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What Is SEO? A Comprehensive Guide to Its History and Roles

Julia McCoy
Friday, 7th Jul 2023
what is SEO and the history of SEO

So, you’ve built a killer website. It’s sleek, user-friendly, and filled with compelling content. But there’s one problem – no one is visiting it.

You might wonder what went wrong. After all, you did everything by the book: stellar design, engaging write-ups … yet your online traffic is at a standstill.

The issue? You may have overlooked SEO.

What is SEO?

Short for search engine optimization, this technique is not just about peppering keywords throughout your site (although that does play a part). Rather, an SEO strategy involves enhancing various aspects of your webpage to appeal to search engines and readers alike – an important aspect of digital marketing.

If this sounds complex or intimidating – don’t worry! We’re going dive deep into what SEO really means for businesses today and how mastering its elements can supercharge your web presence and ultimately boost sales figures!

Table Of Contents:

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization is like the secret sauce for websites aiming to shine in the online spotlight. It’s a technique of modifying web pages so that search engines can easily identify and rank them.

But what does that mean? Let me give you an analogy.

Imagine the internet as a vast library, and each website is a book. Now, if you want your book to be picked up by readers, you need it to be on the right shelves and easy to find. That’s where SEO comes in.

SEO focuses on a set of strategies and practices to make your website more visible and attractive to search engines like Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Why? Because when someone searches for a topic (let’s say “best tacos in town” or “how to grow roses”), you want your website to be among the top results.

Here’s a quick overview of the core elements of SEO:

  • Keywords: These are search terms that people type into search engines. If your website has the right keywords related to what someone is searching for, it’s more likely to pop up on Google search.
  • Quality Content: Search engines love good content. If your website provides valuable, relevant information, search engines will see it as a helpful resource and rank it higher.
  • Links: Both internal (links within your site) and external (links from other websites) matter. They’re like endorsements. The more reputable websites link to yours, the more trustworthy your site appears.
  • User Experience: If your website is easy to navigate, loads quickly, and is mobile-friendly, search engines give it a thumbs up. They want to direct users to sites that offer a smooth experience.
  • Meta Tags and Descriptions: These are mini-summaries that tell search engines what your pages are about. Craft them well, and you’ll boost your chances of getting your website noticed.

In a nutshell, SEO is about making your website the cool kid in the online neighborhood. It’s not just about attracting any visitors but the right ones — people genuinely interested in what you have to offer.

what is seo

Screenshot from Mangools

The History of SEO

SEO has evolved significantly since its early days in the 1990s when it was mainly focused on keyword stuffing and building links.

How the term SEO actually came to be is a funny one.

Legend has it that somewhere between 1995-1997 (when I was four or seven years old), the band Jefferson Starship called their promoter, Bob Heyman, angrily. “We can’t find our webpage!” they screamed.

Fansites had been so busy promoting the band that they buried the actual page from SERPs. So, Heyman and his partner Harden optimized the band’s page with “Jefferson Starship,” which immediately sent them to the top of the rankings again. (Oh, to be back in the days when SEO was as easy as writing a few terms on a page!)

Early Beginnings

The earliest mention of search engine optimization dates back to the early days of the Internet. In 1994, webmasters officially began using meta tags and keyword stuffing techniques to try and get their websites ranked higher in search engine results pages (SERPs).

Apart from keyword stuffing, “black hat SEO” also includes cloaking, hidden links, doorway pages, duplicate content, and private blog networks. These tactics aim to manipulate and exploit loopholes in search engine algorithms. While they might deliver short-term gains, black hat SEO is often ineffective as it relies on guesswork rather than an understanding of how search engines work. As a result, many sites were penalized for trying to game the system.

Evolution of SEO Strategies

SEO as an actual term was first used in 1997 by the Webstep Marketing Agency, and in 1998, Danny Sullivan, founder of Search Engine Watch, made the term popular by helping clients optimize their content.

