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8 Most Important Types of Keywords for SEO



8 Most Important Types of Keywords for SEO

We’ll take a look at the types of organic keywords everyone interested in SEO should know.

If you just want a quick overview of the types, see the cheat sheet below. Read the full article to learn more about their importance and how to find them for your SEO projects. 

Keyword types—a cheat sheet

Seed keywords are words or phrases that you can use as the starting point in a keyword research process to unlock more keywords. 

If lucrative keywords are the output of keyword research, seed keywords are the input. 

Using seed keyword in Keywords Explorer
In this example, “shoes” is the seed keyword generating millions of keyword ideas in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.

How to find

There are a lot of ways you can come up with good seed keywords:

  • Brainstorming 
  • Investigating competitors’ keywords 
  • Looking at website navigation menus
  • Observing language people use on social media 

And more. 

Let’s do a quick example. Say you want to start a food blog. You come to a competitor’s blog to look for ideas, and you find a recipe for “vegan meatballs.” You can write a similar recipe or use that as a seed keyword to find out if people search for any variations of the dish. Here are a few you’ll find in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer

Parent Topics in Keywords Explorer

In our other resources, you will find more great seed keyword sources with detailed instructions:



2. Keywords by search intent


Search intent is the reason behind the search query (i.e., keyword). It’s what people expect to find by using a keyword in a search engine. 

Roughly speaking, we can differentiate four basic types of intent keywords: 

  • Informational – The searcher is looking for information, e.g., “who invented the mouse.” 
  • Navigational – The intent is to find a specific website, e.g., “facebook login.” 
  • Commercial investigation – The searcher wants to buy a specific product but needs to do more research, e.g., “ahrefs review.” 
  • Transactional – Pure buying mode, e.g., “buy iphone 14.”

On top of that, we’ve got so-called high-intent keywords that indicate the user is close to making a purchase; commercial investigation and transactional keywords combined.


Search intent is not a feature of the keyword but a feature of the SERP. Categorizing keywords by search intent is common, but it’s not entirely technically correct. This means that search intent can change over time, and search engines can show a SERP with mixed intent (aka fractured intent). 


The more general the keyword, the more likely it will show a mixed intent SERP. For example, if you Google “coffee,” you will see nearby coffee shops, a couple of big coffee brands, and articles on coffee. Check out our guide on mixed search intent to learn more.

How to find 

You can use modifier words. Here are a few ideas:

Keyword modifiers by search intent

And here’s how the process would look in Keywords Explorer:

  1. Enter a seed keyword
  2. Go to the Matching terms report 
  3. Use your modifier words in the Include filter; make sure to set the filter to “Any
Finding keywords by search intent in Keywords Explorer



3. Long-tail keywords (topical and supporting)


Long-tail keywords are search queries that get a small number of searches per month.

They’ve got their name from the so-called search demand curve. For any topic, the most popular searches are the short-tails (also called the fat heads or the head terms), followed by the middle, and lastly the long-tails. 

Search demand curve

Targeting long-tail keywords is a common tactic in SEO: 

  • They’re less competitive than the short- or middle-tail (however, not all long-tail keywords are easy to rank for). 
  • There are lots of them.
  • They are usually specific; you can attract visitors with specific intent.

How to find

There are two types of long-tail keywords. 

There are topical long-tail keywords, which are topics in themselves. And there are supporting long-tail keywords, which are less popular ways of searching for the topical ones. 

It’s an important difference because it only makes sense to target topical long-tail keywords. Here’s an easy way to memorize it: think of them as sets and subsets. 

Topical keywords vs. supporting keywords

So here’s how to find topical long-tail keywords in Keywords Explorer

  1. Enter a broad topic
  2. Go to the Matching terms report
  3. Set the Volume and Traffic Potential filters to a maximum of 300 
  4. Browse keywords by Parent Topics 
How to find topical long-tail keywords


If you don’t find interesting keywords, try increasing the volume and Traffic Potential. There is no “official” volume threshold for long-tail keywords. It’s largely dependent on the industry. The more search demand the head term has, the longer the “tail.”



4. Low-competition keywords 


Low-competition keywords, or low-hanging keywords, are the keywords that are typically easier to rank for. 

Their claim to fame is that they can give faster results in the short term, so they are often recommended to new websites without a strong link profile. 

