in Search Engine Optimization

What Is SEO and How Do We Define It? Expert Opinions.

Insight on how to explain SEO to everyone, including your Mom.

SEO is often misunderstood, and I have found that its definition varies dramatically from practitioner-to-practitioner. So, what is SEO?

I asked some experts (primarily via our /r/BigSEO AMAs) how they define SEO and how they would explain it to various people; specifically, I asked the following questions:

  1. How do you personally define SEO?
  2. How do you define SEO to your colleagues?
  3. How do you define SEO to the C-Suite?
  4. How do you define SEO to your mom?


Paul Shapiro (this blog’s awesome author), SEO Director at Catalyst, Founder of Search Wilderness, Moderator of /r/BigSEO.

Paul Shapiro Profile Picture

My personal definition of SEO: Marketing for your website. SEO has the goal of improving natural visibility of your website on search engines. SEO today extends beyond what is considered traditional on-page and off-page strategy, branching into other disciplines such as PR, Conversion Rate Optimization, Content Marketing, and Social Media in order to successfully achieve this goal. Well-conceived SEO strategy often draws on data and analytics, to make well-informed decisions for improved visibility. Understanding and predicting searcher intent is also a large part of the SEO equation.

To my colleagues (they also do SEO): Marketing for our clients’ websites, the under-appreciate but high-performing service they pay for.

To the C-Suite: I do marketing for your website. It helps you appear higher on Google’s search results naturally (and without paying for advertising) in order to improve the visibility of your brand and drive online conversion. Typically the ROI is very high.

To my mom: I make my clients’ websites appear higher on Google search results.

Ann Smarty, founder of MyBlogU and Brand Manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas

Ann Smarty Bio Image

I have a pretty simple definition for all:
“SEO = making sure your site is easy to discover and crawl for search engines.”
My mom (and probably some of my friends) may have a bad time with the word “crawl”, so I would explain it a bit “discover the site and go through its pages”

John Doherty, lead online marketing at HotPads.com, a Zillow brand.

John Doherty Bio Image

How I personally define SEO – “Increasing the amount of qualified traffic coming to the site through Google and other search engines, through onsite content, links from other websites, and more.”
To my colleagues – “Increasing traffic from Google.”
My c-suite is very SEO-savvy. I wouldn’t change either of the above two.
To my mom? She’s smart too. She understands it as helping people find my site in Google.

Aleyda Solis, International SEO Consultant at Orainti

Aleyda Solis Bio Image

I keep it simple and not too technical so they can easily understand and relate to it:
“I help Web businesses to improve their visibility in Google’s search results to attract more relevant traffic & grow their benefits”

Andrew Shotland of Local SEO Guide

Andrew Shotland Bio Image

I typically use a doctor analogy.
If you are having a problem, SEO (or perhaps more precisely a SEO consultant) is like a doctor diagnosing issues and prescribing tactics/strategies to cure the patient, or to at least get the patient stable. I particularly like using “House” as an analogy because sometimes we think it’s lupus and it turns out to not be lupus.
If you are not having a problem, then the SEO consultant is more like a “doctor” for a high performance athlete. We are working on techniques that can take you from ordinary performance to extraordinary performance. Of course those kinds of projects are typically more fun than dealing with sites that are in trouble.

To his mother: Hey Mom, when I am not trying to help companies recover organic traffic or grow their business via search, I spend a lot of time answering cranky tweets from that guy Dave. Now stop telling me what’s in the fridge already.

Paddy Moogan, VP London at Distilled and author of The Link Building Book

Paddy Moogan Bio Image

In terms of how I define SEO –
To my colleagues I describe it as understanding our clients and where they want to push themselves online, then looking for the gaps where we can add the most value.
To C-suite – pretty much the same to be honest!
To my mom – well, she thinks I work for Google. My dad thinks I work for the internet 🙂 Overall though, I just say that it’s my job to help companies make more money via their website.

