Algorithmic vs. Heuristic SEO: Main Differences & Examples

Georgios Chasiotis

Georgios Chasiotis

Back in 1886, Karl Benz patented the world’s very first car.

Until then, the primary means of road transportation was horse carriages, and people were constantly looking for ways to make them faster, safer, and more efficient.

No one really thought about coming up with something entirely different until Benz became the first to experiment with a new idea.

After all, as Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would've said faster horses.” 

This is the concept of not focusing on what people want and trying to satisfy their existing needs but creating new needs yourself by inventing innovative approaches, products, or ways of thinking and doing things.

This innovative and unorthodox way of thinking can also be applied to SEO.

Here’s how.

 

What Is Algorithmic SEO?

 

For this guide to make sense, we first need to explain what each of our two terms means (algorithmic and heuristic SEO), starting with algorithmic SEO.

Algorithmic SEO has to do with all the SEO actions that aim to “satisfy” Google’s algorithm (and that of other search engines), in order to help a website get as much organic visibility as possible by outperforming other websites in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

When we talk about an algorithm like Google’s, no one really knows for sure how results are generated; what we do know though is that it’s something multidimensional that takes into account a page’s…

  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Quality
  • Usability
  • Context
  • And more

…in order to decide which pages play by the rules of the algorithm and which do not.

People in the field of SEO have these factors more or less in mind when they invest in SEO activities that will help their websites rank high(er) in the SERPs and thus, gain more visibility.

Such actions can include:

  • On-page SEO tactics
  • Off-page SEO tactics (e.g., link building)
  • Technical SEO

Let’s see how they can be applied to web pages through three different examples, one for each SEO action.

Example: Moosend

With Moosend being one of the top email marketing tools out there, it makes sense—from an SEO perspective—to create a list post on the best Mailchimp alternatives.

Why? 

To begin with, the keyword “mailchimp alternatives” has a global volume of 9K monthly searches according to Ahrefs, as of today August 15th, 2022.

Actually, selecting a good keyword is an important factor that can determine SEO success because it sets the foundation for a piece of content to satisfy the algorithm and therefore, perform better organically.

In fact, Moosend’s blog post receives over 5K monthly organic visits.

Plus, it has received a content grade of A+ for using the vast majority of Clearscope’s recommended terms…

…something that has been proven to be correlated with higher Google rankings, according to a study by Backlinko.

Image Source: Backlinko

If we could mention another on-page SEO aspect that has helped Moosend’s content perform so well in the SERPs, it’s that of a clear page structure.

This means using the right headings that will provide users with a better experience and allow Google to understand the piece well.

In this case, this is what the structure looks like in a nutshell:

Each tool is broken down in terms of its features and pricing, and there are also visual elements like tables that help users get a better understanding of the differences between the tools and guide them through the content.

Overall, those were just some of the on-page SEO tactics that Moosend has successfully implemented to satisfy both users and Google’s algorithm.

Let’s continue with our next example.

Example: SwagDrop

Link building is a common off-page SEO activity that many people in the space choose to invest in and rightfully so.

This is because receiving high-quality backlinks can help establish your site as an authority in Google’s eyes and therefore, help you perform better organically.

For instance, branded merchandise company SwagDrop, saw significant growth in its number of referring domains in January 2022…

…which, as we can see, had an immediate positive correlation with the website’s organic traffic…

…as well as the number of organic keywords it ranked for in the SERPs.

And even if we take a look at the quality of the backlinks the site has received, we can see that many of them have quite a high DR.

After all, even studies show that the top performing pages have on average more backlinks than lower ranking pages.

Image Source: Backlinko

This is just one example of how an off-page tactic like link building can contribute to great organic results, and help a website outperform its competitors in the SERPs.

Of course, there are other tactics too like social media and digital PR that help a website, but link building is the most tightly correlated with algorithmic SEO, since backlinks act as a vote of trust from one website to another.

Let’s move on to the next example.

Example: Ahrefs

Another important algorithmic SEO aspect is technical SEO.

