magnifying glass, Search Engine Optimization Basics

What is SEO?

Search Engine and SEO Basics

If you’ve had a meeting with a web developer, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term “SEO”, but you may ask yourself, or the developer, “What is SEO?” Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the practice of creating and modifying websites to make them highly accessible via search engines. To understand the foundation of this process, we must first understand the basics of search engines.

To simplify things to their most basic form, search engines, like Google and Bing, are massive libraries of web pages. The search engines assemble these libraries by “crawling” the internet and categorizing pages by ranking factors. Crawling is simply the process of finding a web page, looking at its content, and drawing some conclusions as to the subject, quality, and authority of that content. Once these pieces of information are ascertained the search engine then files away its findings into their library for later reference.

Obviously, a human being cannot “crawl” all of the billions of pages on the internet, so the search engines employ programs called “crawlers”. These computer programs crawl through every page and look for hundreds of ranking factors. These factors include things like the readability of the content, the format of the content, the uniqueness of the content, and the “authority” of the content, which we will speak about more in depth below. The exact methods that the search engines use to rank and library content is unknown, so it is the job of the SEO professional to understand, as much as possible, these factors, and to create and edit content that appeals first and foremost to users, and secondly to search engines. Google does give some clues about SEO to the web developer and content creator in the form of a SEO beginners best practices document. For a much more in depth document on the details of SEO we suggest reading that PDF.

So what is SEO?

On-Page SEO

Search engine optimization can take many forms. The most basic form of SEO can include an audit of web page formatting to correct programming issues that could cause the crawlers to give the content a lower rank. This is called “On-Page” SEO. Specific tasks of on-page SEO can include:

  • properly identifying and titling images (filenames, titles, and “alt titles”)
  • properly identifying links
  • correcting content title issues
  • making sure that search engines have found and continue to crawl all pages of a website
  • descriptive “meta” titles for the webpages (sometimes called blue links, google something and look at all of the titles of the results in blue, those are your meta titles)
  • descriptive “meta-descriptions” (see the description under the blue links? Those are meta descriptions)

These are all industry recognized best practice that can help search engine crawlers properly identify and index your webpage content. These practices don’t guarantee better search engine results (although that can be a benefit), they simply make the jobs of the search engine crawlers easier.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is much more similar to PR than to web programming. One of the most heavily weighted ranking factors for search engines is “authority”. Generally, on the internet, authority is determined by references and these references take the form of links. If you think about a link it is like a recommendation. If someone links to your webpage, they are recommending that someone else visit your page. Depending on who is giving the recommendation, this can be a huge signal to search engines that your content is authoritative within a particular subject. If you have an industry recognized expert linking to your content, you are being endorsed by an expert, and are therefore, an expert yourself. This is the basic premise of link authority.

Be warned, in years past so called “link building” took the form of buying thousands of links across the internet from link building firms to increase your link authority and thus increase your search engine score. This practice is not only completely useless for rankings now, it will have consequences that can include being banned from search engine results. All major search engines have policies that prohibit buying links to try and manipulate your search score.

As I said before, modern link-building is much more like PR. Beyond being a leader in your field, building credible back links relies on establishing relationships with industry recognized blogs, webpages, and directories that can lead to linking to your content. These links are high quality, high authority links. Establishing links and relationships like this can take many forms; direct outreach, chamber of commerce outreach, blog posts, guest blogging on blogs that you are directly affiliated with (be careful with this, more on guest blogging from  Matt Cutts), product release announcements on industry blogs, etc. This is one of the main reasons almost every SEO professional will tell every business “you need a blog.” At Black Tag Design we agree with that statement to a point. Blogging is a great way to publish content that can be linked too, but the real thing SEO professionals should be saying is “you should start writing some great articles about your industry” or “you should share some useful information with your industry.” Blogging in and of itself is useless, creating fantastic, linkable content is extremely useful.

Any SEO professional offering “content creation” should be creating content useful to your industry, formatted well, and geared towards users. It’s not the practice of churning out useless content just to try to get some links, it’s the process of creating a resource that people continue to return too.

SEO has many more detailed aspects like keyword targeting, data analytics, content refinement, back link quality assessment, etc. However, this post has covered the “Macro” aspects of SEO to help businesses understand what they may be buying, and what they should be looking for. But the question remains, what should you expect out of SEO and how should you measure its success or failure?

What is the goal of SEO? 

Most business owners who have heard of SEO but aren’t necessarily very familiar with it would inevitably answer the question “What is the goal of SEO?” with “To rank highly on Google and Bing.” I am going to make an argument that some will agree with, some will not. The goal of SEO is not to get high rankings on Google and Bing. The goal of SEO is to increase quality traffic to your website. Some may say “well now you’re splitting hairs” but let me respond by asking, how do you quantify “high rankings on Google and Bing?”

Let me give you an example. Say you own a pizza shop in Arlington, VA. You want to begin an SEO campaign to increase business. When someone searches for pizza on any search engine, there are literally endless ways they could phrase that search.



“Pepperoni Pizza”

“Pizza Delivery”

“Pizza Delivery Arlington”

And on and on. If your goal is to rank highly on the major search engines, which keyword would you like to rank highly for? Is your goal to be number 1? Imagine the difficulty a local pizzeria would have competing with national chains for top search engine results for the keyword “pizza” and even beyond that, would you care if you ranked number 1 for “pizza”? If someone in San Francisco searched for pizza and saw your Virginia based pizzeria, that’s a pretty useless result.

Instead, the goal of SEO should always be to increase high quality traffic on your website. Do you really care the exact keyword they used to get there? People search in an infinite number of ways, and usually the desired result doesn’t come from a simple search like “pizza” is comes from a search like “best pepperoni pizza Arlington delivery”. This is sometimes called “the long tail of search” Read more about the long tail of search . Instead of focusing on a ranking that fluctuates on a second to second basis, goals should be quantifiable, “We would like to increase website traffic by 15% in the next 6 months.” That is a quantifiable goal for an SEO campaign to achieve. Worrying about rankings on specific keywords is inevitably a losing battle that will not give sustainable, trackable results.

Reassess your search engine marketing and search engine optimization goals. Approaching the problem with data driven goals will always provide better, more sustainable results.

 A word of warning about the SEO industry

Some search engine optimization professionals will suggest that they can guarantee specific rankings, or that they know a secret to getting higher rankings, or something to such an effect. This is absolutely untrue and unscrupulous behavior. SEO is sometimes given a poor name because of so called “Black Hat” SEO professionals. These SEO practitioners use poor tactics that can sometimes get immediate, but unsustainable results. Worse still, these tactics can lead to being banned from major search engines. No one in search engine optimization can guarantee a position in the search results, period. For more details and a great article on the differences between “Black Hat” and “White Hat” SEO tactics, check out this article about white hat vs black hat on Moz.


This is a very simplified explanation of SEO, targeted at those who have never had any exposure to this industry. There are numerous phenomenal resources to learn more, and hopefully this is just the beginning of your understanding of SEO as a viable digital marketing avenue.

Check out these resources for more in depth SEO discussions:

The Moz Blog

Stone Temple Consulting Blog

Search Engine Land




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Brad Miller is the founder and lead developer at Black Tag Design, LLC. Brad uses his background in engineering and data analytics to apply a data driven approach to web development and digital marketing.

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