Man at computer

What is SEO?: A Philosophical Take

By now we are all aware of the basic principles of SEO, and a good deal of us understand that search is a critical channel in some way for every business. But, if you had to explain what goes into SEO, do you think you could do it? If you could do it, do you think an SEO professional would agree with your description? Ultimately, the more you know about SEO, the better your marketing becomes because you’re able to direct content creation with stronger purpose and get all of your teams speaking the same language (literally and spiritually.) So, what is search engine optimization, really?

Is SEO all about keywords? Is SEO just about having a pretty website? Can I just pepper in some meta descriptions, headers, title tags, schema, and my site will suddenly skyrocket to the first page?

Well, no, maybe not, but it can definitely help. However, SEO is not an exact science and no amount of SEO keyword pixie dust is going to be able to get you ranking for a competitive term when your content isn’t relevant to it.

Conversely, if you created a phenomenal piece of content that brought in a colossal amount of traffic, but you still didn’t gain any clients from it, did you really win anything? Did that ranking and traffic happen mostly by accident?

You see, SEO is a complicated, fickle beast and there is a whole bevy of bad information out there on it. There are also a ton of companies that will try and assure you they have the skills nobody else has that will garner instant, overnight results. (Spoiler alert: they don’t. And given enough time, bad practices could get your site de-listed from Google altogether.)

So, what exactly is SEO other than a crapshoot affair? Well…it’s a lot like really good jazz. Complex and inaccessible for some; intriguing and accessible for others.

Now, rather than spending an exorbitant amount of time data dumping about how search engines operate, or what SEO terms you need to get to know, or how Google’s ever-changing algorithms work, it might be best to first focus on one thing that has been constant about SEO…the user’s intent.

Create for users, not for search engines. Google looks to you and me to tell them what should rank. Satisfying users is the new (and old) satisfying the search engine. Google is just DYING to give people all of the best, most comprehensive, unique, useful, data-backed, trusted, and relevant content that it possibly can. It’s not trying to get your company to manipulate its results.

Homer Simpson Thinking

What is SEO?

Well, the textbook definition of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is that it is the practice and effort of optimizing a website so that it ranks higher in search engine results, with an end goal of generating good quantity and quality organic traffic.

So, there you have it. Everything is as clear as an unmuddied lake now, right? Yeah, we didn’t think so.

SEO is an easy thing to overthink and overcomplicate. Let’s try to avoid that here.

How Does SEO Work?

Google (and probably Bing and DuckDuckGo) only cares about one thing: Getting the right answer to the query, right away. Our philosophy at 4B when it comes to search is to always provide the best answer to the terms we want our clients to rank for.

Using their complex, secret, and heavily guarded formula, Google reviews and re-reviews the web at a massive scale, then it attempts to categorize pages and sites as answers to questions people may be asking. It attempts to prioritize the most relevant content for a user’s search from what is easily the largest and most up to date index in the world.

Sure, Google’s algorithm can at times seem more enigmatic than KFC’s recipe for their herbs and spices, but what we do know is that Google will rank websites and web pages based on their relevance, authority, and usefulness.

How does one create a webpage that aligns with a user’s search intent? By utilizing the vast array of SEO tools and research, of course!

Sure, the benefits of on-page SEO, such as targeted keywords, title tags, header tags (H1, H2, H3s etc.) image tags, internal linking, schema, rich snippets, and accelerated mobile pages can help your site immensely when it comes to crawlability. But what good is any of this if you aren’t answering the questions people are asking?

If a page is well SEO’d but a user never looks for it, does the page even exist?

When it comes to the best practices of on-page SEO, content is king! Creating high-quality content that’s optimized around specific key ideas is fundamental to good SEO.

It’s good practice to choose key queries (searches) you want to rank for on Google, but also make sure that you are doing the research to ensure that you are answering questions about your product or service that are actually being asked. Search your competition to see what high volume terms they are ranking for and make sure you’re attempting to get a share of voice in those searches, too (SEMrush* is a great tool for seeing what your competition is doing), and make sure your content covers the topic in full and that you are covering ALL the things users might be searching for around the subject of any given page. Never stop working on content and remember QUALITY is better than quantity. 1,500 boring and irrelevant words don’t have the power of 300 words that are helpful to the visitor.

