What is Search Engine Optimization? I’ll Tell You

what is search engine optimization
As a small business owner, I know you’ve heard the term, search engine optimization or SEO. You may even be an expert at SEO or at least have a good grasp on what it is. However, for those who are still guessing, here’s a quick blog post on what search engine optimization is along with a brief history and some advice on avoiding bad SEO advice.

Question: What is search engine optimization (SEO)?

Answer: Search engine optimization is the process of optimizing a website through best practices, outlined mainly by Google, to give a website the best chance of ranking in search results for keyword queries (searches) relevant to a website.

SEO was later split into three categories: Black Hat (risky, dangerous tactics to obtain faster results), White Hat (safest tactics providing slower yet long lasting results) and Grey Hat (somewhere in the middle of black hat and white hat).

A Brief History of SEO

SEO started in the 1990s (also known as the dotcom era or dotcom bubble). While webmasters have always been concerned about how a website operates and performs, certain webmasters were more concerned with figuring out how search engines worked to game search engine algorithms and cheat the ranking process. This is why the term SEO had a negative connotation for so many years, and rightfully so. Early on, webmasters found a couple key factors on how to exploit Google. The first variable was keyword density, and the second was external links pointing to a website or single webpage.

If you have a website that sells red bricks, naturally, the keyword phrase “red bricks” is going to be used a certain number of times on a webpage. And naturally, a few other websites, like online directories, will link to your website using anchor text (anchor text is the word or words used when displaying a link) like “red bricks” or “buy red bricks”. Makes perfect sense, right? Back then, when a search query for red bricks was made, Google would search all the websites in its index and find the ones that mentioned red bricks. To keep this example simple, let’s say Google found ten websites, all mentioning red bricks roughly the same amount of times. Google would then look at how many links each website had pointing to them. The one with the most links won and would be ranked number one in Google, and so on. Again, this is an extremely dumbed down explanation of how search engine algorithms worked in the 90s.

Webmasters in the 90s discovered the keyword density and link relationship and soon afterwards, the first phase of SEO was born. So what did a website using SEO in the 90s look like? Well, for example, lets look at this paragraph pre and post SEO:

Pre SEO Website Copy

“Looking to buy red bricks in Southern California? Adam’s Red Bricks Emporium has the best selection in town. Open 7 days a week, we offer delivery and discounts on pallets and large orders. If we don’t have the bricks you need in stock, we’ll get them and give you 20% off. No job is too small or too big. We serve DIY home owners, the largest construction companies and everyone in between. Stop by today and a helpful and knowledgeable team member will assist you.”

Post SEO Website Copy

“Looking to buy red bricks in Southern California? Adam’s Red Bricks Emporium has the best selection of red bricks in a town built of red bricks. Open 7 days a week, we offer red bricks delivery and red brick discounts on pallets of…you guessed it, red bricks! If we don’t have the buy red bricks you need, we’ll get those red bricks and give you 20% off those red bricks. No red brick job is too small or too large. We serve DIY home owners building red brick planters, the largest construction companies that build red brick buildings and every red brick fetish in between. Buy Red Bricks Today! Buy Red Bricks Tomorrow! JUST BUY BUY BUY RED BRICKS FROM US!!!”

(Man, ranking websites in the 90s was easy! Wouldn’t it be funny if this post ends up ranking for red bricks!)

Another favorite keyword tactic of SEOs was to use white text over a white background. So if you didn’t want to garble up your website copy like the above post-seo paragraph example, you would simply enter your keywords at the bottom of your website a hundred times with white text. Why white text? So that the visitor couldn’t see it however Google and other search engines could. Smart, right!

Gaming the link variable was just as easy. SEOs would create hundreds of poorly written articles, most coming from foreign writers with broken English. They would buy these articles for a dollar then put links with anchor text pointing to their website from article websites, thus creating hundreds and thousands of links. A natural, not SEOed, website selling red bricks might have 15 other websites linking to it while an SEOed website would have thousands.

Spinning articles was another favorite tactic that came a little later. For example, taking five articles, each with five paragraphs and creating 125 articles by mixing up the paragraph combinations. (Yes, that was a real thing that worked. We’ll so I’ve heard…definitely not speaking from experience…Lets move on!)

Google had a serious problem with SEO. Google’s search results were being flooded with spammy SEOed websites while the real, informative websites that searchers were yearning for were shoved down to the second page of Google and beyond. Now, if you read my post on Understanding Search Engines Like Google, I explain the goal of search engines and how these SEO tactics could ruin any search engine. Google and other search engines quickly caught on to SEO and began combating these black hat tactics by continually updating their algorithms. They added more variables, a sandbox, numerous rules and social signals. SEOs then combated those changes and it’s pretty much been a continuous bloody battle.

SEO Today

While black hat SEO is still around today, white hat SEO has taken the lead. White hat SEO means that webmasters and marketers are choosing to do exceptional work to increase website traffic rather than game the system. Small business owners especially, who’s products, services, rent and monthly bills are real, should definitely only stick with white hat SEO. Allowing someone to use black hat SEO tactics on your website, one of your most important assets as a business owner, would be devastating if Google de-indexed/removed your website. What would that do to your sales, to your new customer count?

Today, there’s more help than ever on how to properly do SEO. Here are some great Google resources you can find almost any answer regarding SEO and fundamentals:
Google Webmasters Youtube Channel
Google Webmasters Central Help Forum
Google Webmasters Central Blog

As a small business owner, you must do your homework on digital marketing companies and SEOs. Watch videos on SEO, read my blog posts and ask questions so you can weed out the good from bad. So how do you know if your getting good or bad advice? Well, you can comment below and ask me any question or concern you may have with the advice you are currently receiving. And secondly, any of the following are definite red flags of bad SEO advice:

  • Advising to buy hundreds of paid links
  • Advising to Join a reciprocal like scheme
  • Adding poorly written content to your website
  • Keyword stuffing your website
  • Adding poor copy that looks like it’s written for robots and not humans
  • Uses tons of marker drawn circles and arrows pointing to your lead capture forms
  • Proposes to build hundreds of pages on your website with the same content only switching out certain keyword terms
  • Proposes to build hundreds of pages on your website with the same or similar content for internal linking purposes

Always ask yourself, how does the advice I’m receiving for optimizing my website benefit my leads, customers and visitors? If it doesn’t, don’t do it.

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