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

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a critical part of any successful digital marketing strategy.

It’s the process of optimizing content, code, and structure to allow a website or page to be found by search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo!

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

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!)​​​​

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. Thus was born multiple roles in the SEO industry:

  • SEO writer
  • SEO marketer
  • SEO consultant
  • SEO analyst
  • SEO manager

(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.)

Being a part of any successful SEO campaign requires specialized skills among writers, strategists, developers, and analysts who understand how to create high-quality content geared to get found in search.

In this blog post, we’ll explore what SEO is, discuss the history of SEO, and look at some different roles within the field of SEO before diving into various on-page and off-page optimization techniques for success, along with ways to measure your campaign’s performance over time.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple.

Think of your website as a cool destination and search engines as the GPS guiding users straight to it.

Your mission? Get your website on the first page of this digital map, also known as Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

This is where SEO comes in.

SEO is the act of adjusting your website’s design and content to make it easier for search engines to understand and index it.

The goal of SEO is to make sure that when someone searches for something related to your business or industry, your website appears at the top of the list.

Definition of SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an umbrella term used to describe a set of strategies designed to increase organic traffic from search engines.

SEO techniques include keyword research, content creation, link building, technical optimization, and website improvements to drive more visitors to your site. SEO experts tap into a built knowledge of these ranking factors to put together a plan for search marketing strategies that include off-page, on-page, and technical best practices. There are many different factors that go into SEO algorithms. Here’s how a group of 150 SEO experts ranked their importance (Moz):

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Types of SEO

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

  • 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.

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.
  • 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 engine 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 navigate 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 search engine optimization. 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.

Screenshot from Mangools

Types of Off-Page SEO

  • Link building: Link building is a crucial aspect of off-page SEO. It involves acquiring high-quality backlinks from other websites to your own. When reputable websites link to your content, 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 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 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.
on-page vs off-page seo

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.

SEO is an ever-evolving marketing strategy that can help businesses reach their desired audience and maximize online visibility. To understand the history of SEO, let’s take a look at its early beginnings.

What is SEO? Its History and Beginnings

Early Beginnings of SEO

The earliest mention of search engine optimization (SEO) 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). These tactics were often ineffective, as they relied on guesswork rather than an understanding of how search engines worked. As a result, many sites were penalized for trying to manipulate SERPs.

Evolution of SEO Strategies

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 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.

Now let’s take a look at the different roles involved in the field of SEO.

Different Roles in the Field of SEO

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:

Screenshot from First Page Sage

Understanding the different roles in SEO is essential for successful search engine optimization. Knowing how to properly apply on-page and off-page optimization techniques can help ensure your website’s success in the ever-changing digital landscape.

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 on a regular basis in order 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 in order 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.

But with the arrival of generative AI in search, many content marketers are wondering whether SEO is dead. Here’s my answer in this video:


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

It’s important for businesses to understand the basics of SEO and how it works in order to maximize their online visibility.

By understanding the history of SEO, different roles within the industry, on-page, and off-page optimization techniques, as well as measuring success through analytics tools, businesses can ensure they are making informed decisions when it comes to their SEO strategy.

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About the author

Julia McCoy

Julia McCoy is an 8x author and a leading strategist around creating exceptional content and presence that lasts online. As the VP of Marketing at Content at Scale, she helps marketers achieve insane ROI (3-10x their time back at 1/3rd the cost) in a new era of AI as a baseline for content production. She's been named in the top 30 of all content marketers worldwide, is the founder of Content Hacker, and recently exited her 100-person writing agency with a desire to help marketers, teams, and entrepreneurs find the keys of online success and revenue growth without breaking.

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