Yes, ART. If it were math then everyone would be successful at it.
But it isn't math. It's not a science or set of rules to follow or anything that tangible. That's one of the reasons this profession has the reputation of being internet magic practiced by a cult of online marketing gurus born on the darkside of the Google sun. Yes....there are a thousand (very good) websites that will tell you how to do SEO and how it works and some will actually spit out an automated laundry list of items they call a website audit to get you started. But most of that is more dazzle than substance. In reality what actually works is a constantly changing formula. Many of the ingredients (task & techniques) may be the same but there's always something special that works a little bit or whole lot better than the standard "SEO best practices".
For a more clinical definition of Search Engine Optimization or Optimizers (SEO or SEOs) you can read this...
I've been around long enough to know a time when there was no Google. Searching for something was near to impossible if not completely frustrating!!!
Once upon a time, ranking a website #1 in Google was as easy as simply adding a keyword into the meta tags.
The "Golden Days of SEO" refers back to when Google was young and the Google Algorithm was not very sofisticated at all.
As all good myths and legend do, search engine magic did once exist. At the dawn of Google there were secrets to getting websites ranked so easy it would boggle your mind these days. We see the remnants of them in the meta tags still used for every website. But back when Google first came out using these tags or "optimizing" your website was as simple as typing in what keywords you wanted to be ranked for. It was literally like marketing magic.
I've had some overlapping careers in traditional print marketing of all kinds to web development and then to almost entirely search engine marketing. My first actual formal search engine optimization exposure was as a developer at an internet ad agency, Top Site in Orlando. Among some of the more notible accomplishments from that position were a pair of shopping cart websites we developed from scratch. That was some old school stuff built in Dreamweaver and paired up with a PHP coder. It was at Top Site that I learned the difference in what you "hear" search engines like Google look for and what actually worked. It was towards the tail end of SEO's "Golden Era" where we charged $600 per keyword per month for a guaranteed Google position. Magic bullets existed that allowed the industry to make such promises.
The rules have changed a great deal since then. There are no more secret instant top of the rankings "Magic Bullets". All that has been methodically filtered away with each passing algorithm. But it did exist and that's why SEO has such a tainted perception of still being mastered by Google voodoo gurus with trade secrets. I have no doubt there are automated systems that are pretty proficient at getting good search results for clients but not to they extent that they work in a competitive industry or as effectively as to guaranteee a #1 position instantly. In fact those kinds of techniques are likely to backfire.
So ....you've heard about this thing called Google. And you know businesses, organizations, political figures, your grandmother's sister and aliens all want to be found in Google (let's just dispense with the lessor search engines for the sake of this discussion). But how do you do that? It's easy! You become an SEO ....TA DAAAAA!!! ....done.
Oh wait, sorry where did I go to school for SEO?
How this is done is the complicated part or at the least, a bit confusing to most people that aren't familiar with Google and online marketing.
Most of us search for things on the internet or on our phones all the time. The answers we get, the list of places, things or stuff our searches turn up are not there by accident. Google has a formula (algorithm or set of testing rules) for every website it keeps track of. SEO is the art of using that formula to get your local Florida business seen in that list ahead of everyone else.