The siren call of SEO is well known. It goes something like this:
- Rank your website #1 on Google!
- Get massive search traffic and passive exposure!
But for many beginners, their SEO journey ends before it even begins. White‐hat versus black‐hat? Site audits? Backlink profiles? URL Rating and Keyword Difficulty? No thank you—I’ll be over here hitting “promote” on some Facebook posts.
As for more seasoned marketers, the struggle to keep up with an industry that moves at breakneck pace is real. What if the next Google algorithm update tanks my organic traffic? Will the tactics I’m using now still be relevant three years on? What should I be focusing on?
Somewhere along the line, we all end up asking the same question:
What is SEO, really? And is it all worth it?
Let’s ask the experts.
If you’re not already familiar with Ahrefs, we run an SEO blog—and we pride ourselves on an objective, data‐driven approach to our posts.
So we decided to do something way better than coming up with a definition of our own: we reached out to the best minds in the SEO industry and crowdsourced this ultimate “What is SEO?” post.
After combing through the 40+ responses, I found that most definitions fell into three categories:
- Website or search engine focused (15);
- User‐focused (16);
- Larger strategy focused (14).
Almost an even mix, actually.
Of course, there were also some outliers that we’ll look at towards the end of this post.
Let’s get to it!
1. SEO is about optimizing websites for search engines
It’s almost 30 years since the launch of the first search engine, but plenty of responses still align with the more traditional take on SEO. That is, what coined the term “search engine optimization” itself.
These definitions of SEO explore the process of optimizing websites to best fit search engine algorithms, all in the name of ranking higher in the search results.
SEO is the process of getting content to be crawled, indexed and ranked well in Google and other search engines.
Mass user acquisition via search engines.
SEO is the practice of positioning websites for higher visibility in search engines. When done correctly through best practices, testing, and hard effort, it typically works. Sometimes it causes headaches. May lead to industry friendships and a life‐long love affair with all things search.
SEO is the act of optimizing information for increased visibility on search engines.
This isn’t specific to a type of search engine, type of content, or even a website. If someone needs to find information online and someone else wants to appear for that search then SEO is the act of helping the content creator reach the searcher.
Along the way SEO touches on lots of other disciplines, but this is the simplest explanation. We identify what someone is looking for and work to appear for that query.
In its simplest form, SEO is about making a search engine’s job easier to find your website, understand the content of your website and score your website in terms of popularity and relevance. This can be achieved through many different activities including technical changes, website content, PR, UX and providing the best product and service out there.
SEO is Search Engine Optimization, the act of optimizing your website to show up higher in the search engines. At the core, the two biggest ranking factors for this are content and links, matching users’ expectation for that content, and being perceived as authoritative enough for the search engines to return. As SEOs, we all at a basic level optimize for these things. At a more advanced level, we think about and optimize for the 200+ factors Google has also mentioned are important to them. But if you focus on just those two, you’ll return quite highly (knock on wood)!
The name says it all…
SEO is all about optimizing your site for search engines.
Which means regularly performing tasks like:
There’s so much more to SEO than SEO.
If you publish amazing content on your website, people are going to link to it. Which can significantly boost your rankings.
Is “content” SEO? Technically not. But it’s still a key part of SEO.
Let’s say your site has horrible UX. And people tend to bounce from your site because they can’t figure out what to do. Thanks to RankBrain, these “User Experience Signals” can hurt your rankings.
Is “UX” SEO? No. But it’s a must if you want to rank in 2018.
One more example:
Let’s say you work hard to create a HUGE brand (like Mailchimp). Based on your brand alone, you’ll get links from authority news sites… and tons of people will search for your brand in Google. Both of which can help your SEO.
Is “branding” SEO? It’s not. But it’s the ultimate SEO superhack.
SEO is anything that helps your site get higher rankings in search engines. It includes the traditional stuff (like on‐page SEO). But to rank in 2018 you also need branding, UX, design, content and writing skills.
SEO is the process of helping search engines find the content on your website that best matches the intent of a user’s query.
To me, SEO is the process of optimizing your website, content, and assets in conjunction with building awareness of your content through links, mentions, etc.
