Search engine optimization (SEO) is simply the process of getting your website to appear at the top of the search engines. It is brand awareness for the web. There is a reason that marketing your website starts with search engine optimization. It is the same reason why you would start marketing your storefront with brand awareness -- if your customers don’t know you exist, they won’t buy from you.
Some consultants talk about starting with social media or paid advertisements, but search engines are where potential clients are already looking, and it is a very cost-effective way to start. More importantly, if you use search engine optimization to generate placement in the search engines, you’ll continue to reap the reward of that work long after you stop working on it. You may choose to jump directly to traffic generation to get an immediate boost, but you should never ignore search engine optimization.
One way to see how well you are doing is to Google yourself. Companies should regularly do this to see how well they rank in the search engines. Of course, these are the only terms you should Google. But, if you aren't found at least for your own name, then you have a long way to go.
I’ve heard it said that buying ads is like renting a house, while performing SEO is like buying a house. It develops equity. If done properly, it can be a year or more before someone unseats you from the top of the search engine.
You have to be careful, though. Search engine optimization is not a traffic generation tactic, per se. It is the equivalent of brand awareness, because enough brand awareness will generate traffic. While in the long run, SEO will generate traffic and, by extension, conversions, your initial goal should be simply to increase search engine rankings for brand awareness.
Your first goal is to be present so people know you are there.
It might take as much as six months to a year for your key terms to start truly generating meaningful traffic but it will be worth it. When you become firmly planted in the search engines, you'll have a stronger foundation for all of your marketing efforts.