“SEO” (==”Search Engine Optimization”) is a term widely used to mean “getting users to your site via organic search traffic.” I don’t like the term at all. For one thing, it’s been frequently associated with illicit techniques like link trading and search engine spamming. It is also associated with consultants who don’t do much beyond very basic stuff your own developers should be able to do. But the most pernicious aspect to the phrase is that the word “optimization” suggests that SEO is a finishing touch, something you bolt on, instead of central to the design and development of your site. Unfortunately, I think the term is so widespread that we are stuck with it.
SEO is extremely important because normal users – those who don’t live and breath technology – only type a few of their favorite websites directly into the URL bar and for everything else go to search engines, most likely Google*. In the 90s, people talked a lot about “home pages” and “site flow.” This matters if you are getting most of your traffic from people typing in your URL directly. For most startups, however, this isn’t the case, at least for the first few years. Instead, the flow you should be thinking about is users going to Google, typing in a keyphrase and landing on one of your internal pages.
The biggest choice you have to make when approaching SEO is whether you want to be a Google optimist or a Google pessimist**. Being an optimist means trusting that the smart people in the core algorithm team in Mountain View are doing their job well – that, in general, good content rises to the top.
The best way to be a Google optimist is to think of search engines as information marketplaces – matchmakers between users “demanding” information and websites “supplying” it. This means thinking hard about what users are looking for today, what they will be looking for in the future, how they express those intentions through keyphrases, where there are gaps in the supply of that information, and how you can create content and an experience to fill those gaps.
All this said, there does remain a technical, “optimization” side to SEO. Internal URL structure, text on your landing pages, and all those other things discussed by SEO consultants do matter. Luckily, most good SEO practices are also good UI/UX practices. Personally I like to do all of these things in house by asking our programmers and designers to include search sites like SEOMoz, Search Engine Land, and Matt Cutts in their daily reading list
* I’m just going to drop the illusion here that most people optimize for anything besides Google. ComScore says Google has ~70% market share but everyone I know gets >90% of their search traffic from Google. At any rate, in my experience, if you optimize for Google, Bing/Yahoo will give you SEO love about a 1-6 months later.
** Even if you choose to be a pessimist, I strongly recommend you stay far away from so-called black hat techniques, especially schemes like link trading and paid text ads that are meant to trick crawlers. Among other things, this can get your site banned for life from Google.