The New Definition of Search Engine Optimization

SEJ Wilby

I wish I had a nickel for every person who has come to me and said, “I paid someone X (always 4+ figures) number of dollars to do optimization for my site, but I really can’t see any change.” Or, “I am paying X (always in the hundreds) number of dollars monthly to keep my site optimized and I really don’t know what they are doing.”

There are two levels of foolishness going on here – the people who are paying for something they don’t know or understand and the shysters who are charging people for something they just pretend to do.

When your SEO tells you they can’t go in to detail about what they are doing on you site because it’s a ‘trade secret’ – RUN! If you are bent on throwing your money away anyway, please contact me. I’d be happy to take it.

Thankfully, “doing” search engine optimization to a website is changing.

Defining Search Engine Optimization

Using Search Engines

Using Search Engines

I ask “What is search engine optimization?” often when I give talks. Most of the time I get stares in response. Some people try but give up soon enough. What would you answer? Tell me in the comments BEFORE reading on.

I have a new definition for the term:

Search Engine Optimization is creating good content on a web site in the form of pages and posts that real people want to read, which satisfies the query AND can be found by a search engine. In that order. Readers first!

Search Engine Optimization is NOT About:

  1. Link hierarchy within a site.
  2. The number of backlinks to a site.
  3. Using perfect grammar.
  4. Hitting on all the social signals.
  5. Writing longer articles.

(I will deal with each of these untruths in future articles here at SEJ.)

SEOs and Search Engines Keep Missing One Another

There are SEOs sitting in offices throughout the country, the world for that matter, brainstorming, writing on white boards or yellow legal pads trying to figure out what the search engine algorithm writers are thinking to determine what the search engines are going to do next.

There are also groups of people (the algorithm writers) sitting in offices within the confines of the search engine companies brainstorming, writing on white boards or yellow legal pads as well trying to figure out how real people read, write, search, and find what they are looking for.

The two groups keep missing one another. However, to their credit, the search engine algorithm writers are getting closer to understanding real people than SEOs are to understanding search engines.

Doing Search Engine Optimization

Question: How do you ‘do’ this new search engine optimization?

Answer: Create solid content, short, long or otherwise…but do it with a sensitivity that there is a little robot sitting on your shoulder who will need to find your content. And remember, that robot is getting smaller and smaller.

There is an ideal balance of good content that is also findable. Another word for ideal balance = optimization.

If you write something good but nobody can find it, you might as well leave in on your computer. If you write something that is garbage but still very findable, you might as well leave that on your computer as well. Write good stuff.

Defining Good Findable Content

Good Content:

  1. is served up with a title that promises to satisfy a query.
  2. is original and delivers early on the promise of the title.
  3. has images that are relevant to the query and are also searchable.
  4. is consistently on topic within the site where it is found as evidenced by internal links.
  5. appeals to other like-minded sources with relevant external links.
  6. is recognized as such by other credible sites as evidenced by backlinks.
  7. is sometimes timely.
  8. is sometimes timeless.


A site with good search engine optimization has good content that real people love to read, will engage with via the comments, want to share when appropriate, AND can be found. In that order.

Write well. Get read.

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Bill Belew
Professor, Speaker, Author, blogger, all-around old man. Having taught a full 48-hour MBA course in Marketing with Social Media at a graduate school in Silicon Valley, Bill delivers insights from recent, real and relevant case studies. Bill has been working in social media for more than 8 years and has more than 90 million unique visitors from organic search to his network of sites and in a variety of niches. He knows what works, what doesn't, what can kill a site, and what can cause it to grow. Bill has a network of 5000+ Meetup followers in the heart of Silicon Valley. He is a paid, professional, international, in-demand speaker.
Bill Belew

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49 thoughts on “The New Definition of Search Engine Optimization

  1. Superb article. I have always believed in being honest with a client. Inform them of what you are doing and when, give them time scales. Oh and dont guarantee page one. Creating great content for readers is a must now with back links still being a ranking factor. Think quality not quantity.

    1. Thanks, Rob.

      We can never guarantee what a 3rd party will do … think making promises Google or any other search engine.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  2. If you visit SEO companies’ SEO packages, you will get to see X number of bookmarking, Y number of blog comments, blah..blah..but they will never tell you what they are gonna do with real user engagement which is most essential nowadays. Search Engines are getting smarter and SEOs are getting dumb.

  3. Nice read Bill. I am an SEO and i also face and ask the same question What the hell actually SEO is. Well the single point answer is its complicated

  4. The problem with giving this advice on this site is that you are talking to SEO’s I wish the SEO community like SEJ would get these articles published in places that consumers of SEO services would see them.

