If you’ve ever done any sort of business online, or have even briefly researched Internet marketing, chances are you’re familiar with the ubiquitous term “search engine optimization” (SEO). Many of us seem to take this term in stride, not stopping to think about whether it actually makes sense. We know that the practice of SEO itself is a bonafide marketing method used by everyone from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, but is the term used to describe this practice still logical and relevant? We’ll attempt to answer that question, as well as shed some light on the origins of the term “SEO,” in the following four points worthy of consideration:
1. Google Can Optimize a Search Engine, Websites Cannot
In a pre-internet, pre-SEO era, if you were to ask someone, “what does search engine optimization mean?” Their response would probably be something along the lines of: “I’m not sure what a search engine is, but search engine optimization must be the optimization of a search engine.”
As website owners, technically we can only engage in website optimization, or the optimization of our own websites. We cannot optimize a search engine, because only the people managing the search engine can do that.
If I was to say “let’s work on strategy optimization,” it’s apparent that I’m talking about optimizing a strategy, in the same way that “vehicle optimization” describes the optimization of a vehicle. Thus, the very term “search engine optimization” is fundamentally nonsensical and erroneous, at least in the way it is currently used.
Of course, there isn’t a committee in charge of ensuring the grammatical or logical correctness of coined terms in the online industry, because if there was, the term “SEO” wouldn’t have made it past the proofreading process. But like all other terms that are shrouded in mysterious origins, SEO stuck, and has since become one of the most popular acronyms used in all of Internet marketing.
According to Bob Heyman via Search Engine Land, the term “SEO” was allegedly coined by Heyman himself back in 1997, who discovered that repeatedly inserting a hidden keyword on a page would boost that page’s ranking to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) for queries related to the hidden keyword, resulting in the very first spammy, yet effective blackhat “SEO tactic” – keyword stuffing.
Whether Bob was the first to use the acronym SEO is certainly debatable and difficult to prove beyond doubt, but it seems that his story is at least similar to how the term might be coined in everyday practice by an online marketing company.
When seen in this context, the term starts to make sense, because at the time, when a developer would optimize the metadata for a page, they would call it “metadata optimization,” or the practice of optimizing font would be called “font optimization,” and so on.
Each attribute of the site would be optimized individually, and the practice of doing so would be described by saying the attribute name followed by “optimization.” However, the attributes that webmasters were really trying to optimize could’ve been more accurately described as search engine ranking, search engine placement, or search engine presence.
It’s easy to see how a term like “search engine ranking optimization” could be shortened to “search engine optimization” in the fast-paced world of Internet marketing, but that still doesn’t mean that the term is accurate in the way it is used today. The only people who can optimize a search engine are those that work for Google. All that we as webmasters can do is optimize our own websites in a way that the search engines approve of.
2. Search-oriented Site Optimization a More Accurate Alternative, New Terms More Relevant
Nowadays search engines use a lot more than keywords to rank pages, which means webmasters need to switch the focus towards optimizing the site as a whole, from an opinionated human’s perspective, not from the perspective of an ” if this, then that” algorithm. Search engines no longer rank websites based on how many keywords are stuffed into a page, and everything from the amount of quality links directing to a webpage, to the quality of the content, and the amount of human interaction it gets are much more important.
So, being that we cannot actually optimize the search engine itself, more befitting terms for the practice may include “search-oriented site optimization” (SSO) or even “search engine placement optimization” (SEPO).
While it’s unlikely that the acronym SEO will ever be changed or replaced at this stage in the game, we can at least admit that there are more suitable ways to describe the process of optimizing a site for better placement in search engines.
Still, as new aspects of “SEO” become more important than the original keyword density/placement and quantative backlinking metrics that originally influenced the pre-Panda, pre-Penguin, pre-Hummingbird SERPs, we should expect to see more frequent usage of terms like social media marketing (SMM), search engine marketing (SEM), content strategy planning, and content marketing.
3. Websites Need to be Visitor-Oriented First
Aside from the term itself being erroneously shortened, the very practice of SEO as it was done originally has become obsolete and archaic. Webmasters should now be focusing on giving site visitors a better browsing experience, while also publishing content on social sites, blogs, and forums, rather than trying to please search engines.
In fact, developing content for authoritative sites and having it mention or link to your own site is one of the few remaining ways to reliably influence search engine rankings, as is building a strong presence on social networking sites. Even so, quality is always the determining factor now, whereas in the days when the term “SEO” was coined, it was all about quantity.
Nowadays search engines are looking for signs that people like your site, not signs of specific keywords or design features. If people like and share your site then search engines will like and share your site at the top of the SERPs.
Social media has played a big role in this, and although it isn’t yet clear how much of a focus the search engines place on social media shares, I think it’s pretty fair to say that they do have an effect on your rankings, and this could increase in the future. Guest posting and social media should be two of the main instruments in any internet marketing strategy in 2017.
4. Search Engines Have Already Been Ultra-Optimized
The algorithms used to rank and categorize sites within search results have been developed by some of the smartest techies in the world, through years of experimentation and testing. Trying to outsmart, trick, or manipulate these advanced algorithms, rather than simply creating a site that people will like and share, is akin to trying to hack into a bank rather than simply using the ATM card in your wallet to withdraw cash.
Creating and promoting content that is useful, informative, and entertaining is much easier, and typically more effective, than technically over-optimizing a site in an attempt to please the likes of programmed crawler bots. These algorithms are constantly being modified by tech giants like Google, who’ve invested many millions of dollars into finding ways to stop sites from deceptively gaining high rankings.
And, although the latest Google update may have prevented sites from being penalized – unless it is clear the webmaster is purposely trying to manipulate the search engine – webmasters could still be spending a lot of money on practices that have very little worth. When Google makes it clear that you can’t trick them, and they tell you they want content written for humans, it’s time to listen.
Sites Can Still be Optimized for Better Search Engine Rankings
We should specify that the practice of search engine optimization as it is known, is not necessarily outdated or ineffective. It is still very possible to gain better placement in the SERPs by working on the overall quality of your site and by promoting the site via syndicated content posted to high authority sites and social networks – practices commonly known as guest posting and social media marketing (SMM).
While “backlinks” themselves don’t carry the same weight they used to, search engines still use them as indicators to determine when a site is being shared by a large number of surfers, or by a particularly authoritative source, both of which are indicators that the linked to pages are useful and worthy of high rankings.
And, it is more than likely that social media likes, shares and comments will also be given more weight in the future, if they are not at the moment.
In closing, remember that regardless of what you choose to call it, optimizing your site for better search engine placement should only involve things one would naturally do to improve the overall quality of a site and the experience for the human reader – and not stuffing it with keywords and hoping for the best.