What is SEO? Part 1: An intro + on-page and off-page SEO basics

Years ago, at the ripe age of 27, I was working in a shopping mall when I decided that it was time for me to take on a massive career move. The mall itself, working nights, weekends, and holidays just wasn’t for me anymore. I went back to school for a Master’s in Internet Marketing and 2 months after graduating I landed my first career position as a Social Media Manager at a local startup. Sadly, 4 months later, that startup ran out of investor funding and I was without work.

I plugged away taking temp jobs here and there, trying my best to stay within the bounds of the digital marketing industry, until I was finally brought on as a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) intern at a local marketing agency. I didn’t know anything about SEO, let alone what its real purpose was or the impact that could be made by implementing SEO tactics, but I was about to learn, and fast because 3 days into that internship my mentor quit leaving me, a 3-day intern with zero experience, in charge of search engine optimization for all the company’s clients 😳.

Fast forward a few years….By this point in time, I had interviewed with plenty of other agencies and companies outside of the place I worked as an intern. I knew what I was doing in SEO. As much as you can know with the constant changes that happen at least. It never failed though, that in every interview I would be asked: “What is SEO?” My default answer, under the crippling pressure of an interview, would always be an almost exact regurgitation of Moz’s explanation:

“SEO is the practice of improving the quality and quantity of traffic to your website through organic search results.”

That answer is SO. Basic.

So then, what is SEO?

If you’re new to search engine optimization as a profession or if you’re seeking SEO services for your business and you just want to better understand what SEO is, the above explanation from Moz is a good starting point. That’s the statement you take to your Marketing Director or CMO and say “Hey, doesn’t this sound great? I think we need it!”  The truth of the matter is that search engine optimization is a lot of things all packaged up neatly into one happy little acronym, SEO, that most of your friends and family will never understand, but you’ll feel super cool explaining to them about how you are in charge of the internet and you get to manipulate search results, and really, the Googs (Google) is your b**** and only listens to what you tell it to do (but with algorithmic resistance).

If you’re anything like me you’re probably thinking “come on lady, I don’t care about you or your experience, just tell me what SEO is!” Ok, fine, but my experience is what makes me the most credible source to teach you. Most people I’ve talked to about SEO over the last hand full of years all explain their experiences similarly as “being thrown to the wolves” because SEO is, exactly as stated above, the ever-changing practice (we’re pretty much website doctors) of making sure your website appeals to search engines.

But you said SEO was a lot of things, so what are all the things?

Search Engine Optimization is often explained as an art and a science because both creative thinking and technical know-how are required for getting your site indexed, improving your site’s rankings, and driving traffic. It’s an iterative process of research, strategy, implementation, analysis, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a split between content creation and what we like to call tinkering here at Brain Bytes Creative, you know, the back-end code stuff. There are different forms like on-site SEO and off-site SEO… As I said, it’s a lot of things, and I know, if you’re new to this it’s probably all very overwhelming. No worries though, we’ll get through it! On to ALL THE THINGS!

What’s the difference between on-site SEO and off-site SEO?

When you work in SEO you quickly become the master of Google (Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, whatever your prefs). You learn how to search the internet better than anyone you know using advanced search operators in combination with “exact match” text to find just the thing you’re looking for in a matter of seconds. Honestly, there’s not much I can’t find in search these days (even the pictures of weird bugs, plants, and critters my Dad texts me asking what they are).

You think I’m kidding….

All that to say, back when I was an intern and my mentor bailed on me and I had to teach myself everything about SEO really fast, the Googs and I became pretty tight. My new mentors were Rand Fishkin (my idol, formerly of Moz and currently SparkToro — he Tweeted to me once which basically means I’m famous right? –),


SEJ, SEroundtable, Search Engine Land, etc., and learning the difference between on-site and off-site SEO was one of my first steps.

On-page SEO

A lot of the time when people think of on-page, or on-site SEO, they think of the things they literally see on a page or in a page source, like metadata, body copy, etc.. While they’re not wrong, over the years search engines, (namely Google) after the 2015 launch of the RankBrain algorithm update, have become increasingly more sophisticated. Now, with a focus on user experience, there is no longer a need to use a keyword X number of times per 100 words, making on-site SEO less about keywords and more about topics. Don’t get me wrong, keywords are still important, but not in a placement/repetition way like they used to be. Other on-page elements include the use of structured data, internal/cross-linking, page load speed, URL structure, and mobile friendliness.

The biggest takeaway here is on user experience. If the page reads naturally, loads fast, and otherwise checks all the SEO boxes (we’ll get to these) from a usability standpoint, search engines will have no reason to discredit it.

On-page SEO recap:

  • Keywords and Content Development
  • Metadata and Internal Cross-Linking
  • Site Architecture
  • SEO Code Optimization
    • Page Load Speed
    • Structured Data Markup (Schema)
    • Rich Snippets
  • Mobile Friendliness

Off-page SEO

Just as on-page optimizations are things that happen within your site to improve your rank in search engine results pages (SERPs), off-page, or off-site optimizations are the things that happen outside of your site to do the same. Now, you may be thinking “Why would I need to do anything off my site? How could that possibly help me rank better?” Well, off-site SEO is how people searching the internet and how search engines determine your credibility. The higher your domain authority, the higher you rank (assuming you’ve formidably complied to all other search engine optimization tactics, keep away from black-hat SEO). It’s not just domain authority though, off-site SEO also encompasses the page’s popularity, trustworthiness, and relevance.

Off-page SEO recap:

  • Building Backlinks
  • Social Media
  • Local Optimizations

Is one more important than the other?

You may be wondering which is more important between on-page and off-page SEO and the truth is, you can’t have one without the other. If you have no content, there is nothing for people to link to, and if you have no links you have no credibility or reason for search engines to rank your content.

If I had to choose a primary focus though, it’d be on-site SEO, hands down, more specifically, content development. The reason is this: If you write an article or a page and publish it to your site then share a link from your Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., and then your friend shares it, you’re already on your way to building backlinks. While those shares may not have high trust or authority you’re still getting your message out to the world which is step one. You never know, someone with a legendary level of clout may just share or link to your article!

If you want to know how to achieve internet popularity, trust, and authority for your site, stay tuned for part 2!

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