In short, it refers to improving the technical aspects of a website in order to increase the ranking of its pages in the search engines.

This is a multidimensional process and can range from a website having an XML sitemap and generally being accessible to search engines, all the way to optimizing for Google’s Core Web Vitals, and much more.

Just to give you an idea, a website like Ahrefs is available in multiple languages.

Image Source: Ahrefs

As you can imagine, all the pages need to rank in different countries depending on their language, so this requires some technical SEO work.

To be precise, an HTML attribute called hreflang must be implemented so it specifies the language targeting of a webpage; this helps search engines show the correct version of the site to the right users.

The attribute should contain the right two-letter code depending on the language, which could be “en-gb” for British English, “de” for German, or “es” for Spanish.

In the HTML code above, we can see that Ahrefs has added lang=“es” to make it clear to search engines that this is the Spanish version of the website.

Although technical SEO is essential for all websites, despite their industry or the type of content they produce, this is another example of how certain actions aim to satisfy search engines’ algorithms in order to see better results.

While this can work wonders if done correctly, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t combine it with an alternative approach that we call heuristic SEO.

Let’s dive deeper into this.

 

What Is Heuristic SEO?

 

Heuristic SEO is the approach that doesn’t aim to satisfy the algorithm or the searchers’ existing needs but rather aims to create those needs through something entirely new and innovative.

In other words, heuristic as an adjective means enabling someone to discover or learn something for themselves.

Heuristic thinking can be applied to various aspects of our lives, considering it requires coming up with strategies and hypotheses until a solution is found, so the process is by no means defined and the outcome is not expected.

This can also be applied to SEO, so let’s see a few examples that have taken advantage of this process to make things more clear.

Example: CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer

CoSchedule is one of the most popular work management software for marketers.

According to Ahrefs, as of today August 15th, 2022, the website has visibility for 175K keywords

…with the best-performing ones (after the main branded term) being “headline analyzer” and “coschedule headline analyzer”...

Both of them refer to the same page which is a very useful headline analyzer tool, helping you optimize your headlines so they perform better.

Image Source: Coschedule

You might assume that search demand for a tool like this is quite high and indeed it is; as we saw earlier, Coschedule’s top two keywords for this page have a monthly search volume of 3.5K and 1.3K respectively.

Seeing those numbers makes you think that it makes total sense for Coschedule to create a tool based on them, in order to benefit from the organic traffic, but that’s not exactly the case.

Allow us to explain.

With the help of WaybackMachine, we can see that the page started getting visibility towards the end of 2014, so we suppose that’s around the time it was created.

What’s more, if we have a look at the worldwide demand for the term “headline analyzer” with Google Trends, we can clearly see that search demand until late 2014 was low but after that, we notice a significant increase in search demand.

Image Source: Google Trends

Clearly, the period search demand started picking up is the same period Coschedule published its headline analyzer, meaning that although no one was really interested in searching for a tool like that before 2014, the company went ahead and made it anyway, thus creating the demand on its own.

This is what heuristic SEO is all about; you don’t pay attention to what people are searching for or what Google tells you people want to see, but you go into unexplored areas and create from scratch something you believe people will want to see.

If you succeed, you’ll be the pioneer and establish yourself as a thought leader in a certain field or category, just like Coschedule did.

Let’s have a look at another example.

Example: HubSpot’s Website Grader

HubSpot doesn't require much introduction as it's one of the most popular SaaS companies that marketers and salespeople use worldwide. 

In its wide range of free tools, one can also find the website grader, which gives your website a grade and tells you how you can improve it.

Image Source: Hubspot

The interesting thing about this tool is that it goes way back; it was actually launched in 2007 and started gaining visibility around 2008 as we can see below.

In terms of global demand for a term like “website grader”, with the help of Google Trends we notice that up until the tool was launched no one was really searching for the term, but after 2008 demand started growing significantly due to the tool’s existence.

