SEO, SEM, SE….whatever. Abbreviations get tossed around like everyone knows what they mean. Since the Internet began, I have seen many acronyms come and go. If you went out and polled a bunch of people, you would get a bunch of different answers to what each one means (or meant). But, we are not here to chat about all the abbreviations related to the Internet. We are here to talk about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and what that means.

A Short History of Search Engine Development

When the web first appeared, there was no such thing as SEO. Search engines were in their infancy, merely cataloging what was submitted to them by webmasters. As time marched on, some webmasters tried manipulating their rankings by using various techniques. Of course this was not very fair to web users who wanted to get truly relevant search results. Because of these manipulations, search engines were often displaying results in a biased fashion. The search engines started to catch on and realized they had to go deeper and make sense out of the pages that they were seeing. They could no longer rely on the face value of the submissions they received. So, they went to work updating algorithms and looking at web pages differently.

By the late 1990s, search engines were producing much better results and competition was getting fierce. Search engines had become the technology to invest in. Around 2000, Google’s search results started to make big waves and their sophisticated algorithms were delivering results that far exceeded their competition. Since then, the search engine wars, organic positioning and search engine marketing have and continue to be an important part of a web site’s life and often dictate the success or failure of a business.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

There are a lot of different definitions of SEO. Some will say that it has to do with building your web site the ‘right way.’ Others will tell you that it has to do with the content that is on your site. Still others say it has to do with having the right keywords in all the right places and having plenty of quality incoming links. Theories abound and the fact is that all of them are correct in their own way. But, what most people do not understand is that, although you can build a site in all the right ways, have all kinds of content and have a bunch of incoming links, you won’t necessarily rank high just on those merits. Search engines have become very sophisticated over the years and they now use hundreds of signals, which are updated constantly, to determine rankings.

In March 2011, Google made such a major change in their algorithms that some sites, previously ranked high, saw their position drop dramatically, requiring new search engine optimization adjustments to regain rankings. In this particular case, Google was attacking content farms but there were many unintended consequences, which caused quality sites to lose their positions. With these changes, determining what the algorithms are looking for has become even more complex.

I would like to toss out one more abbreviation…SEFO, meaning Search Engine Friendly Optimization. Most of the competent web developers out there will be delivering your site using SEFO techniques, to one degree or another. That means they have followed the rules that good little developers should. For example:

  • responsive to mobile devices
  • properly identified pages
  • meta tags (although these have gotten less important over the years, they are still worth including as they can often give you a bit of an edge)
  • clean and efficient coding
  • proper tagging to help search engines understand content importance
  • fluid and understandable navigation
  • using text for content rather than relying on graphics or Flash too heavily
  • properly optimized graphics
  • having good, literate, relevant content (this is likely more upon your shoulders than your developer’s unless you are paying them to write and/or edit the copy as well)
  • using only ‘white hat’ optimization techniques (more on this below)
  • submitting the site to search engines using sitemaps

There’s more, but that could be another whole article!

High-end SEO is something a little different, but tightly related. And, quite frankly, because SEFO and SEO work hand-in-hand and often overlap, you could (and we usually do) put them all under the SEO umbrella. Just like there are varying degrees of web site development, there are varying degrees of search engine optimization. Most of the time, you are getting SEFO from your website developer.

High-end SEO gets increasingly more important as your market space grows.

However, high-end SEO is usually required to generate significant traffic to your website for valuable keyword phrases, especially if you are in a very competitive market space. A valuable keyword phrase is one that: 1) brings in qualified prospects; 2) does it in sufficient quantities to make ROI attainable within a reasonable amount of time. Using the Google Adwords Keyword Tool (accessible via your AdWords account) can help you determine the popularity of certain keyword phrases, which is a big step in this process.

A word of caution…beware of overly aggressive SEO tactics that can get you in deep trouble with the search engines. It is important that your developer engages in only “white hat” SEO techniques (the no-no’s are “black-hat” and “grey-hat”). Using anything else could get you banned from the search engines, so DON’T DO IT! Your site may never recover.

Each search engine has guidelines for what they believe to be good web site building techniques that will net you the best results. Look them up and follow them or be sure your developer follows them. White-hat techniques are truly in alignment with the search engine guidelines AND the spirit of what they are trying to achieve…relevant organic results. Grey-hat techniques are not in direct violation of the guidelines today, but go against the spirit of their objectives, and most likely will hurt you in the long run. Black-hat techniques are those that are explicitly advised against in their guidelines.

Use only “white-hat” SEO techniques.

A few things that will get you a slap on the wrist or not do you any good, and should be avoided, are things like:

  • invisible (or unreadable) text on the page
  • excessive repetition of words and phrases (keyword stuffing)
  • circular link exchange (they cancel each other out in the eyes of search engines)
  • links with unknown sources (linking to a link farm can get you marked as a spammer)
  • unrelated web sites linking to your site (no value)
  • hidden pages (these will show up well in search engine results [at least for a short time] and redirect a user immediately to a new page)

Invest in the Future

What are the other options besides low-end SEFO when you need leads and prospects? One option is to hire an SEO expert at $100,000+ per year salary. Another is to outsource to a hi-end SEO consultant possibly costing many thousands of dollars extra a month to get your web site good organic positioning. These options are usually reserved for the larger corporations that can afford them and need them on an ongoing basis.

So, here you are…a small business or independent contractor that needs help, but cannot afford these numbers. The first thing you should do is start with a company that will build you a quality web site that is Search Engine Friendly. A quality web site goes a long way in helping to brand your business. Otherwise, you will be behind the 8-ball right out of the gate. This may mean that your web site costs a bit more (they are spending more time to do this), but doing it ‘right’ is worth it. Always ask what the developer is going to be doing to help your SEO initiatives. If they cannot answer you, go someplace else.