Also in 1997, Google was founded and quickly became the dominant force in online searches. This led to a shift in focus from keyword stuffing to creating content that was more relevant and useful for users.

Webmasters began optimizing their sites with keywords that matched user queries more closely, while also ensuring that content was well-structured and easy to read. Over time, this approach has become known as “white hat” SEO which is now considered best practice by most industry experts.

Recent Developments in SEO

Today’s search algorithms are much more sophisticated than those used 20 years ago. They take into account factors such as user engagement metrics when ranking websites. This means that simply having lots of keywords isn’t enough; instead, you need high-quality content that engages readers if you want your website to rank highly on SERPs.

Additionally, recent developments such as voice search and the explosion of the mobile industry have changed the way people use search engines, meaning it is important for webmasters to optimize their sites accordingly if they wish them to be successful over time.

SEO has come a long way since its early beginnings and continues to evolve as technology advances.

(And now, we’re here in 2023 with a new term: AIO. Read our blog to find out all about what the AIO writer looks like.)

Benefits of SEO

So why should you care about SEO?

The primary benefit of using SEO strategies is increased visibility in SERPs, bringing you higher levels of organic traffic from potential customers actively searching for products or services related to what you offer.

By improving page rankings with optimized content and links, you can build trust among users which will lead them back again in future visits — thus increasing conversion rates over time.

And, since most people tend not to click past the first page when searching for something, this makes it even more important for your site to appear there so as not to miss out on any potential customers.

Of course, the benefits of SEO go even further than just more traffic. Let’s break them down:

  • Better user experience: SEO involves optimizing your website’s structure, content, and navigation, which can improve the user experience. When your site is user-friendly and easy to navigate, visitors are more likely to stay longer, explore more pages, and convert into customers.
  • Targeted audience: With SEO, you can target specific keywords and phrases relevant to your business. This means you can attract visitors who are actively searching for the products or services you offer.
  • Brand credibility and trust: When your website appears in the top search results, it lends credibility and trust to your brand. Users tend to trust search engines, and by ranking well, you’re seen as a reputable and trustworthy business. This can positively impact your brand image and increase customer confidence.
  • Cost-effective marketing: SEO is a cost-effective marketing strategy in the long run. While there may be some upfront investment involved, once you’ve optimized your website and achieved a good ranking, the ongoing maintenance and optimization costs are relatively low compared to other advertising methods.
  • Long-term results: Unlike other marketing tactics that may yield short-lived results, SEO can provide long-term benefits. Once you’ve established a strong online presence and built authority in your industry, it becomes easier to maintain and improve your rankings over time.
  • Competitive advantage: Implementing SEO allows you to stay ahead of your competitors. By optimizing your website and targeting the right keywords, you can outrank them in search results, attract more traffic, and capture a larger share of the market.
  • Measurable results: SEO provides valuable data and analytics that allow you to track your progress and measure the effectiveness of your strategies. You can gain insights into keyword rankings, organic traffic, conversion rates, and more. This data helps you make informed decisions and refine your SEO efforts.
  • Integration with other marketing channels: SEO can work in synergy with other marketing channels. For example, when you create high-quality content optimized for SEO, it can be shared on social media platforms, attracting more engagement and driving traffic back to your site. This integration enhances your overall marketing strategy.

The Role of Search Engines in SEO

Every time you ask Google a question or type in a search query, bots called ‘crawlers’ scour the web and bring back billions of pieces of information to Google’s servers.

This process is like an intricate puzzle where crawlers find out which bits fit together best. It does this by matching your query with indexed websites.

An essential aspect for any website owner is indexing — it’s your site’s ticket to visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs). Not being indexed means not showing up in SERP at all (scary thought!).

Google provides guidelines about how search engines work, but think about indexing as organizing a library: each book (web page) needs proper categorization so users can find them easily.

The first page of the search engine results displays the Top 10 websites that match the user query. This is where you want your website to show up! Google Page One is the Holy Grail of SEO.

