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What is SEO? Search Engine Optimization In 2023

One area of expertise that I’ve focused my marketing on over the last two decades is search engine optimization (SEO). In recent years, I’ve avoided classifying myself as an SEO consultant, though, because it has some negative connotations with it that I would like to avoid. I often conflict with other SEO professionals because they focus on algorithms over search engine users. I’ll touch base on that later in the article.

What Is A Search Engine?

Simply put, a search engine is a tool to find a relevant resource on the Internet. Search engines index and store your site’s public information and use complex algorithms to rank and reveal what they believe is the appropriate result back to the search engine user.

What Are The Most Popular Search Engines?

In the United States, the most popular search engines are:

Search EngineMarket Share
Source: Statcounter

One search engine that’s missing here is YouTube. By volume, YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, although all it is indexing is video content on its own platform. However, it’s a property that should not be overlooked since so many users use it to search for products, services, how-tos, and other information.

TIP: Many SEO practitioners are always looking at Google since they dominate the market. That doesn’t mean that an audience you wish to reach isn’t on another search engine that you could easily focus on and rank for though. Don’t be dismissive of these other search engines… who still get tens of millions of queries a day on them.

How Do Search Engines Find and Index Your Pages?

Content Management Systems (CMS) that are optimized for search engines will alert the search engine of its content being updated, and then provide the necessary information for the search engine crawler to crawl the content. Here’s how:

  • The search engine has to know that you exist. They can discover your site through a link on another website, you can register your site via their search console, or you can do what’s known as a ping where you notify the search engine of your site.
  • The search engine must be notified that your content has changed or been updated. Search engines have some standards that they deploy for this.
    • Robots.txt – a root text file in your hosting environment will tell the search engines what they should and should not crawl on your site.
    • XML Sitemaps – one or often a series of connected XML files are automatically published by your content management system that shows the search engines every page available and the last time it was updated.
    • Index or Noindex – your pages can individually have header status codes that notify the search engine of whether they should or should not index the page.

The process for a search engine to crawl and index your site is to read your robots.txt file, follow your XML sitemap, read the page status information, and then index the page content. Content can include the path (URL), a title for the page, meta description (only viewable to the search engine), headings, textual content (including bold and italic), secondary content, images, videos, and other metadata published in the page (reviews, location, products, etc.).

How Do Search Engines Rank Your Pages?

Now that the search engine understands the keywords and key phrases of your page, it now needs to rank it with competing pages. Ranking for keywords is at the heart of search engine optimization. Some of the factors involved in this process:

  • Backlinks – are there relevant, popular sites that are linking to your site?
  • Performance – how does your page perform in accordance with Google’s core vitals? Aside from speed, page errors and downtime can impact whether a search engine wishes to rank you well.
  • Mobile-ready – since many search engine users are using a mobile device, how mobile-friendly is your site?
  • Domain authority – does your domain have a history of relevant, high-ranking content? This is an area of great debate, but few people will argue that a high-authority site doesn’t have an easy time ranking content (even if it’s terrible).
  • Relevance – of course, the site and page have to be highly relevant to the actual search query. This includes the markup, metadata, and actual content.
  • Behavior – search engines like Google state that they don’t actually observe user behavior beyond the search engine. However, if I’m a search engine user and I click a link, then quickly return to the search engine results page (SERP), that is an indicator that the search engine result may not be relevant. I have little doubt that search engines must observe this type of behavior.

How Has Search Engine Ranking Changed Over The Years?

It was fairly easy to game the search engine algorithms years ago. You could write frequent, low-value, content, cross-promote it (backlink) on various sites, and get it ranked well. An entire industry popped up where consultants spent billions of dollars buying fraudulent backlinks built on backlink farms… sometimes unbeknownst to the organization that hired them.

As search engine algorithms changed, they became far better at identifying toxic backlinks over healthy ones, and honest sites (like mine) began to rank again. At the same time, cheating competitors were buried deeply in the search results.

