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What Is Search Engine Optimization?

I frequently speak at conferences, host webinars and teach digital marketing classes in the Denver area and around the country. When I speak about more general digital marketing topics, I often get asked, “So what exactly is search engine optimization?” Let me start this article by addressing what search engine optimization (aka SEO) is NOT. SEO is not Pay-per-Click (PPC). Google Ads, Google’s flagship online advertising service, allows basically anyone to set up a PPC campaign within minutes and have ads shown on top of and alongside organic (aka natural) search results.

As you can see from the image below, if doing a search for “seo training denver” (one of my target SEO keywords), Google will display the organic search results (green) surrounded by AdWords listings (red). Although Google indicates paid listings with a small icon named “Ad” highlighted in yellow, approximately 2 out of 10 people will actually click on an AdWords listing over an organic search result:

Organic Search Results vs Paid Results

Please note: When I talk about search engines in this article, I primarily refer to Google since they clearly are THE market leader in the online search industry.

In return for serving an AdWords listing in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs), the search engine giant charges advertisers a fee every time someone clicks on the ad. In certain industries, such as the automotive insurance industry, a single click can cost several hundred dollars! Check out the Google AdWords screenshot below; if I were to advertise for the keyword “online car insurance quotes free”, I would have to spend a whopping $217 out of my AdWords budget per click because this is a highly competitive and sought-after keyword:

AdWords Example

As soon as the PPC budget has been used up or as soon as you stop the PPC campaign manually, the ad is no longer visible on Google. So, if you’re looking for instant gratification and immediate increased traffic to your website, PPC may be a good option, but you’ll definitely pay-to-play. PPC can be thought of as a sprint while organic search engine optimization is more of a marathon. As with most things in life, good things take time and it’s no different with organic SEO.

An Intro to Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization is the process of increasing traffic to a website through improving (organic/unpaid) listings in search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo for target SEO keywords. For example, Joe is a realtor and he wants to buy promotional notepads to mail to his clients and prospects. He goes online and types “real estate notepads” into Google. The search returned about 234,000 search results and there’s a good chance that he’ll click on the first organic search result listed at the top, in this case for a company called Captain Notepad. Captain Notepad apparently did their homework by applying SEO principles to their website. If Joe clicks through to the website, he may never need to go back into Google to click on the second result, assuming that the online ordering process is easy and the price is right.

Captain Notepad SEO Success

If your website is listed higher in organic search results, then a person will be more likely to click through to your site. If your website appears on the second page of a search engine’s results, or beyond, you’re in the “graveyard” and it’s unlikely that people will ever visit your site.

In fact, a study performed in 2013 by Chitika.com revealed that nearly 32.5% of searchers clicked on the very first organic result in Google. The second organic search listing achieved a 17.6% click-through-rate (CTR) and the third organic search result still received a CTR of 11.4%. Nearly 75 out of a 100 clicks go to the top five organic search results on Google.

Chitika Search Result Position

Why Do You Need A Search Engine Optimization Strategy?

It’s very simple, by implementing a high quality digital marketing strategy, you can position your business better and gain an advantage your competitors (especially in highly competitive markets) on Google. At the same time, you’re also establishing a stronger brand, gaining market share and ultimately increasing sales from your online marketing activities. Period!

BTW – we recently added a pretty cool SEO site audit tool to our website. The tool creates an 8-10 page report delivered as a PDF to your inbox within two minutes or less:

What’s Your SEO Score?

Enter the URL of any landing page or blog article and see how optimized it is for one keyword or phrase.

The 5 Pillars of SEO Methodology

5 Pillars of SEO

There are many SEO methods and they’re often categorized as on-page and off-page search engine optimization. However, to truly elevate your site in organic search results, you’ll have to implement—what I call—the five pillars of SEO. The purpose of this article is to provide readers who are a bit newer to SEO and digital marketing with a basic and digestible overview. For this reason, I won’t go into too much detail, but feel free to view our educational SEO webinar recordings or subscribe to our email list if you’d like to learn about new information, training opportunities and more.

