What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? The CMOs Guide
May 20, 2022|Read time: 15 min.
- Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of increasing organic (non-paid) search visibility in order to grow brand awareness, drive qualified website traffic, and protect brand reputation.
- SEO is a reliable driver of revenue and ROI because online search is essential to the buyer’s journey.
- SEO is a team effort, lead by the head of marketing, that involves many related departments, including content, web development, and analytics.
If search engine optimization (SEO) isn’t a major line item in your marketing budget yet, then you’re already years behind your competitors.
Approximately 90.8 percent of the total U.S. population accesses the internet. Now, consider Google’s organic search results generate nearly 20x more clicks than paid ads on desktop and 10x more clicks than Google ads on mobile. As a marketing leader, how do you capitalize on that massive opportunity to connect with your audience?
Invest in SEO.
However, unlike traditional advertising and PPC, you can’t just throw the most money at organic search to win. To beat the competition at search engine optimization, you need to know what SEO is, and how to strategically invest in it.
Organic search results generate 20x more clicks than paid adsSparktoro
90.8% of the U.S. population accessed the internet in 2021Statista
Google owns 91.94% of the search engine market shareStatcounter
As a marketing leader, you recognize that consumer behavior bridges physical and digital channels. You know SEO is the key to reaching your customers online and driving in-store visits, but you don’t know enough about the channel to make the right investments.
I wrote this guide to introduce marketing executives to the basic concepts of search engine optimization.
This isn’t a step-by-step tutorial. If that’s what you want, then check out my SEO strategy article for a complete walkthrough. Here, I’ll explain the fundamental elements of SEO to help you make smarter investments in the organic search channel and drive greater marketing results.
I’ll briefly summarize the following topics in this article:
- What is SEO?
- Business benefits of organic search
- Key elements of search engine optimization
- Considerations before you implement an SEO strategy
- Should you outsource SEO?
What is search engine optimization (SEO) in marketing?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO is an acronym that stands for search engine optimization. It refers to the process of ranking web pages higher in search engines in order to drive qualified organic website traffic, grow brand awareness, and control brand messaging.
SEO involves optimizing your own website and off-site elements to improve search engine rankings and generate high-quality organic traffic.
When marketers discuss organic search, they often talk about keywords, search volume, Google’s algorithms, and backlinks. However, it’s actually about connecting with your audience when they’re ready to act. It’s about knowing what your customers search for, why they want it, and being first in line with the best answer.
SEO marketing helps you attract your target audience at each stage of the customer journey with a 75% lower CAC than paid channels. As a result, you earn more brand touch points, leads, conversions, and revenue.
What’s the difference between SEO and PPC?
Both SEO and SEM are marketing strategies that drive traffic to your website through search. However, they function very differently. When you understand the distinctions between SEO and PPC, you can rebalance your marketing mix to maximize ROI from each strategy.
I’ll break each one down in the next few sections.
How SEO works
From a user experience perspective, SEO is about creating exceptional content that provides the best answers to searchers’ questions. From a more technical standpoint, it involves optimizing specific elements of your website to help search engines discover, comprehend, and rank your content.
The internet gives us access to nearly unlimited information. Yet, few people actually know how search engines deliver answers in the blink of an eye. For a good primer, watch Google’s video about how search engines work for beginners.
If you don’t have time to watch it, I’ll summarize the main points that relate to search engine marketing below.
Crawlers read your website’s HTML to understand the purpose of each page and your site as a whole. These bots look at the types of content that users see, such as text and pictures. But they also consider elements that are invisible to users, like structured data (schema markup) and image alt text.
They do this across billions of pages on the internet to understand every page on every website, and how they all relate to one another.
Then, search engine algorithms rank your content based on certain criteria in order to return the most relevant results for a query. For example, do you have relevant content to satisfy a user’s search terms? Is your website secure? Does it perform well on mobile devices? Are you an expert on the topic?
How well your site ranks on the search engine results pages (SERPs) depends on several factors. The most important signals include how well you optimize your content to rank for relevant keywords and the overall quality of the user experience you provide.
Furthermore, SEO gives you more control over how Google presents your content to searchers. If you implement the right code — manually or via plugins — then you’ll have a better chance of winning featured snippets that differentiate your brand in search.
