What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? Executive’s Guide

By | October 12, 2021


Google owns 87.8 percent of the search engine market share. And, in 2021, an estimated 90.8 percent of the total U.S. population accessed the internet. In other words, the smart marketing money invests in Google search.

However, unlike traditional advertising and PPC, you can’t win just by throwing the most money at it. In order to beat the competition at search engine optimization (SEO), you need to know what SEO is, and how to strategically invest in it.

There are still too many CMOs who don’t care how the soup is made as long as it tastes good.

But, you’re smarter than that. You recognize that consumer behavior has permanently changed, and marketing must evolve in order to remain profitable. You also know that it’s impossible to make the right investments in SEO if you don’t know what it is.

I wrote this overview to introduce marketing executives like you to the basic concepts of SEO.

I won’t discuss the detailed nuts and bolts of how to do SEO. Instead, I’ll explain the fundamental elements of SEO that will help you make smarter investments in the organic search channel for greater marketing and business results. 

I’ll briefly summarize the following topics:

  • What is SEO?
  • Business benefits of organic search
  • Key elements of search engine optimization
  • Considerations before you implement an SEO strategy
  • Should you outsource SEO?

What is SEO in marketing?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Definition

SEO is an acronym that stands for search engine optimization. It refers to the process of increasing organic (non-paid) search engine visibility in order to grow brand awareness, drive qualified website traffic, and protect brand reputation.

SEO is a multifaceted process that involves optimizing both your website and off-site elements to improve SEO rankings and generate high-quality organic traffic.

When marketers discuss SEO, the conversation is often focused on things like keywords, Google’s algorithms, and backlinks. However, at its heart SEO is about aligning with your audience, the way they think, and the intent underlying their Google searches. It’s about knowing what your audience is searching for, why they’re searching for it, and then providing them with effective solutions.

Ultimately, SEO marketing helps you attract your target audience at each stage of the customer journey, which results in more brand touch points, leads, conversions, and revenue.

What’s the difference between SEO and PPC?

There are a number of key differences between SEO and PPC. The more you understand those differences, the more you can strategize how it fits into your overall marketing strategy and the more you can benefit from SEO.

Both search engine optimization and PPC are strategies for driving traffic to your website. The difference is in how that traffic is acquired.

How SEO works

The internet gives humanity access to nearly unlimited information. Yet, few people actually know how search engines work in order to deliver just the right answer in the blink of an eye. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching Google’s video about how search works for beginners.

But, if you don’t have time, I’ll summarize it as it pertains to search engine marketing below.

Crawlers visit your website in order to understand what it’s about. These bots look at the types of content that users see, such as text and pictures, as well as things they can’t, like structured data, and image alt text.

They do this across billions of pages on the internet to understand every page on each website, and how they all relate to one another.

Then, search engine algorithms rank your content based on a specific set of criteria. For instance, do you have relevant content to satisfy a user’s search terms? Does your website perform well in mobile search? Are you an expert on the topic?

How well your site ranks in the search engine results pages (SERPs) depends on several factors, including how well you optimize your content to rank for relevant keywords and the overall quality of the user experience you provide.

Google ranking factors

How does Google decide what to include at the top of its search results? 

It relies on approximately 200 ranking factors, with some factors being more important than others. For example, it matters how quickly a page loads, but content quality matters more. Furthermore, some meta tags are critical to how well your site performs in search, while others, such as meta descriptions, are not factors at all.

One thing that’s consistent across the board for Google is that it’s always looking for high quality. To that end, you can find Google’s Quality Guidelines here.

SEO ranking factors related to the entire website include:

  • Website traffic volume
  • Domain trust
  • XML sitemap
  • SSL certificate
  • Streamlined HTML
  • Site architecture
  • The quality of content in the website
  • User experience
  • Internal linking
  • Backlinks from authoritative domains

SEO ranking factors related to the individual web page (on-page SEO) include:

  • Keywords
  • URL
  • Title tag
  • Headings on the page
  • Content quality
  • Schema markup
  • Internal links pointing at the page
  • Backlinks from authoritative pages
  • Anchor text of inbound links

Ultimately, the goal of SEO is to optimize pages of your website so that they each align with what users want when they search for something. Google encourages designing pages primarily for users, not search engines, giving users the best content relative to their search query.

Enterprise SEO PlaybookBuild a more efficient SEO strategy and leave your competitors in the dust.Download the Study

How PPC works

With PPC (Pay-Per-Click) advertising, you pay to show up in the advertising areas of the search engine results pages for particular keywords. When someone clicks on your ad, you pay a fee, whether or not the user intended to click.