Whether you love it or you hate it, SEO is the difference between having a successful website which ranks highly, attracts a ton of traffic and is extremely authoritative and a website that barely ranks and maybe gets a few hundred visitors a month. But what exactly is SEO? It is the optimization of a website to rank higher in the search engines which in turn attracts more traffic to your site.
The more effort you put into your SEO, the higher you rank, the more qualified traffic you get which equals more income for you. But how do you get started?
Well: Before you do anything else — be sure to perform a complete SEO audit of your site. How? Just use the Ahrefs Site Audit tool to do the hard work and then you can work through and fix any problems you may have. That will help you to craft the perfect SEO foundation to build on step by step while teaching you the fundamentals of SEO in a practical way rather than reading waffle like this!
SEO is organizing a website and its content so that search engines can crawl, read, index and properly rank it for relevant queries. The purpose is to get your message in front of people who are looking for it. If you sell shoes, it probably doesn’t help you much to get in front of someone who is looking for zoning regulations.
SEO is understanding the different SERP discovery opportunities that search engines provide — for example, Top Stories, Knowledge Panels, Featured Snippets, Maps etc – and making sure that your site is structured to be displayed in those features for relevant queries.
An SEO practitioner can range from your classic webmaster – a person who does virtually everything on a website – to someone who is very narrowly focused, for example, a person who only works on certain aspects of structured data.
There are many disciplines that impact SEO but being a good SEO practitioner doesn’t mean you have to master all, or any, of those disciplines, just like being a good marketer doesn’t require you to be a good copywriter or art director. An SEO practitioner’s job is to work with people in other functions to help them understand how they can affect organic search outcomes, directly or indirectly, as well as to learn what requirements and limits they work under that could impact the effectiveness of SEO.
SEO is a wide topic to discuss. One instance of this is when you type in “SEO” on the internet and you get unlimited results from different sources. Simply put, SEO is how you manipulate search engines to take your website to the first page of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) while you overtake other websites within the same niche or market through putting out fresh, informative content and being a trusted authority in your niche or market.
What is SEO? I guess from my point of view it’s ensuring that a website is technically correct in the search engines eyes, so checking Server Headers, Speed (caching or even if AMP is needed), to cannibalization and canonicalization issues, all the way down to HTML markup and site architecture.
To me, SEO is the process of getting a brand more organic exposure from search engines. More often than not, this means getting “higher rankings” in Google, but for some businesses, this just isn’t feasible. Google’s algorithm has gotten increasingly complex (and biased) and some websites will never get rankings for certain keywords. However, that doesn’t disqualify your site — there are still opportunities for exposure through Google using platforms like YouTube, SlideShare or even guest posting on authority websites. For example, if you Google “white hat link building” and you’ll see my Ahrefs guest post ranking there. That post has driven a ton of exposure for my agency.
SEO is any optimization that helps someone get an answer from a search engine that they want. That could be a product, a piece of information, some entertainment or a personal action like finding a diary entry.
Despite the modern technologies powering search and moving things forward, SEO as a practice still comes down to creating an answer with sufficient expertise, authority, and trust (EAT) so the engine deems your content the best result for the query. This means that the exact same query should serve a completely different SERP according to the person searching and the circumstance to which they are conducting the search. As practitioners, all we can do is zoom out and take a broad view on our content and websites in order to fulfil Google’s needs at a strategic level and then get into the weeds with our content production and link development and experiment with tactical outputs and techniques to fulfil the broader strategy of being presented as an expert, with authority and trust.
2. SEO is about matching searchers’ needs to content
Every so often, someone comes along and proclaims that “SEO is dead.” The thing is that since the field changes so quickly, they’re usually referring to an outdated practice that failed to work for them.
What is the field moving towards, then?
Here’s an interesting trend I noticed in the responses: aligning content with search intent and placing users’ needs first.
SEO to me, if given an explanation that I’m interested in, is part reverse‐engineering algorithms and part reverse‐engineering human nature. It’s about using logic and “gut” to do what you think should matter and then relying on data to correct yourself due‐course. It’s certainly not the best definition I would use to describe SEO to someone else, but it’s what keeps me excited about the industry.