How to find

The easiest way to find low-competition keywords is to use an SEO tool featuring a difficulty score. At Ahrefs, we simply call it Keyword Difficulty (KD). 

  1. Enter a seed keyword
  2. Go to the Matching terms report 
  3. Set the KD filter to max 20 
How to find low-competition keywords

This method will filter out keywords that are dominated by pages with a lot of backlinks. However, there is still a possibility that some of the keywords with low KD will be tougher to rank because of:

  • Popular brands on the SERP.
  • High content quality from competitors. 

You can further refine that list by using the “Lowest DR” filter by inputting your site’s DR. This will show you if websites with your DR or lower already rank in the top 10 or top five. 

"Lowest DR" filter in Keywords Explorer

Niche keywords are clear and specific topics that appeal to relatively small, often specialized parts of a given market. 

They tend to be easier to rank for. And because of their specificity, they can be high-intent ones. In other words, each niche keyword can send you small but highly qualified traffic in a short time. Put together, they can be a pillar of a long-tail business (selling low volumes of rare items). 

Example keyword: “vegan baby soap.” It’s got a low search volume, but it’s very specific. And this product is probably quite rare. So there’s a high chance that the searcher will be in the market for such a product. Plus, it should be quite easy to rank for. 

Niche keyword example with low volume and low difficulty

How to find

Niche keywords are similar to long-tail keywords. However, niche keywords are not only about search demand. There’s a market aspect to it, so you’ll need to spend more time researching the actual thing the keyword stands for. 

For example, this keyword has traffic potential but doesn’t denote an existing product. It’s a misspelling.

Fake niche keyword

To solve this, you can use a couple of ideas for refining your keyword list. Here’s an example: 

  1. First, enter a seed keyword.
  2. Set the Volume and Traffic Potential filter to something low. For my example, “soap,” the volume of 500 is quite low. 
  3. Use modifier keywords that refer to use cases, segments, or features. For instance: “alternative,” “for,” “substitute,” “vegan,” “free.”

And this is how we discover a niche for consumers who don’t want their soap to have a fragrance.

Niche topic example



6. Branded and unbranded keywords 


Ranking for non-branded keywords allows you to attract people who are searching for products or services related to your business but may not necessarily know your brand. 

Ranking for branded keywords allows you to attract people who are specifically searching for information about your company.

To illustrate the difference:

Branded vs. unbranded keywords

How to find

As long as the keyword doesn’t contain your brand or product’s name, it’s an unbranded keyword. You can choose any of the methods from this article to find those.

To find branded keywords, you’ve got three options. 

Option 1. If you paste your brand and products in Keywords Explorer, you will see branded keywords along with their SEO metrics and who ranks for them. 

How to find branded keywords—option 1

Option 2. You can view only the branded keywords where you rank using Ahrefs’ Site Explorer. Just include the branded words as modifiers. You can also use the Position filter to see underperforming keywords. 

How to find branded keywords—option 2

Finally, you can check all the branded keywords where you don’t rank. To do that, you need to compare the list of all branded keywords to the keywords where you rank. Here’s a step-by-step tutorial on how to do this, plus more information on branded search. 



7. Your competitors’ keywords 


Who wouldn’t want to see their competitors’ keywords? Among many reasons, those keywords are a goldmine of topics for your own site. 

When you know a competitor’s keywords, you can:

  • Target the same keywords. 
  • Use your competitor’s keywords as seed keywords for research.

How to find

There are two ways. 

First, you can go to Site Explorer, paste your competitor’s URL, and go to the Organic keywords report. 

Organic keywords report in Site Explorer

From there, you can use filters to refine the keywords list. For example, low-competition keywords or keywords containing specific words. 

You can also view the competitors’ keywords where you don’t rank. In Site Explorer, there’s a special tool for it called Content Gap. All you need to do is paste competing domains. 

Content Gap tool in Ahrefs


Your market competitors are not necessarily the same as your organic competitors. So if you want to see who else ranks for your keywords, use the Organic competitors report. Besides a list of domains, you will see keywords that you share and keywords where you don’t rank.


Organic competitors report



8. Primary and secondary keywords 


The primary keyword is the main topic of a page. It’s also the single keyword to optimize a page for or, in other words, the reason to do keyword research in the first place. 