The amount you’re charged per click depends upon a number of factors, including:

  • How many organizations are bidding for the same keyword
  • The amount you’re willing to pay versus your competitors
  • The quality of your ad
  • Day of the week and time of day relative to demand

The advantage of PPC is that it allows you to quickly drive targeted traffic to specific landing pages of your website. This can be particularly useful for time sensitive things like testing, promotions, sales, events, etc.

One big downside of PPC is that it can be an expensive acquisition channel. In addition, the moment you stop investing in PPC ads, the traffic literally stops. There’s no residual effect. The only way to sustain PPC traffic is by pouring a steady stream of cash into it.

This is one reason why SEO is a better investment over the long run. While you don’t get the immediate results of PPC, you reap the benefits of SEO for a much longer time with the added benefit of compound results. A page that ranks on the first page of organic search results can generate traffic for years after you initially create it.

Business benefits of SEO

5.3x

SEO delivers 5.3x ROI compared to 2x from paid advertising

10x

SEO drives 10x more traffic than social media on average

70%

Consumers do 70% of their research online before buying

There are significant business benefits to SEO, which underscore why it should be an integral part of your digital marketing efforts.

At a high level, search engine optimization amplifies growth and reduces risk, driving more revenue and increasing shareholder value.

More specifically, investments in SEO return numerous business benefits, including increased brand awareness, more website traffic, stronger brand loyalty, lower acquisition costs, and improved brand reputation.

Increase sales revenue

When done effectively, SEO drives tremendous sales revenue.

Google is an integral part of our personal and professional lives. We use it to guide buying decisions, research products, and find answers to our problems. We use it to find local businesses and decide which pair of running shoes we should buy.

Search engine optimization allows you to be present at every step of the customer journey, from the moment they first become aware of a problem, to when they make a purchase, and beyond. By creating high value content that aligns with what users are searching for, you can engage prospects at each stage of your marketing funnel.

Businesses that don’t leverage SEO as part of their digital marketing toolkit miss out on a significant amount of potential revenue. Whether your goal is to sell more ecommerce products, generate leads, increase brand visibility, or even capture traffic from TV ads, SEO can help you achieve your goal.

Increased Google Market Share by 265%Terakeet Increased a Financial Services Company’s Google Organic Market Share by 265% within 22 Months.See How

Improve margins

Search engine optimization reduces customer acquisition costs and increases the lifetime value of those customers. In fact, Terakeet delivers customers at 25 cents on the dollar compared to paid channels.

Consider the difference between SEO and other forms of digital marketing, such as PPC, social advertising, or display advertising. Most digital marketing interrupts a person’s online experience. In other words, it creates friction. They’re scrolling through Facebook and an ad pops up in their feed. Or they’re reading an article and the sidebar starts flashing ads for products.

With SEO, there’s no interruption to the customer experience. When a person searches for something, they’re actively seeking answers. By providing valuable content that matches what they’re looking for, you facilitate the path to their objective.

Not only do you avoid potential customer interruptions, SEO has a higher ROI than many other forms of digital marketing. For example, with PPC ads, you have to pay for every visitor to your website, which significantly drives up customer acquisition costs.

Although SEO requires an initial upfront investment to create and optimize pages, a single piece of content can drive organic search traffic for months, or even years after its creation. As you build an ecosystem of content and your website builds authoritativeness, it becomes easier and easier for your site to gain additional related Google rankings. It’s a case of a rising tide lifting all boats. The end result is a lower acquisition cost over time.

Reduce brand risk

SEO also allows you to protect your brand’s reputation. When someone does a Google search for your company’s name or product, you want to own the first page of the search results. You don’t want searchers to see a negative review from a random disgruntled customer or a scathing news article because your stock has fallen. SEO allows you to take control of the search results and ensure that only the content that reflects best on your brand shows up on the first page. This helps you balance the coverage of your brand across the major search engines.

Beyond protecting your brand identity, SEO plays an important role in increasing customer trust. When you provide the type of information customers are looking for (in their words), they begin to associate you with helpful insights and knowledge.

By spending the time and energy necessary to create great content that answers user questions, you can build customer trust with each piece of new content published. As a result, visitors are more likely to buy from you since they value your brand as an authority in the industry. They’re also more likely to dismiss the occasional negative review they come across since the overwhelming majority of what they see is positive.

