Update: 20 January 2016. This is one of the most popular posts on Writing for SEO, but it was published two and a half years ago, back in July 2013. Reading it today, I felt it didn’t accurately reflect my current thinking, or the current state of SEO. So I’ve revised the article. Let me know what you think.

Let’s get down to fundamentals. Someone said to me last week ‘Love your site. Writing I get, but what’s SEO?’.

I explained about SEO face to face, but later it hit me that if they loved Writing for SEO, but didn’t understand what SEO is, then I hadn’t explained straightforwardly enough here on the site – because it’s not the first time I’ve been asked about the meaning of SEO.

What do those three letters stand for?

Here’s the easy bit. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.

But what does that mean? We should be careful here. We shouldn’t get sucked into only thinking about search engines. There’s more to it than that.

Remember Meta tags? Clear the slate now!

A bit of history for you. Back in the mid-1990s, when search engines were young, and Google hadn’t hit all its competitors out of the park, they were all pretty unsophisticated. They relied on people telling them what was on a site – what the site was about – rather than being able to figure things out for themselves.

Hands up all of you who thought this article was going to be about Meta tags? It isn’t. But it’s not your fault if you did. You’ll find thousands of outdated articles around the web telling you to mess around with Meta tags.

If you’ve bookmarked this kind of old content or ferreted it away into Evernote, start deleting now. There’s still a bit you can do with meta tags, but it’s best to wipe the slate clean now.

Why you should optimize for search engines

Search engines (primarily Google) are the Number One source of traffic to websites (not every website, but the majority of websites). This is often called Organic traffic.

Again, let’s go a bit deeper and think about the meaning of the word ‘traffic’. In reality, it’s the people who come and read your website. The people you can engage with, influence, sell to, whatever the purpose of your website is.

Search engines help people see your site.

Making search engines like your site

It’s not the purpose of this post to tell you how to do SEO – have a look around this site for a good start 😉 – but I did have to explain to my friend what SEO involves. First, making search engines like your site:

But never forget people

Many SEOs, bloggers and online writers prioritise people when they talk about website content – they say ‘Just write for people and the search engines will take care of themselves‘. As you’ll see from that post, my view is that you need to understand and implement SEO as well as write fantastic copy (for people). Just filling your site with well-written content isn’t enough.

How do you appeal to people?

  • Write great quality content –  material that is written well and is easy to read
  • Write valuable content – stuff that both has lots of value for the reader. It may, for example, answer a burning question, or even just improve their day by making them laugh – I’d find a way of answering a burning question, though, if I were you.

Don’t forget to:

  • Write a knock-them-dead headline – that’s not something that’s over-the-top, over-claims or is even potentially offensive. A knock-them-dead headline offers an irresistible exchange of value for the reader’s time and attention – that’s marketing-speak for ‘will make it absolutely clear that it’s worth their while to read, and they’ll really benefit from putting the effort in’. Oh, and don’t leave out your main key phrase.
  • Start off on the right foot – your first paragraph is critical. As well as extending what you’ve said in your headline to further hook your readers, include your main key phrase or a close semantic variation. I’m not doing this just for search engines, you’ll note. Good writing demands focus (amongst many other things), and using the main key phrase (or close semantic variation) satisfies the reader’s needs as much as the search engines’
  • Edit, cut and then edit and cut again – be precise and concise. Don’t waffle or pad. But I’ll allow you to be conversational, as I normally am on Writing for SEO. Focused, concise copy helps search engines properly understand your content and make it an easier job for people to read and understand the content
  • Be complete (or as some experts would say, ‘write long’) – somehow, the increasingly popular advice to ‘write long’ sounds like a contradiction of the last point. That’s why I like to say ‘be complete’. If your article is complete, then it gives great value. If it only tells part of the story, it’s short changing your readers. Google is investing more and more resources in finding and understanding quality content.

You see, SEO deals with people’s needs and search engines’ needs evenhandedly. They’re both equally important, and so many of their needs are one and the same.

On-page and off-page SEO

On-page factors – the content and technical ideas above – are the most important part of SEO. But there are off-page factors, too. Off-page is anything that’s not on your site. The biggest one is inbound linking – links from other sites to yours.

Again, linking has changed radically over the years. In the past, site owners and SEOs built hundreds and thousands of links from directory sites and through circulating the same (or very similar) pieces of content with links embedded in them. Then things got complicated as Google started penalising sites for link spam as part of its Penguin updates.

At the time of updating this post (mid-January 2016), the fate of Penguin updates and link spam are uncertain, but the advice to ‘earn links rather than build them’ (ie write fantastic content that people can’t help but link to) is unlikely to become inappropriate anytime soon.

Other factors that should help your SEO

While on-page and off-page work are the core of SEO, there are other factors you should consider:

  • Brand mentions – on social media, blogs, websites and so on
  • Social media activity – are people talking about and linking to your site and its content from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other social media sites?

But what about Local SEO?

Local SEO is its own branch of SEO that’s geared to appearing in Google’s local search results. Here are some results from a search in the town where I live.

Local SEO results

I’ll leave the detail about how to do Local SEO for another post, but here is a quick round-up of some of the factors you’ll need to address:

  • Do everything outlined in this article for regular SEO – but don’t forget to include some geographical terms amongst your key phrases (typically, your town, area or street are useful)
  • Set up a Google My Business page
  • Use Structured Data – to present information about your business to search engines
  • Local reviews – self-evidently, good ones will help your business

What does SEO mean for you?

To tie this all up, SEO remains the most important way to get people to your website, and it involves thinking about the needs of both search engines and people, then delivering a website that satisfies both. Start with on-site optimisation, and later look at your off-site progress.

Returning to on-site SEO, remember it’s lucky that search engines and people like very similar things. So it’s not so difficult to keep them both happy, and your business benefiting from a site that performs well.

How would you define SEO? What does it mean for you? How do you approach SEO?

Thanks to Dougtone for letting me use his photo.