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What is SEO? (So you could explain it to your Grandma)

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s a type of marketing that ensures a website’s content gets discovered when someone is looking for that topic in a Search Engine – usually Google.

If you were going to explain it to your grandparents, for example, you might say something along the following lines...

"Grandma, you know when you search for something in Google, like:

  • Find a Bingo Hall near me

  • Please translate these roman numerals mcmxcviii thank you

  • What time does Safeway open?

The articles at the top of the search rankings results list are websites are the most useful examples of articles that Google can find to answer your question.

That's an example of Search Engine Optimization."

In case you have a super curious grandparent, or parent, this article should enable you to give them the basic lowdown on what SEO is, why it's useful for businesses, and how to get started with SEO basics, as well as a few more things. Like this:

So let’s get straight to it!

Beach scene with the word 'Grandma' written in the sand before the surf. The words 'What is SEO? (So you can explain it to your Grandma)' overlaid on the image

1) So what is SEO anyway?

SEO is a mix of art and science. There is no blanket set of rules that can be applied to all websites in order to ensure they are optimized for search engine rankings.

Because there are so many micro-factors that affect search performance, people often find SEO mysterious and confusing. I’m here to try and demonstrate that if you faithfully follow Google’s guidance on how to optimize a website, your website will stand a good chance of appearing in the top search results. And the more closely you follow those guidelines, the higher in search your site will appear.

How do I know? Well I started out a few years ago. I built an ecommerce business that had a blog. I was adamant that the information contained on the website would be perfectly tailored to my audience, and over the course of 6 years, published nearly 350 articles written exactly for that audience. Each article was designed to be as helpful and useful as possible, written in clear and friendly way.

Without intending to, I had built a website that was supremely well-optimized for search. At its peak, those 350 blog posts attracted over 45k organic search visitors to the website per month.

There are technical aspects to it, but you might be surprised to learn that SEO can actually be really creative. In fact, the more creative the work that you publish online, the better it is likely to perform in search rankings.

2) How to optimize content for Google Search

When we talk about search these days, we mostly mean Google Search. There are other search engines available, but, Google handles 93% of all internet search queries.

Screenshot of Google search result from FirstSiteGuide illustrating that Google accounts for 93% of search engine market share.

Luckily, Google makes it very clear what factors are important when ranking website within their search algorithm. They’ll never disclose the exact criteria or balance of factors, but they do give us very good guidance on what they’re looking for.

Google’s intentions are clear. This is the mission statement of the entire company:

Screenshot of Google's Mission statement in company branded colors. 'Our mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful'.

In sharing this information with us, Google is telling us – albeit at a high level – what we need to do in order to produce content that will rank well in Search.

If you have nothing else to go on, this single statement tells us a helluva lot about what we need to do to get our websites respected and ranking in Google search:

Let's dig a bit deeper into each of the highlighted words.

Be organized

You need to make it easy for Google to understand your content, in Google’s language.

All that's needed here is to ensure that your site is logically organized and ordered, so that it's easy for visitors to navigate and find what they're looking for.

There’s quite a lot of technical detail that goes into this one from an SEO perspective, which will almost certainly make both you and your Grandma’s eyes glaze over, so I’ll save that for another day and skip onto the next point.

Be informative

The Google Gods deliberately chose ‘information’ here, not ‘content’. They are after facts; reliability, authority, and expertise. It isn’t exclusive to words; it’s data, images, opinions, news: absolutely everything that appears online these days. Another way of looking at this is 'provide value'.

Be accessible to everyone

I love this one.

Google is anti-elitist. From a content point of view, they are looking to promote and recognize content that a layperson can understand.

Regardless of:

  • Money: Google doesn’t index content that is behind a paywall, or that isn’t free to access.

  • Education: they promote content that is written in clear and simple language over content that is written in legalese, is overtly academic or scientific, that only a handful of the population fully understands.

  • Language: Google is looking for well-written material in language that is easily accessible. The more succinct you can make your work, the better. (Personally, I’m still working on this one.)

  • Reading ability: Google prioritizes content that is designed to be welcoming to people who can’t use a computer themselves, so websites that have additional accessibility functionality built in are also prioritized. This is also why ‘alt text’ descriptions of images are so important.

Be useful

Google will look for signals from users of your website about how useful the content they are finding there. They will look at things like: amount of time spent on the site, how easily someone is finding what they’re looking for on your site, how often the content is shared, whether people are transacting on your site, signing up for an email list, and how many publications link to your website from their own websites – and the reputation of those websites is also very important.

So as you can see, even just knowing Google’s mission statement gives us plenty to go on when preparing content to publish online.

Conveniently, Google goes a step further than that, and has shared details of the criteria is considers when ranking a website for search in their EEAT guidelines. (More on this to follow in future.)

3) What is SEO for beginners?

