A Beginners Guide to Conceptualizing SEO

I originally submitted this post to other places. Needless to say, it was rejected. I don’t blame them; it’s far to generic. They are mostly interested in actionable content, which this is not. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth sharing here. 

The Break Down

A boring-ass, but hopefully enlightening and unique, definition:

SEO is the practice of adjusting a website, and its pages, so that they are most likely to be displayed prominently in search engine results when a search engine user inputs a word or a phrase that relates to the function of the website or webpage.

The Goal of a Search Engine

When conceptualizing SEO, reminding oneself of the goal of a search engine is helpful.

A search engine (in order to qualify for the name) must index and then display the web pages which contain the best answers for its user’s queries. The first web page displayed for a searched query should provide the best answer.

In order to index and then rank the web pages containing the best answers for its user’s queries in descending order, a search engine must be capable of filtering through billions of web pages and ranking them in descending order from best to least best.

The search engine that is able to accomplish this better than the others, wins. In 2012, the search engine winner is Google.

All this to say, optimizing websites for search engines = optimizing websites for the Google search engine.

There are two primary areas where search engines gather the information they need to determine which web pages provide the best answers to queries

When conceptualizing SEO, it’s helpful to keep in mind the distinction between these areas:

  1. On the website (on-page optimization) and
  2. Outside of the website (off-page optimization)

The difference between these two areas is that the on-page optimization is entirely under the control of the SEO practitioner, and off-page optimization is not.

Here is SEOmoz’s summary of on-page ranking factors. Off-page SEO rankings factors can essentially be lumped under inbound links.

When trying to think like a search engine, THINK LIKE A HUMAN

One will find it useful to always keep in mind that search engines are looking for indications of relevance, no different than human readers. Both on-page and off page factors help search engines determine relevance. Both of these factors also help humans determine relevance.


Here is an example of how a human determines the relevance of a web page when looking on-page:

And here is [one example of] how Google determines relevance when looking on-page:

Although they each view it differently, both the human and the Google can conclude that this website would be appropriate to display for search queries related to the Colorado Rockies.


Similarly, here is an example of how a human determines the relevance of a link (one that is off of ‘the’ webpage):

And here is how Google determines the relevance of a link:

Humans look to the content surrounding a link to determine its relevance, and they also look at the text which the link is anchored in. Google, while seeing it a bit differently, does the same.

When a human reader sees a link anchored in the text “car crash statistics” they may take that as a ‘vote’ that the webpage being linked to has good information about car crash statistics. Google uses the same logic. This ‘vote’ serves a postive influencing factor for the search engine when determining where the page should be indexed for search queries relating to ‘car crash statistics’.


To optimize a website for a search engine is to adjust the website in a way that helps the search engine properly index the website according to queries for which it provides good answers.  A good SEO will help the search engine toward this end by giving it both on-page an off-page indicators of it’s area of relevance. When conceptualizing SEO, one may find it useful to keep in-mind:

1)      The goal of a search engine

2)      The distinction between the two areas which provide the search engine the data it needs to achieve its goal

3)      That search engines look for relevance in much the same way that humans do

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