SEO is the art and science of connecting people to website content, through the medium of a search engine. Good SEO comes from a deep understanding of what potential audience members want to find on the internet, and how to deliver content that fits this need, aligned with a technical setup that enables search engines to recognize that your content is a good fit for their users. Websites that have the most SEO success are strong in all three areas: the audience, the content and the technology.
I’d say SEO is anything and everything that goes into making your site better for search engines and users. I know the “users” bit is not typically considered by everyone but from a link building perspective, my goal is to have users actually click on the links I build. We want to rank well, get great qualified traffic, and have our sites be useful to as many people as possible.
There are two answers to the question “What is SEO?”. The first one is simple: SEO stands for search engine optimization, the art, and science of optimizing websites for organic traffic from search engines.
The second answer is not so simple because the term SEO is outdated. SEOs now have to optimize for users AND search engines and have to cover a broad spectrum of disciplines, from technical optimization to content, content marketing, conversion optimization, user experience, and taxonomy. On top of that, Organic Traffic isn’t (and shouldn’t be) exclusive to get from Google, but also Youtube, Amazon, and other platforms.
Hence, SEO should be the systematic optimization of websites and content for users and bots in order to get organic traffic from search engines and social platforms.
#SEOisAEO — SEO is fast becoming AEO, Answer Engine Optimisation, the art and science of communicating to answer engines the most appropriate and credible answer to user queries for which you are relevant.
SEO is the process of surfacing content that fulfills the needs of a searcher. This can span across many search ecosystems, and it often does.
At its core, SEO is simple. It’s understanding what your users are trying to achieve and then helping them achieve that in a way that both humans and search engines can understand.
SEO is the process of aligning a site’s content focus and the underlying technical reinforcement of user experience signals with searcher intent needs. This is based on maximizing the highest quality experience where nuanced relevance to those intent needs is sought out. Given that search engines are a form of user, and technical conflicts or barriers to understanding exist, it’s up to the role of SEO to address that reality. The more conflicts or barriers that exist within a site’s presence at the topical and technical level, the less likely the crawl, indexing, and ranking sequence will be able to properly interpret what site owners hope to achieve.
SEO should be thought of as UXO (User Experience Optimization).
Your role as an SEO is to help search engines easily find, crawl, understand and match content to the “intent” of the end user (searcher). This means optimizing outside the traditional website. With more complex SERPs, you need to be thinking about video, review sites, featured snippets, voice search and many other elements of the SERPs, all driven by the rapidly evolving way consumers search for and consume information. It’s not so much about ranking for keywords as it is about giving users the quickest answer to a specific question.
SEO is the result of having a great business that invests in educating and/or entertaining their audience through valuable content. It’s creating and being the best answer to the myriad of questions that exist in your industry and Google recognizing that through the smooth technical structure of the site, the valuable and in‐depth content and the links that exist from other quality websites around the web back to the great content you are creating.
Traditionally, SEO refers to the practice of getting more traffic from search engines. What people tend to mean by that is the idea of getting traffic by typing in queries at a search box in a web browser. This is where traditional search algorithms apply, such as keywords, content quality, and links.
However, today, it makes sense to take a broader view of the definition of SEO. For example, obtaining traffic from the Google Assistant is also rightly considered SEO as well. Perhaps the better way to think about SEO is that it’s the practice of obtaining visibility and/or traffic in response to user requests for information regardless of when and where such requests take place.
SEO attempts to perfectly match a users’ search intent to its content across all devices and platforms.
For me, SEO has changed both direction and depth. It is no longer just about doing a bit of on‐page work and adding a few backlinks (although these are still needed and very important).
SEO now means making sure that someone has a pleasing user experience on your website. When someone visits your website and completes an action (contact, purchase, etc.), then your site is meeting requirements that Google is looking for. It is meeting the intent of the searches being performed and will be rewarded accordingly.
Google even go as far as to note this down in explaining how their algorithms work.
This speaks volumes about the direction that Google is taking and how smart their algorithms are.
So the next time you think about adding a bit of text to a page in the hope it helps push you up the SERPs, try and think about the user experience once someone gets to the page.
SEO is equal parts art and science. It can help you identify the questions your customers (or potential customers) have; how you can (or if you should!) answer them; and how you can ensure that — when those customers ask a search engine — they find your answer in the search results, driving more of the right kind of traffic to your website.