Secondary keywords are keywords closely related to the primary keyword that you’re targeting with your page.

To illustrate, if the primary keyword is the title of the book, you can use secondary keywords as subtopics. 

Primary vs. secondary keywords

How to find

To find good primary keywords, you need to do proper keyword research. Your primary keywords should:

  • Have search traffic potential.
  • Show search intent you can align with.
  • Have business potential or other value to your website.
  • Be within your ranking capabilities (most of the time). 

See our full guide on keyword research to learn all the details. 

Finding secondary keywords depends on your primary keywords (as these are related). You can use the Related terms report in Keywords Explorer or the Content Gap tool in Site Explorer to compare top-ranking articles for a given keyword.

Related terms report


Make sure to enable the “Top 10” toggle.
Content Gap tool used for secondary keyword research


If you’re using the Content Gap tool for finding secondary keywords, leave the last input blank.

Final thoughts

Those are the eight important types of keywords. Here are a few types that are just worth knowing: 

  • Zero-volume keywords – If you see an interesting keyword with 0 search volume, it may still be worth targeting if you think its popularity is going to soar or it has high business value to your website (more in our take on zero-volume keywords). 
  • NORA – No Right Answer keywords may become more important with the rise of AI search engines. Some believe this kind of keyword is where AI-generated responses will take most of the clicks from organic results. 
  • LSI keywords – A myth of the SEO industry
  • Meta keywords – Worth knowing that they are no longer used by Google to rank pages. 
  • Paid keywords – Not used for SEO but worth knowing if you’re running paid search ads. You can learn more about their types in this guide to PPC.

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The Lean Guide (With Template)



The Lean Guide (With Template)

A competitive analysis (or market competitive analysis) is a process where you collect information about competitors to gain an edge over them and get more customers.

However, the problem is that “traditional” competitive analysis is overkill for most businesses — it requires impractical data and takes too long to complete (and it’s very expensive if you choose to outsource). 

A solution to that is a lean approach to the process — and that’s what this guide is about. 

In other words, we’ll focus on the most important data you need to answer the question: “Why would people choose them over you?”. No boring theory, outtakes from marketing history, or spending hours digging up nice-to-have information.

In this guide, you will find:

  • A real-life competitive analysis example.
  • Templates: one for input data and one for a slide deck to present your analysis to others.
  • Step-by-step instructions.

Our template consists of two documents: a slide deck and a spreadsheet. 

The Slide deck is the output document. It will help you present the analysis to your boss or your teammates.

The spreadsheet is the input document. You will find tables that act as the data source for the charts from the slide deck, as well as a prompt to use in ChatGPT to help you with user review research.

Competitive analysis template — spreadsheet sneak peek.Competitive analysis template — spreadsheet sneak peek.

We didn’t focus on aesthetics here; every marketer likes to do slide decks their own way, so feel free to edit everything you’ll find there. 

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the process. The template consists of these six tasks: 

  1. Identify your direct competitors. 
  2. Compare share of voice. 
  3. Compare pricing and features.
  4. Find strong and weak points based on reviews.
  5. Compare purchasing convenience.
  6. Present conclusions.

Going forward, we’ll explain why these steps matter and show how to complete them. 

1. Identify your direct competitors

Direct competitors are businesses that offer a similar solution to the same audience. 

They matter a lot more than indirect competitors (i.e. businesses with different products but targeting the same audience as you) because you’ll be compared with them often (e.g. in product reviews and rankings). Plus, your audience is more likely to gravitate towards them when considering different options. 

You probably have a few direct competitors in mind already, but here are a few ways to find others based on organic search and paid search ads

Our basis for the analysis was Landingi, a SaaS for building landing pages (we chose that company randomly). So in our case, we found these 3 direct competitors. 

Slide 1 — direct competitors.Slide 1 — direct competitors.

Look at keyword overlap

Keyword overlap uncovers sites that target the same organic keywords as you. Some sites will compete with you for traffic but not for customers (e.g. G2 may share some keywords with Landingi but they’re a different business). However, in many cases, you will find direct competitors just by looking at this marketing channel. 

  • Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and enter your site’s address. 
  • Scroll down to Organic competitors
  • Visit the URLs to pick 3 – 5 direct competitors.
Top organic competitors data from Ahrefs.Top organic competitors data from Ahrefs.

