Scrabble pieces on a dark wood table spelling "what is SEO".

What Is SEO and Why Does it Matter?

Everyone thinks social media is the biggest part of digital marketing, but they’re dead wrong. It only accounts for 3-8% of traffic for most websites, and it doesn’t convert all that well, either. SEO matters much more, especially for service-based businesses. But what is SEO and why does it matter?

I thought you’d never ask.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. It’s the practice of attracting traffic to your website from search engines—predominantly Google in English-speaking countries. The major search engines of the world include:

  • Google (anglophone countries and western Europe)
  • Yandex (Russia and parts of Eastern Europe)
  • Baidu (predominantly active in China)

Logos of the 3 biggest international search engines, including Google, Yandex, and Baidu.

There are several other search engines in the English-speaking world that aren’t as popular as Google, too.

  • DuckDuckGo (doesn’t use personal data at all)
  • Bing (Microsoft)
  • Yahoo!

3 English-language search engines including DuckDuckGo, Bing, and Yahoo!

People perform hundreds of millions of searches every day. Google connects the intent and subject matter of those searches with answers somewhere on the web. SEO helps you gain prominence in the search results for the searches most relevant to your website (and your business).

How SEO Works

SEO is comprised of 4 key pillars that play a role in showing search engines that your website is authoritative and reliable as a source of information or commercial intent on the web.

Those 4 pillars include:

  1. On-Page SEO
  2. Off-Page SEO
  3. Technical SEO
  4. Local SEO

Certain SEO professionals may only cite 3 pillars, leaving out local SEO (it’s the newest one) or folding the technical aspect into on-page SEO, but, generally speaking, service-based based businesses need to pay attention to all of them in order to succeed.

On-Page SEO: These optimizations are made on the front end of the website, usually on a page-by-page basis. They include factors like keywords, header implementation, alt text, and image optimization. Most of this—if not all—can be done from within WordPress. For example, implementing the focus keyword on this blog, being “what is SEO and why does it matter” would be an example of on-page SEO.

Off-Page SEO: Off-page SEO involves factors from elsewhere on the web that point to your website. The single largest factor of this pillar would be the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing toward your website. Modern search engines use links as citations for authority. Signals from social media have a small effect too, but that’s not worth chasing.

Technical SEO: Technical SEO involves the technological efficiency of your website. This includes setting up a good hosting service, using a theme with solid performance (for WordPress sites), and website speed optimization. You’d usually set this up once and then invest minimal maintenance time once in a while to keep everything running smoothly.

Local SEO: The newest to the SEO scene, local SEO involves signals that help people find you through Google Maps, voice search (where appropriate), and regular searches about location or proximity (e.g. “gas stations near me”). It also touches on Google My Business heavily, relying on Google reviews to decide if your business is worth showing to searchers.

Answering what is SEO and why does it matter by illustrating 4 pillars of SEO, including on-page, off-page, technical, and local factors.

Content is King

While there are 4 pillars to modern search engine optimization, it needs to be said that most of those factors rely on content or underpin it. Google can’t rank your website if there’s nothing there, after all.

Local SEO doesn’t always need content to succeed, but it sure helps. Studies have shown that locally oriented content accounts for 13%-26% of local ranking factors, depending on the format of the results.

Even off-page SEO relies on content. You can’t convince people to link toward your website if it doesn’t have anything interesting, useful, or worthwhile to share. Just look at the link I used in the previous paragraph; if that website hadn’t provided a breakdown of local SEO factors, I wouldn’t have linked to it. People only link to content, effectively making it a prerequisite for off-page SEO to work.

In short: content is the glue that holds it all together.

  • Customers trust your brand through content.
  • Google crawls pages to evaluate content.
  • Other website owners only link to content.

When we ask what is SEO and why does it matter, we need to keep in mind that most of it enables content to become our biggest marketing asset. It’s how you answer customers’ questions and earn their trust. For all of the technical work that goes into SEO, content is the raw material that SEO sculpts into your traffic engine.

That’s why content marketing and SEO are joined at the hip.

What Is Local SEO and Why Does it Matter?

Local SEO is the art and science of getting your business listed prominently in the search results for users close in proximity.

It applies most famously to restaurants and coffee shops because they have fixed locations, but in truth it can apply to most kinds of businesses on some level. That’s because most businesses cover a given “service area” that may cover a neighbourhood, a city, a province, or even an entire country—even if there’s no physical store front for customers to visit.

Google Maps on a smartphone displaying local SEO listings.

With that in mind, what is local SEO going to look like in practice? Moz and Whitespark wrote a great breakdown of it, but we’ve summarized the key takeaways here.

  • Appearances in the “local pack” of top three results, or close to it
  • Appearing on Google Maps
  • Getting positive reviews on Google My Business
  • Posting on Google My Business

Pie chart answering what is local SEO and outlining top 8 factors with weighted per cent.

Google wants to deliver the most relevant results featuring the most active businesses in the shortest amount of time (within a given area). Playing to that will take you far in your service area.

 Last Tip: Stay Away From Blackhat SEO

Blackhat SEO is the elephant graveyard of search engine marketing, encompassing everything that you shouldn’t do. This practice uses shady and unethical means to achieve short-term gains that carry big penalties—including de-indexing your website from the search results entirely.

You don’t want that to happen to your business.

Blackhat tactics game the system in a decisively unfair way, and usually end up backfiring in the mid and long terms for several reasons:

  • They produce “results” so quickly that Google flags those results as suspicious, possibly even putting an automatic ban on your site.
  • Google catches up to blackhat tactics pretty quickly, often rendering them ineffective within a year or two.
  • They are liabilities waiting to happen with penalties that can far outweigh the potential benefits of quick wins.

Identifying the 4 most common blackhat SEO tactics in order to avoid them.

Old blackhat tactics that no longer work include things like:

  • Keyword spamming.
  • Buying backlinks.
  • Automatic and/or excessive article directory submissions.
  • Building closed link networks (sometimes called “link farms).

Stay away from anything in SEO that sounds too good to be true, because it probably is.


That wraps up our session exploring what SEO is and why it matters. That’s just the overview, though. If you’re serious about growing your website traffic then I suggest reading some of the suggestions below.

Happy hunting, folks!

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Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Andrew is a content designer, UX writer, and content strategist with SEO chops. He has worked in UX and marketing for companies like Shopify and Meta, but he also runs the Webb Content consulting brand.

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