Google ranking factors
Google uses more than 200 ranking factors to decide what to include at the top of its search results. However, some factors are more important than others. For example, it matters how quickly a page loads, but content quality matters more. Furthermore, some meta tags are critical to how well your site performs in search, while others, such as meta descriptions, are not ranking factors at all. Although links are important, backlinks function differently than internal links and external links.
It may seem challenging to pin down specific ranking factors, especially with so much misleading information online. But if you align your strategy with Google’s Quality Guidelines and business goals, then you’ll be on the right track.
Here are some of the on-page and off-page SEO ranking factors Google considers.
- Keywords in page title tags, URLs, headings, and body copy
- Content quality
- Page speed and user experience
- Backlinks from authoritative websites
- Internal links
- Anchor text
- Mobile friendliness
Most ranking factors measure user experience or improve Google’s semantic understanding of a page. That’s why signals like page speed and internal linking are important, while domain name and word count are not. In fact, Google encourages brands to create pages for users, not search engines.
How PPC works
With pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, you pay to show up in the advertising areas of the search results. When someone clicks on your ad, you pay a fee regardless of whether the user intended to click.
The amount you’re charged per click depends on a number of factors, including:
- Number of bids for the keyword
- Amount you want to pay versus your competitors
- Quality of your ad
The advantage of PPC is that it allows you to quickly drive targeted traffic to specific landing pages on your website. This can be particularly useful for time sensitive things like testing, promotions, sales, events, etc.
However, paid search is a much more expensive acquisition channel than organic search. In addition, the moment you stop investing in PPC ads, the traffic literally stops. There’s no residual effect or compounding value like organic search offers. The only way to sustain traffic through paid ads is by pouring a steady stream of cash into it.
In other words, SEO is a better long-term marketing investment. A page that ranks on the first page of organic search results can generate traffic for years with minimal ongoing investments. That means your ROI from SEO keeps improving year over year.
Business benefits of SEO
The following statistics highlight the significant business benefits of SEO. This further underscores why organic search must be an integral part of your digital marketing efforts.
SEO delivers 12.2x ROI compared to 2x from paid advertisingTerakeet
53% of US shoppers do research on search engines before buyingGoogle
SEO drives 10x more traffic than social media on averageBrightEdge
As you can see, the benefits of search engine optimization extend beyond more website traffic. At a high level, it amplifies organic growth and reduces risk which translates into greater revenue and shareholder value.
Investments in SEO drive increased brand awareness, stronger brand loyalty, lower customer acquisition costs (CAC), and improved brand reputation.
Let’s look at some specific examples.
SEO increases sales revenue
When done effectively, organic search drives tremendous sales revenue.
- There are 2.9 trillion searches every year.
- Google states the ROI from organic search traffic is 5.3x, compared to just 2x from paid advertising.
- 49% of marketers believe SEO has the highest ROI of any marketing channel.
- In general, SEO traffic is 5x higher than PPC and 10x higher than social media.
- Consumers do up to 70% of their research online before they purchase a product or service.
Google is an integral part of our personal and professional lives. We use it to guide buying decisions, research products, and find answers to our problems. We use it to find local businesses and decide which pair of running shoes we should buy.
Search engine optimization allows you to be present at every step of the customer journey. It ensures your brand is visible from the moment potential customers become aware of a problem, until they make a purchase, and beyond.
When you create high-value content that aligns with your audience’s needs, you can control the entire marketing funnel.
Businesses that don’t leverage SEO as part of their digital marketing toolkit miss out on a significant amount of potential revenue.
Search engine optimization allows you to be present at every step of the customer journey.
Whether your goal is to sell more ecommerce products, generate leads, increase brand visibility, or even capture traffic from TV ads, SEO can help you achieve your goal.
SEO improves margins
Search engine optimization reduces customer acquisition costs and increases the lifetime value of those customers. In fact, Terakeet has delivered customers as low as 25 cents on the dollar compared to paid channels.
Why does organic search offer a more competitive cost per acquisition (CPA)?
Firstly, programmatic advertising has a very low accuracy rate. So if you pay per impression, there’s no guarantee the person who saw your ad is even part of your target audience. Secondly, PPC is riddled with fraud and accidental clicks. Thirdly, paid ads often cannibalize free organic clicks you would have earned anyways. Finally, digital ads often rely on expensive price manipulations to attract customers instead of building long-term loyalty.
All of these issues collectively inflate customer acquisition costs which hurts your margins.
