Practical SEO vs Theoretical SEO

Most SEO guides only offer theoretical knowledge without helping you build the practical skill that will drive SEO results. Learn the difference today, read this blog post.

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practical seo

When it comes to digital marketing, it’s no secret that SEO can have a pretty steep learning curve. It is known to confound even the most intelligent of us mere mortals. Perhaps worst of all, it seems as though the goal post is constantly moving with all the Google algorithm updates everyone freaks out about.

If you’re new to SEO Meets Design, welcome. You’ll quickly learn all you need to know about SEO no matter what kind of profession you’re in.

Unlike other educational SEO blogs, we guide you through recognizing what’s something to treat as theoretical (or simply SEO nerdery) and what is practical advice you can easily follow.

We also cater to various non-SEO professionals who impact SEO in different ways including designers, developers, virtual assistants, content marketers and more. So be sure to check out our other articles which can help you no matter what your specialty is!

What’s the Difference Between SEO in Theory vs SEO in Practice?

It’s simple. Theoretical SEO is often shared in blogs or in forums however it often does not yield real results for many people. The difference comes down to the impact an SEO activity will have on your business’ growth.

In many cases, theoretical SEO often tries to outrun or ‘hack’ algorithms, whereas practical SEO compounds and grows your bottom line for years to come.

To elaborate on this further, we need to look at the history of SEO. Back in the wild west days of the internet, SEO was seen as a way to ‘hack’ search engine algorithms.

Back then, SEO required manipulative technical tactics to push a page to the top of search results. The SEO community, at that time, was mainly interested in understanding the key factors that influenced how algorithms made ranking decisions and exploiting them.

Hence, we now have SEO pros who publish lists of hundreds of ranking factors that supposedly impact your site’s SEO performance.

At some point, some SEOs out there exploited each of these for ranking gains. And through constantly micro-analyzing even the tiniest of details, the SEO industry began to develop a list of micro-signals that could influence rankings.

But now, Google and other search engines have caught up. It’s not as easy to exploit specific ranking factors these days.

These old school micro-signals, my friends, are one aspect of theoretical SEO that is impractical for most people to even worry about. It is fine to learn about the theory of these tactics as you build out your understanding of SEO. However, in practice, this type of SEO lacks longevity, is often unsafe to be implemented on a client’s website and can lead to the destruction (and blacklisting) of a site.

In contrast, practical SEO can be future-proofed since it’s not about finding short-term hacks.

You won’t need to worry about how long the latest SEO tactic you tried will hold up for your site. You also won’t need to gamble with your site’s credibility wondering if that tactic will work. Practical SEO is about fine-tuning your strategy by using actionable data.

In this way, you can identify the critical points of impact that will actually move the needle for the long haul, not just for short-term rankings but also for the bottom line of a business.

But Wait, There’s More to This Picture About Theoretical SEO

In addition to the above, there are also a heap of non-spammy SEO tactics that are also impractical for most to follow.

In many cases, such techniques clash with the user experience design and can influence conversions on a site in a negative way. In others, there’s a bunch of technical minutiae which simply don’t move the needle.

Especially if you’re working on a large site or a site that is inherently technical (like an e-commerce site). There are a lot of moving bits and implementing one change across an entire site is a huge effort. So you need to be certain that such changes will influence performance.

There’s just no room for a “guess and hope for the best” approach in such cases.

Unlike theoretical SEO, practical SEO focuses on the handful of things that will move the needle. These things are often the responsibility of designers, developers, virtual assistants and writers and they don’t even realize!

If you’re in such a role, you could be directly impacting the SEO success of a site without ever knowing it.

There are also strategic SEO elements that are impacted too. So this is why it’s crucial that you learn to tell what’s a theoretical SEO thing you can safely bypass and what’s practical and can directly impact rankings.

How To Identify Practical SEO Tactics and Strategies

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Sun Tzu

SEO is much the same. SEO strategy happens at the macro level and it encompasses the entire website. It can also encompass the external environment the website “hangs out in” online.

It’s about looking at the entire ecosystem and understanding how the website compares to others online. It is also about understanding how people move through the site and how they discover the information they are looking for.

This is the bigger picture and it must be informed by practical, actionable data in order to lead to success.