To double-check the choice of competitors, we also looked at who was bidding for search ads on Google.

See who’s advertising 

If someone is spending money to show ads for keywords related to what you do, that’s a strong indication they are a direct competitor. 

  • Go to Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
  • Type in a few broad keywords related to your niche, like “landing page builder” or “landing page tool”. 
  • Go to the Ads history report. 
  • Visit the sites that have a high presence of ads in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). 
Ads history report in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer.Ads history report in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer.

Once you’re done checking both reports, write down competitors in the deck. 

You can also take screenshots of the reports and add them to your deck to show the supporting data for your argument. 

 Slide 2 — direct competitors by organic traffic. Slide 2 — direct competitors by organic traffic.

2. Compare share of voice

Share of voice is a measure of your reach in any given channel compared to competitors. 

A bigger share of voice (SOV) means that your competitors are more likely to reach your audience. In other words, they may be promoting more effectively than you. 

In our example, we found that Landingi’s SOV was the lowest in both of these channels. 


Slide 3 — share of voice on Google Search.Slide 3 — share of voice on Google Search.

And social media:

 Slide 4 — share of voice on social media. Slide 4 — share of voice on social media.

Here’s how we got that data using Ahrefs and Brand24.

Organic share of voice 

Before we start, make sure you have a project set up in Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker

Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.


  • Go to Ahrefs’ Competitive Analysis and enter your and your competitors’s sites as shown below. 
Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.
Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.
  • On the next screen, set the country with the most important market for your business and set the filters like this:
Content gap analysis filter setup.Content gap analysis filter setup.
  • Select keywords that sound most relevant to your business (even if you don’t rank for them yet) and Add them to Rank Tracker
Common keywords found via Ahrefs' Competitive Analysis.Common keywords found via Ahrefs' Competitive Analysis.
  • Go to Rank Tracker, open your project, and look for Competitors/Overview. This report will uncover automatically calculated Share of Voice
Organic share of voice data in Ahrefs.Organic share of voice data in Ahrefs.
  • Add the numbers in corresponding cells inside the sheet and paste the graph inside the slide deck. 
Filling the share of voice template with data.Filling the share of voice template with data.

It’s normal that the numbers don’t add up to 100%. SOV is calculated by including sites that compete with you in traffic but are not your direct competitors, e.g. blogs. 

Social share of voice 

We can also measure our share of voice across social media channels using Brand24.

  • Go to Brand24.
  • Start a New project for your brand and each competitor. Use the competitors’ brand name as the keyword to monitor. 
  • Go to the Comparison report and compare your project with competitors. 
Using Brand24's Comparison tool for competitive analysis.Using Brand24's Comparison tool for competitive analysis.
  • Take a screenshot of the SOV charts and paste them into the slide deck. Make sure the charts are set to “social media”.
Social media tab in share of voice report.Social media tab in share of voice report.

3. Compare pricing and features

Consumers often choose solutions that offer the best value for money — simple as that. And that typically comes down to two things: 

  • Whether you have the features they care about. We’ll use all features available across all plans to see how likely the product is to satisfy user needs.
  • How much they will need to pay. Thing is, the topic of pricing is tricky: a) when assessing affordability, people often focus on the least expensive option available and use it as a benchmark, b) businesses in the SaaS niche offer custom plans. So to make things more practical, we’ll compare the cheapest plans, but feel free to run this analysis across all pricing tiers.

After comparing our example company to competitors, we found that it goes head-to-head with Unbounce as the most feature-rich solution on the market. 

Slide 5 — features vs. pricing.Slide 5 — features vs. pricing.

Here’s how we got that data. 

  • Note down your and your competitors’ product features. One of the best places to get this information is pricing pages. Some brands even publish their own competitor comparisons — you may find them helpful too. 
  • While making the list, place a “1” in the cell corresponding to the brand that offers the solution.
Filling data in the spreadsheet.Filling data in the spreadsheet.
  • Enter the price of the cheapest plan (excluding free plans). 
Adding pricing data inside the spreadsheet.Adding pricing data inside the spreadsheet.
  • Once finished, copy the chart and paste it inside the deck. 

4. Find strong and weak points based on user reviews

User reviews can show incredibly valuable insight into your competitors’ strong and weak points. Here’s why this matters:

  • Improving on what your competitors’ customers appreciate could help you attract similar customers and possibly win some over.
  • Dissatisfaction with competitors is a huge opportunity. Some businesses are built solely to fix what other companies can’t fix. 

