SEO seems pretty straightforward. You pick a few keywords, and voilà! Your page is optimized for SEO. Right?
Many people understand the basic principles of SEO, but a lot has changed in the last decade. The SEO that we know and love in 2014 is not the same SEO that we knew and loved (or hated) 10 years ago. And that's why the basic question of "What is SEO?" is actually a really important question to continue to ask, and answer.
So ... what is SEO?
(In 2014, anyway.)
SEO stands for search engine optimization. That much has stayed the same. It refers to techniques that help your website rank higher in organic search results, making your website more visible to people who are looking for your brand, product, or service via search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
There are a ton of components to improving the SEO of your site pages. Search engines look for elements including title tags, keywords, image tags, internal link structure, and inbound links -- and that's just to name a few. (HubSpot customers, you can check out the SEO panel in your HubSpot account to see how well you're optimized for those things.) But search engines also look at site structure and design, visitor behavior, and other external, off-site factors to determine how highly ranked your site should be in the search engine results pages.
I guess we could end the explanation there ...
... But it doesn't feel sufficient. Even for a quick FAQ. I think to explain what SEO is today, we need to examine it through the lens of how it has changed. And perhaps outline exactly what SEO is not.
How has SEO changed?
SEO isn't about including as many keywords as possible.
Optimizing for keywords doesn't mean including your keyword as much as you can in your content. In fact, that will actually hurt your SEO because search engines will recognize that as keyword stuffing -- meaning that you include your keywords too many times simply to attempt to rank for a particular keyword.
Nowadays, you should use your keywords in your content in a way that doesn't feel unnatural or forced. I'm not going to give you a particular number, but if you feel like you're forcing it, a good rule of thumb is to just leave it out.
SEO is more focused around content topics.
Before you create a new site page or blog post, you will probably be thinking about how to incorporate your keywords into your post. That's alright, but it shouldn't be your only focus -- maybe not even your primary focus. Whenever you create content, your focus should be on what matters to your audience, not how many times you can include a keyword or keyword phrase in that content.
If you do that, you'll usually find you naturally optimize for important keywords, anyway. Understanding your target audience (aka buyer personas) and what interests them is key to attracting relevant visitors to your website through search engines.
Social search is an important factor.
One of the biggest changes in the last decade is the way social media plays into SEO. Even just a few years ago, it didn't make a difference who was finding your content through social search. But now SEO takes into account tweets, retweets, Google+ authorship, and other social signals.
Social search also prioritizes content and people that are connected to you. That could mean through a Facebook friend, Twitter follower, or connection through another social network. Sometimes social search will even prioritize content that has been shared by an influencer. Social search understands that you may be interested in content that your network feels is important to share, and therefore it'll often get surfaced to you.
This all means when you're thinking about your SEO strategy, you need to think about how your social strategy fits into the puzzle, too.
Your website visitors' user experience is an important element of SEO.
Think of search engine optimization as "search experience optimization." It isn't just important for your users to find your website, it's important for them to stay on your website and interact with your content.
SEO actually takes into account whether or not your visitors are staying on your website and engaging with other content. If you rank well for a keyword and attract a visitor who isn't relevant, that won't actually help your website. Think about your visitors and the content they are looking for more than how many people you can attract to your website.
First page ranking doesn't mean guaranteed success.
In the past, SEO success was measured by whether or not you were ranked high on the first page of Google. But even if you ranked well for a term, does that actually mean you're going to see results?
Not always. You may rank REALLY well for a term that isn't ideal for your business. So you appear high on search engines, get a ton of traffic, but then your website visitors realize your company is not what they're looking for. You don't make any money off of this traffic, and ranking high for this particular keyword is essentially fruitless.
Also, you don't necessarily need to be in the top three slots to be successful. In fact, if you rank well on subsequent pages, you may still have a high clickthrough rate, albeit less traffic. That's great news for marketers who can't seem to bring pages into those top slots or off the second page. We said it before and we'll say it again: The amount of traffic to your page matters less than how qualified that traffic is.
So, having said all that ... what is SEO?
It's still the same thing it was ten years ago -- a bunch of tactics that, if you employ them, will help you rank better in search engines. It's just that the tactics you should use have changed, because what search engines value has changed.
It's up to us to stay on top of the rapidly changing trends, and remember that ultimately, the goal of search engines is to deliver the best experience possible to their end-user -- searchers. If you keep that goal in mind with your SEO strategy, you'll probably make good choices, even if you're not totally up to date on every single nuance of search engine algorithms.