Bill Sebald, SEO and founder of Greenlane Search Marketing

Bill Sebald Bio Image

Well my Mom still suspects I run internet porn sites, so I’m clearly not successful at explaining it to her.
I tend to describe it with a few one-liners or metaphors:

  • It’s a game of “king of the mountain” where Google will always eventually swat you down. You have to want to play the game.
  • It’s development and optimization of websites and content that Google and users will see as paramount.
  • It’s the art and science of being found in natural search.

Truth is, I believe SEO has several definitions. For some it’s writing for search engines. For others it’s simply technical / website based, or strictly link building. Then, for others, it’s D) all of the above.
My favorite parallel for agency work went something like, “Imagine there’s buried treasure. We’ll help you draw the perimeter, we’ll help you estimate how much is underground, we’ll even help you dig – but it will take some time and luck to hit the goldmine.” This one worked well for clients who thought of SEO like they would PPC… ie, “I give you $1, how many will you give me?”

Ian Lurie, Founder of Portent, Inc.

Ian Lurie Bio Image

I define SEO as a result. I tell folks I do digital marketing, and that if I do it right, one of the results is a higher ranking in the search engines.
Everyone gets ‘marketing’ (or thinks they do), so that tends to work.

Nick Eubanks, SEO and Co-Founder of I’m From The Future.

Nick Eubanks Bio Image

Personally: Acquiring the right traffic for the right purpose. While SEO is intrinsic to search, I don’t think solely in terms of search engines; in my mind behavior that starts on Google but then moves through other websites ending up on your site is still what I would consider to be SEO.
Colleagues: Making sure we show up where we want to and not show up where we don’t
Mom: I help people find what I want them to

Eric Enge, Founder and CEO at Stone Temple Consulting

Eric Enge Bio Image

To me: SEO is a process for helping businesses get more revenue producing organic search traffic to your web site.
To colleagues: Hoo boy – that one is all over the map! Too many people view it as a form of manipulation.
To the C-Suite: Hopefully, they are going to see it my way!

Dan Shure, SEO and founder of EvolvingSEO

Dan Shure Bio Image

C-Suite – seizing opportunity online that drives organic traffic which drives business goals.
Colleagues – seizing opportunity online that….. 😉
Mom – To family etc I just say “Web Marketing for search engines”

Matthew Capala, Internet (Serial)Entrepreneur, Founder of SearchDecoder.com, Adj. Prof at NYU, Author “SEO Like I’m 5

Matthew Capala Bio Image

So, in my book I called SEO a ‘misnomer.’
Search engine optimization implies that you optimize ‘search engines’ – you can’t and you do not. You optimize content. So content marketing and SEO are really the two sides of the same coin.
I need to give credit to Barry Felman, who wrote about it a while ago on CMI in a blog post time: SEO vs. Content Marketing: It’s time to end this ridiculous debate
I really tell the same definition of SEO to everybody, whether you are my mother or CEO, I like to explain it…’like I’m’ :
I help brands show up online when their consumers are looking for them, including search engines, blogs, and social media.
Keep it simple, and win BIG.

Danny Denhard, SEO Consultant

Danny Denhard's Bio Image

How do you personally define SEO?

Personally I define SEO as smart marketing optimisation. SEO is optimizating online marketing efforts around a given site or group of sites to get the most visibility and conversions possible.

How do you define SEO to your colleagues?

It always depends on the level of colleague, I find to get the maximum buy in from my colleagues I have to put into their language and place into their world and help them understand how SEO influences their day to day job.
For instance to an editorial member of staff: SEO is the activity that ensures the most out of each piece of content they create, write or edit to help awareness, encourage signs up and sales.

How do you define SEO to the C-Suite?

Working with large international brands the C-Suite tend to understand SEO more than most and particularly less experienced staff members, especially if/when organic drives large percentage of revenues.
If a member of the c-suite are struggling I like to break it down:
SEO is the function of the business that captures and drive a number of online customers at varying parts of the sales funnel, SEO answers a number or a series of questions that the users already has in mind or should answer the questions the customer may not thought about yet and pushes the potential customer closer to our end goal.

