Unpacking SEO: An insider’s look at search engine optimization


Search engine optimization, aka SEO, is emerging as one of the most-important tools in a modern marketer’s arsenal. Yet, it remains largely opaque to those outside of the industry.

To help the broader community understand this often misunderstood niche, local digital marketer Jason Dodge, founder of Black Truck Media + Marketing, and I have interviewed one another, exploring perspectives on SEO basics and the industry’s ever-shifting landscape.

SEO panel

More industry-insider discussion can be found at the American Marketing Association of West Michigan’s luncheon on Thursday, March 10, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The SEO Smackdown panel discussion will feature industry specialists Dodge, Mike Wolf, Mike Buczek and Sarah Mackenzie. The luncheon will be held at Calvin College’s Prince Conference Center. People can register online.

What is SEO?

Marjorie: Tell us your layperson’s elevator pitch for what exactly SEO is.

Jason: We don't build websites. We make them better for search engines and humans to find and interact with.

In the end, it's the improvement of a website to potentially increase the traffic generated from search engines and human interaction.

How about you — from a content-marketer perspective, what is SEO to you?

Marjorie: In the end, SEO is all about creating great content and sharing it with the right audiences. Relevant, interesting, valuable content has always been a marketer’s best tool for building a brand with which audiences will connect. Google places high value on good content because audiences do.

In a way, SEO has evolved into a highly specialized form of PR. The only difference is that one of your biggest audiences isn’t a demographic — it’s Google’s algorithms.

SEO and industry relevancy

Marjorie: Are there certain industries for which SEO is more important than others? Are there any industries that don’t have to worry about SEO?

Jason: I tend to be in the boat of industry-agnostic folks and firmly believe that if you have a web presence, someone is searching for what it is that you do. Why not take steps toward improving that visibility? I have yet run into an industry that would not benefit from an SEO strategy. Paid search traffic could be argued the other way.

Link building’s shifting landscape

Marjorie: Can you explain what link building is? How has it changed over the years?

Jason: As the infamous quote goes, "The Internet is a series of tubes." Those tubes are links. They're links between sites, search engines, social networks, etc. Link building is the practice of seeking out other websites to link into your website. Also known as inbound or backlinks.

If you want to break it down, it's a popularity contest. If you're liked and found relevant on a particular topic, you gain links, increase your popularity and thus increase rank.

Link building has changed dramatically over the past few years. It used to be commonplace to go out, seek other sites out, do link exchanges or get engaged into link wheels and link farms. In essence, you were trading links. I link to your site. You link to my site. More of a game of whoever had the most links into their site won.

In addition, anchor text, or the text that was used to link into your site from another site, was an area most often gamed. So if I wanted to be known as “West Michigan's top SEO firm,” I might use that text and link into my website. Not so much anymore.

Much of what was and worked two years ago, no longer does.

Marjorie: Should companies still be doing link building? Is there a good way to build links?

Jason: Certainly, but I believe in a more conservative approach. Know who is relevant to your business and how you benefit from that inbound source. Also, the anchor text being used needs to be more in line with your brand and/or domain instead. No more “West Michigan's top SEO firm.” Instead, it's a brand mention or physical use of your URL.

As you say, it’s all about content. Are you writing truly remarkable content that people find of value, want to share across their channels, potentially mention you on their site and link to you?

Hiring a professional SEO

Jason: Can I do my own SEO, or should I hire a professional?

Marjorie: I wouldn’t recommend an average business owner or in-house staff do their own SEO any more than my auto repair shop would recommend I fix my own fuel injector. It’s not that it’s incredibly difficult, but it is highly specialized work. Because many people don’t understand SEO, or, even worse, they think it’s still about spamming keyword tags and link farms. They think they can hack SEO. That’s a recipe for a mess.

Hiring an SEO professional will save in-house staff’s time from being wasted and will make sure the job gets done right. In the end, it’s a far better investment.

Jason: If I hire a professional, what should I be asking them or looking for?

Marjorie: A track record and a commitment to adhering to current best practices. It’s getting much harder for the snakeoil SEOs to gain traction, because SEO is increasingly quality reliant, but, unfortunately, there are still plenty of them out there.

Before you hire an SEO, you want to see proof of previously successful campaigns. You want to hear about how they’re staying up to date on algorithm changes. And you want to know their underlying philosophy. Are they white hat? Or do they take shortcuts?

Look for solid recommendations on LinkedIn and ask about past clients. A good SEO will leave a trail of happy clients and good results. 

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