Good search engine positioning and retention is not a one-shot deal.

Once you have a good base on which to build, you can confidently promote your site in a variety of ways. If you are trying to compete with a lot of other sites for valuable keyword phrases, you may need to get creative with your promotions – buy some advertising, get social (this can take way more time than you have, be careful) or outsource the optimization of your website to a full-service SEO company and see what results you get. But, which one?

Selecting a High-End SEO Company

Many times my company gets calls from people who say that they have been interviewing developers that tell them that they can get them on the first page of Google. When people hear this, they think Wow…that’s for meeeeee! That’s where I want my site to beeeeee! What they don’t understand is that in most cases a company that is making this their primary pitch is likely talking about an obscure set of keywords or phrases for which few people search. As appealing as their pitch may sound, don’t make this the main reason you hire a web developer. If the keyword phrase is not obscure, a good web site that is built correctly with good, relevant content, will likely rank well anyway in a smaller market.

Think about it logically…

  • Search engines guard their algorithms like they belong in Fort Knox. And due to today’s level of algorithm complexity, it’s very difficult to determine what they are looking for, and they change them constantly.
  • If you are a business and you have competition (which most do), what are the odds that your web developer will be able to manipulate search engines to like your site better than the other 1,000,000+ out there that have similar services? Probably not very good…right?
  • How are page 1 rankings for valuable keyword phrases reached? Using a piece of software? Through analysis and critical thinking? Maybe it’s experience and intuition? Well-written software can go a long way toward efficient research and initial identification of important key phrases. A quality SEO company will most likely use several of these programmatic efficiency tools. Equally important is the experience of the people using the software. They must be able to look at the results and translate them into meaningful opportunities for your specific business.

No reputable SEO provider can guarantee any type of specific quality rankings because the search engines are making the decisions and writing the algorithms. Rankings are heavily influenced by the popularity of the phrases as well as the strength of the web sites against which they are competing. But, a good SEO company can tell you, with a high degree of probability, the keyword phrases with which they will be able to drive traffic to your website.

Within 4-6 months of initiation, your SEO efforts should be showing some significant positive results. And, a few months later, that should translate into a positive return on investment. If you do not see this, it is time to have a very serious conversation with your SEO company. One additional item of importance…your SEO company should be providing you with monthly reports that detail the rankings of each keyword phrase, on each major search engine and how many places it has moved up or down since the last monthly report. Pay close attention to these reports! They will tell you if your SEO initiatives are working or not.

If you need immediate results, do consider adding a layer of PPC (pay-per-click) advertising, like Google AdWords, to get you going. With good, long-term SEO, you should be able to back off on this after a while. Whatever you do, don’t allow any company to sell you an SEO bill of goods that gets you positioned quickly and high in the organic listings only to find out that they targeted keyword phrases of no value or used some grey-hat or black-hat techniques to get you there. You will soon find your site down the list or off the search engine results altogether (this is the thing from which your site may never recover that I mentioned earlier). The search engines are very good at figuring this out. Credibility goes a long way with them.

Pay-Per-Click is a great way to boost visibility quickly. But good ROI means setting it up right.

So, what do you look for in an high-end SEO company? Here is a short list:

  • Pick a company that does SEO for their living. If they are doing other things (like web development, SEM or other marketing), they may not have enough expertise in results-oriented, long-term SEO. Some, certainly not all, very experienced web developers may be able to get you a good jumpstart. However, they generally cannot produce the long- lasting results needed in competitive market spaces.
  • Make sure they have experience…at least 5 years in business with clients they have retained long-term. Ask for references!
  • Ask them to show you some specific accomplishments. These should be in the form of reports that show details of keyword phrases across at least the 3 major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing), and how they rank. Once you get these, call the companies that are on the reports and get their opinion.
  • Ask for a detailed proposal that includes an analysis of specific keywords they might employ, their projected search counts, and some competitive analysis, in addition to their pricing and strategies. Most reputable, full service SEO firms will provide this at no charge.

Build it and They Will Come…or Not?

Usually…not. Building a web site and getting it in front of people are two different things. You and your developer can do a bang-up job with creating a site and doing good SEFO, but if the site is not maintained, updated, improved, and marketed, you will get less out of it. This means updating information, improving content, and implementing good marketing and sales strategy. Using SEO to continually keep your site ranked high in organic search listings is especially important if you have a lot of strong competition.

Be sure to revisit your SEFO work at least once every 6 months & keep an eye on your search positioning at least once per month. Doing this will put you in a better position when you are ready for that bigger SEO commitment.

Each web site and business is different and the final recommendation on what to do changes with the wind in some industries. Be sure to pick companies that you can work with closely and are willing to work with you and your other vendors in order to get the best results for your business.


SEO is an ongoing battle for placement so if you want to rank consistently high in the organic search results, you have to keep your finger on the pulse of the search engines. That is no easy task, especially because their algorithms are extremely complex, tightly guarded, and are being tweaked and changed all the time.

If you are not thinking of spending at least several hundred dollars a month for SEO, then higher-end SEO may not be right for you at this time. When you are ready to take the next step, don’t toss your money out the SEO window with one-time or short-term solutions. Be sure to think long-term. Ask questions. Look at accomplishments. Realize that you need to spend some money one way or the other to get some good results. Web site development and SEO do go hand in hand when it comes to results. Be frugal, be smart, but do not cut corners in the places where it counts!

Additional Resources

If you’d like to learn more about search engine optimization for your web site, take a look at:

Guidelines from Google

SEO Basics from Search Engine Watch

10 Basic SEO Tips to Get You Started

Last update: May 17, 2016