Here’s a sample from our analysis: 

 Slide 6 — likes and dislikes about Competitors. Slide 6 — likes and dislikes about Competitors.

And here’s how we collated the data using ChatGPT. Important: repeat the process for each competitor.

  • Open ChatGPT and enter the prompt from the template.
ChatGPT prompt for competitive analysis.ChatGPT prompt for competitive analysis.
  • Go to G2, Capterra, or Trustpilot and find a competitor’s reviews with ratings from 2 – 4 (i.e. one rating above the lowest and one below the highest possible). Reason:

businesses sometimes solicit five-star reviews, whereas dissatisfied customers tend to leave one-star reviews in a moment of frustration. The most actionable feedback usually comes in between.

  • Copy and paste the content of the reviews into ChatGPT (don’t hit enter yet). 
  • Once you’re done pasting all reviews, hit enter in ChatGPT to run the analysis.
Sample of ChatGPT output with charts.Sample of ChatGPT output with charts.
  • Paste the graphs into the deck. If you want the graphs to look different, don’t hesitate to ask the AI. 

There’s a faster alternative, but it’s a bit more advanced. 

Instead of copy-pasting, you can use a scraping tool like this one to get all reviews at once. The downside here is that not all review sources will a have scraping tool available. 

5. Compare purchasing convenience

Lastly, we’ll see how easy it is to actually buy your products, and compare the experience to your competitors. 

This is a chance to simplify your checkout process, and even learn from any good habits your competitors have adopted.

For example, we found that our sample company had probably nothing to worry about in this area — they ticked almost all of the boxes. 

Slide 7 — purchasing convenience.Slide 7 — purchasing convenience.

Here’s how to complete this step:

  • Place a “1” if you or any of your competitors offer convenience features listed in the template. 
  • Once done, copy the chart and paste it into the deck.

Step 6. Present conclusions

This is the part of the presentation where you sum up all of your findings and suggest a course of action. 

Here are two examples: 

  • Landingi had the lowest SOV in the niche, and that is never good. So the conclusion might be to go a level deeper and do an SEO competitive analysis, and to increase social media presence by creating more share-worthy content like industry surveys, design/CRO tips, or in-house data studies.
  • Although the brand had a very high purchasing convenience score, during the analysis we found that there was a $850 gap between the monthly full plan and the previous tier. The conclusion here might be to offer a custom plan (like competitors do) to fill that gap. 

We encourage you to take your time here and think about what would make the most sense for your business. 


It’s good to be specific in your conclusions, but don’t go too deep. Competitive analysis concerns many aspects of the business, so it’s best to give other departments a chance to chime in. Just because your competitors have a few unique features doesn’t necessarily mean you need to build them too.

Final thoughts 

A competitive analysis is one of the most fruitful exercises in marketing. It can show you areas for improvement, give ideas for new features, and help you discover gaps in your strategy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s fundamental to running a successful business. 

Just don’t forget to balance “spying” on your competitors with innovation. After all, you probably don’t want to become an exact copy of someone else’s brand. 

In other words, use competitive analysis to keep up with your competitors, but don’t let that erase what’s unique about your brand or make you forget your big vision. 

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Critical WordPress Form Plugin Vulnerability Affects Up To +200,000 Installs




Critical WordPress Form Plugin Vulnerability Affects Up To +200,000 Installs

Security researchers at Wordfence detailed a critical security flaw in the MW WP Form plugin, affecting versions 5.0.1 and earlier. The vulnerability allows unauthenticated threat actors to exploit the plugin by uploading arbitrary files, including potentially malicious PHP backdoors, with the ability to execute these files on the server.

MW WP Form Plugin

The MW WP Form plugin helps to simplify form creation on WordPress websites using a shortcode builder.

It makes it easy for users to create and customize forms with various fields and options.

The plugin has many features, including one that allows file uploads using the [mwform_file name=”file”] shortcode for the purpose of data collection. It is this specific feature that is exploitable in this vulnerability.

Unauthenticated Arbitrary File Upload Vulnerability

An Unauthenticated Arbitrary File Upload Vulnerability is a security issue that allows hackers to upload potentially harmful files to a website. Unauthenticated means that the attacker does not need to be registered with the website or need any kind of permission level that comes with a user permission level.

