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What is SEO?

What is search engine optimization?
Wow… what a loaded question. If you want the simple, traditional answer, take a look at what the community over at Wikipedia has to say – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Search_engine_optimization

In the traditional sense, search engine optimization is the practice of using techniques that affect a website’s visibility in search results. In the days of horse-drawn carriages (yes that is hyperbole) this usually meant cramming a webpage full of keywords, and getting as many other websites to link to yours as possible. Old school SEOs would focus on things like the title, description and keyword tags in a website’s head, the header tags in body content and bolding keywords or making them into hyperlinks. All of these things still matter… sort of… but the practice of optimizing  a website has become so much more nuanced and covers so many different disciplines than it used to. So what is search engine optimization NOW. In 2013.

Let’s first look at optimization 101:
Obviously there are on site considerations that need to be addressed when optimizing a website for search. The title and description tags in a website’s head are still often used in search results for a website, and can make a difference in search results, but their impact seems to be considerably less than before. As for the keyword tag? It’s dead. Google has publicly said that they no longer factor the keyword tag into their search algorithm. In fact, if you do a little research on the subject you’ll see they haven’t used it for quite some time. Take a look at this blog post from 2009 for example – http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/09/google-does-not-use-keywords-meta-tag.html

In terms of header tags, bolding keywords and adding hyperlinks to keywords, these techniques can still make a difference, but only if they are used in such a way that benefit humans. In other words, if you abuse header tags and other on page markup standards, Google will know, and that is bad.

Finally, there is the matter of body content on a webpage, and keyword density. This is arguably the most important aspect of search engine optimization, and likely always will be in terms of making a page SEO friendly. So if your page is about cats should you use the word cat every other word? No. If you haven’t heard of Panda, you should look it up. This update to Google’s algorithm targeted low quality, spammy sites, and acted in many ways as a content filter. Furthermore, if you weren’t aware, Google actually has a synonym team that does exactly what it sounds like; compiles synonyms. This means that Google may give your cat site relevance for terms such as ‘kitty’, ‘feline’, ‘kitten’, etc. If your site is about a subject, there isn’t really a secret trick to making that subject apparent to search engines. Just write honest, original Content.

So What Matters Now?
The simplest answer to this question is really common sense. On page optimization is really about the user. Google’s core principle is to show the most relevant results for any given search. This means that on page SEO is all about looking at a page and saying ‘if someone were to search for so and so keyword, would my page be helpful to them?’. If you can answer yes to this question, you already have a leg up on a solidly optimized website.

The not so simple answer is that there are new standards that search engines are adopting. If you’ve conducted a search recently you’ve probably noticed a lot of headshots showing up next to search results. This ‘rich snippet’ based on linking pages to personal Google+ profiles or author pages seems to have quite an effect on search results, and factors a metric called ‘author rank’, basically a measure of author credibility into Google’s search algorithm.

Another on page technique that I have personally had great success with, is the recently adopted structured data markup that is now used by all major search engines in varying facets. If you’re feeling brave, or maybe just obsessive compulsive, you can glance through one of the most common structured data libraries at http://schema.org
This structured data is basically used by search engines as a content guide, and must be used (here it comes) honestly, and with users in mind. If you follow Google’s webmaster guidelines, they already publicly warn that misuse of structured data will be penalized.

What About Off Page SEO, Like Links?
Links have been one of the most important elements of search engine optimization since some of the earliest days of search engines. Links have also been gamed for almost as long.
Not anymore.
Another Google algorithm update called ‘penguin’ was released in 2012 with the specific intention of putting an end to dishonest SEO practices, in particular link schemes designed solely to manipulate search results. By Google’s definition, any intentional link acquisition is technically not allowed which means that link building for SEO in 2013 has to be very strategic, and based more on content that organically draws links than practices such as link exchanges and link purchasing.
In addition to links that are simply intended to improve search results, it is often a good idea to think in terms of referrals. If your content is relevant to the content of a page linking to yours, people are much more likely to click through and become interested in your site. You may not be number 1 on Google quite yet, but an increase in relevant website traffic is never a bad thing, right?

And that concept, the idea that it’s not always about just search rankings brings me to my final thought; when people first started optimizing websites for better search ranking, there weren’t a whole lot of options out there. A few search engines, a handful of directories, and a fraction of the competition to contend with. Now, not only has the volume of content on the web increased exponentially, but the choices for viewing that content has as well. Social media, mobile devices, vertical specific directories and a whole slew of other content delivery options has turned SEO on its head, and made ethical SEOs move away from a one size fits all strategy. In 2013, SEO is less about search engine optimization and more about Site Engagement Optimization. Every business is different, and thus every SEO marketing strategy should be just as unique.

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