How do you define SEO to your mom?
SEO is a marketing exercise where I help marketing teams get the most out of the websites and appearing as high up search engines as possible, ideally ranking number 1.

Jey Pandian, Search Director, SEO at Mindshare

Jey Pandian's Bio Image

How do you personally define SEO?

SEO is the art and science of optimizing websites for search engines.

How do you define SEO to your colleagues?

I rank websites for a living. I keep the response intentionally vague because I know that my colleagues will inevitably ask “What do you mean?” This gives me an opportunity to use SEO as a conversation starter then really answer their questions so I know I’m brought in at the right times.

How do you define SEO to the C-Suite?

I make your website show up when people type in “insert vanity term.” I have to be careful for C-Level executives because I can’t give them answers that make them feel stupid but at the same time, I have to elevate their thoughts of SEO so we have an executive champion in the making.

How do you define SEO to your mom?

I fix websites to make them show up on Google.

Nicholas Chimonas, SEO Strategist/Data Wizard at Page One Power & Linkarati

Nicholas Chimonas' Bio Image

How do you personally define SEO?

At its core, SEO is a conglomeration of many technical and creative practices all oriented towards gaining visibility in search engine results. For me personally, its about accomplishing that end goal while serving the best interests of real people on the internet too.

How do you define SEO to your colleagues?

It depends on which colleague I’m talking to. If I’m speaking to a developer, SEO is concerned with optimizing various technical elements of the site in order to be easily crawled and understood by search engine robots. If I’m working with a UXpert/designer, SEO is an annoying side thing to keep in mind when deciding the layout of a page, or how flash/java heavy it is. If I’m talking to a content-crafter, SEO is about the article title (URL structure), headers, relevance of internal/external linking, etc. The list goes on and I’m sure everyone has experienced an evolving definition of SEO depending on who they’re working with.

How do you define SEO to the C-Suite?

The practice of helping your site have the best chance to show up in Google searches relevant to your business. SEO is a marketing investment that takes several months to prove measurable ROI, and best invested in for years ad infinitum.

How do you define SEO to your mom?

“Well Mom, you remember how much I liked Star Wars when I was a youthful rapscallion? Turns out that internet marketing has a dark side and a light side, just like the force. You might call me a Google Jedi, or you might just call me a nerd. Tell the grandparents that even after getting all of these tattoos, I work in an office.”
Tyler Bartholomew, Co-Founder of Indulgery

Tyler Batholomew Bio Image

To my mom: I make things magically appear at the top of search engines
To myself, colleagues and C-suite? I employ a variety of strategies both on-site and off-site to help businesses build exposure and following through online mediums using data-driven metrics.

Clayburn Griffin, Sr. SEO Content Strategist at 360i and /r/BigSEO co-Founder

Clayburn Griffin Bio Image

SEO is the strategy answering “why do you have a website?”
To regular folk, I say “Internet stuff”.
To executive types, it depends on what they most care about. It could be about positioning your brand as the answer to organic searches. It could be about conversions and sales. Put it in the language they want to use and understand.
I don’t have to explain it to my mom; she explains it well herself.

Edward (Teddie) Cowell, SEO Director UK and International at MediaCom

Edward (Teddie) Cowell

Defining it to my mum would be the hardest, she just thinks I work for Google, best settle on that for now.
Personally I define SEO is a mind-set by which you approach everything you do considering how to maximize the positive impact it has on what happens in organic search results.
I see this as much more than simply trying to get pages to rank highly and drive traffic; sure than can be part of it, but brands often have other more important considerations beyond this such as controlling the customer journey, reputation management etc.

AJ Kohn, Founder of Blind Five Year Old

AJ Kohn Bio Image

“Search Engine Optimization is a multidisciplinary activity that seeks to generate productive organic traffic from search engines via technically sound and connected sites by matching query intent with relevance and value.

There are many who probably look at my definition and explanation and believe it better matches ‘inbound marketing’. This new umbrella term created by Hubspot works for a lot of people. They find it easier to describe and convey to clients. It’s more palatable and allows them to distance themselves from the poor reputation SEO has acquired. I get it. But I don’t like it.

