don’t really appreciate why SEO is needed to make them happen. So let’s take a look at whether SEO is important.

Is SEO important?

Ok, so you can probably guess that I think SEO is important — otherwise, why would I be talking about the topic? So, is SEO important? Yes, absolutely.

In fact, I’d argue that SEO is vital for anyone who has an online presence, every single business, all not-for-profits and all other organisations.

But I don’t expect you to agree with me without any evidence, so let’s look at why SEO is important.

Why SEO is important

According to a 2018 study, 62% of consumers will stop considering a business if they don’t have an online presence and 48% will stop if they don’t have a website. So having some kind of online presence, preferably at least a website, is important for businesses.

Now, there are four main ways people find websites and other online 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

All of these sources of web traffic can be important ways for you to get more website visitors, however, some methods are more resource-intensive than others. Consider these key points.

  • Ads involve an ongoing cost. Not only that, but ads are also expensive (think $1-5 or more per click for digital ads and thousands of dollars for physical ads). And even effective ads quickly lose their impact after only a short period of time.
  • Social media requires a lot of time and not everyone uses it wisely. In fact, 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.
  • Referrals can be difficult or costly to influence.
  • SEO forms the basis of leveraging method #3 and can be used to increase backlinks, which is a key part of method #4.
  • 53.3% of all website traffic comes from clicks on search results and SEO drives 1000%+ more traffic than organic social media.
  • Business-to-business and technology organisations generate twice as much revenue from non-paid search traffic than any other channel.

In addition, if you have an SEO-friendly website or other SEO-friendly online content, it will continue to attract web traffic from search engines without you having to do anything or pay any ongoing fees. You might have to make the occasional tweak to keep up with changes to the way search engines decide what to show in search results, but that takes far fewer resources than the other sources of web traffic.

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.

Now, you might be wondering whether you can get search traffic without doing any SEO. In fact, you may be getting some search traffic now even if you’ve never used any SEO techniques to optimise your website. And it is true that you don’t need SEO for your website to show up in search results.

But consider this.

On average, 31.7% of the people who view the first entry in the search results will click on that entry and visit the piece of content it refers to. And searchers are 10 times more likely to click on that first search result than the 10th search result. If your website doesn’t show up in the first 10 search results, less than 1% of searchers will click through to view it.

What’s more, these statistics are fairly constant over time. For example, in 2013, the average first search result got 33% of search traffic, and that value was similar to the data obtained in a 2010 study too.

There are billions of pieces of content on the internet. And many people spend hours optimising content in an effort to get it to show up earlier in the search results. If you don’t specifically optimise your content to give it the best chance of doing well in search results, what do you think are the chances it will show up in the first 10 search results?

As far as I can tell, no one has done a detailed study to measure the chances, but I can tell you the chances are minuscule. If your website is on a popular topic, your chances are pretty much non-existent.

So, SEO is important if you want your online content to show up in the first few search results.

Why SEO is important for business

If you have a personal blog that you’re using to try to spread the word about a topic that’s important to you, you’ll probably be pretty frustrated if hardly anyone, other than your family and friends, ever finds your site. But you’re not going to lose much other than time.

If you have a business, your online content has the potential to be an important marketing asset that could help you generate revenue. If hardly anyone visits your online content from internet search results, that’s a huge amount of potential revenue that you’re missing out on. It also substantially lowers the return you can realise from the time, effort, resources and money you invest in creating online content.

SEO can substantially increase the number of people you can reach with your online content, and it’s much cheaper and longer-lasting than advertising.

SEO benefits

So with that in mind, here are some of the best SEO benefits you could experience if you do SEO well:

  • More website traffic. One of the primary benefits of SEO is more people visiting your website.
  • Long-term results. SEO doesn’t just deliver results when you’re actively investing in it (as is the case with paid ads). Once your content is being prominently displayed in non-paid search results, it’ll stay there for a long time.
  • Better return on investment. SEO generates more revenue per unit of cost than most other marketing methods.
  • Better experience for your visitors. As providing a good user experience is a significant part of a full SEO treatment, a major benefit of SEO is that your website visitors will find it easier to get what they need from your online content and they’ll have a more enjoyable time doing it.
  • Increased awareness of your brand. Because SEO results in your content being more prominently displayed in search results, SEO also increases the number of people who are aware of your brand.
  • More trust. Many people don’t trust paid ads all that much. That’s why 70-80% of searchers ignore paid ads.
  • Higher conversions. Traffic obtained as a result of SEO activities is often closer to your ideal audience, so the people it attracts are more likely to do what you want them to do. And because people trust organic search results more than paid ones, they’re even more likely to do what you want them to do.

Need proof of this exciting range of SEO benefits? Here’s just one example of SEO success.

A company called Saramin, which has been one of the largest job platforms in Korea for a while and therefore already held a substantial proportion of the market share, generated impressive results using SEO. It realised a 15% increase in non-paid search traffic just by identifying and fixing crawling issues. Then it increased the number of signups it got by a whopping 93% simply by helping Google better understand its website. And to top it off, the brand generated a 9% increase in conversions by providing a better experience for its website visitors.

That’s a pretty good demonstration of SEO benefits in my book.

SEO value

These benefits can bring a different type of value to different people and organisations depending on their goals. So, what value could SEO bring you? Here are some examples that might inspire your thinking on the subject.

If you were to use SEO techniques on personal online content, the value of SEO might be that you can share your thoughts and messages with a wider range of people for no additional financial cost.

If you were to apply the techniques to a not-for-profit’s content, the value of SEO might include being able to use funding as efficiently as possible to help more people all over the world.

If you want to use SEO as part of a business marketing strategy, the value might be a reliable increase in profits due to a sustained increase in the quantity and quality of leads and in the sales conversion rate.

But SEO is only valuable if it’s done properly. And it only works if you’ve got good content to begin with — no amount of optimisation will make search engines think a piece of content is helpful to searchers if it’s not.

And, no matter what you may have heard, SEO is not free.

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.

If you do decide SEO is for you, the following sections will give you some basic information to help you get started.

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 represent the essence of what 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.

For a detailed guide to how to use SEO keywords effectively, check out your SEO keyword best practices article.

TLDR — What is SEO? Summary

Read on or view this video which contains a nice summary and gives an example of what SEO does. And when you’re ready, learn how SEO works to drive website traffic and increase profits.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and it’s 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.

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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