Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a complex topic. The 3rd edition of The Art of SEO, published in 2015, runs in just shy of 1000 pages! It’s no wonder that businesses turn to SEO companies like ours to handle it.
Yet businesses can’t completely ignore the topic either. Just like it helps to know a little bit about cars to understand what your mechanic wants to do, it helps to know what SEO is and its major components so you can approach an SEO company with confidence. Naturally, we can’t boil 1000 pages of material into a 1000-ish word post. Instead, we’re going to give a high-level overview of SEO and its three major divisions, on-page, off-page, and technical SEO.
What is SEO?
The reason SEO is an industry is because businesses that get high rankings on search engine queries get much more traffic. More traffic means more chances to make a sale and higher profits. SEO is a set of techniques used to make your website’s pages rank higher.
It is an inexact art because no search engine gives away all of its secrets on how it ranks pages. However, search engines do compete to give the best results. They all have different opinions on how to measure a website’s relevance to a search and how to rank the results within a search. They release guidelines on the sort of things they look for in a high-ranking site.
These guidelines can be divided into three broad categories: on-page, off-page, and technical. Flaws in any of them can push down your ranking. Let’s now take them in detail.
What is On-page SEO?
Search engines don’t look at a page the way a person looks at it. They can only read the source code of the page. If you right-click on any webpage, you’ll likely see an option for viewing that page’s code. If you’re not familiar with HTML code it will look like a jumbled mess. But it is this mess that search engines comb through looking for clues.
To understand on-page SEO, you need to know a tiny bit about HTML, the basic code that websites use. Web developers, please forgive the super-simple description!
The source code of a page is filled with tags that look like this:
<a tag> Something that you can see on your web page.
</ends that tag>
Anything within <> is HTML code. Anything between two sets of tags is something that could get put on the page for a person to read. The text inside the <> tells browsers and search engines how to render the information between the tags.
Thus, if you had this bit of code:
<title>Welcome to my site
you would see “Welcome to my site” in the title bar of the browser window. And if you were to pull this page up on a search engine, “Welcome to my site” would be the name of the link you would click.
Search engines use tags like
<title> to get clues about what a web page is about. On-page SEO techniques tweak these tags and the information they hold to make search engines display those pages to the right kinds of searches (like through adding keywords) or get them to rank higher (by using keywords and tags that show more relevance to a search query).
The reason it is called on-page SEO is that these changes are visible to readers. If you add in a header tag, they can see the header. If you change your sentences around to add more keywords, those changes are visible. Thus, on-page SEO is a balance between giving the right information to search engines without compromising the information that your customers are reading on the page. You may remember a time about a decade ago when there were pages stuffed with the same phrase again and again. Search engines at the time loved it, but people hated it. Now this technique gets you punished by search engines.
What is Off-page SEO
On-page SEO tells engines how to match pages to queries. But ranking pages that fall under the same query is much harder. Search engines track many signals to guess how relevant a page is compared to others.
Off-page SEO techniques are anything that’s used outside of your site to improve these ranking signals. The most common is the backlink. In the earliest versions of Google, the theory was that if a page outside of your website linked back to your page, creating a backlink, that was a sign of popularity for the website. The more links that went back to a page, the higher it should be ranked. Furthermore, each backlink could be weighed based on the popularity of the site linking to you.
This is one reason why backlink profiling, guest posting, and other off-page SEO techniques are important. Your SEO company can get rid of poor quality backlinks dragging you down and work on developing better ones. There are more off-page SEO techniques than backlink management, but it’s the easiest to explain.
What is Technical SEO
Technical SEO is a catch-all bin for SEO improvements that don’t fall into the other two categories. These changes have to do with the behind-the-scenes code on your website. Getting your technical SEO right if it’s bad can give you a small but significant boost up the rankings.
A simple example is site speed. People do not like to wait for slow websites. If your pages load slowly, you will be ranked lower than a comparable site that has faster pages. Caching your website on a CDN or lowering the file size of your images are just two ways this can be improved. Another example is mobile friendliness. If your site looks bad on a mobile device, search engines can detect that and lower its rankings on mobile-specific search engines.
A good SEO company will address all three of these areas for your website. This is the way to get the largest shift in rankings. However, there are also SEO signals that are beyond the control of any company. For instance, many search engines will use the age of a page or a site as a ranking factor. Additionally, it takes time to get a search engine to re-rank your site after a change, sometimes months.
True SEO is a lot like gardening. It’s a little bit of constant work all the time until you get the big harvest. Now that you’ve read this article, you can ask your SEO company how they plan to improve each area and where they are in the process.