    1. Amy,

      Consumers are getting smarter. They have been scammed for so long by the shysters. It’s time for us legitimate hard working folk to be found. Gotta start somewhere.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  5. Following your instructions here is my companies definition of “what is SEO?” SEO is the progressive improvement of a website to conform to the standards set by search engines while providing useful information for prospective clients. Thereby, increasing the quality and quantity of content on ones site. Which leads to an increase in viewership and sales from a website. That is the definition, I believe to be true as to what SEO is.

    1. Thank you, Mahesh.

      Perhaps if SEOs had started where we are now with providing good content, there would have been no need for a progression. Rather, some SEOs thought they could beat Google and other search engines at their ‘game’ … we have had to endure changes. Thoughts?

      Bill Belew

  6. Hey Bill – I agree that content needs to be first directed towards visitors, rather than search engines, and that Content Marketing is at the heart of SEO, however Content Marketing does not equal SEO – it is only one aspect of it. Despite what Google says it wants, my experience is still saying that backlinks and long content are very important from a search engine ranking perspective.

      1. I don’t buy the content theory at all – well maybe for some websites – but NOT all. Tell me this – how much “content” should a plumber’s site have? – I think the typical “visitor” wants the company’s phone number to get his leaking toilet fixed right away – not the finer points on keeping your plumbing maintained.

        Same goes for a locksmith – you need to get in your car right away and the keys are locked inside – all you have is your smart phone – you surf and search for “emergency locksmith” and then do what? – read about how a lock works?

        Personally – the phone number is all I would need – and if the phone number is in the website description in the search engines results – you get no clicks to your website at all – since the “visitor” got the info needed in your description (the phone number).

        So I guess I agree with optimizing for the user – I just don’t think “Content” is the solution always – a VERY small piece of the puzzle in my world.


        Dwayne Armstrong

    1. @Dwayne,

      Funny you should say plumber. I have a case study of a local student/client who was, you guessed it, a plumber. He began updating his site regularly by giving plumbing tips.

      Before he started he and his buddy were getting a bid request monthly. 4 months of publishing tips later he was getting an average of a bid request daily! The only difference was he put more relevant content on his site to solve problems for real people.

      Content works.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

      1. @Dwayne,

        Good point, but you must realize that content is what brings their site onto the first page of search results, giving you their phone number to call!

  7. I laughed a little reading this article. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the understanding and decompiling of search queries/determining factors to better understand a ranking que within a specific algorithm. The optimization aspect would be to leverage the determining factors in order to obtain maximized results within the algorithm que for placement within a SERP.

    Let’s not create anymore one-trick-ponies. Content marketing, much like Link building and Social signal generation are all tools in which an SEO uses, don’t confuse them with SEO itself.

    1. Tyler,

      I hear where you are coming from. But where I am coming from here is that the New SEO will be focused on creating good content that please real people and comes consistently from well established writers who have a history of being on topic.

      There will be no more ‘leveraging the determining factors.’

      Things are different now.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

      1. @Norm,

        The search engines can know when real people leave real comments with real links to real sites where there is other real engagement with real people who leave real …..

        Bill Belew

  8. Good post and points. When i work with clients i spend a lot of time initially on nailing down their online goals and then show how SEO will support them, so that they understand the process + tactics. Thanks!

    1. Norm,

      Doing content right is the new search engine optimization.

      The tweaking of titles and images and such will make the difference long term.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  9. I think to say SEO is ONLY content is wrong. Content is an ingredient to having a good SEO approach but it is by far the only element. You say SEO is not about internal linking structure on a site but it has been proven that good internal linking connecting like-minded pages together helps strengthen other internal pages on a site. You state the number of back links is not SEO but good quality links are still important. If you are quoted in an industry leading publication with a published link that is good quality SEO, if you are quoted in 10 leading news sources that is even better SEO.

    You also stated that using perfect grammar is Not SEO – Let’s watch Matt Cutts (Head of Google spam) and see what he has to say. Although he states it is not a direct signal there is some solid evidence connecting high Pagerank pages with proper spelling and grammar.

    You also stated that SEO is not about social media signals. – Here is a video with Matt Cutts from 2010 stating that there is a direct correlation with social signals and rankings.

    I am not downplaying that content is important I am simply stating that SEO still IS some of the things you state it is not.

    1. Thanks for this comprehensive reply, Maciej.

      I am saying that if you get your content right you will see 80-90% of the desired results.

      Quoting Cutts in 2010 – you are behind.

      You can see in a previous post I wrote – – that results come and ALL of these were written with imperfect English = their second language.

      Keep watching Cutts – social signals lend themselves to popularity NOT quality. Popularity is not an indicator of quality.

      An over-optimized internal link structure will in the end go the way of an over-optimized page/post.

      As Harry Truman said, “Being too good lends itself to being uninteresting.”

      Content that satisfies the query, is written by a credible person and commented on by other people active in the topic will rank best.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  10. I also feel like the above answer and try to create solid content with keywords and do some on page optimization.But now i realized SEO means content which is readable to readers.

