What the hell is SEO and do I really need it?

The no BS, easy to understand guide.

SEO is all the rage these days. 

Or at least it seems to be if you have an email address or contact form on your website. 

Endless streams of “Increase your domain authority 50 points!” or “Rank on the first page of Google today!”

I swear, I delete what feels like dozens of those a day. 

But it’s gotta mean something, right? All that noise can’t be because of a non-issue, yes?

Well……. SEO is actually important but it doesn’t work the way those emails say. 

Well, what the hell is SEO?

The acronym SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and it amounts to the innumerable number of tweaks that can be made to a website to make it more “appealing” to search engines. 

Say what?

I’ve always found it easier to understand SEO by looking at the search engines themselves. 

Search engine’s role in SEO 

Search engines are the places we go online to locate the “stuff” we need. That could be information, products, services, uh… Adult stuff… Anything. 

More commonly known by their actual names (Google, Bing, Duck Duck Go, etc.) these search engines use complex programming (called algorithms) to get the best results for a person’s search. 

Think about it, when you search for “napkin holder” on Google, the bottom of the page tells you there are some absurd number of results. You aren’t going to look at all of those, obviously, so how are the top 10 or 20 results plucked out of that huge number? What makes them special? 

Now we’re starting to get somewhere. 

Let’s get deeper. 

Search engines are businesses with agendas. 

What is the goal of a search engine? 

Better question: Why do you use a search engine?

To find what you’re looking for, of course! 

And how much time do you want to spend looking? Well, likely very little all. 

So for you to be satisfied with your search, you want to be able to punch in a search and get something that meets your exact needs, in the shortest time possible. If that doesn’t happen… You’ll probably go to a different search engine hoping for a better experience. 

The goal of any search engine is user satisfaction. 

Their entire business plan revolves around making sure searchers are as satisfied as possible… So they don’t leave and use another competing search engine!

What does that have to do with this mystical SEO? 

Remember when I said SEO was a series of tweaks to make your site more appealing to search engines? 

Well, “appealing to search engines” is synonymous with “satisfies users according to their interests.” Those interests, and how to satisfy them, is a deep deep well of analytics, user behavior, global search volume, searcher intent… Basically all the things that search engines track, compute, and draw conclusions from. 

With those conclusions, the engine is constantly changing their algorithm to stay on top of keeping those users happy and searching. 

To put the pieces of the puzzle together: search engines want searchers to be happy -> the engine uses massive metric databases to figure out what makes people happy -> the engine uses those conclusions to determine what sites show up first in search results. 

Users are happy, and they continue to use that search engine without leaving. 

Well where does SEO fit in? 

SEO is like practicing medicine. 

I’m sure at some point you’ve heard the phrase that doctors don’t perform medicine, they practice it. 

The same is true of SEO. 

Just like in medicine, where the medical field has figured out a whole ton of things that usually work but there isn’t really a manual to go off of, SEO as an industry is the same gig. 

Search engines will never reveal exactly what metrics they use for user satisfaction, because their competition would promptly copy them. So in order for SEO’s (the trade name for someone who practices SEO) to “game their sites to the top of the list” they have to figure out what works! 

To compound things further, search engines can occasionally change their algorithms in small ways, which can force SEO’s to figure out what the change was and how to work with it. 

Despite the expected amount of “guesswork”, there are a substantial number of industry accepted best practices that do, in fact, accomplish the intended goal of getting a particular website to rank higher in search engine results. 

Fun note: having worthwhile content on your website is a well-known “ranking factor” for Google, since searchers actually want something of value in their results. So Google prioritizes sites with good content, ergo, websites produce better content to rank higher. End result: the searcher gets better content to choose from. 

Feel free to skip right to “Do you need SEO” if you don’t want the backstory.

Does SEO work?

So you’re telling me SEO is nothing but a bunch of people “guessing”?

Eh, not really. 

[For the remainder of this article, I will reference Google. They aren’t the only search engine but let’s be honest: it’s the one most of us use.]

SEO is an interesting industry in itself, since Google doesn’t want their competition to know exactly how their algorithm works, but they also provide resources for SEO’s to use specifically for ranking. 

Google plays both sides because the end result is better content for the user. 

Remember: Google is a business that wants users to be happy. Always.

So there are a ton of ranking factors that are not guesses, as they have been confirmed by Google. No guesswork there. In fact, there are over 200 ranking factors Google has no problem confirming. 

One of those ranking factors, for instance, is site speed. 

Google notified developers unequivocally that site speed is a very high priority item for ranking. That should come as no surprise, since no one wants to sit around waiting for a site to load. 

So Google prioritizes load speed -> developers prioritize load speed to rank higher on Google -> end users get faster websites. 

Shameless plug – site speed is one of the main website issues I dissect and correct for client sites. 

SEO is no longer about “gaming the system”

“Back in the day”, meaning mid-1990’s in this case, SEO used to be all about actually gaming the system. Search engines were a very new concept, and their algorithms were rudimentary at best. Basically, search engines could just find keywords and that was it. 

So the name of the game used to be writing the one keyword you wanted to rank for, like 1,000 times per page. 

