You Need SEO. We Hear You! Sorting Out the ABCs of SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the key tools available to today's marketers. But you need to understand a tool before you can use it. We've put together an SEO primer to get you started.

image of man searching in tall grass representing seo

We really need SEO.” 

That’s you. Yep, you probably said that: on calls, to your fellow marketers, just randomly in passing. SEO seems to be on the collective minds of marketers the world over. 

It’s clear to us from our daily conversations with marketing VPs and directors—on whichever continent they’re based—that many feel they need SEO. What’s less clear are these questions: 

  • What do you want SEO to accomplish for your company—and why? (The implication is typically that SEO itself will capture business from the web…read on for why this is an incomplete idea, at best.)
  • Do you know exactly how SEO can help you meet these objectives? (Ditto above.)
  • How does copywriting play into the picture (since, duh, we’re a copywriting agency)? 

This post will explore these—clarifying which SEO you’re in the market for, and a few different ways you can resource it.

What Exactly Is SEO? 

You all know what the acronym stands for. But what does search engine optimization represent today? Let’s ask an expert. 

“The term SEO itself is a misnomer,” says Michael Ferrari, founder of Pen Cap. “When people say SEO or SEO strategy, it’s really a collection of disciplines.” He added that some SEO shops choose a “kitchen sink approach,” covering all disciplines. “But the best success comes from focusing on a given specialization,” he said.

One example of SEO specialization is technical SEO: even this again is quite broad. Technical SEO encompasses a universe of strategies and tools that push any given website higher in search results, through the crawling and indexing activity of search engines. 

In other words, technical SEO can include virtually any process that improves search visibility, such as page speed, keyword strategy, link building, and more. 

Of course, optimizing your site for both search engine crawlers and humans—straddling the line between machine- and human-speak—is a balancing act. And at the end of the day, you need both: one for traffic, and the other for both traffic and conversion. 

The Great Keyword Shift

Ferrari recalled the “old days” (circa 2010), when SEO was driven by the sheer quantity of keywords, or precisely-worded topical phrases that help Google and other search engines to “understand” what your website is about, so that it can index and rank you accordingly. This resulted in rampant use—and the inevitable abuse. 

Since 2013 or so, keyword strategy has still been key, with one crucial difference: Google now emphasizes quality over quantity. In other words, Google still uses keywords to “intuit” what your company sells—and to rank you accordingly, for specific search terms. But rather than rely on quantity of keyword-laced content pages, it now “reads” your content to determine quality—and factors that into the equation. 

This means three things, all of which are awesome: 1) it rewards authentic expertise and real depth of knowledge with better rankings, 2) it means that with a little effort, your company can rank higher by producing smart, well-informed, humanized content, and 3) the policy itself bestows everyone with interesting, informative reads, and raises the bar all around. 

Here’s where the human bit enters the equation. With this update, Google crawlers can tell if an article is well-written. As they say, (and we emphasize) “write for users, not SEO.” Touche. 

Takeaway: The companies that deserve it—and have taken steps to demonstrate that they do—have a strong chance of showing up in search results for the people that want to find them.

The #1 Downside of Keywords 

Be careful! Keywords trigger a trap, too. 

Let’s start by acknowledging a current truth: on their own, keywords simply can’t capture the full scope of your audience’s content needs. Words and phrases like “b2b marketing agency” and “how do you treat bunions?” are useful assists for search engines, and for categorization. And that’s where their usefulness ends. 

In contrast, your human audience seeks data, explanations, evaluation, stories, opinions, answers, and more. They want to be informed and educated—and also be delighted, to feel heard and understood, to relate, to be challenged and persuaded, and much more. Keyword clusters cannot do these things. Maybe one day they will, but that day isn’t here. 

The trap? It’s this: keywords can mislead companies into focusing on and generating content about topics that aren’t particularly authentic, relevant, or unique to you. Sure, you might end up with more search traffic. But you won’t necessarily gain any new customers. So if you’re not careful, the quest for more traffic may well lead you into an expensive and time-consuming dead end. 

You’d be surprised how common this issue can be: brands can have a tendency to create content by starting with keywords. In reality, keywords should come last, after you’ve identified important insights about your messaging, and after you’ve written the content itself. You can then ascertain which keywords truly matter, weave them in—then presto! You’ve created copy primed to both rank higher and convert readers.  

Takeaway: Leverage keywords with content you’re naturally driven to create—don’t let them dictate your content needs.

Content Strategy, Page Speed, and More

Through a number of major updates to Google’s search function, much has changed. 

Because Google wants to become better at “reading” content, content strategy is now an SEO practice. (We love that!) Is your website easy to find? If not, you need technical SEO. Does it contain the right revenue-generating information? Here’s where you need SEO-focused content strategy. For example, if your site doesn’t say you do forensic accounting or sell workflow software, site traffic will simply move on. These are now important to SEO—and again, we applaud that. 

There are so many other SEO disciplines out there, and they’re expanding all the time. Read how companies are racing to be included in the “People Also Ask” section (aka Google answer box) of search results

There’s local SEO, which optimizes Google’s interest in so-called “local intent”—serving up local spots of interest for mobile users that are searching while near said spots, e.g. “sushi spot near me.” How do you optimize, without being dinged for duplicate content? Ask a local SEO professional, like Ferrari. 

There’s international SEO. At first glance, this sounds like a variation on local SEO, but according to Ferrari, “international SEO is closer to technical SEO.” For example, a major objective of international SEO is to enable Google (or foreign search engines in places like China and Russia) to identify the countries you’re targeting. By language alone, this is deceptively hard to do. “If you don’t watch out, you get a bag of hair,” is the delicious little metaphor that Ferrari offers on this point. 

There’s ecommerce SEO. There’s SEO backlinking (more on this controversial practice in another post). There’s the increasing of page speed to rank higher. 

All of these tactics work to a point—because getting customers to your site is only part of the battle. Getting traffic to stay on your site, to believe in your brand, to convert into qualified leads—that’s the dream. And with a little know-how, it can be your reality. 

Takeaway: So yes, you need SEO, so to speak. But you also need words to make your SEO efforts more effective—and to convert your resulting traffic into solid, qualified, interested leads. 

MarketSmiths speaks proficient Google crawler—but writes predominantly for humans. Get in touch today.

Hope Rothenberg

Hope Rothenberg

More from MarketSmiths

Developing a strong brand voice is like cultivating a garden.

Why Your Brand Voice Needs a Copywriter’s Green Thumb

How The Economist Fuses Wit and Sophistication—Even After Two Centuries

How The Economist Fuses Wit and Sophistication In Its Magazine Marketing—Even After Two Centuries

Betterment makes socially responsible investing easier.

Betterment’s On-Brand Approach to Socially Responsible Investing

say what you mean and mean what you say

3 Easy Ways to Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say (Always)

Inc 5000 content agency

M/WBE certified enterprise.

Design by WorstOfAllDesign. Digital Strategy by MadPipe. Photography by Chellise Michael.