I’m an SEO and I’m proud of it.” –AJ’s Answer: Source.


Some other digital-savvy folk (and some SEOs) from around the web chimed in as well:

Q. How do you personally define SEO?


A. Kulwant Nagi

SEO is a process to boost your article at higher position in search engines. SEO is a complete pack and combination of various activities which make it a big term. SEO is not just about adding few elements in the article and boost it higher in the search engines.

A quality SEO needs various activities like guest blogging, commenting, forum activities, blog submissions, video blogging, slide sharing and many other inter-related activities.

So for me SEO is a big term.

A. Jason Darrell

The art of search engine Optimization lies in ensuring that your brand is recognised as an industry authority by both human and indexer-bot critics alike.

When people query search for answers relevant to your service, you need to have proven to the search engine that your expertise warrants displaying the webpages in its results wherein those answers reside. This expertise could lie within your owned or rented media.

Optimization of that authority could come through:

  • structured data in your website;
  • social engagement, or ‘proof’ (for brand recognition, rather than ranking);
  • evidence that resides on the Knowledge Graph via your engagement and authorship on relevant, authority websites;
  • continued use of your website by unique and returning visitors.

SEO is charging all of those assets like a magnet to draw relevant traffic to your service, which basks in the glory of your proven authority.

A. Tim Capper

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is intended to make a website easy for Search Engines to find, understand and position those website and pages accordingly within the Search Results Positions (SERP) based upon information that is provided within a Website and a Websites Pages. SEO helps to structure a website, to make it possible for Search Engine Robots to find and understand the content that a site presents to their user.

Equally SEO helps to create a unique User Experience, vital for users and sales.

A. Scott True

SEO literally means Search Engine Optimization. In other words, it is any action that optimizes web content for Search Engines. SEO actions overlap many other trades like Social Media and Online Marketing. SEO can be broken down into different segments. Technical SEO removes technical barriers and Enables Search Engines to find and Crawl web pages. Actions like creating great content and outreach can affect the metrics Search Engines use to Rank content. It is important to understand the difference between enabling rankings and getting rankings. They are two completely different activities. One is technical in nature and the other is creative in nature.

A. Shyam Bhardwaj

SEO is the process of understanding search engine working and making a website friendly for search engines as well as for users so that it can appear in top search results for appropriate business queries.

It is closely related with tactics and implementation of choosing appropriate domain name, content marketing, natural link building, user engagement, social media interaction, website interface structure and mobile friendliness. The outcome should be more sell, leads and finally huge revenue.

A. Evan Pryce

For me SEO is the process of improving your websites visibility, traffic and revenue from search engines (mainly Google). I break it down into 2 main components:

  1. On Site elements – Involves developing your website to be search engine friendly with clean and clear site architecture and navigation with high value content that will address searchers needs.

  2. Off Site elements – Gaining links and mentions of your website from other authority sites to help improve your search rankings and traffic.

A. Don Sturgill

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is comprised of the various efforts one takes to help chosen sites, articles, brands, or other entities place high in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) tally. The goal for a single entity is normally to show in the top five on the first page. A more ambitious goal would be to dominate the first three pages with results favorable to a chosen cause. SEO can be a cut-throat and dangerous practice, when done to manipulate — rather than influence — search engine results. Done right, it is smart and as legitimate as tuning up your auto engine to get better gas mileage.

A. Erik Emanuelli

Write really interesting articles, and optimize your site with your keywords in a natural way, including images, titles, interlinking, etc.

You want to be mentioned around the internet for being awesome and for producing such interesting content that many will link to you without asking something in return.

When you create new blog posts, be sure to link out to some resources you think they can match the topic of your writing and that it’s worth to mention.

A. Kevin Raposo

When I personally define SEO to someone, I usually tell people it’s how search results are displayed in search engines. When you ask someone how they think Google categorizes those results, most will have no idea. I simply explain to them that it’s an SEO’s job to find out and adapt to the ever evolving algorithms. We essentially help people get ranked on the first page, as opposed to the second, third, etc. No one ever clicks on the second page, unless it’s an SEO.

