These days, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has taken on many interesting meanings. What was once a cut-and-dry term, SEO has transformed into an umbrella-concept. SEO is now used to describe a number of specific disciplines such as search engine marketing, onsite optimization, and social media marketing. SEO doesn’t have one clear-cut meaning anymore. In fact, SEO has transformed so much over the last few years that the term’s meaning changes depending on the client, the agency, and whomever else you ask. For business leaders, SEO is thought of as the magical solution to lagging sales and revenue streams. For SEO agencies, the language used dictates the service offered. Most of the time, what the client wants is different than what the agency truly offers. In order to clear up this language barrier, we must start with a primer.

Discovery Starts with Context.

The demystification of SEO begins with a basic understanding of its descriptive contextual terminology. SEO is the process of optimizing a website for search engines. Namely, this references “on-site” optimization. Depending on your needs, there are hundreds of metrics that can be used to measure a website’s optimization level. The main areas involve keyword focus, images, video, text, titles, meta information, and a few others. A great list of on-site optimization metrics can be found on Moz’s Web Developer’s Cheat Sheet.

Naturally, where there is “on-site” optimization there is also “off-site” optimization. “Off-site” refers to the websites that serve or link to your content. Things like social media channels and review sites should be optimized for search engines.

“Search engine marketing,” or the process of “marketing” a website for search engines, is another common term. This is a catch-all term. When most people refer to SEO, they really mean a mixture of three disciplines: offsite optimization, onsite optimization, and search engine marketing. This is essentially the way their site can be “found” when people are searching online.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, there are also different types of SEO to consider—local SEO, organic SEO, and paid SEO. Local SEO produces ranking in map results or in the local results section. Currently (as of 3/22/16) this section is usually just under the paid advertising results section. These results are typically seen when a keyword + location are typed into a search query. For example: “Austin eyewear”.

Organic SEO consists of a long list of results that contain the keywords you are targeting. Usually, this is the section most people try to rank for when they need SEO services. These results tend to have the strongest level of competition and also the most staying power.

Finally, there is paid SEO or paid promotion results. These are relevant ads placed by both agencies and businesses. As with most paid campaigns, these results are almost immediate but do require paying per click or impression.

For the client, the client’s agency, and other professionals, the most important question is “Which SEO type should I use?” The answer to that depends on several different factors, all of which can be confusing at times. In general, you can determine what SEO type is best for you by looking at some basic marketing data: target audience, business model, sales cycle, and most importantly, how much of a true impact the SEO-type you choose has on the business.

In purpose lies relevancy.

SEO is a not just a service. It’s an constant process that continually improves upon itself to deliver the best possible results. Success that is measured based on these results should be relevant to business objectives. Those objectives almost always revolve around financial interests or the true purpose of SEO. For most organizations, if SEO doesn’t deliver financial impact, it is typically a wasted investment. This philosophy creates a giant chasm in digital marketing—selling SEO as a scalable service vs. selling SEO as part of a cohesive marketing strategy. For agencies, these two methodologies could not be further apart and most clients don’t understand the true difference.

Many agencies tend to sell SEO as a scalable service under a volume-based model. There are several downsides to this approach, most of which hurt client relationships. The damage to the client is often due to the absence of any true guidance or help from agencies. Clients have questions. They don’t always understand many of the technical aspects of SEO and require continuous education to understand the full scope of their strategy. When a client doesn’t understand the true purpose of SEO and leads aren’t being generated, the client’s frustration and relationship friction build. When phone calls, emails, and questions go unanswered, the client becomes exasperated because of poor service. This is what the industry calls a classic “churn and burn.”

Instead of leaving clients to fend for themselves, agencies must understand that they are asking for guidance on how SEO is relevant to their specific needs. Guidance is the true difference between the scalable vs. cohesive methodologies. Most clients want to be the decision makers, but they also want to be informed ones. It’s imperative that clients let agencies know what they want the SEO to do for their organization. Likewise, agencies should utilize strategies and methodologies that are relevant to delivering results.

Clients guide agencies and agencies guide clients; an iterative process. True guidance shapes overall strategy and key performance indicators (KPIs). These indicators are more than secondary metrics. For clients, they serve as guiding lights in a dark world. As these client-chosen metrics are slowly met, clients gain clarity and confidence on their path towards competitive dominance in the world of SEO.

The journey requires patience.

Achieving top rankings in organic SEO, unlike pay-per-click and, at times, even local SEO, takes time. Unfortunately, the journey from competing to domination is not guaranteed nor is it an overnight process. In fact, reliable results can take months to achieve, if at all. Patience is not solely a client attribute. It also encompasses the often looked-over craftsmanship that goes into agency work. Craftsmanship, or the dedication to best practice, is often squandered in the SEO world in exchange for short term gains. Unfortunately, these short term gains can cost long term penalties.

The sneaky tactics used by agencies for these unsubstantial short-term gains may vary, but they are easily seen in the wild—private blog networks (and all its variations), paid link schemes, article directories, and automated programs. Fortunately, Google has targeted these tactics through updates to their platform, which has helped eliminate them. But there are still some that linger. Some go beyond masking their ip addresses, whois records, and other identifying information. This allows them to continue black-hat and grey-area tactics, like renting out links or posing as industry/subject matter experts.

Why use these tactics? Why sell SEO with no regard of the true relevance of the keywords? Is it worth the risk to reputation or to the client’s bottom line? Most ethical agencies and clients would say no. The answer may lie somewhere between small client budgets an agency’s poor business decisions. To the dismay of many in the industry, blame cannot be placed on small client budgets, but rather on poor business decisions made by agencies. Firstly, if a client cannot afford to run a SEO campaign according to best practice, then SEO may not be the best fit for their current marketing needs. Secondly, selling SEO purely for profit without regard to client needs is not only ignorant, but also unethical. Finally, cynical sellouts may disagree, but best practice means meetings with clients, supplying timely reports, and consistent and genuine enthusiasm for client’s success. Not shortcuts.

Go Boldly Forward.

The philosophy behind craftsmanship is to be truly dedicated to clients, the industry, and ourselves. As the looming death of traditional SEO approaches, we professionals should dedicate ourselves to our clients by showing up every month, picking up the phone, surprising them with coffee, working late, and whatever else it takes to show them that we are along for the ride. We are right there with you, and we have your back. We do this for the industry by following best practice guidelines and telling honest truths where others may lie. Lastly, we do this for ourselves by constantly improving upon the best of our abilities through continual education, taking on new projects, learning the latest strategies, and navigating new technology. SEO is constantly changing, but agencies focused on guiding clients beyond mere rankings and revenue goals will thrive. Agencies that do not adopt this trend will certainly find themselves looking for new clients in the near future. While, the true primer to SEO can be found within agencies that hold these values self-evident.