  11. Thank you for the article Bill. While I agree with the intent of the article and the one size fits all and menu driven service approach to SEO services as virtually worthless, there still are a number of technical issues that can and do improve a sites ranking – and I’m not referring to the so called best practices.

    I can see the day where SEO / SEM is rolled up into the broader category of business marketing. Your ending slogan Write well. Get read is a catchy slogan, but one needs much more to break through the noise.

    1. Burt,

      What else do you think is necessary to ‘break through the noise?’ I maintain that just creating good content will get your clients 90% of the results they desire.

      Do you have a different experience? Would you mind sharing?

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  12. Hi Bill!

    Wonderful article!

    Trying to make things better for Users AND search engines is what SEO is all about!! :)

    Now, what things are good for Users & What things are good for search engines…?! Well, to know so, one has to have a User’s perspective & needs to understand how search engines work!
    Individual’s study! 😉

    ..for me, Human being has been ‘doing’ “O” (Optimization) since their existence, isn’t it?


    1. Prasanna,

      I shared my short list at the bottom of the article of what I think we need to please real readers and the search engines. What would you add to this list?

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  13. In so many ways, it really is that simple; but the devil is in the details! I find that getting clients to agree to the substantive changes I often recommend vis-a-vis content are often the hardest. Too often they WANT SEO to be just some mystery black box thing that I do. The minute I start suggesting content changes or UI tweaks, they start to pull back. Also, because a third-party web design firm is sometimes involved, I find myself butting heads with them, because they care more about their “beautiful” design and less about getting customer to the site. Not whining here, just agreeing that what most of really are these days are content and marketing consultants. I count myself lucky that my background (prior to SEO) was in advertising and marketing — so it’s a natural progression for me.

    1. Ron.

      You make a great point. The ‘look’ often takes priority over the substance of a site.

      ‘Magic’ is called upon when hard work is called for.

      I have those same battles with the designers and the owners.

      If we can show them results, maybe they will come around. That’s what I have been trying to do here. Show, not tell.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  14. this is a nice pitch for some real estate agents or small businesses but if you go and say that to a big commercial company with a couple of thousand pages of products and an average of 500.000 visits a day they will probably thank you and say that they will get back at you, and yeah they wont. Agreeing that if SEOs tell you that they cant reveal their secret you do indeed need to run, but good content on its own will not rank you (unless you got a solid example of a commercial term ranking on page one without links – which i doubt you got which is why this article is your peronal point of you and nothing more or less). Content is NOT SEoptimisation. Stop baptizing as new SEO the incapability of being able to get naturally good links to your clients’ site or replicating a good excuse to your clients as to why their ranks are frozen between 11 and 20. A long tail article can get you a couple of hundred of visits a month but that is not the general rule of how a search engine works today. Imagine similar articles of same quality and same authorship. Which one google will pick?, the article which belongs to a site with the best domain and page authority will rank higher and we all are old enough to know how a site gets DA & PA. Do not bash me for being pesimistic. I do not work with companies unless there is a content marketing strategy in place. But I do not name this new SEO. Content is my ammunition, i distribute it through social media, to my email marketing list etc but expecting it to rank me on Google just because I wrote a piece of 1000 words? No way. I take that piece to my clients and prospects directly, dont expect Google to do that for me cause it wont. Why you think google bans link networks day after day? cause they are bad or because they want more control over them? and if the latter is the case then hows content the new seo? Just food for thought mate.

    1. Yiannis,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I still disagree.

      One of my students started writing at her mom and pop site for her husband/wife team business. She started in August. By Christmas she was on the first page and outranking Macys and Bed Bath and Beyond for her item. She killed it over the holidays with NO backlink strategy. Just good content.

      It’s still about satisfying the query and pleasing the reader.

      Do you have data to support your claims? I am all eyes and would love to be taught. No sarcasm here. Genuine inquiry.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  15. For Most of the seo’s link building is everything! and i would say “Build good, as many as you can, but remember don’t try to build links try to build relationship.

    1. Karan,

      Why do you say that link building is everything? Next week I will tell you two things I would rather have than links.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  16. For me successful SEO is all about quality content.Create content that builds relationship. Your objective should be to build trust and credibility among your target audience. Not to sell. Not in your content. Let that come later, after you’ve earned their trust.

  17. Hi Bill,
    first of all i would like to thank you for this great article. I personally believe that, if you want a successful business campaign you have to focus on every single technique of internet marketing.

    1. Suresh,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      Every technique is right … beginning with high quality content that serves the query.

      Thanks for reading.

      Bill Belew

  18. Great article! We love how content is the focus of SEO and not superficial things. It’s good to know that there are still others out there advocating for publishing good and relevant content and not just fluff. Staying focus on the readers is great because at the end of the day they are the ones doing the searching.