As of this article’s posting, a whopping 67% of search engine users worldwide turn to Google to find what they are looking for. Call it whatever you want, but if you’re not found in the top five organic search results on Google, you’re probably missing out. According to the search engine giant itself, there are over 200 ranking signals in its algorithm and each and every one of these ranking signals can be placed into one of the five pillars of SEO.

SEO is Not Rocket Science

Just to be clear, SEO is not rocket science. Unfortunately, however, many companies that attempt it on their own fail because:

  • They begin implementation of an SEO strategy but then give up because they are not patient enough to see the results. As mentioned earlier, SEO is not a sprint but a marathon, and it usually takes 2-4 months to see results.
  • They give up because they don’t have the resources available to implement a meaningful and long-term SEO strategy.
  • They don’t have the required knowledge needed to succeed with SEO. Think about it this way: Most of us will take our cars to a properly trained mechanic if something breaks down. We know that something is not right with the performance of our car, but we simply don’t know how to fix the car ourselves. The same principle applies to SEO.

Deploying a Winning SEO and Digital Marketing Strategy is Fun

I love what I do and I do what I love. It doesn’t even seem like work anymore, and I definitely encourage YOU to take a stab at it if you’re willing and able to give it a serious try. Should you find that you might need help, a great way to get started is to attend one of our upcoming SEO trainings or to schedule a complimentary 30-minute consultation with me.

Again, I won’t go too deep in this article, but the following will give you a good idea about the “5 Pillars of SEO” methodology that I’ve developed over the years. Proof is in the pudding: The below screenshot shows results that we’ve achieved for actual  customers, so hopefully this will motivate you a bit:

SEO Success

SEO Results 2

Pillar 1: The Technical Health of Your Website

Your website needs to be in tip-top shape on the inside or you’ll lose a lot of “SEO points.” Here’s a good analogy: You may have all the right gear to climb Mount Everest but if you’re not healthy on the inside, you’re simply not going to make it to the top of the world. The same thing applies to your website.

I recently spoke with a site owner who assured me that they did everything by the book, but their website wouldn’t gain organic search traffic and rankings for their target keywords wouldn’t improve either. A quick look at their Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) revealed that the site indeed got hacked. The search engines don’t like hacked sites at all and by simply fixing this issue, we helped them get back on track.

So make sure you set up Google Search Console and click here for free and valuable training from Google itself. You may also want to consider setting up Bing Webmaster Tools.

Pillar 2: The Functionality of Your Website

This is a big one too! Google wants website owners to create intuitive, simple and beautiful designs that delight their users. One of their very own core principles is: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

When taking on new customers, we often end up having to redo or update their website because their 5-year old website just doesn’t cut it anymore. Make sure to follow these web design guidelines and don’t forget about those calls-to-action (CTA). After all, you’ll want to convert website visitors to prospects and clients.

Pillar 3: On-page SEO

On-page SEO (anything you’re able to physically implement on your website) includes methods like keyword research, website content creation and optimization, Meta and Alt Tags optimization, content marketing and much more. I’ll highlight a few of the on-page SEO components below:

Keyword Research

Let’s start with SEO keyword research. There are a variety of ways to research what words people are using to search for content in search engines. For example, you may think Joe is searching by your specific product name when maybe Joe only knows that it’s called a widget, not ABC widget. Rather than making assumptions, by doing keyword research you’ll get the data to learn how people are searching. Learn more by viewing this webinar entitled “SEO Keyword Research – Find Keywords That Will Improve Search Traffic to Your Website.”

Website Content Optimization and Creation

Once you know the keywords people are using, incorporate those words into your website content. And I don’t mean stuff your content full of these words – no one wants to read the same thing over and over or meaningless content. Did you know that the average human’s attention span is now less than 8 seconds, and a goldfish’s is 9 seconds? To capture your audience’s attention and keep them there, create meaningful content using your target SEO keywords and refresh it regularly.

