When people refer to "organic SEO" (search engine optimization), they almost always use it as a blanket term to describe the unpaid, algorithm-driven results of any particular engine. However, a sophisticated search engine optimization company will often take the meaning of "organic" one step further. To such companies, the "organic SEO" is not limited to what shows up in the "natural" search engine results—it includes the methodologies used to achieve such rankings.
There's more than one way to skin a cat (although I must admit that I don't know the one way that everyone else presumably knows), and the same is true for achieving natural search engine results.
A search engine optimization company usually falls into one of two camps. A "White Hat" search engine optimization company will use a largely content-based approach and will not violate the terms of service of the major search engines. A "Black Hat" search engine optimization company will use a largely technology driven approach and often ignore the terms of service.
Neither approach is invalid (as I have said many times before, there is nothing illegal about violating a search engine's terms of service), and both can achieve high rankings. But a search engine optimization company that takes the word "organic" literally believes that the "Black Hat" approach is anything but "organic SEO."
Merriam Webster defines organic, in part, as "having the characteristics of an organism: developing in the manner of a living plant or animal." To a search engine optimization company, this definition accurately describes the approach taken to achieve long-lasting results in the "natural" section of search engines.
Below are just a few comparisons of the different approaches taken by the two types of SEO firms. For the sake of clarity, I refer to the two approaches as "organic SEO" and "artificial SEO."
Content vs. Technical Loopholes
There's an "old" saying in the SEO industry that "content is king." This is not necessarily true. In my experience, good content is king. Study after study has shown that when people use search engines, they are primarily seeking one thing: information. They are not seeking to be impressed by fancy flash sites. They are not looking for a virtual piece of art.
A search engine optimization company that is truly practicing "organic SEO" recognizes this fact and will refuse SEO work when prospects insist that content addition is not an option. "Artificial SEO" firms, which embrace a technical-loophole philosophy, will allow a company to leave its Web site exactly as it is, because the work that such firms do is largely technical and is designed to trick the engine into showing content that it would not otherwise.
Certainly, there are acceptable (from the engine's standpoint) technical aspects that any good search engine optimization company will use, such as relevant page titles and meta tags. But there are many more unacceptable technical methodologies than acceptable ones, including cloaking, redirects, multiple sites, keyphrase stuffing, hidden links, and numerous others. A company practicing "organic SEO" will avoid these.
Attracting Links vs. Linking Schemes
As any search engine optimization company knows, inbound links are critical to the success of an "organic SEO" campaign. But there are different ways to go about it. Firms that practice true "organic SEO" will look at the Web site itself and say, "How can we make this site something that other sites would want to link to?" A search engine optimization company using "artificial SEO" will ask, "How can I get links pointing to this site without adding anything of value to it?"
The latter approach usually leads to reciprocal linking schemes, link farms, the purchase of text links, and more—anything except making changes to the Web site that entice others to link to the site without the link being reciprocated, without paying the Web site owner, or without asking "pretty please."
There is a stark contrast between "organic SEO" and "artificial SEO." Of course, any decent search engine optimization company will make certain that a site is listed in all the popular directories, such as the Yahoo Directory, the Open Directory Project, and Business.com. A good search engine optimization company will also continually seek any industry specific directories where your site should be listed.
But truly using "organic SEO" means evolving your site into something that holds actual value to your prospects. In my opinion, this is much more beneficial in the long run than the artificial methodology of trying to garner incoming links that the site does not truly deserve.
Creating a Valuable Resource vs. Algorithm Chasing
Search engines change algorithms frequently, and for two reasons. One is, of course, to improve their results based on their most recent user studies. The other, which is obviously related, is to remove sites that are ranked artificially high.
Such updates raise panic in the SEO community, particularly among "artificial SEO" practitioners who have just discovered that their most recent and cherished trick no longer works (and may have gotten their clients' sites removed from the engines altogether). It is not uncommon on the search engine forums to see the owner of such a search engine optimization company threatening to "sue Google" over a recent update. Not uncommon, but always amusing.
There is, with only a few exceptions, a common denominator in the Web sites that remain highly ranked throughout these algorithm shifts. They offer something of value to their visitors and are considered a resource for their industry. "Organic SEO" practitioners generally do not have to worry about going back and redoing work because of an algorithm shift. While an "artificial" search engine optimization company desperately tries to re-attain the rankings it lost for its clients (or to get the sites re-included in the search engine at all) because it was dependent on technical loopholes that have now been closed, "organic SEO" firms continue adding valuable content to a site, strengthening its value, and bolstering its rankings.
A common argument from companies when advised by "organic SEO" practitioners to take this approach is this: "We aren't trying to provide a resource for our industry, we are trying to sell products or services." That, in my opinion, is shortsighted. Remember, you are trying to reach prospects in all stages of the buying cycle, not just the low hanging fruit ready to buy now. Let your Web site, rather than your overpaid salesperson, be their resource to learn about your industry. Prospects are very likely to call you when they are ready to buy; after all, you've done so much for them already!
In addition, taking advantage of "organic SEO" to make your Web site an industry resource provides a tremendous natural boost to your rankings for your individual product or service pages. This means that with "organic SEO" you'll get the best of both worlds: You'll reach people early in the buying cycle, educate them, and steer them toward your solution by using your Web site instead of your sales personnel; you will also reach the low-hanging fruit because your individual product or service pages, which are intended for people who are ready to buy now, will get a significant rankings boost.
Learning From Engines vs. Learning How to Exploit Them
As I have said many times before, search engines conduct very expensive and frequent studies on what their users want to see when they enter search queries. Obviously, no company has a more vested interest in serving up the type of results that their users want than the engines themselves.
"Organic SEO" firms will therefore take the "piggyback" approach. A search engine optimization company that uses "organic SEO" will try to learn what the results of these studies were by examining the sites that figure prominently in search engine results over long periods of time. In this way, the search engine optimization company is using "organic SEO" to make the Web site not only better for search engines but also for the user (presumably, the engine's internal research has shown that these sites have what their users have consistently desired, study after study). "Artificial SEO" practitioners have no real interest in these studies; they are instead expending a great deal of energy finding the next technical loophole to exploit after their most recent one has failed.
The latter approach can make results erratic, but it also raises a larger issue—the goal of the campaign. If an "artificial" search engine optimization company finds a temporary loophole in an algorithm that brings your site to the top, but does not take the time to delve into the user experience once a user gets to the site, it will defeat the original purpose. You may get plenty of visitors, but a large percentage of them will be short-term visitors who do not find what they want on your site and back out without a second thought. The search engine optimization company did not "piggyback" on the engines' research to learn what type of content users wanted to see when they entered their queries.
'Organic' Revisited (AKA 'One Step Too Far')
A search engine optimization company that takes a true "organic SEO" approach will actually take the Merriam Webster definition literally. A good Web site does have the characteristics of an organism and does develop in the manner of a living plant or animal. It builds upon itself. It learns how it should behave for its own benefit. Most importantly, it establishes its territory at the top of the search engine results. And as the organism thrives, artificial machine after machine fades into obsolescence.
Scott Buresh is managing partner of Medium Blue Search Engine Marketing (www.mediumblue.com).