Final Note

John Coltrane Thinking With Saxophone

Great SEO’s are artists and I say that with no shame. We here at 4B aspire to be the John Coltranes of SEO, because as I mentioned earlier, SEO is like jazz. It can be complex, nuanced, and daunting to the point where people feel it is over the audience’s head. It can be mathematical and labored with technique and skill. But it can also be an improvised, artistic thing of beauty, brimming with masterful flourishes where the rhythm could (and it usually does) change at the drop of a hat. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, in order for it to work, it has to be pleasurable and speak to people. And, like jazz, not all SEO is good.

*-We love and use SEMRush. It’s an authentic endorsement by 4B of their product. We also want to be transparent that the link to their site is an affiliate link.

Reading a marketing book

Marketing is Actually a Subset of Digital Marketing...

…Or at least I am fairly certain it is. Look, I know what you’re thinking…in this day and age, it seems to be fashionable to make bold, outlandish statements that can be easily proven false. Attention is the new currency, and it can be a totally manipulative hack to grab your attention by simply making a BS claim just to earn a click. Well, let me assure you that my intentions in this article are just, and I ask that you give me a few minutes of your day so that I can make the case that marketing is, in FACT, a subset of digital marketing and not the reverse. Now is this a hill I want to die on? Eh, probably not, but at least hear me out.

Digital Distribution is Generally a Critical Component

Okay, let’s start with the basics. (Cue cheesy 70s public information film music) The dictionary defines marketing as, “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” Digital marketing is basically any form of marketing that exists online. You’re probably thinking, “well, doesn’t that make digital marketing a subset of marketing then?” You would think so. But let’s dig a little deeper and think about marketing prior to the digital age.

Ever since the first commercial aired for a watch in 1941, the ideal marketing mediums for decades had been tools like billboards, flyers, radio and television commercials, or ads in magazines and newspapers. These were some of the primary methods when I was a kid back in the totally radical 80s of the last century.  Who could forget such advertising gems like Wendy’s, “Where’s the Beef?” catchphrase or Domino’s Avoid the Noid campaign? And don’t even get me started on those Motown-singing California raisins! Pure genius! But while these 80s pop culture footnotes were everywhere and being repeated at work or on the playground ad nauseam, the companies churning them out had to be relatively in the dark when it came to understanding their return on investments. Within these distribution channels, segmentation of your audience was fairly sophisticated given how basic these mediums were. Want to engage unemployed people? Run ads for your trade college during Price Is Right. Want to sell Jane Fonda aerobics videos to moms? Run your message on a commercial break for ThirtySomething. Trying to sell Dad a new home computer? Get that ad in the evening edition of the paper. That’s not even considering segmenting by geographics.

There is a massive advantage digital mediums have over traditional mediums; digital can be inbound and targeted in places where everyone is already spending a disproportionate amount of time…online. We have a working generation that grew up without newspapers and the next generation joining the workforce grew up without over-the-air or cable television. These are your audiences and their analog experience is generally secondary to their digital experience.

Let’s take a look at Facebook as an example. Facebook isn’t simply a tool used explicitly to connect old casual acquaintances and weaken democracy (heavy sigh); it’s a platform where businesses hire marketers to target and tap into prospective consumers. Go ahead, log into your Facebook account right now, take a look at the first ten things that pop up into your feed and chances are, somewhere nestled in between the memes, the misinformation and the minutiae of your elementary chum’s everyday life, you will see targeted ads that are tailored specifically for you! Based on how you react to certain posts and behave on websites that you’ve visited, Facebook is able to pinpoint your interests accurately and deliver ads that you are most likely to engage with.

Digital Marketing Is More Than Just Message Distribution

With message distribution based on the audience’s affinities and behaviors rather than being based on the broad preferences of the platform’s users, businesses are able to affordably get the maximum return on their ad spend using reporting, tracking, monitoring, and analysis. In this case, Facebook’s AI is likely doing some of the marketing for the marketer, attempting to learn from the audience who’ve seen and been active with a brand’s ad(s) to extract better results from the campaigns.