What is SEO? For me, SEO is making sure I achieve the organic traffic goals of a specific domain. For every search (either textual, visual, voice‐based) the challenge is to create a fitting experience for search engines and their users. This is completely different in every possible situation and that makes SEO a challenging job. Some domains need content, others need links whereas some domains are technically way behind on their direct competitors. Never a dull moment.
What isn’t SEO?
In my opinion, SEO is simply a phrase which relates to someone with a specific understanding, appreciation for getting ‘the most’ out of any activity which is undertaken which could be a website/URI/App in relation to organic search.
Ultimately SEO is
Knowledge + Experience + Application of knowledge + Juggling + Dealing with Bullshit = SEO
3. SEO as a strategy
Hold up a second. It’s kind of nice and all to put into words what SEO is, but what does SEO mean in practice? How does it fit into an actual business or marketing strategy, and why should you care?
That’s the final popular theme among the responses: going broader to address SEO in relation to business objectives.
This in itself is pretty telling of just how tightly interwoven SEO is with business development these days.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing and promoting your website to increase its visibility in Google or other search engines. The end goal is to get more organic traffic, leads, and customers from search engines. In a small number of cases, SEO is also used for reputation management (suppressing “negative” results and replacing them with “positive” results).
Although SEO requires the most upfront investment (time and money), it’s the most scalable customer acquisition channel over the long‐term. I would also argue that it’s the most affordable (as far as CAC) in the long‐term.
Whether you call it SEO or something else, the main purpose of our job is to create and modify websites so that search engines and users find them useful. Our goal is to recommend changes to help the business get more customers and make more money. Those changes may be as follows:
- technical changes to help search engines better crawl or understand the site
- content changes to make it so that your site is the most helpful of its kind
- changes in relation to Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines such as improving how you display E‐A‐T, making sure ads aren’t annoying to users, and removing any issues with the website that could cause users to distrust it.
SEO is constantly changing. But, in my opinion, as long as websites exist, there will be a huge need for SEO!
SEO is a form of marketing that leverages Google’s organic search. When you write content that is optimized for a certain keyword, then Google will rank you on the 1st page when someone searches for that keyword. While there is a lot more that goes into it, you can boil SEO down to high‐quality content with good on‐page optimization combined with good quality backlinks. The beauty of SEO is that once you’re ranked on Google, you will often stay there for a long time and be able to reap the benefits of free traffic hitting your site daily.
At this point you are kind of in a “set and forget it” mode, versus paid traffic campaigns require you to monitor that campaign’s health every day. Organic traffic tends to convert into customers easier than other forms of traffic too. That being said, most SEOs get obsessed with the ranking portion of driving traffic to their site and often forget to do the other side of marketing.
Don’t forget that you should still be investing in powerful copywriting principles to get your traffic over the finish line from just a website visitor to an actual lead or customer.
SEO is the process of finding opportunities to reach your target audience through search and then executing a strategy to increase the frequency of your desired conversion (pageviews, leads, revenue, users, etc).
SEO is search engine optimization; the practice of optimizing your digital presence for findability via search engines. How well do you rank when people search for you or what you offer? And how do you rank better?
That can include surprising networks‐ not just Google but also YouTube, the second biggest search engine. And it can include surprising activities‐ not just blogging but also networking and podcasting and even attending events, if it helps you get more website links to your content, which Google sees as votes from others of your credibility and importance. SEO is viewed as the organic (non‐advertising) side of search.
There are two major types of digital marketing: search and there is social. Within search, there are two major types of marketing: SEO and search advertising such as Google Ads (which some people call “search marketing” but I think that is a confusing term for people). SEO work includes a lot of geeky technical stuff like redirects and htaccess files that requires knowledge of HTML and web server technology.
To achieve search findability and SEO success, you’ll need expertise and action from geeks, marketers, networkers, salespeople and more. SEO takes time, but it’s the long‐term investment. Ads are quicker, like getting a job to get paid now, but SEO pays off big in the long run, like a retirement plan. All serious companies should do SEO, search ads and social media.
When I describe SEO to people who aren’t familiar with what I do, I usually say something like, “I help businesses make changes to their websites and marketing to help ensure that when people use a search engine like Google to search for topics having to do with their products and services, their website is what comes up.”