These kinds of vulnerabilities can lead to remote code execution, where the uploaded files are executed on the server, with the potential to allow the attackers to exploit the website and site visitors.

The Wordfence advisory noted that the plugin has a check for unexpected filetypes but that it doesn’t function as it should.

According to the security researchers:

“Unfortunately, although the file type check function works perfectly and returns false for dangerous file types, it throws a runtime exception in the try block if a disallowed file type is uploaded, which will be caught and handled by the catch block.

…even if the dangerous file type is checked and detected, it is only logged, while the function continues to run and the file is uploaded.

This means that attackers could upload arbitrary PHP files and then access those files to trigger their execution on the server, achieving remote code execution.”

There Are Conditions For A Successful Attack

The severity of this threat depends on the requirement that the “Saving inquiry data in database” option in the form settings is required to be enabled in order for this security gap to be exploited.

The security advisory notes that the vulnerability is rated critical with a score of 9.8 out of 10.

Actions To Take

Wordfence strongly advises users of the MW WP Form plugin to update their versions of the plugin.

The vulnerability is patched in the lutes version of the plugin, version 5.0.2.

The severity of the threat is particularly critical for users who have enabled the “Saving inquiry data in database” option in the form settings and that is compounded by the fact that no permission levels are needed to execute this attack.

Read the Wordfence advisory:

Update ASAP! Critical Unauthenticated Arbitrary File Upload in MW WP Form Allows Malicious Code Execution

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Alexander_P

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How SEOs Make the Web Better



How SEOs Make the Web Better

SEOs catch flak for ruining the web, but they play a crucial role in the search ecosystem, and actually make the internet better for everyone.

Let’s get the criticism out of the way. There are bad actors in SEO, people who seek to extract money from the internet regardless of the cost to others. There are still scams and snake oil, posers and plagiarists. Many parts of the web have become extremely commercialized, with paid advertising and big brands displacing organic and user-generated content.

But while there are situations where SEOs have made things worse, to fixate on them is to ignore the colossal elephant in the room: in the ways that really matter, the web is the best it’s ever been:

  • It’s the easiest it has ever been to find information on the internet. Searchers have a staggering array of tutorials, teardowns, and tips at their fingertips, containing information that is generally accurate and helpful—and this was not always the case.
  • Bad actors have a smaller influence over search. Search is less of a Wild West than it used to be. Once-scam-ridden topics are subject to significant scrutiny, and the problems and loopholes in search that need fixing today—like big brands and generic content receiving undue prominence—are smaller and less painful than the problems of the past.
  • More people use search to their benefit. Online content is the most accessible it has ever been, and it’s easier than ever to grow a local business or expand into international markets on the back of search.

SEOs have played a crucial role in these improvements, poking and prodding, building and—sometimes—breaking. They are Google power users: the people who push the system to extremes, but in doing so, catalyze the change needed to make search better for everyone.

Let’s explore how.

SEOs help regular people benefit from search

SEOs are much-needed intermediaries between Google and the rest of the world, helping non-technical people acquire and benefit from search engine traffic.

There is a huge amount of valuable information locked up in the heads of people who have no idea how to build a website or index a blog post. A carpet fitter with a bricks-and-mortar business might have decades of experience solving costly problems with uneven subfloors or poor moisture management, but no understanding of how to share that information online.

SEOs provide little nudges towards topics that people care about and writing that’s accessible to people and robots. They help solve technical problems that would hinder or completely block a site from appearing in search results. They identify opportunities for companies to be rewarded for creating great content.

It’s a win-win: businesses are rewarded with traffic, searchers have their intent satisfied, and the world is made a little richer for the newfound knowledge it contains.

SEOs turn helpful standards into real websites

SEOs do many things to actively make the web a better place, tending to their own plot of the Google garden to make sure it flourishes.

Take, for example, the myriad standards and guidelines designed to make the web a more accessible place for users. The implementation of these standards—turning theoretical guidelines into real, concrete parts of the web—often happens because of the SEO team.

Technical SEOs play a big part in adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a set of principles designed to ensure online content is “perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust” for every user. Every SEO’s fixation with Core Web Vitals fuels a faster, more efficient web. Content teams translate Google’s helpful content guidelines into useful words and images on a page.