Facebook is merely a single example and if you’re a marketer you probably already know that. Thanks to our modern abilities to house, manage, and leverage the insane amounts of information about any given American and their behaviors, marketers can use these digital platforms to communicate finely-tuned, personalized messages to our audiences where and when they are most likely to act on them.

It will probably escalate, too. What if every digital billboard changed on your way home, precisely when you approached it, to remind you that it’s been a couple of weeks since your last Arby’s Beef N Cheddar? And you’re going to get that ad because the marketer already knows when, where, and how many times you need to see that messaging before you take action.  That future seen in Minority Report is probably coming, or is it already here?

Now when you are propagating a message that isn’t easily measured or cannot be measured at all, is that really marketing? It kind of sounds just like advertising (and there IS a difference between marketing and advertising, but that is a subject for another time.) Just like traditional marketing, digital marketing is entirely data-driven; it’s all about measuring the research and optimization of a message. Chances are pretty likely that you’re not getting any solid marketing feedback without it being viewed as a digital measurement.

There’s a simple, sure-fire way of measuring whether or not your business’ advertising, PR and marketing programs are even effective and that measurement is basically this: are you making more money or not?

Of course, this bottom line is really only evident at the end of the journey and in order to arrive at this destination there is a long, hard road you must travel. Have you ever seen one of those “iceberg illusion” graphics that vacationing celebs love to post on their Instagram page? You know, the ones where there are two parts to the iceberg: what people see (the tip of the iceberg above the surface) and what people don’t see (the giant mass just below the surface.) Well, marketing is much like that iceberg: the small tip represents the profits, and that giant mass just below the surface represents all of the strategies that were put into it. A healthy bottom line is, of course, the raison d’être of any business, but in order to get there, you have to put in a lot of hard work, persistence, dedication and other iceberg illusion buzzwords.

If you’re sending postcards, are you making sure your site is getting visits from the zip codes you sent the postcards to? Are you tracking calls from a unique number that exists only on that postcard? Are your branded searches increasing on Google and Bing? Is your click-thru rate increasing on non-branded searches?  Let’s face it, it is next to impossible to prove the value of your hard efforts when you are still in the dark ages of marketing. The emergence of digital measurement has caused archaic methods of untraceable marketing to go the way of the town crier in a tricorn hat. If you aren’t tracking at least some of these digital metrics, it’s likely you aren’t measuring the important key progress indicators, and, in fact, aren’t actually doing marketing. You’re probably doing advertising on par with sign twirling and crossing your fingers, hoping that it’s effective. Hope is a fantastic campaign slogan for effective leaders, but it is NOT a marketing plan.

Aren’t The Research Tools of Yesteryear Still Marketing?

Cocoaine vintage adOf course they are, but many of those libraries and focus groups and much of that front end research are experienced online. Unless, Science forbid, the world has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic society where the remnants of humanity live in a dystopian wasteland without internet and computers, marketing technology will continue to advance and evolve with great leaps and bounds. We’ve come a long way from the days of full-page ads for Burnett’s Cocoaine hair tonic in The Saturday Evening Post, or biplanes scrawling out a message in the sky to buy Lucky Strike cigarettes. Nowadays, in the post-digital revolution world where just about everything is done online, there is virtually no separation between marketing and digital marketing.

Your audience data collection, research, distribution, and measurement are probably all taking place in a digital space because they simply must. Marketing IS digital marketing.

Well, there you have it. I think I have done an adequate job making the case that marketing is a subset of digital marketing, even if it was just by stating that marketing has come out of the dark ages and into the age of enlightenment. Now I’m curious…what are your opinions on the matter? Agree? Disagree? 

Forest sunlight

The Meaning of Life

Inspirational quotes usually strike me as aspirational porn, fairly meaningless aside from momentarily revving you up, relied upon by people who are aiming present a facade that masks their terror. Sorry if you’re one of those people. I truly hope you live, laugh, and love.

Now, here’s where I whip out something wonderful I heard yesterday at precisely the right time in my existence. I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast interview with Chip Conley and quite early in the episode they said:


“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso, depending on who you ask.

This has it’s own very personal impact for me. I hope it finds its way to holding meaning for you, too.