To expand on that a bit, I think SEO is about marketing a business online, using organic search as a channel. Doing so means understanding how people use search engines to make purchasing decisions for your clients’ products and services. It also means understanding how search engines like Google figure out whether or not a given result is a good result for a query. From a technical standpoint, this means making a website as easy as possible for search engines to find, crawl, and understand. From a marketing standpoint, this means applying that understanding of the customer journey to help ensure that the site is answering people’s needs when they arrive there from search. Done right, SEO not only makes organic search a powerful marketing channel in its own right, it also makes organic search a tool for growing the client’s brand.
Once it was a tactical, technical channel designed to manipulate visibility in search results. As SEO popularized, we started to see just how important its role was in digital marketing overall.
SEO can be a powerful digital marketing channel, providing an opportunity to improve a brand’s recognition and qualified traffic. Even though it’s not a small investment (in most cases), its propensity to return huge results is obvious – as long as you stay committed.
SEO is digital marketing. Over the years, SEO has evolved so much that it has already become an all‐encompassing marketing discipline. SEO has become more than just search engine optimization.
A decade ago, a few tweaks on the website (i.e., metadata & content) and building links to it is enough to compete for better organic search visibility. But these days, to truly succeed in SEO, your business (not just your website) should be:
- Technically superior (technical SEO and site performance)
- Able to provide the best experience possible to its intended web users (content quality, relevance, UX, conversions, and other user‐engagement metrics).
- Well‐branded — that people would talk about positively, socially share and link to (in which sentiment analysis, entity recognition, E‐A‐T, link building, digital PR, and a lot more are all in play).
- Data‐driven — to give a better direction to the site’s overall traffic/revenue generation campaign (analytics, keyword research, content gap analysis, forecasting).
SEO is the process to grow a site’s organic search visibility towards its target audience with the goal to increase its traffic, conversions and profits.
The definition for what we talk about when we talk about SEO has changed dramatically. Six or seven years ago, SEO was mostly focused on getting links from directories, press releases, and so on. Back then few, if any, SEOs would focus on the technical aspects of how to optimize a website past H tags and meta titles/descriptions.
SEO was always about being creative and looking for new solutions. This hasn’t changed. SEO was, and still is, about being flexible and agile in order to stay ahead of the curve.
What is SEO? It’s a process that works with a variety of digital marketing components with the end result to improve your visibility in the eyes of those looking for answers and information. In short: SEO is no longer chasing the ‘rankings’. SEO is chasing the answer.
Search Engine Optimization has come to mean far more than it used to. Originally, SEO simply meant the implementation of accepted best practices for visibility and findability, as recommended by Google and other search industry leaders. Today, however, to me, the phrase “search engine optimization” includes a wide variety of activities, both on‐site and off‐site, that help ensure that a website is not only found, but that it stays there, and that it performs well too, converting users into customers and clients.
SEO is the art and science of coupling the completion of a businesses objective (usually generating revenue) to an effective online strategy that harnesses traffic gained from ranking in search engines.
- SEO is the practice of professing to know something about which you know nothing while convincing others who know they know nothing, that you know something, with the goal of making money.
- SEO is a discipline of study into how information retrieval works for the world’s largest search engines. To do so involves understanding how people search, why they search, what experience they receive online as a result of a search, and how to optimize their experience with the goal of aligning site content with user needs. Major search engine professionals’ goal is to give their users a great experience on their products. So aligning content, architecture, data, and usability in an additive way to search queries also adds revenue value for websites and brands online.
Special mentions go to…
Tangible love for the industry:
SEO is a lifestyle! Meeting people across the world during my keynote speeches, exchanging knowledge and bringing a lot of quality traffic is what I love the most. SEO is very different from any other industry. Challenging, constantly forcing people to learn more and finally with a lot of social human‐to‐human dimension. The greatest thing that could happen to me 🙂
And to end things off, an answer so meta that I couldn’t fit it in anywhere else:
Google it. 😉
Over to you
Whew, that’s a wrap!
A huge thank you to everyone who contributed their thoughts.
I hope this post has answered some burning questions and sparked some thought on the evolution and potential of SEO.
Have something to add on (or challenge)? Maybe a definition of your own to share? Let us know in the comments below!