A lot of clients and friends ask me to explain what SEO (or search engine optimization) is and why it’s so important. Now, to those in marketing or technical fields this may seem obvious but to many people it’s like asking a non-driver to verbally describe the best way to parallel park. Like many of my peers who deal with SEO issues every day, I can fall into the bad habit of instantly prattling off a bunch of technical terms, like SERP or GA or organic vs paid traffic, or joyously launch into a diatribe on the subtleties of keyword use to increase homepage traffic, blah, blah blah. But, inevitably, the eyes of my friend will begin to glaze over and I know they’re thinking about what time they need to pick up their car from the shop or how I should have made a better effort to scrub off the mustard stain my 18-month-old left on my shorts.

When answering questions about what SEO is and why it matters, I find I have more success when I first respond with my own question: “What do you think it is?” While this, of course, could come across as patently patronizing, I rely on a therapist-like tone honed from years of being a sounding board for my clients’ hopes, dreams, and fears for their businesses. What I hear back from people generally falls into two categories:

It has something to do with paying for ads on Google, right?


It’s something to do with ‘algorithms’ that my web designer says she’s not responsible for but I know I need it because I don’t see my website URL when I Google my business name.

Oddly enough, the more people I talk to, technical or non-technical, marketing or non-marketing, the more I realize how pervasive these two ideas are. Even many experienced marketers have misconceptions about what search engine optimization is and the best way to go about it. This is often because the field has evolved so much over the last few years and most folks just don’t have the time to keep up with current events. What many people don’t understand is that SEO doesn’t require some sort of arcane knowledge of mathematics and algorithms and insider knowledge of what Google plans to change in the next quarter. No, what it really requires is something that is sometimes even more difficult to achieve: empathy for the consumer.

OK WAIT! Before you start tuning out and thinking about whether or not you took enough chicken breast out of the freezer for dinner tonight, give me a chance! Yes, understanding how to optimize your website for search doesn’t have to be about paying for impressions or clicks, and it isn’t just about having some knowledge about how people use websites (although a general understanding can’t hurt). Knowing how to make your website more findable is about developing empathy for your customers and prospects; it’s about understanding what they are looking for and making sure that you have described your business in the same way on your website and made that information easy to find.

Phew, now that I have your attention back, let me provide some context and background to help illustrate my point…

Organic vs Paid Search: Build vs Buy

Ok, ok, I know I’m slapping terminology on you, but understanding the difference between these two types of search ranking is a big part of understanding how search works.

Paid Search – In a nutshell, paid search is about just that: paying Google or other search providers for an ad that will show up at the top of a search results page. However, just because you’re paying for it doesn’t mean that the ad will always appear at the top of the list of ads, or that it will appear at all, when someone searches for a business like yours. There is a science and an art to optimizing paid search that includes knowing which words (or “keywords”) people will enter when searching in your industry, understanding the best geographical area to target, how to write a short classifieds type of ad that will compel people to click through, and having a strategy for paying for the ad (pay per impression or pay per click, and how much to bid for the opportunity to have your ad even appear).

There are many companies who will work with you to optimize your keywords and come up with a paid search strategy, and for my money, I say use one…for a while. While paid search can be very effective in a crowded market place, such as for dentists, lawyers, chiropractors, and other services that have a huge amount of competition in a relatively small geographical area, it can also have the tendency to bring in a lot of clicks from people who are just surfing and have no intention to buy. Paid search can work very well for some businesses but when a click translates to a fee of dollars rather than cents, it can end up being an expensive waste of resources for a business in an incompatible industry.

As an aside, I have recently heard many people refer to paid search ads as “the new banner ad” i.e. an annoying nuisance that one must scroll past to get to content of real value. Although companies have been paying for advertising for, well, ever, some people have an adverse reaction to companies that pay for search rankings rather than having a high ranking based on the merit of their website or content. Like it or not, with the current trend in marketing towards authenticity (and even the current trends in organic search…keep reading!), some people can be swayed away from your brand by the very thing you’re paying for to get them in the door.

Organic Search – Give the consumer what they’re looking for

Organic search is all about the search results that display below the ad list on a search engine results page. Generally, when people are talking about optimizing the content on a website for search, making sure that keywords are included in the content, and people clicking back to a site from social media and blogs they’re talking about organic search. Increasing SEO for organic search means increasing the chances that people doing an online search using a service like Google will find your website. Google lists ten search results per search engine results page (SERP) and the common wisdom is that people won’t bother clicking through more than one or two times to see the results. So, if your page isn’t listed in the (at best) top 10 and (at worst) top 30 search results, you’re SOL.

Your ranking on Google searches is strongly affected by the content and architecture of your website as well as how many people click through to your website from other websites. Basically, organic search results are based on two things: firstly, that your website has content on it that matches what people are searching for, and secondly, the more people who click through to your website from other pages, the higher ranking your website will have. Here’s what Google has to say about it:

“Give visitors the information they’re looking for
Provide high-quality content on your pages, especially your homepage. This is the single most important thing to do. If your pages contain useful information, their content will attract many visitors and entice webmasters to link to your site. In creating a helpful, information-rich site, write pages that clearly and accurately describe your topic. Think about the words users would type to find your pages and include those words on your site.

Make sure that other sites link to yours
Links help our crawlers find your site and can give your site greater visibility in our search results. When returning results for a search, Google uses sophisticated text-matching techniques to display pages that are both important and relevant to each search. Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages ‘important.’”

(Reprinted from Google)

Content, content, content

The cool thing is that if you have a website that accurately describes your product or service and uses the same words that people use when they search (keywords), and if people actually want that product or service (i.e. if someone is actually looking for a bike repair shop or executive goldfish cleaning service), they will find your website more easily. It’s very much a meritocracy in that respect.

The tricky part, however, is the second item in Google’s list of demands: links back from other sites. How the heck do you get links onto other websites, let alone compel people to click through?!? As you would imagine, there are companies that will help you with “link building” activities such as sourcing other websites such as industry related directories, bloggers, etc, and petitioning them to include links to your website. You may find some good results as long as the company you choose uses desirable methods and protects your good reputation, however, there are other ways more in your control that you can get links back to your website, such as from your blog and from your social media properties.

OK WAIT! I see you twitching to check your email again, just give me a couple more minutes! I know you don’t have time to blog and that you’re more likely to Instagram a picture of the halibut you had for lunch rather than tweet about a recent business success, but let me say this – your content is everywhere. You may not realize it, but most of us generate content every day, in our sales pitches, while answering support questions, in our conversations over the water cooler about new technologies, products, or ideas that excite us. All you have to do is write it down and find a snazzy picture to go with it. Or write down a list in point form and have someone ghost write your blog (call me). The point is, you have content you’re not using, so use it. Write a blog post (it doesn’t have to be as long as this one), tweet the link, put it on LinkedIn and Facebook, and make it a habit.

Is it fair that business owners and marketers have to be publishers now too? Maybe not, but welcome to the new SEO.

Oh, and one more thing…

As of April 21 of this year, Google will now rank your website lower on searches made from mobile devices if your website isn’t optimized for mobile devices. In other words, since (according to Google) “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan,” if your website isn’t optimized to display well on those devices, you’re hooped. Call me.

– Rob Parker.

Rob is the Creative Director and Founder of ACME Marketing, making engaging, findable, and mobile-friendly websites and content in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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