SEO is an abbreviation for “search engine optimization,” a business technique for ensuring that a website places high in search engine results. This increases traffic to the website and, often, revenue for the related company. An SEO professional is a person trained to facilitate this process. There are numerous techniques for increasing search engine optimization, most ethical, but some less so. SEO can also stand for “search engine optimizer,” another name for an SEO professional.
The Internet, originally designed for academic and government use, expanded into commercial activity in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, the explosive growth in web pages resulted in the first search engines, websites specifically designed to locate particular pages for Internet users. Soon, the sheer volume of web traffic made even search engine results overwhelmingly long. Software engineers developed ways to bring websites to the top of these result pages, increasing traffic to those sites. The phrase “search engine optimization” was first used in 1997, and it soon developed wide currency.
The advent of Google® in 1998 changed the search engine process, offering new challenges to the SEO professional. Google®’s unique software essentially ranks websites according to their relevance to a given search phrase, rather than seeking related words and phrases in the websites themselves. Since SEO techniques of the time focused on these phrases, called keywords, SEO professionals had to rework their methods. Google® and similar search engines jealously guarded the calculations, or algorithms, employed by their software. Eventually, search engines began working with SEO companies, providing guidelines and suggested practices, although specific algorithms are still trade secrets.
The SEO professional uses a variety of methods to elevate a website in a search engine’s rankings. Keywords are still important, as well as other elements of a page’s content and its code, the programming used to design the page. Some methods involve simple marketing, such as knowing which search engines people are most likely to use. The habits of Internet users are also vital: what people are searching for, and how they are likely to word the search. Increasing the number of sites that link to a particular site also adds weight to its showing in search engine pages.
There is a code of ethics that guides the behavior of the SEO professional. In the SEO trade, those who abide by these ethics are called “white hats,” while those who use unethical practices are called “black hats.” The terms refer to old Hollywood Westerns, where hats were sometimes used to distinguish heroes from villains in fight scenes. Unethical behavior includes deceptive page and code design and unfairly manipulating search algorithms, a practice called “spamdexing.” These techniques can briefly create the desired effect, but will usually result in search engines banning not only the website, but also the related SEO professional or company.