Search Engine Optimization Terminology Explained

By Wolfgang Jaegel and Gregory Smyth

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is becoming increasingly important in online marketing. In September 2006, a survey by MarketingSherpa identified SEO as the most cost-effective tool used by marketers in the USA.

Search Engine Optimization covers a wide range of activities, all of which share a common goal: increasing an organization's online return on investment. At first glance, SEO terminology may seem perplexing. Here I try to explain some basic SEO terms, without going too much into the technical nitty-gritty of how SEO actually works.

So, without any further ado, let's get into some definitions.

Search engine - A search engine helps users find web pages on a given subject. Search engines maintain an extensive database of websites from which they draw search results. They use automated programs known as "spiders" to collect information on websites.

Major search engines - For the purposes of this article, a major search engine means Google, Yahoo and MSN. Between them, these three search engines account for 85% of all search traffic.

Algorithm - An algorithm is a set of detailed instructions for accomplishing a task by proceeding through a series of well-defined successive stages. Search engines use algorithms to assign quality scores and rankings to websites. Algorithms can be extremely complex (Google looks at more than 200 variables) and are closely guarded by each search engine.

Organic search - Organic search refers to the results on the left-hand side of the page when you search for a specific key phrase on a search engine. Organizations do not pay for organic search listings, but are assigned by search engines based on a wide range of criteria. Organic search results typically account for 80-90% of all click-throughs from a search results page.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) - A range of integrated techniques with the goal of securing higher organic search rankings on the major search engines for targeted key phrases. SEO is made up of on-site and off-site optimization tasks.

On-site optimization - Tasks carried out on the website being optimized to ensure that the website can be readily indexed by search engines. This includes website usability (design conventions, information architecture, load speeds, etc.), code structure, directory and file structure, keyword density and proximity and W3C compliance. On-site optimization is predominantly a one-time task and represents approximately 25% of a website’s quality score.

Off-site optimization - Tasks executed outside the website being optimized, in particular the building of in-bound links from relevant third-party websites and portals, submissions to third-party directions and content syndication via Web 2.0 channels. Off-site optimization is an ongoing task and it must be kept up if high listings are to be retained (competitors will be doing it too!). Off-site optimization represents approximately 75% of the overall website quality score.

Key phrase - A search term made up of one or more words that a user inputs into a search engine.

Generic key phrase - A key phrase that is not well defined and yields a very high number of non-specific results. An example would be "Hong Kong hotel".

Specific key phrase - A well-defined key phrase that yields a smaller number of specific results. An example would be "5-star hotel Kowloon". Specific key phrases typically result in better conversion rates as the traffic they send is better qualified.

Key phrase position - The position a particular key phrase occupies on a search engine results page. Typically, the first 10 key phrase positions appear on the first results page.

Key phrase movement - The number of positions up or down a key phrase moves on a search engine within a given timeframe.

Link-building - The building of quality in-bound links from authoritative websites and portals. This is largely achieved through "link bait", which means creating content that is so compelling that other websites can't resist linking to you.

Third-party directories - Directory sites that charge a fee for listings. Search Engines look for inclusions in third-party directories to assess the seriousness of a website. If your website is listed in, for example, Yahoo Directory and Best of the Web, search engines will assume it is more serious.

Content syndication - The syndication of content (e.g. press releases and articles) through relevant third-party websites and Web 2.0 channels. Content syndication can help raise a website's profile and secure higher Search Engine listings.

Web 2.0 - There is no simple definition for Web 2.0. Broadly put, it is a paradigm shift in the way the internet is used. Web 2.0 involves a more open approach to the internet, in particular user-generated content, blogs, podcasts, social media, review sites, Wikipedia, etc.

Meta tags - Meta elements such as description and keywords that provide information about web pages, usually to help search engines categorize pages. Meta tags are inserted into the HTML code, but are not visible to website visitors. Search engines no longer give much positive weighting to Meta tags when assessing a site, but they will penalize a site that has improperly formatted or absent meta tags.

White space - Gaps in a website's code that have no purpose and increase file size. Search engines take a negative view of white space.

Deep pages - Pages that take four or more clicks to access from the home page. Deep pages have a negative effect on a website's quality score.

Broken link - A link that points to another page or server that is permanently unavailable. Broken links are indicative of poor website usability and will be penalized by search engines.

W3C - The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the Internet. Complying with W3C standards is voluntary, but failing to do so can result in serious penalties from the major search engines.

"White Hat" - The name given to ethical Search Engine Optimization techniques that will not be penalized by search engines and that will be of long-term benefit to a website.