What is search engine optimization?

If we try the most general definition, search engine optimization in the broadest sense simply means influencing the search results of search engines in order to gain advantages. The unwieldy word search engine optimization is abbreviated not only among experts, but also in common parlance as SEO (Search Engine Optimization).

Search engine optimization is to be distinguished from other search engine-related online marketing disciplines such as paid search engine advertising (SEA) or content marketing, which mostly serves SEO purposes, but neither exclusively nor necessarily. Accordingly, search engine optimization is always about influencing organic search results (as opposed to paid search results).

Distinguishing between different SEO techniques

Search engine optimizers (SEOs) use various techniques to improve their position in search engine results or increase visibility. Essentially, the following sub-disciplines can be distinguished:

  • Technical SEO / Onpage SEO
  • Link Building / Offpage SEO
  • Content Optimization
  • Local SEO
  • Blackhat SEO

Technical and Onpage SEO

In order to be optimally findable in search engines, a website must be accessible and crawlable by a “bot” (also “spider” or “crawler”) of the search engine. The content must also be indexable, i.e. released for inclusion in the search engine index.

Whether and how the pages and content of a website can be included in search engines depends on numerous factors. The basic task of a search engine optimizer is therefore to prepare the technical basis of the website in such a way that the relevant content can be smoothly absorbed and displayed by search engines. Since this is primarily ensured on your own website, the English term “onpage” has become established.

Important technical (on-page) factors:

  • Crawlability: the search engine must be able to access, so it must not be accidentally excluded from important content.
  • Indexability or indexability: the content must enter the search engine index
  • Internal linking: important content must be linked more strongly than unimportant ones
  • Loading times: they directly and indirectly influence search engine positions (e.g. via user satisfaction, bounce rates)
  • Security: unencrypted websites are increasingly disadvantaged
  • Markup of content: by using the title tag, a heading structure and semantic markups (for example, bold, italic or font sizes), content is optimized

Link building and off-page SEO

In addition to the on-page factors, which can easily be directly influenced by the website operator, it is also important for the position of a website in the search hits of the search engines to be supported by external signals. The most important external signal, going back to Google’s Pagerank algorithm, is third-party linking. Such “inbound” links or external links influence the search engine ranking of the entire linked website.

Other external signals are regularly hotly debated in the SEO scene, but there is a lack of reliable evidence for them. Such external signals include:

  • Mentions on other websites, e.g. in interviews or as an article author
  • Nofollow links that have been devalued by the webmaster for search engines
  • Social Mentions; Mentions on social media
  • Google Analytics data (the search engine operator denies that this data is included in the ranking algorithm)
  • Click Through Rate (CTR) in search results
  • Business and Business Listings

In addition to influencing off-page ranking factors, off-page SEO is also concerned with removing obstacles and risks. Two such off-page risks are of particular relevance:

  • Inferior link profiles can cause downgrades and penalties.
  • Duplicate content can cause some subpages or entire domains to fall out of the search results.

In particular, the area of link building has serious overlaps with content marketing, in which content is prepared as attractively as possible in order to motivate other website operators to link to it.

Content Optimization

In order to rank well in the search engines for relevant search queries and thus receive many visitors, the content of a website is specifically optimized for search engines. The basis for such search engine optimized content is detailed keyword research and analysis of the topic environment, in which keywords are grouped and the intention of the searchers is determined.

When researching SEO, the editor also takes into account the search volume of a topic and the nature of the search query. Traditionally, SEOs distinguish search queries into three segments, which coincide with the intent of the searcher, or their search intent (Seach Intent). The search intention is crucial, because if a website cannot meet the needs of the user, then this will also be noticeable in the rankings on Google & Co.

The 3 types of searches:

  • Informational: information is sought. Here, for example, Wikipedia, online newspapers or manufacturer pages with product information are preferred.
  • Navigational: the user searches for a specific destination, e.g. a brand or website
  • Transactional: such searches are made with purchase intent. In this case, the search engine prefers marketplaces, online shops or other providers of the product sought.

In addition to the three classic types, other types of search queries and search intentions are sometimes mentioned:

  • Commercial investigation: this fills the gap between informational and transactional when products or companies are researched but there is no direct intention to buy.
  • Local: the search query targets an offline entity, for example, an address is searched. In this case, in addition to classic SEO, local SEO is also necessary.

Local SEO

Local SEO has the purpose of making a local business or institution easy to find on search engines. If a user searches for the name of the institution, then the website should appear as high as possible. In addition, the company should appear in the mobile search in the search engine or in map services such as Google Maps.

Optimization for local search results is multi-layered. Local content is created on the website and indexed in an appropriate manner. Among other things, semantic tags are used to include the address and other contact data in the index of search engines.

The entry in local directories and business directories confirms that it is indeed a local location. In addition to such classic methods, business entries in other media, e.g. Google Maps, Bing Maps, Facebook, etc. trim.

Ultimately, local SEO as an off-page factor also contributes to general off-page optimization.

Blackhat SEO

As a subgenre, a blackhat scene has already established itself in the early years of Internet search engines. The term “black hat” is an allusion to secret agents who work for the opposing side and with shady techniques. Many of these techniques violate the guidelines of the search engines and can therefore lead to exclusion from the search engine. In addition, most of these techniques are now only effective in the short term. The use in the context of normal websites is therefore usually discouraged.

Classic blackhat techniques:

  • Link purchase and link exchange
  • Linkspam, e.g. mass listing in directories, blogs and forums
  • Link wheels and link networks to simulate relevance with strong links to each other
  • Hijacking of links and content: DC effects take over “link juice” and “authority” of external sites.

SEO through the ages

The Internet Stone Age (ca. until 2000)

Before Google turned the search engine industry upside down, search engines on the Internet worked according to classic content retrieval principles. They analyzed the responses of all documents and determined their relevance.

At that time, SEO was mainly about filling documents with invisible terms. Those who mentioned the search term more often were at the top.

Google’s rise

From about .dem year 2000, Google spread like wildfire with its new algorithm. The secret recipe: PageRank. Instead of just evaluating the keywords, Google analyzed the linking between the websites. The more links, the better the ranking. But the PageRank worked even more finely, it also took into account the strength of a link.

Google’s wide distribution ensured that links became a valuable resource. A lively link trade developed. Particularly strong links, for example from universities, authorities, newspaper publishers, organizations or corporations, were often rented for 5-digit annual fees.

Penguin & Panda (2011)

The sprawling blackhat methods led to one of the most notorious changes in Google’s algorithm. To date, it is not certain exactly what changes have been made. The SEO scene only agrees that an update called “Panda” curbs bad content in the search index, while its sibling update “Penguin” penalizes unnatural link profiles. Within a few weeks, previously common methods (link trading, SEO texting) became useless or even “toxic”.

Since this change, tools and services for cleaning up backlink profiles have been booming. In the area of content, tool providers and agencies try to produce high-quality content with methods such as WDF-IDF (but WDF-P-IDF would be more correct, because of the necessary scaling factor P). Ultimately, the Penguin & Panda era is characterized by a commercialization and consolidation of search results and the SEO scene.