Why? Because the first page captures 75% of search traffic while only 0.63% of users click on the second page. If people don’t find what they’re looking for on the first page, they’ll simply change their question/query instead of going to page two.

google search statistics

Source: Demand Sage


On a search engine result page, you will see two main types of results:

  1. Paid results: You pay for these paid spaces through pay-per-click advertising for your website to be displayed. These appear at the top of every SERP, usually indicated by “sponsored” or “ad” before the link.
  2. Organic results: You “earn” these places through SEO. Organic results are displayed below the paid ads.

In the screenshot below, the results in red are paid ads while those marked in green are organic results. 

paid vs organic serp result

So if paid ads always appear at the top of SERPs, why bother doing SEO?

Because people don’t like ads and often ignore them. Paid ads barely get clicks while the first organic result has a whopping 39.8% click-through rate.

ctr by google serp position

Source: First Page Sage

So now we understand how search engines work, let’s tie it back to SEO.

SEO works by making it easy for both humans and crawlers to understand your page — leading to higher rankings in SERPs.

There are two basic types of SEO: on-page and off-page SEO.

  • On-page optimization focuses primarily on optimizing elements inside a web page itself like title tags, meta descriptions, image alt text, etc.
  • Off-page optimization deals mostly with external factors like link building and promotion on other platforms.

Both types need careful consideration if you want your website to achieve maximum success.

Google is consistently changing its algorithms to guarantee that users get the most ideal organic search outcomes. This means you have to keep on your toes and be ready to adjust your SEO strategy every time there is an update to Google’s ranking factors.

Types of On-Page SEO

  • Keyword optimization: One of the fundamental aspects of on-page SEO is optimizing your content with relevant keywords. This involves researching and selecting keywords that your target audience is likely to use when searching for information related to your business. By strategically incorporating these keywords into your content, you can signal to search engines the relevance and topic of your page. Keywords can be classified as informational keywords, transactional keywords, navigational keywords, and commercial keywords.
  • Content quality and relevance: Search engines love high-quality content, and so do your website visitors! Creating informative, engaging, and well-structured content is crucial for on-page SEO. Make sure your content is unique, provides value to the reader, and addresses their needs and queries. Including relevant multimedia elements like images, videos, and infographics can also enhance the user experience.
  • Meta tags optimization: Meta tags are HTML tags that provide information about your web page to search engines. The two most important meta tags are the title tag and meta description. The title tag appears as the headline in search results, and the meta description provides a brief summary of the page. Optimizing these tags with relevant keywords and compelling descriptions can improve click-through rates and attract more visitors to your site.
  • URL structure: Having a clean and well-structured URL is beneficial for both search engines and users. Including relevant keywords in the URL can help search engines understand the context of your page. Additionally, shorter and descriptive URLs are easier for users to read, remember, and share.
  • Heading tags: Properly using heading tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.) helps organize your content and makes it more scannable for both search engines and readers. Search engines pay particular attention to the H1 tag, which should include the main keyword or topic of the page. Subheadings (H2, H3, etc.) should be used to divide the content into logical sections, making it easier for users to navigate and find the information they need.
  • Internal linking: Internal links are links that connect different pages within your website. They play a crucial role in on-page SEO by helping search engines discover and crawl your site’s content. By strategically interlinking relevant pages, you can distribute link equity, guide users to related information, and improve the overall website structure.
  • Image optimization: Optimizing images is important for both user experience and SEO marketing. Compressing images to reduce file size improves website loading speed, which is a ranking factor. Additionally, using descriptive file names and alt tags for images helps search engines understand their context and improves accessibility for visually impaired users.

