What Is SEO

Let’s take a quick step back. I’ve written a lot about SEO-related topics here on the Papercut blog, and it occurred to me that there are probably some of you out there wondering, “What exactly is SEO?”

Well, wonder no more.

Lately, I’ve found myself answering this question in client meetings. It’s a deceptively simple question, and the truth is, the answer is complex. If you’re unfamiliar with SEO, I’m here to shed a little light on the subject.

After you’ve read this, hopefully you’ll have a better understanding of what it takes to “do SEO” and how to tell good SEO from bad.

So, let’s start at the very beginning…

What Does SEO Stand For?

SEO is an acronym that stands for search engine optimization. If you throw “SEO” into Google, you’ll find a whole slew of definitions. Personally, I like the one from Rand Fishkin over at Moz. He says SEO is:


the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of the traffic that you earn through the organic results in search engines.

I like this definition for several reasons. First, it’s simple and to the point. Second, it emphasizes that SEO isn’t just about getting more traffic from organic results. It’s about getting better traffic, and that means visitors that are going to convert into customers and increase your business.

Finally, I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t mention rankings. Don’t get me wrong… I still think rankings are important to SEO, but I don’t think they’re the ultimate measure of success. Today, so many factors, including your geographic location and past search history, go into determining the results that Google displays when you type in a keyword, so rankings are somewhat relative. It’s good to have an idea of where you’re ranking and where you can improve in order to increase visibility, and improved rankings are always a good thing. However, a search engine optimization campaign should never have a goal of  “rank #1 for this keyword.” In fact, it’s entirely possible to increase qualified traffic without ranking in the #1 spot.

SEO Tactics

At its core, SEO is a series of different tactics used to increase online visibility. These tactics are far ranging and can be sliced and diced a million different ways, but for our purposes, I’ve lumped them into three big buckets:


This is one of the most important aspects of an SEO’s job. In order to do search engine optimization effectively, you have to ensure that you’re producing uniquely valuable content that’s well written, uses the right words, and engages your audience. Ultimately, you want to provide content that satisfies a user’s search and that search engines can access and understand, eventually rewarding you with increased, high-quality organic traffic.

What goes into creating this kind of content is an entire blog post on its own, so I’ll just say that if you’re doing SEO, you should be focusing on ways to create useful content, then finding effective ways to promote it. You’ve got to have a little bit of marketing and PR knowledge (or work in conjunction with those teams) to get more human and search engine eyeballs on your work.

Technical SEO

To expand on my point about making your content accessible to search engines… This is the crux of technical SEO. A good SEO should know the best practices for URL structures, redirection, and canonicalization. These are all tactics that help make sure the content on your site is displayed in the most efficient and easy-to-understand way for search engines.

When you’ve got an SEO on your team, they should be able to help you identify any broken areas on your site that could be costing you valuable organic traffic. They’ll handle some common issues like 404 errors and duplicate content, and they’ll also help you make sure that the internal linking structure of your site is set up to help search engines (and people) reach the really important pages.


Speaking of links, they’re still hugely important for SEO. There’s currently some debate out there about whether their role will change in the future, but for now, they’re here to stay. Links are how search engines access all of the content available across the Web, and they’re one of the biggest factors in all the major search engine algorithms. Essentially, they’re seen as votes of confidence for your site, and search engines like to reward good websites.

Anyone working in SEO should understand both internal (within your site) and external (from other websites) links. When it comes to external links, they should be able to tell good ones from bad ones and help you devise a strategy to earn those good kinds of links and handle the bad ones that can actually harm your site.

What SEO Is Not

Search engine optimization is like the force. There’s a good side and a bad side. The tactics described above are all used by good, ethical SEOs every day. However, there are still folks out there who want to try to game the system, and that always ends badly. They may get some short-term wins, but the search engines will always find out, and when they do, the results will be catastrophic: lost traffic, lost rankings, even blacklisting of your whole site. Here are a few major red flags to help you be on the lookout for “black hat” SEOs. Any one of these practices can result in a search engine penalty:

  • Buying links – This is a big no-no. It might have worked okay back in the day, but now it’s a surefire way to get your site docked by Google’s Penguin update. Search engines want to reward sites that get links because they’re good, not because they paid top dollar for them.
  • Content scraping – This is the online equivalent of plagiarism. If you copy someone else’s content and try to pass it off as your own, the search engines will find out and penalize you. There are perfectly legitimate ways to do this when you provide attribution, etc., but if you are outright copying content without credit on a large scale, look out for Panda.
  • Cloaking – Don’t use any fancy server tricks to present your users with one set of content and search engines with another. What Google and Bing see on your site should be the exact same thing that I see when I visit. Cloaking can result in presenting your users with content that differs greatly from what they were looking for. When this happens, they’re likely to bounce away quickly. The search engines will figure out that something’s up, and you’ll be in trouble.

Find Out More

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to SEO. It’s complex, and it’s always changing, but that’s part of the fun. If you want to learn more about the basics of search engine optimization, check out my list of resources for beginners. Have a question? Leave it in the comments!