At their core, what the algorithms did that was critical was pay attention to the quality of content, the performance of the site, and the authority of the domain… to ensure that the search engine user was provided a good experience. Remember above where I said I tend to differ from other SEO consultants? It’s because I don’t focus as much on the algorithms as on the user’s experience.

I’ve said before that traditional SEO was dead.. and it angered many people in my industry. But it’s true. Today, you must invest in the user, and you’ll rank well. Write exceptional content and you’ll earn links with the best sites rather than having to beg crappy ones to backlink to you.

Search Engine User Optimization

I wish we could dump the term SEO and, instead, focus on Search Engine User Optimization. How does one do that?

  • You measure the behavior of your organic traffic down to every detail, incorporating events, funnels, campaigns, tests, and conversions to see what is resonating with your target audience and what isn’t. I can’t believe the number of consultants that will proudly proclaim they got their client ranked… but it’s not producing any end result for the business. Rank doesn’t matter if it’s not driving business results.
  • Rather than constantly publishing low-value content, you develop a content library that your target audience is seeking. This is in-depth, multi-medium, rich content that’s kept fresh and updated. This article, for instance, was originally published 12 years ago and I continue to enhance it. I often retire old content and redirect the URLs to new content that’s relevant. My theory is that having a site full of unranked, low-value content is going to drag down the rest of your rankings (since it’s a poor experience). Get rid of it! I’d rather have a dozen articles ranking in the top 3 than a thousand articles on page 3.
  • You perform all the technical aspects of site optimization. The analogy that I draw on this is that you can build an amazing store… but people still have to find you. Search engines are your road and you must help them get you on the map by following their best practices.
  • You monitor your site continuously for issues – from pages that aren’t found, to toxic backlinks that may have been published to hurt you, to site performance and mobile experience issues. I’m constantly crawling my client’s sites and have dozens of audits and reports automated with Semrush. I monitor search consoles and webmaster tools and work hard to diagnose and correct issues that may be hurting their rankings.
  • You monitor your competitors’ sites and content. You’re in a race against your competitors and they’re investing in beating you on rank… you need to do the same. Stay one step ahead of them by keeping your sites running beautifully and continuously improving your content.
  • You deploy local SEO efforts by publishing on your Google Business page, collecting reviews, and keeping good directory listings up to date.
  • You deploy international efforts by using accurate translations of your site, offering multi-language support, and monitoring your ranking in other countries and their dominant search engines.
  • You look for opportunities to rank well on keyword combinations that are highly relevant and don’t have a lot of competition. This may include pitching your content to publishers (like me), guest writing on industry platforms, or even hiring influencers and compensating them (with full disclosure).

TIP: Too many SEO consultants focus on high volume, highly competitive keyword terms that are – frankly – impossible to rank on. The authority of many sites that rank on highly competitive terms may be spending millions to keep themselves there. Highly relevant, low-volume keyword combinations that are easy to rank on can drive fantastic business results to your organization.

And most importantly, you must prioritize your efforts. Not every site warning is going to hurt your ranking or the experience of your user. Most audit systems are comprehensive but they can’t weigh the impact of an issue or an issue versus an opportunity. I often tell my clients that I’d rather they invested in an infographic that could drive tons of visits, social shares, and backlinks… than fix some obscure issue that’s not hurting them at all.

