SEO: What Is Search Engine Optimization?


Search engine optimization—better known by the commonly used acronym SEO—refers to any set or series of practices that are used in order to move your website from the unseen pages of the search engines up to page one on Google, Yahoo, and the like. (Bing maybe? Is Bing still a thing?)

While most business owners understand the importance of SEO when it comes to having an online presence, but they might not know much beyond that.

SEO is a constantly evolving practice, and every update of the Google Algorithm can quickly throw things back into chaos once again. However, by understanding the four various "types" of SEO you'll have a much deeper understanding of how things work, what to focus on, and how to cut through information overload to create an actionable plan that works for you and your website.

On-Site SEO

Many optimization experts consider this the absolute foundation of any good plan. If your on-site factors aren't properly setup then it can be very hard (and in some niches, impossible) to rank in the search engines, even with great off-site SEO efforts. Because the algorithms focus highly on off-site factors, many business owners neglect their on-site optimization. While off-site SEO is certainly important, making sure to get the foundational on-site factors in place should always be the first step—and it’s a step you can take yourself.

On-site SEO includes, but is not limited to:

  • Clean easy-to-read coding

  • Properly-optimized images with alt tags. (Search engines can’t “see” pictures. Alt tags tell them what an image is.)

  • Fast & reliable hosting. (We don’t like to wait for things anymore! Websites that are slow to load—anything above 3 seconds—will have people click away immediately. These “bounces” tell the search engines that your website isn’t valuable.)

  • Keyword-based title, meta descriptions, and header tags. (This is what shows up for a potential visitor to read on the search results page. It’s there to help them make the decision to click or not.)

  • Good user experience

  • Solid bounce rates and time on site. (If your content isn’t valuable and visitors leave quickly, the search engines will downgrade your site. This SEO factor ties back into having great content that people will take the time to consume!)

Taking care of all of these things can take some time, but many of the factors that are found on the "On-site SEO" list are one-time actions. Others can be easily managed via plug-ins, and some have to be addressed with every single new page or blog post, but like maintaining a clean house instead of cleaning a dirty one—it's easier to do once you have a solid foundation in place.

Off-Site SEO

Off-site SEO can focus on a lot of things, but about 90% of it revolves around backlinks, or issues related to backlinks. Backlinks refer to any website that links to your website, and Google looks at things like Trust, Authority/Expertise, and Domain strength when determining how to rank you.

There are entire books and many blog posts in the tens of thousands of words on this topic but the long and short of it is that the more good backlinks a website has, the higher it will rank. This is the rule of thumb to keep in mind as you continue to optimize your site.

There was a time where simply the sheer number of backlinks with an exact keyword match would determine the rankings, but those days are long gone as Google has become much better at separating the spammers from the thought leaders. The ratio many advanced SEOs shoot for now is 90% URL, website name, or random words, and only 10% using main keywords or keyword variations of some type.

However, you shouldn't focus on this. Focus, instead, on getting high-quality backlinks. This means:

  • The links come from a website in your niche or a closely related niche

  • The links use your website/brand name, URL, or keyword as the anchor text

  • The links come from a website that already has trust & authority in Google's eyes

  • The links come from a website where it makes sense for them to link to you

Getting plenty of these types of links will build your website's authority and trust in the eyes of Google which alone will help boost rankings of a wide array of keywords.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is still a bit fluid and is sure to be the most volatile of these factors in the near future. This includes having a responsive website that is SEO-friendly, having an XML Sitemap, and the big one is proper Schema markup. This is not a hard thing to manage on your site, but it is time-consuming. Neil Patel explains it more clearly (and actionably!) here.

Look out for loose code slowing down the hosting and page loading speeds or an overabundance of jumbled or excessive coding as well. These two other aspects of technical optimization shouldn’t be overlooked if you want your website to reach its full potential.

Local SEO

Local SEO still involves on-site, off-site, and technical practices but it also includes various steps that need to be taken. First of all, claim your Google business listing! Next, reviews are key. The search engines want to provide the most valuable results to the end user, and social proof is valuable. Be sure to build a marketing strategy to get your biggest brand advocates to review your business online and in a bunch of places.


Search engine optimization seems like a gigantic task—and in many ways it is. What you, as the startup founder, must decide is: how valuable will ranking on the first page of the search engines be to the company growth? Do I have the personnel or financial resources to invest into this? What am I able to do myself? Could I get better, faster results with social media marketing or in-person sales?

Start with the things you can easily do yourself, like the on-page SEO and take it from there!


Meet the Author: Shauna Armitage

Shauna is a Marketing Director or Fractional CMO helping early-stage startups scale with effective strategies, creative solutions, and unparalleled integrity by making the most of small budgets for maximum impact.

As a vocal advocate for women in business, Shauna is on a mission to redefine what it looks like to be a working woman and to support other women doing the same. She spends her free time traveling with her husband and four kids while drinking Coca-Colas. Connect with her on Instagram at @shauna.armitage.

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