Forrester Study – SEO Paradigm ShiftAccelerate growth and protect your brand with fully integrated SEO.Download the Study

Key elements of an SEO strategy

It’s one thing to know that search optimization is important and has tremendous benefits for your business. Actually executing a strategy based on SEO best practices that gets results is something else altogether. Let’s talk about the key elements involved in an effective SEO strategy.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is foundational to optimization of your website. If you focus on optimizing your content yet your technical infrastructure is weak, you’ll hurt your ability to rank in Google.

Technical SEO is the process of optimizing a website to meet the technical requirements of Google. The main categories of technical SEO include:

  • Crawling
  • Indexing of pages
  • Site architecture
  • URLs
  • Page rendering

Crawling

First, make sure that Google can crawl the pages of your website. You’d be surprised how many webmasters accidentally block Google from accessing their website by adding a few simple words to the header of a webpage. These problems aren’t limited to small businesses either. Even Fortune 500 brands make mistakes.

Indexing

To ensure indexing of your pages, make sure that you’re using an XML Sitemap correctly. Make sure that the pages you want indexed by Google are included in their proper child sitemaps, and that all extraneous files are removed.

Site architecture

Next, focus on your website architecture. The structure of your site plays a key role in both helping Google understand how all the pages relate to each other and also makes it easy for users to find exactly what they’re looking for on your site. Make your architecture simple and intuitive, and highly organized.

URLs

The same can be said for the URL format you use. Short, descriptive, easy-to-read URLs that contain the primary keyword for a page help Google and users better understand the content of the page. For example, if you sell coffee grinders on your website, the URL www.yoursite.com/coffee-grinders is much better than something like www.yoursite.com/19j5xr39ab56.

Page Experience

The technical performance of your website is a critical part of providing site visitors a good experience. Google’s Page Experience Signals are a collection of metrics used to measure website page performance, and in turn, user experience.

We won’t get into the technical details of each one, but there are six page experience signals that Google takes into consideration. The first three are called “Core Web Vitals“, and include:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – Measures how fast a page loads in the browser
  • First Input Delay (FID) – Measures how quickly a user can interact with a page
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – Measures visual stability of a web page (how much elements of a page move around when the page is loading)

The other three page experience signals Google prioritizes are:

  • Mobile-friendly – Whether a site can be easily used on mobile devices.
  • HTTPS – Whether the site connection is secure via SSL.
  • No Intrusive Interstitials – Ensuring that excessive ads or pop-ups don’t disrupt the browsing experience.

Content quality and alignment

person's hands writing SEO content on a laptop

While the technical performance of your website is very important, the content of your web pages matters even more. As Google has stated:

Great page experience doesn’t override having great page content. However, in cases where there are many pages that may be similar in relevance, page experience can be much more important for visibility in Search.

All things equal, Google favors pages with the best content. What constitutes the “best” content? The following are two important elements:

  • Quality
  • Alignment with search intent

These are two sides of the same coin. Quality content marketing fully addresses a topic so that a person can find the information they need without going back to the search results and digging through additional websites. (Blogging is often an effective way to consistently generate high-quality content.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the content needs to be lengthy, although it often requires significant length in order to sufficiently cover a topic. For example, if you browse Google page one results, some are quite short because that’s all that’s necessary for the topic, while others go on for thousands of words. 

Although this may sound simplistic, a good rule of thumb is that quality content says all that needs to be said, taking into account the topic, audience, purpose of the page, etc.

With this in mind, it’s important to conduct a content audit to prune non-performing content, eliminate any duplicate content, and ensure that your content library is strong.

Search intent alignment

google search on a mobile device

Search intent is the goal that a user has in mind when they type a query into Google. For example, when people search for “men’s soccer cleats” they’re probably wanting to look at pages where they can buy cleats. However, if they search for “best men’s soccer cleats”, they’re most likely wanting to read reviews and comparisons of various brands of cleats.

To rank in Google search results, you not only need to know what your audience is searching for, but also why they’re searching for it. Keywords are important, but they don’t tell the full story. Apply a bit of user psychology and voice of the customer (VoC) to to better understand the intent underlying the different Google queries. Another factor is the point in the customer journey at which they are most likely to make the query.

An effective SEO strategy involves creating high quality content that is closely aligned with search intent through the customer journey. When a person arrives at a page on your website via search results, it should be immediately clear to them that the information on the page is exactly what they had in mind when they entered a particular search query. Do this, and watch your conversion rates increase.

Popularity and trust (E-A-T)

An additional element of an effective SEO strategy is building the popularity and trustworthiness of your website. As a general rule, Google prefers to rank well-known, reputable, authoritative websites that have higher PageRank.