(Case in point: check out Aleyda Solis’ Content Helpfulness Analyzer.)

Screenshot: Aleyda Solis' helpful content GPTScreenshot: Aleyda Solis' helpful content GPT

There is a lot of overlap between “things that help users” and “things that improve search performance.” Even if the motive behind these changes is as simple as generating more traffic, a well-optimized website is, generally speaking, one that is also great for real human beings trying to engage with it.

SEOs pressure-test Google’s systems

The biggest criticism leveled at SEOs is that they break things. And they do! But that breakage acts as a type of pressure testing that strengthens the system as a whole.

Abuse of spintax and keyword stuffing forced Google to develop a better understanding of on-page content. Today, that loophole is closed, but more importantly, Google is much better at understanding the contents of a page and its relationship to a website as a whole.

Hacks like hiding keywords with white text on a white background (or moving them beyond the visible bounds of the screen) forced Google to expand its understanding of page styling and CSS, and how on-page information interacts with the environment that contains it.

Even today’s deluge of borderline-plagiarised AI content is not without benefit: it creates a very clear incentive for Google to get better at rewarding information gain and prioritizing publishers with solid EEAT credentials. These improvements will make tomorrow’s version of search much better.

This isn’t just Google fixing what SEOs broke: these changes usually leave lasting benefits that extend beyond any single spam tactic and make search better for all of its users.

Illustration: how fixing problems leads to smaller future problems and improved search experienceIllustration: how fixing problems leads to smaller future problems and improved search experience

This is not to argue that blackhat SEO is desirable. It would be better to make these improvements without incurring pain along the way. But Search is huge and complicated, and Google has little incentive to spend money proactively fixing problems and loopholes.

If we can’t solve every issue before it causes pain, we should be grateful for a correction mechanism that prevents it—and more extreme abuse—from happening in the future. SEOs break the system, and in doing so, make future breakages a lot less severe.

SEOs are the internet’s quality assurance team

Some SEOs take advantage of the loopholes they discover—but many don’t. They choose to raise these issues in public spaces, encourage discussion, and seek out a fix, acting like a proxy quality assurance team.

At the small end of the spectrum, SEOs often flag bugs with Google systems, like a recent error in Search Console reporting flagged independently by three separate people, or Tom Anthony famously catching an oversight in Google’s Manual Actions database. While these types of problems don’t always impact the average user’s experience using Google, they help keep search systems working as intended.

At the other end of the scale, this feedback can extend as far as the overarching quality of the search experience, like AJ Kohn writing about Google’s propensity to reward big brands over small brands, or Lily Ray calling out an uptick in spam content in Google Discover.

SEOs are Google’s most passionate users. They interact with it at a scale far beyond the average user, and they can identify trends and changes at a macroscopic level. As a result, they are usually the first to discover problems—but also the people who hold Google to the highest standard. They are a crucial part of the feedback loop that fuels improvements.

SEOs act as a check-and-balance

Lastly, SEOs act as a check-and-balance, gathering firsthand evidence of how search systems operate, letting us differentiate between useful advice, snake oil, and Google’s PR bluster. 

Google shares lots of useful guidance, but it’s important to recognize the limits of their advice. They are a profit-seeking company, and Search requires opacity to work—if everyone understood how it worked, everyone would game it, and it would stop working. Mixed in with the good advice is a healthy portion of omission and misdirection.

Google Search plays a vital role in controlling the flow of the web’s information—it is simply too important for us to leave its mechanics, biases, and imperfections unexplored. We need people who can interrogate the systems just enough to separate fact from fiction and understand how the pieces fit together.

We need people like Mic King, and his insanely detailed write-up of SGE and RAG; Britney Muller and her demystification of LLMs; the late Bill Slawki’s unfaltering patent analysis; or our own Patrick Stox’s efforts in piecing together how search works.

Screenshot from Patrick Stox's presentation, How Search WorksScreenshot from Patrick Stox's presentation, How Search Works

Final thoughts

The web has problems. We can and should expect more from Google Search. But the problems we need to solve today are far less severe and painful than the problems that needed solving in the past; and the people who have the highest expectations, and will be most vocal in shaping that positive future, are—you guessed it—SEOs.

To SEOs: the cause of (and solution to) all of the web’s problems.

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