On the other hand, SEO actually improves your margins over time. That’s because your up-front costs are higher, but they drop off significantly after you publish each piece of content. Conversely, performance continues to improve over time.
It’s this inverse relationship of reduced cost with increased performance that makes SEO an unmatched long-term investment.
SEO reduces brand risk
Most CMOs know SEO drives traffic. But it’s also a powerful tool to protect your brand’s reputation.
When someone searches your company’s name or product on Google, they should find positive, relevant information. You don’t want searchers to discover negative reviews or old, unfavorable news articles. SEO allows you to control the messaging searchers encounter across all major search engines.
That’s critical when it comes to building shareholder trust considering 44% of a company’s reputation is tied to its CEO.
I’m not just talking about fixing a bad reputation, either. Deployed strategically, SEO can identify weaknesses and fortify a positive search landscape against future issues. As a result, you’ll reduce the lifespan of a crisis, dramatically decreasing its impact on brand image and revenue.
Key elements of an SEO strategy
Before you can properly invest in search engine optimization, you need to understand the key elements of an effective SEO strategy.
Technical SEO is the process of optimizing a website to comply with Google’s technical requirements. Typically, web developers handle these elements. The main categories of technical SEO include:
- Website architecture
- URL structure
- Page rendering
Google can’t rank your web pages if it can’t discover or access them. You’d be surprised how many webmasters accidentally block Google from accessing critical sections of their website. One way to help Google crawl your content is to include them in a sitemap.
The next step is indexing. Similar to crawling issues, simple mistakes can result in important pages being excluded from Google’s index. That means users won’t be able to find them through organic search.
Your website’s architecture helps Google understand the hierarchy and relationship of each page on your domain. A simple, intuitive, organized structure also helps users find exactly what they want more quickly.
Short, descriptive, keyword-focused URLs help Google and users understand a page’s content.
Page Experience and usability
SEO is no longer just about optimizing content for keywords. It’s also critical to provide an excellent experience for users. Google’s Page Experience Signals are a collection of metrics that measure website page performance, and in turn, user experience.
Google measures six page experience signals. The first three are called Core Web Vitals, which include:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – Measures how fast a page renders in the browser
- First Input Delay (FID) – Measures when a page becomes fully interactive
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – Measures how much visual elements shift around on a page
The other three page experience signals Google prioritizes are:
- Mobile-friendliness – Measures whether a site functions properly on mobile devices
- HTTPS – Determines if the site connection is secure via SSL
- No Intrusive Interstitials – Measures how disruptive pop-ups are to the browsing experience
The simplest way to see how your website scores for Core Web Vitals is to use Google Search Console or the Google PageSpeed Insight tool. This will also give you specific recommendations to improve your scores.
Although your website’s technical performance is important, content matters even more. According to Google, high-quality content is one of the top three ranking factors. But what does quality content really mean? Google’s John Mueller recently offered a definition:
When it comes to content quality, we don’t mean just the text of your articles. It’s really the quality of your overall website, which includes everything from the layout to the design.”
Mueller continued, “How you have things presented on your pages, how you integrate images, how you work with speed, all of those factors kind of come into play.”
As you can see, high-quality content marketing doesn’t mean lengthy or overly complex text. And it goes beyond what’s on a single page, too. To win in organic search, create a culture of content that puts users first. Invest in the exceptional content, regardless of the format, across your entire domain.
You can learn how to do that in Terakeet’s Content Strategy Playbook.
Search intent alignment
Keyword search intent refers to what a user wants to achieve when they type a query into Google.
For example, when people search for “men’s soccer cleats” they most likely want to see ecommerce product pages. However, if they search for “best men’s soccer cleats,” or “indoor vs outdoor soccer cleats,” they want more informational pieces of content.
To rank on the first page of Google, you must understand your audience. What do they want? How do they frame their search queries? What type of content format do they expect to find?
Search intent is critical to search engine optimization because it’s directly tied to user experience. If someone expects an overview article about a topic, but they land on your service page, they will most likely return to Google to choose a different result. So even if you manage to rank well, none of that traffic will convert if it doesn’t match search intent.
Popularity and trust (E-A-T)
As a general rule, Google prefers to rank trustworthy, reputable, authoritative websites that have higher PageRank. In fact, Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines (QRG) state that Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness are among the most important factors used to determine a web page’s overall quality.
