What is search engine optimization (SEO)?

I often get asked, “What is SEO?” What you may find interesting is that a year ago I honestly had no clue. In January of 2015 I took a class at Loyola University Chicago called new media campaigns, which was my introduction to setting up my own website and learning the basics for SEO. This class is what spurred my interest into the world of SEO, how it contributes to public relations (as explained by Darby), and everything else it entails. Since I often get asked to explain what I do, I decided that it was worthy of a blog-splanation!

engineer looking into an seo machine

So, what is SEO? First of all, SEO is an acronym for search engine optimization. Sounds fancy and complicated, doesn’t it? Well, in a way it is and it isn’t. When most of us search for something, such as “best new car”, we’re inundated with thousands of results. We don’t want thousands of results because that is way too much information to sift through. More than likely you are clicking on one of the first five results that appear. This is what makes SEO important.

As an SEO specialist, my goal is take a brand and try and ensure that it appears first in the search engine results page, also known as a SERP. Since most people don’t go beyond the first page of a Google search, it’s very important to be in the top search results.

What most people don’t consider is that Google is not just a search engine, but they are also a kind of advertising company. The majority of Google’s revenue comes from advertisements according to an article from Forbes. This can also be seen from a Google search result in which ads appear first before organic results and are notated with a little yellow icon saying, “ad”.


search results for best new car


As you can see, there is a lot of competition from various companies and brands. My job as an SEO specialist is to get my brand to beat the competition when it comes to organic search results. Organic search results, for those unfamiliar with the term, are the relevant results of a search that someone performs based on the keywords they used and are not advertisements. A small part of my job entails writing what you see listed. This is what we call meta data.

Meta data is one of the most important pieces to a webpage since it is how Google identifies your page, indexes it, and interprets what it is about. A meta title is the first headline that describes and gives meaning to the page, and the meta description gives a snippet giving more information without giving away all of the content. I’ve created an image that shows what meta data for my website looks like in a search.


search results meta data explained


In the past, keyword focus was a major part of SEO and what practitioners strove to include. As Google gets smarter and updates their search algorithms, keywords are becoming less important for general focus and semantic search, along with great content, is now becoming the focus. Semantic search is Google’s way of interpreting what you intended for in a search. For example, if I were to search “new york turtle”, I might get results of where to find turtles in the city or state of New York and I might also get results of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Google also gives suggestions in a search box when you type in keywords and it tries to anticipate what you might search for based on popular searches of that keyword. Another way semantic search works is if you typed, “new york and turtle”, which may net you search results where meta data contains the word “and” as well as searches with the ampersand (&) symbol since they both mean “and”.

As it was already stated, content is king. This means that Google values good content and user experiences for a website. If a website is poorly designed and hard to navigate it will not only make it hard for Google’s crawlers to move around your website and index, but it will also create an experience that drives people away from your website. This may also lead Google to penalize your site, which means you will move further down the results.

No one wants to create a website that no one goes to, which is why it’s important to have content that is relevant to what people are searching for and is engaging to read while leaving a thirst for more. A good SEO practitioner will not only know how to perform keyword research, incorporate keywords into meta data, but they will also know how to write quality content that is helpful for the user.

Additionally, as we become a more mobile society, the importance of focusing on location is becoming increasingly important for searches. The more geo locations are included in meta data and content, the better off your site will be when searched on a mobile device. For example, think about driving across the country and then suddenly your car breaks down. You search for “car repair near me” and Google will use your phone’s location to pinpoint the most approximate car repair shops near you rather than showing you a car repair shop from somewhere else that is not relevant to your location. If you’ve broken down in Kansas, then car repair results from Boston certainly won’t help your situation.

Speaking of mobile relevancy, Google gives a boost to mobile-friendly websites. This means that a good SEO practitioner will also make sure that a site they are optimizing is also mobile-friendly and sports a mobile page or a responsive layout like my site does. A responsive layout is one of the easier ways to ensure that your site is mobile-friendly since it will automatically adjust to the screen size and layout to whatever device is viewing the site.

thinking robotWriting for SEO is a fine balance between writing for the people, but also writing for the bots. This is how SEO also incorporates values of public relations. A good SEO specialist is also a good PR practitioner because they will know how to write the content and make sure it’s valuable for the public they are serving, good for the brand they are writing for, and good for the bots that help connect the consumer and brand through search.

There is much more to SEO than writing meta data and content, such as social media relations and understanding analytics metrics. I plan to cover more specifics in a future post, but I hope that what you have read has helped you get a better understanding of what SEO is about and a little insight into how important the job is when it comes to connecting you, the content consumer, with the information you desire.





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