The Rapid Influence of AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has already significantly transformed search engines and how they operate. The core impact of AI on search engines includes the ability to process natural language (NLP), understand user intent, provide more accurate and contextualized search results, and improve the overall user experience. Here are some ways in which AI is influencing search engines:

  • Understanding Natural Language: AI algorithms such as natural language processing (NLP) allow search engines to comprehend queries like humans understand language. This includes interpreting nuances, sentiments, and dialects or colloquialisms in search queries.
  • Semantic Search: AI has evolved search engines from keyword matching to understanding the context of the search terms. Semantic search uses the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace to produce more relevant search results.
  • Personalized Results: AI tailors search outcomes to individual users by considering their search history, behavior, location, and other personal data. This personalization ensures the results are relevant to the user’s interests and habits.
  • Predictive Search: Leveraging AI, search engines can predict what a user will likely search for next, offering suggestions before the entire query is typed. This feature not only saves time but also aids in discovering new information aligned with the user’s interests.
  • Conversational AI: Search engines are becoming more conversational, allowing for a dialogue where the context is remembered and each query builds on the last. This technology is similar to that used by virtual assistants and chatbots, which learn from each interaction to provide better responses over time.
  • Context Retention: AI algorithms are designed to retain the context from one search to the next, allowing users to make follow-up queries without repeating the entire context. For instance, if a user asks about the weather in a specific city and follows up with What about tomorrow? the search engine understands the context is still the weather in the previously mentioned city.
  • Refinement of Search Queries: AI can suggest refinements to search queries based on initial results, helping users narrow down or expand their search scope. This interaction mimics a sales process where suggestions are made based on customer reactions to presented options.
  • Problem-Solving Interactions: Advanced AI implementations enable search engines to guide users to a solution through a series of questions and answers that help clarify the user’s intent and the problem they are trying to solve.
  • Integration with Other Services: For deeper inquiries, search engines can integrate with specialized services or databases, pulling in expert systems when necessary to provide a more accurate answer or to complete a task, such as booking a service or finding a local vendor.
  • Learning from Interactions: AI systems improve with use, learning from past interactions to enhance future searches. This continuous learning helps the search engine become more intelligent, providing more relevant results and a better understanding of complex query patterns.
  • User Feedback: AI can use implicit and explicit user feedback on search results to refine and improve subsequent search outcomes. Feedback can come in the form of click patterns, time spent on a link, or direct input about the usefulness of the information provided.
  • Voice Search Optimization: With the increasing use of digital assistants, AI enables voice search, allowing a conversational interface to interpret and respond to spoken queries.
  • Visual Search: AI-driven visual search technologies enable users to search using images instead of text, which can be particularly useful for shopping, research, and learning.
  • Combatting Misinformation: AI tools are used to identify and filter out low-quality content, such as fake news or misleading information, thus improving the reliability of search results.
  • Optimization: The advent of AI in search technology has also changed the landscape of SEO. Marketers now focus on creating content that aligns with user intent and context instead of targeting specific keywords.
  • User Experience and Interface: AI has allowed search engines to offer a more interactive and intuitive interface (UI). Features like AI-powered chatbots can guide users to find their answers more interactively and engagingly.

Search engines will become even more integrated with AI, making them not just a directory of links but a comprehensive answer engine capable of engaging users in a conversation, understanding complex queries, and providing precise information or actions in response.

Search engines are already moving towards incorporating more contextual and personalized results. The role of AI in transforming search into a service that understands the intent behind queries rather than just the content ensures that the future of search is much more intuitive and aligned with individual user needs.

SEO Is About Business Results

Your investment in ranking organically is all about business results. And business results is about providing value through your content and marketing efforts to potential and existing customers. Understanding how ranking is helping you build brand recognition and authority with search engines, value with potential customers, provide additional value with current customers, and drive search engine users through to do business with you is the ultimate goal of SEO. Search engine users have the intent to research and often intent to purchase – it should be a huge focus of your overall digital marketing efforts.

Does it work? We shared this result with a multi-location client where we prioritized their optimization, rebuilt their site, rewrote their content, redirected their traffic, and provided a superior, multi-language experience… all leveraging organic search strategies. This is year-over-year monthly organic search acquisition traffic:

seo traffic

If you’re in need of a good, honest consultant who understands how to leverage organic search to increase business results, reduce costs, improve reporting, and incorporate it into a multi-channel marketing program… contact my firm, DK New Media.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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