It further clarifies that they determine the E-A-T of a page through the following:
- The expertise of the creator of the Main Content.
- The authoritativeness of the creator of the Main Content, the Main Content itself, and the website.
- The trustworthiness of the creator of the Main Content, the Main Content itself, and the website.
Google E-A-T is especially important for websites that impact your finances, health, and safety. Google holds these types of websites — Your Money, Your Life” (YMYL) sites — to the highest possible E-A-T standards because bad information could harm consumers.
So, if your website deals with financial services or medical advice, for example, make sure you understand what E-A-T is.
Who is responsible for SEO?
The head of marketing (VP or CMO) is usually responsible for leading search engine optimization initiatives. That’s because it requires collaboration between multiple departments, including communications, content, design, web development, brand, sales, and ecommerce, in addition to external partners. Furthermore, most search initiatives require high-level decision making authority and executive buy-in.
However, marketing executives aren’t directly involved in day-to-day management or execution of the initiative.
Additional team members handle activities such as project management, topic and keyword research, content creation, competitor analysis, technical optimization, link building, etc.
At the executive level, SEO should be the center of audience insight that drives all marketing campaigns and efforts. However, many executives fail to capitalize on the full potential of organic search to create value for the enterprise beyond traffic.
According to Forrester Consulting:
Executives need to directly link SEO investments to clear and measurable brand improvements that drive business growth and improve their reputation. This will require changing the culture around SEO and aligning others to think of SEO as a strategy to meet long-term goals, not just drive site traffic.
Should you outsource SEO, or bring it in-house?
The question of whether to outsource SEO or bring it in-house comes down to three primary factors:
Search engine optimization is a labor intensive process that requires a dedicated team of SEO experts to drive compounding business results. Individuals need years of experience with technical optimization, SEO tools like Google Analytics, Search Console, Moz, and Ahrefs, as well as expertise in keyword research, on-page optimization, content strategy, link building, and more.
To do SEO in-house, you need to hire, train, and maintain an entire department beyond the SEO basics. That often comes at a much greater cost than tapping into the seasoned resources of an established SEO company.
So, outsourcing SEO means faster business outcomes and lower total costs.
It’s important to note that outsourcing SEO doesn’t mean getting rid of your existing team. On the contrary, they’re a critical part of your success when working with a partner. Outsourcing to an SEO company gives your team fast access to much more bandwidth.
But what about risk?
The risk of outsourcing comes from choosing the wrong SEO company.
It’s not that agencies intentionally do nefarious things. It’s that most firms don’t have a defined market. They attempt to work with local businesses, SMEs, and enterprise brands all at once, assuming they can deliver the same results regardless of the size of their customer.
However, local SEO is very different from enterprise SEO.
Each of those markets requires a completely different business model to be successful. So, in order to scale up to service larger deals, they either need to cut corners or outsource some of the work. Initially, any SEO company might deliver meager results. But in the long run, performance will stagnate or reverse.
How can you tell if you’re talking to the “wrong SEO company?” They fit one of these three descriptions:
- Digital marketing agencies that do everything
- SEO companies that work with companies of all sizes
- Black hat SEO companies that promise fast cheap results by using high-risk SEO techniques like buying links from directories and keyword stuffing.
When you choose an SEO company, stay away from those that do everything for everyone. Look for companies that specialize in search engine optimization for brands of your size.
Terakeet creates SEO strategies and content strategies for enterprise brands and Fortune 1000 companies located in the US. If that’s you, give us a shout.
SEO is the future
If one thing is clear, it’s that SEO is only going to increase in importance. As the amount of information available to consumers online explodes, their reliance on search will continue to grow.
Brands that double down on SEO now will reap the rewards long into the future. They’ll be able to connect with a much wider audience, generate more leads and revenue, and create deeper customer loyalty than brands that neglect SEO.
NOTE: Although Bing and Yahoo are part of the search engine landscape, this overview focuses on Google given Google’s overwhelming market share.
SEO is an acronym that stands for search engine optimization. It refers to the process of increasing organic (non-paid) search engine visibility in order to grow brand awareness, drive qualified website traffic, and protect brand reputation.
From the user’s perspective, SEO is about creating amazing content that provides the best answers to searchers’ questions. From a more technical standpoint, it involves optimizing specific elements of your website to help search engines discover, understand, and rank your content.