SEO, or search engine optimization, is a subset of the umbrella term "search engine marketing" (SEM). Properly applied, search engine optimization allows your site to not only be seen by the search engines but, when a search term (either keywords or phrases) is entered, offers the ability to rank very high in the search engine results pages. The results pages are typically a combination of natural (sometimes called organic) results, paid inclusions (directories) and pay-per-click (PPC) ads.

But why is SEO so critical to the success of your business online? The holy grail for online marketers centers around getting your site on the first page of a Google search results page. Why Google? Because it currently owns well over half the market of all searches. If you further optimize your site in such a way that it brings in quality traffic, you'll get the ultimate return on your investment (assuming you have a solid back office process). And if you've optimized well for Google, you'll rank well in the other major search engines, such as Yahoo! and MSN, as well.

Many people hire professional consultants to perform SEO, while others attempt to do it themselves, which you certainly can-it's not brain surgery. In the coming months, I'll help you learn how to take on this task yourself. There really are no secrets-it just takes a lot of continuous work and an understanding of people, search engines, algorithms and toolsets.

SEO can (and should) be a full-time engagement. The scope of work depends on your site and your niche. This doesn't necessarily mean you'll need to spend 40 hours a week on it--you certainly couldn't afford to put that much effort into it--but you need to put a solid content and link-building strategy in place for the long term. Existing sites can be optimized by simply applying a correct title (the text that shows up in the blue bar at the top of your browser window) and a meta description (the text that often shows up as the description in the results listing).

If you've read the book Art of War, you'll know that the basis for going into battle is to know your competition first. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, the saying goes. In our SEO battlefield, we'll look at competitive analysis and keyword research to start.

A critical first step for an effective SEO plan is to perform heavy competitive analysis. In fact, if you search in Google for a key term or phrase related to your field and website, you should look at the first three to five websites that come up on the first page of your Google search results. These folks are the ones to beat. That's because if you're listed in the top 10 search results in Google, you may find that your website will get significantly increased traffic (assuming you have a competitive search term). I'll talk about how to get quality traffic and tracking/conversion in a future article.

It's also critical that your website be built in such a way that it's search-engine friendly but also user-friendly. To begin with, you must be very clear about what your site is all about. Do you know what your "value proposition" is? Then you'll want to ensure easy navigation, a clear call to action and relevant content. When you add relevant content pages and links within your theme and community, you're taking the first steps to success.

You must also make sure it loads quickly, is html/css (cascading style sheets) compliant, and lets visitor know what your site is all about in less than eight seconds. Even if you think your visitors are familiar with your product or service, you'll still want to make it easy to navigate and user friendly.

SEO is one of the most powerful online marketing mediums there is, and it's critical to the success of your online business. The bottom line is, SEO done right can enable you to be found and ranked well in the sea of billions of existing web pages, and your visitors and your bank account will both love you for it.