You may remember that fun period of time…

“Are you looking for the best divorce lawyer in NY? Good news, the best divorce lawyer in NY is right here and we’ll show you exactly why we’re the best divorce lawyer in NY. See, the best lawyer in NY should be able to do…”

It was hard to find worthwhile content back then because of the keyword spamming. 

Thankfully, it’s not like that anymore.

Google changed the rules

Google wasn’t always “on top”, and the rate at which people were gaming the system led to some really awful search results. To the point where users started going somewhere else for their search-related needs. 

To stem the flow, Google released two huge updates to their algorithm designed to dramatically improve the quality of search results. 

Panda

The first, released in 2011, was named Panda (that was the internal name that subsequently was released), and it’s main purpose was to prioritize quality content. At the time, a major problem was marketers publishing hundreds of “articles” that were really thin on content but heavy on keywords. 

These “articles” would all point to the target site. Despite being borderline useless to a user, Google’s prior algorithm would see all that content and rank the target site higher. 

For users, the target sites were still useless since the ranking was “gamed”. 

Panda was designed to deeply consider the content quality and authority of the site, along with a series of other design considerations (and many other things Google never revealed), in order to determine crap from quality. Quality was ranked higher, crap sunk to the bottom.

Penguin

The other major update came in 2012, when Google released the “webspam algorithm update” otherwise known as Penguin. 

Prior to Penguin, a ranking factor was the number of external sites that linked to a target website. In a perfect world, when many smaller sites link to the same target site, that target site must be useful and authoritative, right? Otherwise no one would be linking to it. 

Well, people being the creative devils that they are, this chink in the algorithm gave rise to what’s called “blackhat link building”. 

This strategy called for creating backlinks to the target site by exploiting website loopholes. For instance, one strategy was to visit websites that allowed comments (like YouTube) and leave comments on every spot possible with a link to the target site. That link would show up as originating from the exploited site, but really had little to do with the content. 

Penguin rolled in and shut that down. 

There have been many other substantial algorithm updates over the years (and many others that went unnoticed), but Panda and Penguin put a huge dent in terrible search results and cemented Google’s place as the king of search engine mountain. 

What is search like now?

With all the updates, it’s no secret that Google’s algorithm is incredibly complex. All with the goal of keeping searchers happy. 

Quality content that really helps the user, with authoritative backlinks, and a host of other important factors means that the first page of Google results are almost always the best content for that search. 

Alight, so what does that all mean for you?

Do you need SEO?

There’s no real reason for me to try and convince you if you should always consider SEO… The statistics do a great job of that already. 

In 2019, Google accounted for 75% of all global search traffic. Hell, Google is so prevalent that there is now a term in popular lexicon “Google it.”

67% of online experiences begin with a search

According to Google, 83% of US respondents who shopped in a physical store in the previous week said they researched the product online first

Roughly 32% of users click on the first result in Google.

Ready for this one? 92% of search traffic never leaves the first page of search results.

The takeaways: 

  1. Everyone uses search engines (almost always Google) to find information.
  2. Damn near 90% of people who bought an item in a store said they researched it first online.
  3. A third of those users click on the top result regardless.
  4. 9 out of 10 searchers do not leave the first page or results. 

Every business should prioritize SEO, because that’s where customers start their journey. If your business isn’t in that first step, where do you think you’d possibly step in? Hint: you won’t. The search is the start, and it sets the tone for the rest of the journey.

We all do it. Just think back to some previous purchases.

Did you look online first? Did you read anything about the product online? Did you search for the nearest store that carried the product?

Let’s step back from products.

When you visit a new area, how do you find out what the nearest eateries are serving?

When you’re lost, how do you find your way?

If you need gas in an unfamiliar area, how do you find it? 

When the pipe bursts under your sink at 9PM, how do you find the solution?

We. Google. Everything. 

If you want your business to be one of the options a searcher finds, you need to prioritize SEO. There’s no other way to the results page that will drive more revenue to your website. 

What if you don’t care about SEO?

No one is over here twisting your arm to give SEO a look, and realistically, your business won’t die if you don’t put any effort into SEO. Honestly, sometimes SEO is such a pain in the ass I wish it didn’t exist at all.

But it does.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to care about SEO techniques. Remember, Google has developed their algorithm to satisfy searchers and keep them happy. The underlying idea being that quality sites with quality content will be served over crap sites with thin content.

So if you fill your website with quality content where you are truly trying to help your customers understand a concept, or take away some information… Then you are already most of the way towards an SEO strategy. You just aren’t spending all your time researching keywords, and developing strategies.

But continue to post that quality content… and you’ll start to rank on some searches. Maybe not the best ones or the most revenue generating ones… But you’ll get somewhere.

I can care about SEO for you!

Part of my strategy for helping brands solve the Three Critical Problems is to develop, research, and implement an SEO strategy. Moving the organic search needle improves your site traffic, which improves your revenue generation.

The value of having an SEO strategy means you can go on creating that quality content as you were before… only this time you’ll know what topics your customers actually want to read about. So you can fill that gap before your competitors do.

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