SEO Jargon: What are you talking about?

8 min read

There are thousands of “what is SEO?” guides out there already so I’ll spare you. If you’re learning SEO because it’s your job or you want it to be, this probably isn’t for you. This is for our clients and coworkers who receive emails with a bunch of SEO jargon that might make sense at SMX, but not in their inboxes at 4:55 on a Friday.

If you want to learn SEO from soup to nuts, check out these resources. Otherwise, read on!

SEO Jargon, Translated

This section will (hopefully) translate some common things you’ll see or hear from SEO experts into something that actually makes sense.

Organic Search

“We’re not even showing up for branded terms in organic search. We’re so fired.”

Google is a search engine that can be broken down into 2 types of results you might see: paid and organic. Paid search results are a form of advertising. For the most part, companies pay to appear in those results when you do a search. Organic search results (also called natural) are the other results. You can’t pay to be there. You have to win using this thing called… SEO.

High Quality

“We’ll never rank well without some more quality content. Jenkins! Write us some immediately and make it rank yesterday!”

High-quality links and quality content are terms related to “adjustments” the SEO industry has made over the years. SEO is a game in a lot of ways, where winning means you’ve outranked or out-positioned other websites on Google for organic search. Some SEO’s have taken a… darker path to winning and Google responded by changing the game.

Google is a football field and the end zone is the very top of organic search results. People try to cheat to get the ball to the end zone, so Google adds new rules and more refs to make the game as fair as possible. They only want you to score an SEO touchdown if you deserve it because their fans, the searchers, only want to see the best.

Branded Terms

“How is our competitor beating us for our own branded terms? Hey, Sal. Don’t you know a guy?”

In the world of search, we classify keywords or terms, words people use to search, into 2 overarching categories: branded and unbranded. Branded keywords are searches done that include a company’s name: Nike, Nike shoes, where can I buy the latest Nike stuff, etc. Unbranded terms are just searches without a brand name: meatball recipe, games for kids, new movies, etc.


“Well, we’re in striking distance for 437 keywords. Maybe someone will accidentally visit page 3 and click.”

A keyword is a generic term for the search someone does on Google. A keyword can be a single word or it can be a complete question. If someone types something into Google’s search bar and stuff pops up, chances are an SEO wants to know all about it.

Striking Distance

Our goal in SEO is for our clients to be the first link in organic Google search results for a keyword that will help their business. Until that happens, a lot of what we do is directional, working towards page 1 first and then the top spot. Striking distance is the term we reserve when our client begins ranking on page 3 or so of Google. It’s buried and not likely to be seen by someone searching yet, but it’s an indicator that what we’re doing is working. For really important keywords, this is a pretty big deal and means we may shift even more focus on that term to push it closer to page one.


“Sir, the developers didn’t include canonical tags in the latest build, Google’s spiders are crawling and indexing everything, and I think the HREF LANG tags are wrong, too.”

“I don’t understand anything you just said. Get out of my office.”

Oh man, this is a tricky one to explain. Moz explains it pretty well, but I’ll give it a shot. Canonical is usually followed by “URL” or “tag”. The tag is the piece of code a developer will need to add to a web page and the URL is a part of that tag.

Imagine that Google is the biggest Excel document you’ve ever seen. Yes, even bigger than the one you just got from Judy in Accounting. There is a column in Google.xlsx that is called canonical URL and every row of the sheet is every web page (URL) on the internet. Now imagine that there are other columns in this massive spreadsheet for things like web page location, stuff people read, and title. Now imagine that some of these other rows have the exact same stuff and title – but the location is different, just slightly.

If the canonical URL column is blank, Google just sorts and does vLookups or whatever on every single web page, even if the “stuff” is the same on multiple rows. But if there is a location – the main web page location – in the canonical URL column, Google can filter out all that extra stuff and focus on the main page. The list shrinks and Google doesn’t have to think as much. The canonical URL is the one that counts – it’s the one that should be shown to people searching for your stuff.

Ranking Factors

“Jess, how many Google ranking factors are there now? About 10?”

“About 200, I think.”

“So only links matter. Got it.”

Let’s pretend again that Google is a huge Excel spreadsheet (see “canonical” above). Now, instead of just columns for “stuff” and “title”, let’s add about 200 more. We’ll call these 200+ columns “the Algorithm”. Now imagine someone does a search for a keyword you care about. Google filters its spreadsheet to only include rows about that thing, significantly shortening the list. Google then sorts the remaining rows by those 200 columns in some unknown yet critical order.

Google, unlike Excel, will do this very quickly and the result: the top 10 rows of Google.xlsx appear in your search results. The top 10. If you want to learn more about the algorithm, Brian Dean has a pretty solid post on it.

Page Speed

Page Speed, as used by an SEO, may refer to how fast a web page loads in a browser or the score a tool gives it. Here are 2 examples of Page Speed tools to check out: and

The stuff you see in these tests might not make a lot of sense unless you’re a web developer but what you should know is that speed matters in SEO. Google likes fast because their users like fast. So the developers may ask to do things that sound like rocket science, but it will pay off in the long-run.


“Boom. I just bought 45,000 dofollow [email protected]#$ links on Fiverr. Now, I’ll just sit back and wait for my rankings to roll in.”

30 days later.

“Hello? Oh, this is Penguin dry cleaners? No, sorry, I was calling about something else.”

Also known as backlinks or hyperlinks, these are worth their weight in gold in the SEO community. At least the right ones, anyway. Another term goes with this one that you might hear: PageRank. This is what probably made Google the better search engine, at least initially. It’s complicated, but the short story is that they (Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page of Google) invented a way for web pages (URLs) to vote for each other via hyperlinks. (Hyperlinks are those things that you click on to take you to another web page.)

So Google’s like a digital democracy. Cool! But wait, you don’t control all those other web pages, only yours. So, what do you do? Well, what many of us did in the old days was build links (or ask them to be built). “Building” a link is a process of either manually adding a hyperlink to a web page you don’t own that links to a page you do own, or connecting with the owner of another website to do the same thing.

Today, many SEO’s still build links. Some use tools that do it automatically. Some spam. Some use services like Fiverr (don’t). But the end result might get you into trouble. Links are valuable. They can help an SEO campaign really take off. Links are like votes, so the more you have the more likely you’re to do well in organic search.

But too many, too fast = too fishy… and you run into one of Google’s ref just before you get to the end zone. The joke quote above references a named algorithm update, Penguin. It looks for this sort of thing and can wreak havoc on your or your client’s rankings.

Links are important and this ties into the “canonical” explanation above. URLs with links are extremely valuable. Links in the end matter, but too many can have the opposite effect. More on this later.


Sitemaps come in two flavors: for humans and for robots. The sitemaps for humans are usually just web pages that link out to important pages on your website, like a table of contents or index. The sitemap SEOs will likely look to implement is an XML sitemap. This file contains a list of URLs for Google to follow, in priority order. The XML sitemap should be linked to from the robots.txt file while the human sitemap should be linked as a regular link from navigation.

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