Don’t let your site go stale. At the very least, add a blog to your site and create one or two pieces of high quality content on a monthly basis. Back in 2011, Google wrote an article on this topic and I highly recommend you follow their best practices. They are still applicable and probably won’t change anytime soon. Implementing a meaningful and high quality content marketing strategy can be a bit overwhelming but don’t get discouraged. Just apply a good dose of common sense, write passionately and have fun with it.

Meta Tag and Alt Tag Optimization

Html, which is the underlying code that generates web pages, is composed of a standard set of tags. For example, each web page should have a title tag, which is the title of that page – just like a book has a title, a description tag, which needs to provide a short and compelling description of what each page is about, and a keywords tag. Although, Google currently doesn’t pay attention to the keywords tag, Bing and Yahoo still seem to do so. While you’re at it, make sure to also optimize the Alt Tags of images throughout your website.

Pillar 4: Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO happens on the outside of your website. It’s the process of using a variety of strategies by claiming and optimizing a variety of digital assets that let Google know your site is relevant for your target SEO keywords and phrases. As I’ll describe in a bit more detail below, off-page SEO usually includes methods such as backlinks, creating and optimizing business listings, creating and distributing optimized press releases, etc.

Hyperlinking Optimization

Hyperlinking involves other websites, preferably high quality sites, that direct back to your website. The more links from authoritative sites you have, the more “credit” or “SEO points” search engines will give you. Hyperlinking is a great strategy to build your credibility and still one of the strongest ranking signals in Google’s algorithm.

Here’s an example: Earlier this year, I started to write guest-articles for a website called Social Media Examiner. It’s a highly reputable site featuring content from industry experts and thought leaders. The site sports a Google PageRank of 6 out of 10 and a Moz Domain Authority of 88 out of a 100. Once my first article was posted on their site (it included a link back to my site), I immediately saw a spike in organic search traffic for my website. Google obviously saw the link back from Social Media Examiner as an honest endorsement and rewarded my website for it.

Business Listings Optimization

You can easily list your business on all of the major search engines, and many other high-profile sites. After taking care of this task for our customers, we usually see immediate boosts to their organic search traffic and keyword rankings.

Optimized Content such as Press Releases

Search engine optimized press releases are a great way to bring visibility to your business and help build backlinks. Despite a recent Google algorithm update which addressed the use of press releases for SEO, it still works if done right. Not only will the press release add relevant content to your website, but when other websites—such as industry groups or bloggers—republish the press releases, it increases your hyperlinking. Don’t overdo it however, only publish real news your readers would want to learn about.

Pillar 5: Social Media Marketing

Social Media Marketing has to be a part of your overall SEO strategy; period. You cannot only use social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Pinterest, etc., to increase brand awareness and to promote your products or services, but they can also support your SEO strategy in a big way. Google strikes partnerships with social media platforms on a regular basis and you can be assured that the links you’re sharing through these platforms will make it immediately into Google’s database.


So what exactly is search engine optimization again? SEO has become quite involved and it’s composed of tactics and strategies that address many of the 200+ ranking signals in Google’s algorithm. It’s an ongoing process as search engines are constantly changing their algorithms. Applying SEO principles and best practices can increase the rankings of your target SEO keywords, boost organic search traffic to your site and ultimately lead to more business and sales from your online marketing activities. Having success with your inbound marketing strategy is very rewarding and simply beats making those cold calls.

Give it a try but feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss potentially outsourcing your SEO and digital marketing efforts.

Be well,

PS: After reading this article, Sampath Mallidi of Intandemly interviewed me about this article. Sampath asked great questions and I invite you to listen to the podcast recording right here.

Chris Raulf
Written by Chris Raulf

Chris Raulf is the founder of BSM, a hyper-focused SEO agency, located in Denver, Boulder and Los Angeles. Chris and his team assist local, national, and international clients with all of their SEO, web design and conversion rate optimization needs. Chris has over two decades of hands-on experience under his belt and his multilingual background has helped him become a globally recognized international SEO expert.

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