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The Search Engine Optimization Short Course

Mom plays Mafia Wars on Facebook and Grandma texts from her iPhone 5.  Bob from the office blogs about his RC plane hobby, is building a personal brand and monetizing his efforts.  Your better half has an Etsy store and 1000 followers on Instagram.  These days it seems like everybody has some digital moxie.  Yet one digital area that strikes fear in the heart of the sharpest digital denizen is the dreaded Search Engine Optimization (SEO). But perhaps not for long.

Collage of SEO terminology

Emerging from its reputation as a digital dark art, SEO as a discipline is preparing to go mainstream.  According to an August 2012 survey led by enterprise SEO firm Conductor in conjunction with SearchEngineWatch.com, 63% of respondents said their executives are more familiar with SEO metrics than 12 months ago.  The name of the white paper for which the results were presented?  “Why 2013 Will be the Year of SEO.”  In addition, eMarketer recently cited software company SEOMoz, saying that 57% of online marketers practiced SEO tactics on a daily basis, beating out other digital functions like analytics (54%) and social media (48.1%).

It appears that the internet’s “killer app” remains much the same as it was over a decade ago.  According to The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project tracking surveys (2002 – 2012), 91% of consumers use search engines, second only to the 92% that use email, both figures far exceeding the 66% of American users that use social media.

Here then, a brief primer on the essentials of SEO as it becomes The Next Big Thing:

What are the Basics of SEO?

Before a search engine can provide results for a user in the form of a relevant page, file or document, the search word(s) must first be discovered by the search engine.  To find information on the millions of web pages that exist, a search engine uses special software called “spiders” or “bots” to build lists of the words it finds on publicly available web sites.  Building the list is called “crawling.”  Once a site has been crawled, it is referenced as having been “indexed,”  meaning it’s available to be part of the search results.

Google’s search bot is called “Googlebot” and was built to index every significant word on a page, leaving out the articles “a,” “an” and “the.”  When the Googlebot is crawling a web page, it takes note of two things, the words within the page and where the words are found.  Words occurring in the title, subtitles, and other positions of relative importance are noted for special consideration.

Other considerations are a part of the search “algorithm,” a proprietary bit of programming and mathematical logic that is designed to find, rank and place web sites in the search engine results page (SERP).  These algorithms are closely held secrets by the search engines (akin to the Colonel’s 11 secret spices) and Google indicates that their search algorithm takes into account over 200 “signals” (the previously mentioned “special considerations”).  One of the known signals is PageRank , a Google-based 1 to 10 ranking of a page’s importance based on the incoming links from other pages/sites.  Each link back to your page adds to your site’s figurative PageRank.

SEO industry insiders indicate that Google’s algorithm changes up to 500 – 600 times a year. While most of these changes are minor, Google frequently rolls out a “major” algorithmic update that affects search results in significant ways (See Google Panda and Penguin updates).

Man on a phone analyzing financial data and charts on computer

The monitoring, parsing, experimenting and consulting that takes place between SEO providers and their clients are informed guesses that are meant to increase the amount of relevance a web site (and its pages) has against those proprietary signals.

Why all the fuss, you ask?  85% of qualified web traffic is driven through search engines and search is the number one driver of traffic to content sites.  Google alone accounts for 12.2 billion monthly searches in the U.S. and commands 86% of all search volume .  Research indicates that a web site showing up on the first page of Google search results (especially in one of the top three organic positions) is critical, as these spots receive 58.4% of all clicks from users.  75% of search engine users never scroll past the first page of results.

Simply put, ranking highly in search engines can be the difference between recognition and obscurity for a person or business.

What’s the Difference between SEO and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

SEO and SEM are two sides of the same coin.  Whereas SEO is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” or “organic” or search results, SEM expands that notion to include paid search tactics such as Pay-Per-Click.

What’s the difference between on-page and off-site SEO?

On-page SEO is all of the things that can be done to a web site to optimize it for SEO best practices, like the construction and proper technical maintenance of the site and ensuring the site content properly represents keywords that match to the search query intent in Google, Yahoo and Bing.  Google provides guidance on many of these items with Google Webmaster Tools and the more basic SEO Guidance. 

Off-site SEO includes factors related to PageRank, like getting one-way back links to your website from other quality web sites that use relevant keywords in the anchor text of the link.  This helps search engines know what your site is about and to assess its relevance and authority for those keywords.

Explain to me again how Pay-Per-Click (PPC) relates to all of this?

Ranking on page one in the Google search results for a keyword is difficult.  The amount of web sites published has grown from an estimated 3 million in 2002 to 555 million in 2012.  Pay-per-click (PPC) is a viable means for an advertiser to tout their web site on the first page of Google search results for a search query, even if their site doesn’t rank nearly as high for that same keyword or search query.  Again, the combination of search engine optimization for a site along with utilizing PPC is considered Search Engine Marketing.


Search engine optimization can be unwieldy, made worse by people who will extol its complexities instead of distilling it to its essence.  The core attributes are a technically sound web site with content that is frequently updated, relevant and valuable to your audience, and also monitoring the analytics on your site so you can understand where ongoing adjustments are necessary.

Chances are good that an executive is going to ask you about SEO in the near future and when she does, you can now confidently talk through the basics.  Feel free to call Fusion if you need additional support.

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