what is seo

Types of Off-Page SEO

  • Link building: Off-page SEO typically starts with link building. It involves acquiring high-quality backlinks from other websites to your own. When reputable websites link to your blog posts or articles, search engines view it as a vote of confidence, indicating that your site offers valuable information. Building a diverse and authoritative backlink profile can help improve your website’s visibility and organic search rankings.
  • Social media engagement: Social media platforms provide an excellent opportunity to expand your online presence and engage with your target audience. Actively participating on social media by sharing your content, interacting with users, and building a following can indirectly impact your SEO efforts. When your content gets shared and receives engagement on social media, it can lead to increased visibility, brand awareness, and potentially more backlinks to your site.
  • Online reputation management: Off-page SEO also involves managing and improving your online reputation. This includes monitoring and responding to reviews, comments, and mentions about your brand across various online platforms. By actively engaging with your audience and addressing any concerns or issues, you can build trust, credibility, and a positive reputation.
  • Influencer marketing: Collaborating with influencers in your industry can help expand your reach and attract more traffic to your website. When influencers endorse your products, services, or content, their followers are more likely to visit your site and potentially share your content, leading to increased visibility and brand exposure. This type of off-page SEO can generate more valuable backlinks and attract a targeted audience to your website.
  • Guest blogging: Writing informative and high-quality articles as a guest contributor on other reputable websites in your industry can help you build authority and gain exposure. Guest blogging allows you to reach a wider audience and showcase your expertise while including links back to your own website. When your guest posts get published and shared, it can drive referral traffic, enhance your brand reputation, and improve your search engine rankings.
  • Online directories and listings: Submitting your website to relevant online directories and listings can improve your visibility and provide valuable backlinks. Make sure to choose reputable directories that are relevant to your industry or location. By ensuring your business information is consistent across these directories, you can enhance your online presence and boost local SEO efforts.
  • Brand mentions and citations: Whenever your brand or website is mentioned or cited on other websites, even without a direct link, it can still contribute to your off-page SEO. Brand mentions indicate to search engines that your business is reputable and relevant in your industry. Actively seeking opportunities for brand mentions, such as through partnerships, sponsorships, or collaborations, can help increase your brand visibility and authority.

By combining both on-page and off-page optimization techniques, you can create an effective SEO campaign that will help your website rank higher in search engine results.

Different Roles in the Field of SEO

The field of SEO has become so complex that different roles have emerged and expanded. Now we have SEO managers, SEO data analysts, SEO marketers, and SEO writers.

SEO Writers

SEO writers are responsible for creating content that is optimized for search engines. They must be knowledgeable about keyword research, understand how to craft compelling titles and meta descriptions, and have a good understanding of what types of content perform best in the SERPs. Examples include blog posts, product descriptions, web copy, press releases, and more.

Technical SEO Specialists

Technical SEO specialists are responsible for optimizing websites from a technical standpoint. This includes tasks such as improving page speed performance, setting up redirects correctly, ensuring proper indexing of pages on search engine results pages (SERPs), fixing broken links or images on the website, etc. These professionals need to have an understanding of HTML coding and other programming languages in order to make changes to websites that will improve their visibility in the SERPs.

Content Strategists

Content strategists and marketers are responsible for developing strategies that will help increase organic traffic through content marketing efforts such as link-building campaigns or social media outreach initiatives. They need to have an understanding of analytics tools so they can measure the success of their campaigns and adjust them accordingly if needed.

They should also be familiar with different types of content formats like videos or infographics which can help attract more visitors from various sources online.

Here’s what a typical SEO team looks like:

what is seo

Screenshot from First Page Sage

The size of your SEO team will ultimately depend on your needs and budget. If you own a small business and don’t have the resources to compete with the big boys, an automated SEO tool like Content at Scale is the best way to level the playing field.

Content at Scale is an AI writer that is purposely built for SEO. Among its core components is the RankWell® suite that features a keyword research tool, topic reports, SEO scoring, NLP optimization, SEO checklist, deep keyword insights, and optimization audits right inside the app.

On-page SEO has never been this easy. Sign up for Content at Scale and watch your rankings soar.

Now let’s take a look at how to measure the success of this SEO campaign.

