We've seen so many transformations in the world of SEO over the last few years that those three letters seem like an unsatisfactory way to describe what really goes on in thoughtful, effective optimization work. (This feeling has naturally led to some well-intentioned but not quite practical alternative acronym suggestions.)
What we talk about when we talk about SEO is really a diverse range of website best-practices for raising visibility and discoverability.
So how can we talk about those best-practices differently, particularly when we're explaining them to colleagues and clients? Let's unpack three of the most important ideas and techniques behind the acronym.
Three Website Best-Practices
First off, why is SEO important? Sometimes, it's easy to get so mired in the details that we forget about the big picture. Our most recent studies at the Hinge Research Institute find that 81% of prospects check out a professional services firm's website to research a potential service provider.
Making that initial connection smoothly and successfully can mean the difference between new inbound leads and, well, crickets. So it's important that your site be...
1. User-Friendly and Error-Free
At least as much as possible. Google and other search engines crawl your site on a regular basis, so the fewer soft 404 and "not found" errors, the better. But you're not building your pages for the sake of Google's crawlers; you want them to be functional and easy to navigate for users, without the frustration of bugs or missing content.
A good place to check for site errors is Google Webmaster Tools, under the Crawl section. This is where your site errors will appear. Depending on the error, every month or so you should analyze why the errors are occurring, then repair them—which may mean engaging your Web developer or Web-savvy marketing department, or hiring a third party to investigate the site issues.
I say "aware" because keywords are important but you have to be careful not to overload a page or site tags (title, header, and meta tags) with keywords. Doing so is not merely poor copywriting; it also frustrates users, and it will have a negative impact in search as Google releases more sophisticated updates.
Consider a keyword's difficulty and search volume in relation to your own industry and website authority. Use a keyword difficulty tool (Moz has a very helpful one) to gauge how competitive a keyword is. If the keyword is highly competitive and your website has a fairly low authority, consider choosing a less difficult keyword. Then use that keyword naturally, the way you would in conversation. Using a keyword 2-3 times on a page is a good guideline. Remember: all good things in moderation.
3. Structured Coherently
You won't have to go far to find someone arguing that SEO is all about "tricks": keyword-cramming and code-tweaks here and there on a page and on the back end.
But true SEO work goes deep. You could argue it's a matter of information architecture—ensuring that the superstructure of a site makes sense. Pages on your site should be linked in an organized, hierarchical way, helping folks find related, relevant information as smoothly as possible. The result should be a clear, organized sitemap, an essential website element both to the search engines and to your users.
A User-Centric Site
You've probably noticed a pattern by now: Whether you're dealing with keywords in website copy, the structure of your sitemap, or bugs in your code, each of those best-practices is really aimed at creating the best possible experience for users.
And that's an effective way to talk about these strategies—as user-experience improvements that Google and other search engines can track and use to evaluate your site's relevance to searchers. There's no denying that older, "black hat" approaches to SEO elevated algorithms above users, often providing a compromised experience. That's not tenable anymore.
Implementing these best-practices (and periodically revisiting them to ensure that everything is running smoothly) can make a serious impact on search impressions, traffic, and rankings. And this user-centric way of thinking and talking about SEO has the advantage of being unlikely to grow outdated any time soon, even as the pace of change increases.