Although demand saw a decrease a few years later, what you need to keep in mind is that if HubSpot followed an algorithmic SEO approach and paid attention to what people were searching for before launching the tool, it would have never been created.

On the contrary, it took the risk of creating something brand new that wasn’t in demand—at least in terms of Google searches—and created the demand itself; this is a great case demonstrating how heuristic SEO works.

Let’s have a look at another one.

Example: Zillow’s Property Finder

Zillow allows users to enter any address or ZIP code in the US, and discover what properties are available for rent or sale on a particular street or neighborhood.

Among the 8.5M keywords the website ranks for organically…

…many of them refer to specific addresses where people are looking for properties.

For example, the address “2825 saratoga trail frederick co” is a term with over 8K monthly searches on Google and Zillow is the first result that comes up.

This actually generates almost 6K monthly organic visits for Zillow.

Obviously, Zillow wasn’t discouraged by the fact that not every address in the US had search demand, but it went ahead anyway and created a page for each one so people can find a property there, if interested.

It created pages with the available properties for each one, that allowed users to use the product effectively and demand followed naturally, in a classic case of a heuristic SEO approach.

Moving on to another great example.

Example: TripAdvisor’s Restaurant Pages

You all know that the possibilities TripAdvisor offers when it comes to finding the best hotels, flights, cruises, and things to do are endless.

Let’s take the case of finding the best restaurants, just for the sake of example.

Pages of restaurants actually attract over 6.7M organic visits per month for the website…

…and it is something that only happened because TripAdvisor went ahead and created pages for all restaurants, despite the fact that not every single one had search demand at the time.

This is a great example of how you sometimes need to think out of the box and create something brand new, which you believe users will find valuable.

Let’s see one last example.

Example: Drift

Drift is a special case in the SaaS world because it coined the term conversational marketing.

In a nutshell, conversational marketing is a method of engaging with website visitors and converting leads through dialogue-driven activities.

Image Source: Drift

This method hadn’t been given a name until a few years ago and the company came up with the term—which is widely used now—around 2018 as you can see below, at least regarding its conversational marketing page.

Image Source: Webarchive

Up until then, there was very little search demand for this term as we can see from Ahrefs, but after 2018 the increase is notable.

While we’re not solely talking about a specific page or tool, but rather a whole business that’s based on a heuristic approach, it’s a great example that shows by being the pioneer of something and not basing everything on existing demand, you can become a thought leader and an authority in your space, like Drift.

Now that we’ve seen what algorithmic and heuristic SEO are all about, as well as some examples for each one, let’s break down their main differences to make things clearer.

 

Algorithmic vs. Heuristic SEO: Main Differences

 

As we’ve seen so far in this comparison guide, the algorithmic and heuristic approach in general have some prominent differences.

Let’s have a look at them one by one.

Difference #1: Bias

When talking about differences between algorithmic and heuristic SEO, we couldn’t possibly not mention how the former is biased, while the latter is unbiased

What we mean is that when following an algorithmic method, you aim to serve what both search engines and people want to see; this by itself makes your approach biased since you try to satisfy certain criteria, needs, and audiences.

On the other hand, the heuristic way of thinking tends to be unbiased because you don’t aim to satisfy a specific audience or certain criteria of search engines; you create something new that you believe will be valuable without paying attention to preexisting notions.

This leads us to our second difference.

Difference #2: Intuition

Another core distinction between the two is the notions they’re based on.

In other words, when creating something with an algorithmic mindset, you already have certain things in mind, such as metrics.

For instance, when creating SEO content, your research is usually based on a target keyword and its search volume, the right search intent, competing pieces and their performance, and much more.

This lays the foundation for creating something based on preexisting notions and not assumptions or your intuition.

This is something heuristic SEO is all about; after all, when creating something entirely new without trying to satisfy certain needs and criteria, it’s only natural not to have much available data.

This means that you base whatever you’re creating on your intuition, assumptions, and even personal research if you’ve done some.

Let’s continue.

Difference #3: Timeframe of outcomes

Our third difference is based on the timeframe in which you expect to see outcomes for whatever it is that you’re creating.