Measuring the Success of an SEO Campaign

Measuring the success of an SEO campaign is essential for businesses to ensure that their efforts are paying off. Key performance indicators (KPIs) can be used to track progress over time and determine whether or not campaigns are meeting their goals.

KPIs are metrics that measure how well a business’s SEO strategy is performing in terms of achieving its objectives. Common KPIs include organic traffic, conversions, rankings, bounce rate, and average session duration. These metrics provide insight into how effective a website’s SEO efforts have been at driving more visitors to the site and converting them into customers or leads.

Once key performance indicators have been established, it is important to analyze the results regularly to make adjustments as needed. This could involve making changes to the content or keyword-targeting strategies based on what works best for the target audience.

Additionally, tools such as Google Analytics can be used to monitor progress over time and identify areas where further optimization may be necessary to maximize ROI from an SEO campaign.

Search engine optimization has long been the go-to strategy for attracting prospective customers, building trust with a target audience, and fostering brand loyalty.

The Future of SEO

As we gaze into the crystal ball of SEO’s future, it’s clear that change is on the horizon.

But don’t worry, with change comes opportunity.

A Shift Towards User Experience (UX)

Google has started to emphasize positive user experience in its ranking algorithm. It’s not just about keywords and backlinks anymore but creating an online space that users love to visit and navigate.

Google has incorporated user experience signals into its search ranking criteria. This includes factors like mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, and HTTPS security. Websites that excel in these aspects are more likely to rank higher in search results, so make sure your website provides visitors with a smooth and pleasurable experience.

The Voice Search Revolution

The future of SEO is becoming more conversational, localized, and user-centric, thanks to voice search.

When people type a search query, they might use shorthand or keywords. But when they speak, it’s often in full sentences or natural language. So, optimizing for voice search means understanding and incorporating more conversational and long-tail keywords.

Voice assistants often pull information from featured snippets, and if your content is optimized for those tiny bits of information that appear at the top of search results, there’s a higher chance it’ll be read out in response to voice queries.

Voice search is not just a fad — it’s a game-changer. Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are becoming our personal assistants. And as more people use voice search technology, SEO strategies will need to adapt.

Mobile-First Indexing

If you thought mobile was big before, brace yourself: it’s going to get even bigger.

Google has shifted to mobile-first indexing, which means it primarily uses the mobile version of a site for indexing and ranking. If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, you might see a dip in search rankings.

Google also places a significant emphasis on mobile user experience, including factors like page speed, mobile responsiveness, and overall usability. Websites that prioritize a seamless mobile experience are likely to rank higher.

The content you create should be easily consumable on mobile devices — meaning it should be scannable. Make sure that all multimedia elements are also optimized for mobile viewing.

Since most people switch frequently between devices, a consistent and user-friendly experience between mobile and desktop is crucial for overall SEO success.

Going Local

Mobile searches are frequently tied to local intent. Users are often looking for nearby businesses, services, or products. Therefore, optimizing your content for local SEO is key to dominating the search engine market.

Many voice searches are also location-based, like “Find the best coffee shop near me.” Optimizing your content for local search, including having a complete Google My Business profile, becomes crucial for businesses wanting to be discovered through voice searches.

The Role of AI in SEO

No conversation about the future is complete without talking about artificial intelligence.

With the arrival of generative AI in search, many content marketers are wondering whether SEO is dead.

Here’s my answer in this video:

The future of SEO may be uncertain but one thing remains constant: adaptability is key to success.


SEO is an ever-evolving field that keeps you on your toes. It takes a great deal of knowledge and experience to be successful.

By understanding what is SEO, its history, and how to effectively optimize your website on-page and off-page, you’ve just taken the first step in making your website shine.

Ready to up your SEO game? Sign up for Content at Scale — the most powerful, humanlike AI writer that’s purposely built for search engine optimization.

Written by Julia McCoy

See more from Julia McCoy

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