There are a whole host of technical factors that go into SEO. If you’re embarking on a big SEO project, or if SEO is an important part of your marketing strategy, you should definitely have someone perform a technical SEO audit of your entire site.

However, if you’re a regular business owner with a regular website, the most important thing you can do for SEO is to make sure that what you publish on your site is reliable, authoritative, up-to-date, and easy to find.

If you’re completely new to Search Engine Optimization, there are just two pieces of advice I’d give you:

  1. Create exceptional content that answers the questions your audience has and demonstrates your authority and expertise in that area.

  2. Produce lots of it, regularly.

If you’re brand new to SEO, and you don’t have the time or budget to hire someone to help you, I wouldn’t even particularly pay attention to keyword research. Just think about the main pain points your audience has, and write to solve their problems.

This approach might sound controversial, but if you’re writing content for your audience that is relevant and useful, that is more value than targeting a keyword with low difficulty and high search volume, and is more likely to fit in with other strategic business goals.

If you're looking for tips on getting started with SEO, you might find this post useful.

4) Who needs SEO?

All organizations that rely on online marketing to find customers or an audience can benefit from Search Engine Optimization, so as a business owner or digital marketer, it’s important to have some understanding of what it is, what it does, and why it’s important.

SEO is important for any website, but it’s particularly important for the following types of businesses:

  • Local businesses who are active in very specific geographical areas, who are looking to target customers searching for terms like ‘hairdresser near me’ or ‘dentist in Birmingham’.

  • Businesses who rely on search as a way of attracting new customers

  • Businesses whose main revenue is online transactions, e.g. ecommerce stores

  • Businesses who are prioritizing multiple marketing channels, with SEO as one of them.

However, it’s important to also bear in mind that for some businesses, SEO doesn’t need to be a priority.

If you run a business where your main form of client acquisition is through referrals, and you use your website primarily as a window to demonstrate to existing leads what you can do to help them, or if you have no intention of developing an online presence or strategy, SEO probably won't be a priority for you.

5) Can you use AI to improve SEO?

AI is a growing area. As a society, we’re only just learning what it’s capable of, and how to best use it.

When using AI tools for SEO purposes, you need to be really careful that you maintain the same high quality standards that you have when you’re working exclusively with human-generated content. Here's a really great example of how not to use AI.

It’s very tempting to outsource all your writing to ChatGPT, JasperAI or Koala these days, but you need to keep an eagle-sharp eye on the quality of the material that’s being produced. So much AI content that I’ve seen myself – even when it’s been carefully briefed – is, frankly, boring and unoriginal (more on that here).

At the moment, that isn’t a problem, because a lot of content is being generated not to replace existing good content, but to answer search queries for which, until now, there was no perfect answer. Google’s priority is always to provide the best answer to a given search query, regardless of whether it’s ai-generated.

But over time, I suspect this may change. Your audience, and Google, are always looking for original thought and ideas. They aren’t looking for a regurgitation of ideas they’ve previously read elsewhere (which is all ai-generated content is capable of producing at the moment). Over time, originality and lived experience will win out.So anyone creating a website who wants to futureproof the content should be very careful when publishing content that is AI-generated. I currently don’t publish anything that is AI-generated, either for myself or my clients.

Having said all of that, there are some really great ways you can use AI to help improve your SEO these days, even without hiring an expert, and without actually publishing any ai-generated content on your website.

Use AI to improve SEO by:

  • Brainstorming ideas

  • Creating a content calendar

  • Generating the rough outline of an article

  • Rewriting paragraphs that just aren’t working for you (and then re-editing them)

  • Generate Metatitles and Metadescriptions

  • Generating alt text for images

  • Generating descriptions for video

  • Generating a summary of an article for use elsewhere in marketing.

  • Generating a social media post based on a blog article.

And of course there are loads more.

All of these bullet points come with big caveats, of course: you have to brief the AI in a smart way to start with, in line with your business goals and values, and you always have to have a filter over the top, asking yourself ‘does this make sense in this context’?

I find I have to be especially vigilant when generating Metatitles and Metadescriptions, as there’s a fine balance to be struck between summarizing the article in an accurate and useful way vs what will encourage someone to click on the article in the first place.

In Summary

So hopefully that gives you a better idea of what Search Engine Optimization is, and how it can help you and your business.

Better still, you might just about be able to explain to your Golden Oldies what Search Engine Optimization is. Anyway, shouldn't we all be doing our bit to educate our silver surfer friends and family members?

Portrait photo of Claire Ransom

My name's Claire and I’m an SEO and content strategy expert. I help startups and ambitious businesses improve their content, so that customers can find your website in search, and so that when they do, they convert.

I’m a former startup CEO, and I’ve worked for some of the world’s biggest publishers (Penguin Random House, Oxford University Press), as well as training with Google's in-house SEO team. I even built a website to attract 45k in organic search visitors/month. Drop me a line if you need help of any kind with SEO and content.


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