A. Jonathan Harrison

It depends who asks me…

I say that because depending on the person asking the question depends how in-depth I go with it. Some people struggle with the concept of digital marketing being many streams of skills. So they use the “SEO”; buzz word to cover it all. So when I explain it to them I generally define digital marketing and put search engine Optimization as a segment into it.

That said as a general rule I define it as “The method used to increase visibility in the major search engines through none paid inclusion.”; But to a lot of people this doesn’t mean anything. SEO is not really one set thing but more a way to optimise many things to influence the search results. It is a little bit like a virus.

For example graphic design, what has that got to do with SEO you might ask? Well if the design is done correctly and displayed correctly on your website you can use good outreach to gain some very high value links so it has everything to do with it. But graphic design itself is not SEO.

Another example – Branding. If the branding is rubbish then so will the results of the outreach so it has a direct impact. This goes on with web development, content etc.

Again what is search engine Optimization? A methodology enabling you to bring all your online assets together to boost search engine rankings.

Q. How do you define SEO to your colleagues (assuming they don’t do SEO themselves)?


A. Kulwant Nagi

SEO is a process where we write our content is such a way that we can bring it in front of more people. So when anyone will search on Google for any problem then by sitting at first or second position in search results we can drive that guy/girl on our website and help him/her to solve the problem.

So SEO is a process to bring your article at higher position in various search engines.

A. Jason Darrell

You know when you use Google and you get pages of results? SEO is making sure that your name shows up on the first page when you can offer a service that solves the query.

If you show up for the wrong thing, you’re not doing your brand reputation any good. People will get miffed and then leave. Probably never to return.

If, on the other hand, you’ve answered their problem succinctly, not only are they likely to buy from you this time and in the future, they’re likely to recommend your service to their friends, too. That’s the ultimate in Search Engine Optimization.

A. Scott True

Assuming my colleagues work in related Online Marketing trades, I tell them that technical SEO is what is going to make their great content be found, crawled completely, and indexed by the Search Engines. How great the content is will dictate how well it is ranked by the Search Engines. This happens by means of the Search Engines collecting several metrics about how well the content is received by people. As an SEO, I have several roles among which include ensuring the technicalities are in line with the Search Engines, consulting with the content creators about what kinds of content is typically received well by people, and helping promote the content.

A. Shyam Bhardwaj

SEO is the combination of all working incorporating content production, website navigation, Above the Fold concept, fast loading time and providing better user experience on the website. Search engines work for giving best results to users so optimizing website for target audience in the real SEO. It is far away from spamming web or other websites; helping the entire community and users will automatically raise your faith among them and any brand can easily get well reputation on and off site. This is what we say Branding / Marketing of the website.

A. Erik Emanuelli

SEO means making sure that your website reaches the highest level in the search engines results for certain keywords, using different procedures, including the optimization of your site’s pages (titles, content, interlinking, images, etc.) and producing such epic content to allow you to attract links from other websites in a natural way (which means without being paid for or asking something in return).

This requires a lot of work, but in the long term it really pays off.

A. Jonathan Harrison

Similar to answer number one, it depends on how much they know. For this question let’s assume they have experience in digital marketing.

I would define it as the way to bring all digital efforts together to help positively influence search rankings. A way to educate the people involved and set up processes to optimise/build on your online assets.

If you do something online in connection with any of your entities then chances are SEO considerations need to be looked at.

Q. How do you define SEO to the C-Suite?


A. Kulwant Nagi

SEO is acronym of search engine optimization where we mold our content and data in such a way that search engines can rank them high in the search results. By doing SEO for any organization we can boost the business by bringing more people on the website. So every time people will search for the targeted terms, we are going to get them on our website, and ultimatley going to get more exposure and customers in our business.

