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What the Heck is SEO Anyway?

You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it. That blank faced, eyes off in the distance, nod of the head. Oh, SEO, that sounds cool. The usual reaction to “Hi, I’m Mark. What do I do? Oh, I work in SEO.” That’s often a conversation killer. The truth is, most people don’t know what we do. And the plethora of misinformation out there painting a negative picture of who we and about the profession we practice doesn’t do us any favors. For every well written explanatory piece about SEO in the mainstream media there are five NYTimes JCPenney SEO scumbag articles out there. Our profession’s sexy 3 letter acronym is sometimes seen as less inviting than some of the acronyms employed by the US military, like nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare (NBC).

The bottom line is that people don’t know what SEO is. They haven’t grown up with it, so they don’t just take it for granted. I’m sure most people don’t understand the intricacies of investment banking, but it’s an established profession going back hundreds of years (at least the banking part of things), and so we take it for granted when someone says they’re an investment banker. Our vague notion of what this actually entails is put aside by the familiarity and recognition we have of the legitimacy of the profession (or whatever is left of it after Bernie Madoff).

So what exactly is SEO? How do I explain to my mom what it is that I do? How do I tell my friends and neighbors, who use Google everyday, but don’t quite get what it is that I do? I usually tell people my job is to get websites higher up in Google. The usual reaction is – “oh, so you pay Google to be at the top?” If only it were that simple. It depends on what kind of search results they’re used to seeing, and if they notice the various ways that Google formats their paid ads, with ads often appearing at the top of the results and not just on the sides. I try to explain in just a few words how Google has to figure out which pages to rank at the top, and I try to improve the websites I work on so that Google will rank them higher and they’ll show up at the top.

For a short explanation, you can’t quite start getting involved in explaining terms like organic and algorithms. I wish there was a simple answer to what it is that we do – but any one line solution that I’ve come across usually involves complex terms and intricacies that are lost on the people who just want to know in one or two sentences what it is that I do. So, right now, that’s the best I can come up with – I help websites get higher up in Google, helping to get them found in the search engines and bringing more visitors and sales to their sites. If you’ve got something better, please let me know. It’ll definitely help, and I’m sure my mom will appreciate it too :).

About Mark Ginsberg

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Mark has been working in Internet Marketing since 2007. He has managed campaigns in highly competitive sectors for large brands, but also loves to help small businesses increase their online visibility and better understand their customers and their needs.


  1. Ahhh the ‘what do you do’ SEO conundrum. I’ve tried expanding my elevator statement to involve words like ‘internet marketing’. But you’re right, the blank stars or nods are enough to know they don’t get it.

    I think the simple ‘help companies websites get higher in Google for competitive search terms’ is a good one. If they’re actually curious, I make the distinction between paid and non-paid but I’m sure you’ve noticed that 50% of folks didn’t even know there was a difference.

    The biggest surprise I think people have is that Google just doesn’t ‘automatically’ rank the most trustworthy sites. Ignorance is bliss – and most people naively assume that Google knows which site is the best for them … it’s just not something you ponder until being informed otherwise.

    I’ve subsequently ‘ruined the entire internet’ for people after breaking it down further.. so in short, do yourself a favor and just tell people that you work in ‘marketing’. 🙂

  2. Mark Ginsberg says:

    Hey Ari,
    Thanks for the suggestion. But why include the ‘competitive search terms’ in the explanation? What does that help you? I feel like it might make things more complicated than necessaary. Of course we don’t target terms with no volume or that don’t match search intent for the desired goals of the site. I just think simpler is better – I help get websites higher up in Google.
    I think it’s funny you ruined the Internet for people by explaining to them about Google’s rankings. I wonder how long we’ll be talking about ruining the Internet by explaining Google’s tricks, and when the paradigm shift will happen and we’ll ruin the Internet by explaining how Facebook really works and their ins and outs? When does Facebook replace Google with the all important title ‘the Internet?’

  3. I think that even if and when Facebook becomes the new standard for finding out new information – as in a new search solution as opposed to Google – algorithms will be a lot more transparent inherint on the way it will be displayed “33 of your friends have mentioned this car wash in Jerusalem in status updates”. In other words, the idea of ranking and what information is displayed is a lot more intuitive.

    I just don’t think the average users really contemplate on how search engines rank the information and sites that they do. It’s the mere notion that the results are manipulated that starts a watershed of realization that not only the SERPs, but hotel reviews, blog comments, … essentially anything that is seemingly user generated on the internet, is in one way or another gamed. Not that we need to throw the baby out with the bath water but, the notion of organic results or user generated content will very soon be understood to have the potential to be manipulated.

  4. Marc Levy says:

    Not sure I like ‘‘help companies websites get higher in Google for competitive search terms’. Your undervaluing yourself with that.

    I would say ‘I help businesses, organisations and individuals succeed online’, or ‘make money online’.

    That’s a Matan Media saying right there, but you get what I mean. You don’t just get sites higher in Google, you improve them in multiple ways, these ways also help with user experience, conversions, recommendations and more.

  5. Marc, I hear what you’re saying, but when I tell someone I work in SEO, they’re like, what’s that? You’re suggesting not telling people I work in SEO – you’re saying I should tell them I work in Internet marketing. But I thought I worked in SEO, as well as the other stuff. Maybe I should say a multifaceted Internet marketer and not say I work in SEO? Hmm…

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