How does Google determine whether a website is reputable? A few important factors include:

  • Links and mentions from high-quality websites
  • Quality of the content on the site

In addition, Google is increasingly measuring the E-A-T of a website in its ranking determinations. E-A-T stands for:

  • Expertise
  • Authority
  • Trustworthiness

In Google’s quality guidelines, Google includes Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness in its stated most important factors used to determine a web page’s overall quality.

Google further clarifies that they determine the E-A-T of a page through the following:

  • The expertise of the creator of the Main Content.
  • The authoritativeness of the creator of the Main Content, the Main Content itself, and the website.
  • The trustworthiness of the creator of the Main Content, the Main Content itself, and the website.

Google E-A-T is especially important when it comes to websites impacting your finances, health, safety, and/or happiness. “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) sites are held to the highest possible E-A-T standards due to the subject matter and what it means for a user if that information is misrepresented.

So, if your website deals with financial services or medical advice, for example, be sure to pay extra special attention that your website is conveying substantial E-A-T signals to Google.

Who is responsible for SEO?

marketing team discussing who is responsible for seo

At a high level, search engine optimization falls under the responsibility of the head of marketing since it is a marketing channel. However, depending on the size of the organization and the skills needed to execute an effective SEO strategy, there’s a good chance that the head of marketing isn’t directly involved in the day-to-day SEO activities.

That responsibility typically falls to the head of digital marketing or the SEO director. Additional team members would be responsible for various aspects of the SEO program, such as project management, topic and keyword research, content creation, page analysis, technical optimization, link building, etc.

At the executive level, SEO should be the center of audience insight helping to drive all marketing efforts. However, many executives fail to capitalize on the full potential of organic search to create value for the enterprise beyond traffic.

According to Forrester Consulting’s thought leadership paper “The New SEO Paradigm Shift” commissioned by Terakeet:

Business leaders are thinking too small about SEO. Companies need leadership that embraces a new way of thinking about SEO to overcome top barriers. Executives who want to truly dominate the landscape need to directly link new SEO investments to clear and measurable brand improvements that drive business growth and improve their reputation… This will require changing the culture around SEO and aligning others to think of SEO as a strategy to meet long-term goals, not just drive site traffic.

Should you outsource SEO, or bring it in-house?

The question of whether to outsource SEO or bring it in-house comes down to three primary factors:

  • Budget
  • Expertise
  • Speed of results

To do SEO in-house, you need the budget to hire, train, and maintain a department. Search engine optimization is a labor intensive process that requires a dedicated team to drive meaningful results.

Teams need a thorough understanding of technical optimization, SEO tools like Google Analytics, Moz, and Ahrefs, as well as keyword research, on-page optimization, content strategy, link building, and more.

If time to results is important, you should look to outsource SEO services.

Outsourcing SEO allows your brand to focus on what you do best while gaining the benefit of SEO experts. As a result, you’ll drive your organic results further than you could on your own.

When outsourcing SEO services, you have three options:

  • Hire a search engine optimization company
  • Hire a digital marketing agency (with SEO as one of their services)
  • Work with a freelancer or consultant

If you’re an enterprise business, outsourcing to an SEO company is the most reliable way to scale your efforts. You’ll be able to hire a smaller, more nimble in-house team focused on implementation while your SEO partner does all the heavy lifting.

However, to be successful and safeguard against risk, it’s crucial to ask the right questions before signing any contracts. Blackhat SEO agencies may seem like a bargain until they land you in the Google penalty box for tactics like keyword stuffing or buying backlinks.

Limitless SEO ResourcesWhat would you do with unlimited SEO resources? Learn about outsourcing SEO.Read the Post

If one thing is clear, it’s that SEO is only going to increase in importance. As the amount of information available to consumers continues to grow at an explosive pace, their reliance on search will continue to grow.

Brands that double down on SEO now will reap the rewards long into the future. They’ll be able to connect with a much wider audience, generate more leads and revenue, and create deeper customer loyalty than brands that neglect SEO.

NOTE: Although Bing and Yahoo are part of the search engine landscape, this overview focuses on Google given Google’s overwhelming market share.

SEO FAQs

What is SEO?

SEO is an acronym that stands for search engine optimization. It refers to the process of increasing organic (non-paid) search engine visibility in order to grow brand awareness, drive qualified website traffic, and protect brand reputation.

What are the benefits of SEO?

At a high level, search engine optimization amplifies growth and reduces risk, driving more revenue and increasing shareholder value.

More specifically, investments in SEO return numerous business benefits, including increased brand awareness, more website traffic, stronger brand loyalty, lower acquisition costs, and improved brand reputation.



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