A. Scott True

SEO by itself does not solve any problem and SEO by itself will not help the bottom line. SEO is not a secret. The best practices are known by many and are completely transparent on the web, just like good marketing is. SEO is an important and crucial part of a larger marketing plan. To be really effective, SEO efforts need to be in line with the bigger picture goals and everything that happens online. Anyone working on SEO needs to be working as a team and collaborating on all Online Marketing projects. The technicalities of SEO will enable progress, but it’s the team work, collaboration, and creative ideas that will move the needle forward.

A. Shyam Bhardwaj

SEO is the implementation of all best legal and fruitful strategies which can increase the business of brand. It’s all related with Creating attractive Search engine friendly corporate website, finding suitable audience, finding what they like or what they want to see, creating great content pieces, keyword searching, giving better customer experience etc. The goal is to drive massive relevant traffic on the website and increase user engagement so that conversion rate could be more optimized. Giving more business to Owner is the final aim of SEO.

A. Erik Emanuelli

Search Engine Pptimization (SEO) is the action of influence the ranking of a website in the search engine results.

The closest to the top the better. Also, more frequently in the results is better. This means receving more clicks and visits from search engines users.

SEO may focus several type of search, like search of pictures, videos, news, local, texts.

Optimizing a website means taking action on the content according to specific keywords.

Also, gaining quality backlinks are included in the process of optimization.

A. Jonathan Harrison

Similar to answer number one, it depends on how much they know. For this question let’s assume they have experience in digital marketing.

I would define it as the way to bring all digital efforts together to help positively influence search rankings. A way to educate the people involved and set up processes to optimise/build on your online assets.

If you do something online in connection with any of your entities then chances are SEO considerations need to be looked at.

Q. How do you define SEO to your mother?


A. Kulwant Nagi

SEO is a process where we write our content in such a way that we can follow all the guidelines given by Google and all search engine in the world. We just follow their rules and optimize our content in such a way to make them love our website or blog. By doing SEO for any online content we can get more business and ultimately make more money online.

So a simple activity of SEO can make anything big online.

A. Scott True

SEO is an important part of Online Marketing. It involves a bunch of technical stuff on websites, but it also involves good marketing. When done right, SEO helps a business succeed online. SEO is generally thought of as the actions that get websites to rank in the Search Engines, but really it is much more than that. SEO is also marketing. As an SEO, I am not only doing the technical activities that enable rankings, but I am also participating, and often leading, general marketing efforts.

A. Shyam Bhardwaj

SEO is nothing but making some changes in website and promoting it to right audience so that it can earn new customers and business. Just like we see local shopkeeper promotes his or her shop in the local market either by distributing pamphlets, online businesses who run a website try to attract new visitors to sell their services on Internet. SEO is making the website well known among users and trying it to promote on Google, Bing and other search engines.

A. Erik Emanuelli

Me : Mom, do you know Google?

Mom : No.

Me : Ok, Google is the search engine you use to find something you are looking for over the internet.

Mom : Got it.

Me : I am sure when you make a research with Google you browse within all the results available, right?

Mom : No, I click on the first one it appears.

Me : Great. SEO means making sure you click on my site when you make a research with Google for my keywords.

A. Kevin Raposo

My mother has no clue what I do for a living. Both my parents were born in the Azores, Portugal so technology is pretty scary for them. When my mother is with friends, they naturally ask how their son is and what he’s doing for a living. I kid you not, my mother just tells them I work with computers. At the end of the day, I just tell my mom I work with Google. She doesn’t even know what Google is. God bless her.

A. Jonathan Harrison

I try not to…

If I had to I would show her not tell her. I would take her to Google, show her the organic results and explain the different elements of the page to her. Then explain the top points that influence these rankings (content, links, technical etc) and show her some examples.

Again saying how it pulls all the bits of jigsaw together online to enhance and boost the search results. Not the easiest task


What do you think? Do any of these definitions strongly resonate with you? Are there any that you don’t like or down-right despise? How do you define SEO? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. I once explained to my wife that SEO is about Google rankings. That definition never ceases to get me into trouble. She then wanted me to rank her Facebook page on the 1st place, ahead of a zillion other girls with the same name, so that her friends could easily find her.