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What is SEO?

This blog post was last updated on August 13, 2021.

Despite being the heart of nearly any digital marketing effort, not much attention is paid to what SEO, or search engine optimization, actually is. One of the reasons for this is perhaps the fact that it’s extremely hard to define precisely, given how its application is spread across verticals, teams, and channels – and is still forever evolving. But also given how it’s the core of any modern digital marketing strategy, we’re bound to try to define it anyway. 

So, what is SEO?

To start at the top, SEO stands for search engine optimization – the practice of increasing the quantity as well as the quality of web traffic by optimizing web content, design, and pages to rank high in the unpaid section (also referred to as organic listings, or organic search results) of search engines (which in most cases is Google).

Okay, let’s try to simplify that. SEO is whatever you do to increase the chances of Google displaying a website or web page as a top result, thus increasing its visibility, and attracting relevant traffic. For instance, when a user types in a search term, if you want them to see your page as one of Google’s top results, you need to optimize it. In other words, you have to “do” your SEO. 

SEO may involve optimizing content (and other page assets such as images) or design, or even checking for technical things such as caching and broken links to help search engines crawl a page efficiently. But it’s not a fixed set of steps you can take. SEO is a vast and inherently dynamic field that changes as frequently as search engine algorithms get updated. This usually also means that what worked yesterday may not work today – meaning that it’s crucial for you to constantly learn and stay well-informed if you want to stay ahead of things. This also explains why we have SEO marketing – a whole vertical of digital marketing dedicated to just SEO.

SEO marketing

SEO is a critical inbound marketing tactic to attract relevant, primed leads that make for easy nurturing and conversion. It’s far more effective (and cost-effective) than advertising, which has no way to ensure precise audience targeting. So, what does SEO marketing involve? Broadly, it involves the following elements:

On-page SEO

This involves optimizing all of Google’s direct ranking factors, such as headlines, keyword selection and usage, content (in terms of relevance, quality, and freshness), title and meta elements, URL structure, and page structure. All these elements are important for Google or any other search engine to understand what your page is about, and to decide whether it’s relevant to a search involving a particular keyword. A large part of on-page SEO gets easier once you’ve done your keyword research – for both long tail keywords and short tail keywords. 

Off-page SEO

This refers to all the indirect variables that Google checks out – ones that aren’t entirely in your control. These parameters depend on external factors such as high-quality competitor blogs, industry news, brand mentions, backlinks, and social activity around your blog (which indicate to search engines how important other people find your content). The personal browsing history of the person entering the search term also matters, but there isn’t much that you can do about that. Off-page SEO simply indicates to search engines what others think of your page/ site.

For SEO marketing to be effective, it’s essential to get both these components right. Make sure you are tracking all of these items with tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console

How to improve SEO: Turn to the best practices

The best part about SEO is that there’s no secret sauce to getting it right. What you need to know is all out in the open, and all you really need is a great understanding of what people are looking for when they do a search – and why. True, the fact that there’s no magic formula to apply also makes SEO as hard as it is…like a perpetually moving target.

For all these reasons, SEO in essence is a constantly evolving set of best practices that you’d do best to adopt holistically, with the liberty to focus on aspects based on your business priorities. Here’s a list of our top five to get you started:

  • Optimize for search experiences, not results. Use every part of a search result to forge complete search experiences. Instead of viewing a keyword list like a to-do list where you mark off the entries one by one, focus on weaving them together to create a “larger picture” – one that makes for coherent reading. Just repeating keywords (also called “keyword stuffing”) is a complete no-go, and can instead lead to a lower ranking for bad quality.
  • Don’t focus excessively on keywords. Rankings aren’t all that matter. If your keywords look too vague, go ahead and still add depth to your content. Remember, for content to be successful, you need to offer something of value to your readers – and you can’t do that by scratching at the surface. Focus on the intent, or what the reader is looking for. It’ll pay off.
  • Create awesome content that inspires your readers to share. Make sure the content has sufficient texture in the form of headings and subheadings to make for easy reading. And track social sharing to find out what else readers want.
  • Increase accessibility. Yes, that means optimizing your sites for mobile devices. People are always on the go. Make it easy for them to access your content. Think about it this way – there’s no point in churning out great content if people can’t access it whenever and wherever they want to.
  • Run a site audit. Check Google Analytics to find out what works and what doesn’t, and fix everything that doesn’t. Literally everything.

Wrapping up

SEO is at best an iterative effort – one that involves constant trial and error to get right. The best you can do to get started is to skill yourself in the current nuances of SEO through Udacity’s Digital Marketing Nanodegree that includes an SEO module, and then build on it over time by keeping track of industry developments.

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Ritika Pradhan
Ritika Pradhan
Ritika is the Content Manager at Udacity and is passionate about bringing inspirational student stories to light. When not talking to the amazing Udacity students, she can be found reading an article or watching a video on the internet.