01 / Article

What is SEO?

Erin Doland
Erin Doland
6 min read

First and foremost, SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. When businesses talk about SEO, they are usually grumbling because their company isn’t one of the first three results on an industry-relevant Google or Bing keyword search. (“I own a company that makes yoga pants, but when I search ‘yoga pants’ my company name doesn’t appear until page 10! No one scrolls through to page 10! I need better SEO!”)

No doubt about it, a solid SEO strategy will get you on the first page of an industry-relevant search engine query. But SEO is so much more than being the top listing on a SERP, which is an acronym for Search Engine Results Page. SEO is an incredible tool in helping your target customers to easily find and learn about your business.

SEO is a communication strategy

At its heart, SEO is about communication, which is why it’s usually a marketing function at a company and not an engineering one—even though a good chunk of SEO is rooted in computer science. SEO is a comprehensive strategy for improving communication between machines (machine to machine conversations) and displaying or relaying that information to humans.

SEO requires talking to bots

Search engines like Google and Bing use bots (googlebot and bingbot) to scour the web for information. I visualize these bots to be like Roombas that go out exploring a space, picking up pieces of things as they go, and eventually coming back to their base and reporting on what they found. Sometimes they hit a table leg and can’t proceed, so they figure out a way to go around it and resume their vacuuming duties.

Search engine bots venture out across the World Wide Web, picking up information from websites on their journey, and eventually return to a Google or Bing server and explain what they found. Sometimes when they’re exploring, they encounter a broken link or a site that is loading so slowly that it’s as if the site isn’t there, so the bots move along to a different place.

The first step in SEO is always to make sure a search engine bot (the Roomba from the analogy) can easily “see” a website to search it. This is part of the machine-to-machine conversation—your website has to tell the bot that it is available for searching, the information on the site has to be such that the bot can easily pick it up (and like a Roomba, these bots don’t have hands to hover or click or do much more than whirl around, so that information has to be really easy to find), and the information has to appear quickly and correctly (again, like a Roomba, it doesn’t want to spend its day ramming into a table leg).

SEO is also a technical strategy

In an SEO strategy, it means the first steps are technical matters: Are the pages on the website indexed (do the bots know they exist so they can be searched and cataloged)? Are the design elements blocking the bots from reading information on the page? Is the page text “in the clear,” or is it hidden in JavaScript or another way that the bots can’t access it? Do all the links on the page work? Is the page loading quickly across all environments—strong internet signals, spotty internet signals, the latest desktop and mobile devices, as well as older device models, all types of browsers and all versions of those browsers?

Taking our little robotic vacuum analogy one step further, it’s important to remember that you can’t hold a worthwhile spoken conversation with your Roomba. You can send it commands through your phone app or speak basic control phrases to it, such as when to vacuum and what room to venture into while you’re at the grocery store, but it doesn’t care about what you have to say much beyond that. Everything it “hears” is code or is speech translated into code. The same is true for our search engine bot friends. They are savvy enough to decipher some information on a page, but they really appreciate it when you drop code onto your page specifically for it. This instance of machine-to-machine conversation is called structured data and is another essential part of an SEO strategy.

SEO builds trust

Once these technical components are in place, you can work on implementing an extensive list of actions to get search engine bots and humans to trust your data. You can work on improving the quality of information on your site so that people know they can turn to you to find the answers to their questions or discover the exact product they want. You can have your page be the authority on who your company CEO is, so when she does a media interview, the media site links back to her biography on your site for additional information. If you have a brick and mortar location (or locations), a Google My Business listing might help to direct more people to your site and your physical store, like the Yellow Pages did in days of yore. Most SEO strategies also include paid media strategies (like display ads), public relations and earned media, and social media campaigns. If you have an eCommerce site, SEO strategy can make or break your success as a company.

SEO is part of an overall marketing strategy

What is tricky about SEO is that it is sometimes in conflict with other goals you might have for your website. A really amazing website design might impede a bot from finding information on your site. Or a cutting-edge programming language may not be able to interact with older browsers or take too long to load on an older model phone—a browser or phone a lot of your potential customers use. But the reality is you can’t be a top result on a SERP if SEO isn’t a priority for your company. SEO needs to be considered in marketing, advertising, technical, and growth decisions.

Can Vulcan help you with SEO? We’re happy to partner with you to help you achieve your goals.