SEO tactics, on the other hand, well these happen at the micro-level. They are often implemented at a page-by-page level, and it is at this level where a lot of technical nerdery can confuse SEO beginners.

Practical SEO at a Strategic Level

The best way to explain this is with an example. Let’s take the concept of keywords.

At the strategic level, you’d be looking at gathering a list of keywords that make sense for the business to target. It’s not just about gathering any and all keywords, however. There’s a strategic element involved in analyzing the intentions behind the keywords. You would also want to profile the users and audience segments who search for the same thing in different ways.

Keyword research connects a business to its target audience. It also forms the backbone of the content strategy that can be used to attract that audience to the website.

So this is practical SEO at a strategic level as we gather the data needed to inform our plan of action.

At this level we’re looking at WHAT and WHY.

What opportunities exist for us? Which ones are easy for us to see quick wins with? What aspects of SEO should we invest our budget into.
As for the why element, the data collected provides the reasons for the decisions we make. We can more easily provide proof as to why our SEO direction makes sense to go with.

We can better answer questions stakeholders or clients have about our strategy. We can say, with confidence, “we’re going in this direction because 10 times as many people search for X over Y. With our forecasts, we can achieve Z growth in the next quarter by implementing this strategy.”

Boom.

Instant trust. Because you understand the data and how to use it to drive meaningful growth to a business.

Practical SEO at the Tactical Level

When it comes to tactics, we’re looking at HOW. More specifically, it’s about how we can execute our kick-ass plan and see it through to success.

This is where we choose from a range of tactics, or micro-level techniques, to implement. This is also where people guess their way through SEO for a number of reasons.

  1. They don’t have a strategy so they blindly move forward towards the noise before defeat (as Sun Tzu might say).
  2. They don’t know what small actions will have a big impact.
  3. They don’t know their points of leverage for SEO success.
  4. They can’t tell which tactics are technical BS and which are future-proofed.


Practical SEO tactics go beyond just “ranking gains”. It’s not about a short-lived rise to the top of Google search engines.

Sure, it may seem like this is the goal thanks to the SEO community. But remember, many of these SEOs see it like a game they can hack. They thrive on the sense of competition and they like saying they made it to the top even if there was no longevity to the techniques they used.

Determining The Longevity of An SEO Strategy

There’s a misconception around longevity for SEO. We’re not talking about something that lasts for 6 months or even a year. Unlike other marketing channels, SEO is a very slow burn. This time frame is considered “short-term” for SEO but medium or long-term for pretty much everything else.

We want to focus on SEO that will last a decade. Especially when working with clients who are in their business for the long haul. It’s their life’s work and they take pride in it.

The tactics we implement in the first 12 months need to stand the test of time. The beauty of SEO is that it can compound over time and we want to nurture this aspect of it early on.

Future-proofed tactics that stand the test of time have to do with one of four things:

  1. Creating a great user experience so people stick around and fall in love with your brand.
  2. Creating content that gives people exactly what they are looking for.
  3. Making sure that search engines can find, index and categorize your content correctly.
  4. Earning trust and authority from people and search engines through good brand reputation and online PR.


If a tactic doesn’t pass these criteria, it’s likely not going to stand the test of time.

You also want to ensure the tactics used will have a direct impact on the metrics a business cares about.

Some businesses care about search visibility and they want to rank for the most competitive terms in their industry no matter what. Our goal, with a practical SEO approach, is to help them maintain this visibility for a long time, not through some kind of quick hack.

Other businesses care more about the ROI than what terms they rank for. They just want to see meaningful growth that’s relative to the phase of their business life cycle.

This is practical SEO at its finest. It delivers measurable growth and continues to do so for years to come no matter the business’s primary goal.

The easiest way to determine if your strategy has longevity is to think forward a few years and assume Google has caught up to every trick in the playbook.

Does your strategy foster a sense of deep trust that years down the line your site (or client’s site) is still going strong and is genuinely seen as a trustworthy authority in the space?

Need help visualizing it? Find competitors who are ranking very well across a range of critical keywords. Backtrack to when they started so you understand their journey. Do you see your strategy following in these footsteps or does your strategy feel much more short-lived?

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