The algorithmic approach tends to offer shorter-term outcomes, while the heuristic approach is for the future.

We can’t possibly give a specific timeframe, but you have to keep in mind that although algorithmic SEO does take time and patience to generate results, it’s usually not as much as for heuristic SEO.

After all, both serve different objectives, so it makes more sense to take a longer time for you to become a thought leader than to see your first organic visits.

Moving on to the next example.

Difference #4: Predictability of outcomes

When talking about outcomes of the two approaches, they don’t just differ in terms of the time period, but also the predictability of those outcomes.

Generally speaking, as we mentioned earlier, in algorithmic SEO you always have certain things in mind like:

  • Data (search volume, keyword difficulty, traffic potential, etc.)
  • Competition
  • Ranking factors

And there’s more, which makes it easier for you to predict if a tool or piece of content will perform well or not.

For example, if you’re creating a blog post based on “saas seo” as a target keyword which has a global volume of 1.4K monthly searches…

…and the top result currently receives 596 monthly visits…

…this gives a good idea of your content’s potential performance ranges, assuming you make it to Google’s first page.

This doesn’t mean you can’t outperform your competitors or that the search volume won’t change in the future, but the data is strong enough for you to even broadly predict an outcome.

However, this isn’t the case with heuristic SEO; since you create something entirely new you don’t have enough data to help you predict an outcome.

At best, you can guess how well something will perform based on your intuition (like we mentioned in difference #2) and common sense.

Let’s continue.

Difference #5: Competition

By now, it’s pretty clear that competition is another major difference between our two terms.

When we’re talking about algorithmic SEO, you try to satisfy the same algorithm your competitors try to satisfy, as well as serve the same audience.

Needless to say, a lot of the time you target the very same keywords!

This makes the SERPs highly competitive, making it harder and harder to earn a high spot in them and, therefore, get the clicks you want.

On the other hand, there’s no competition in heuristic SEO and you’re not trying to outperform anyone.

This is because you’re creating something unique to help you stand out in the future, so there’s no existing demand or needs to serve, but you’re creating them with your own actions.

Let’s move on to our last difference.

 

How to Maintain a Balance Between the Two Ways

 

When it comes to using both algorithmic and heuristic SEO, you should keep in mind that you need to keep a balance between the two.

As we mentioned, one’s not necessarily better than the other and you don’t have to choose just one. 

After all, relying on a single strategy would do more harm than good.

So, as we’ve mentioned, what you need to bear in mind is that algorithmic SEO is better at producing results in the short-term, while heuristic SEO is for the future.

Practically, this means that once you have certain goals in mind that you wish to achieve, you need to invest in algorithmic SEO to achieve the shorter-term ones like…

  • Increasing organic traffic
  • Raising awareness
  • Increasing sign-ups/demos requests
  • Increasing sales

…and invest in heuristic SEO to achieve your long-term goals that will make you stand out in the future as the pioneer of a new approach, method, tool, or piece of content.

This doesn’t mean that algorithmic SEO will produce results the next day, but results are more “shorter-term” than what heuristic SEO can offer, of which the results will naturally take a longer amount of time, both for search engines and for users to adopt.

Overall, knowing what your goals are and having the right expectations about the results are key to combining and maintaining a balance between algorithmic and heuristic SEO.

Let’s wrap things up with some final words.

 

Conclusion

 

So now that you’ve reached the end of this guide and know one or two things about the algorithmic and the heuristic approach in general, which do you think Karl Benz followed when he created the very first car?

Considering he created something original the world had never seen before—as well as the fact we’re talking about him right now—makes it obvious he followed the heuristic way of thinking.

Had he followed the algorithmic approach, he would’ve made horse carriages faster, safer, or just better in general.

Obviously this approach is great too, but when it comes to SEO there’s no need to choose one or the other.

Finding the golden ratio between algorithmic and heuristic SEO is ideal, so we hope that this guide has helped you enough to get you started. Best of luck!