What Is SEO And How Does SEO Work?
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” In simple terms, it means the process of improving your site to increase its visibility when people search for products or services related to your business on Google, Bing, and other search engines. The better visibility your pages have in search results, the more likely you are to garner attention and attract prospective and existing customers to your business.
Search engines such as Google use an algorithm or set of rules to determine what pages to show for any given query. These algorithms have evolved to be extremely complex and take into account hundreds or even thousands of different ranking factors to determine the rankings of their SERPs.
What Is SEO?
SEO means Search Engine Optimization and is the process used to optimize a website’s technical configuration, content relevance, and link popularity so its pages can become easily findable, more relevant, and popular towards user search queries, and as a consequence, search engines rank them better.
Search engines recommend SEO efforts that benefit both the user search experience and the page’s ranking, by featuring content that fulfills user search needs. This includes the use of relevant keywords in titles, meta descriptions, and headlines (H1), featuring descriptive URLs with keywords rather than strings of numbers, and schema markup to specify the page’s content meaning, among other SEO best practices.
Search engines help people find what they’re looking for online. Whether researching a product, looking for a restaurant, or booking a vacation, search engines are a common starting point when you need information. Business owners offer a valuable opportunity to direct relevant traffic to your website.
How does SEO work?
If you found this page via Google search, you likely searched Google for [what is seo] or [seo].
This guide is published on Search Engine Land, an authoritative website with great expertise on and experience in the topic of SEO (we’ve been covering all SEO changes, big and small since 2006).
Originally published in 2010, our “What is SEO” page has earned a whopping 324,203 links.
Put simply, these factors (and others) have helped this guide earn a good reputation with search engines, which has helped it rank in Position 1 for years. It has accumulated signals that demonstrate it is authoritative and trustworthy – and therefore deserves to rank when someone searches for SEO.
But let’s look at SEO more broadly. As a whole, SEO really works through a combination of:
- People: The person or team responsible for doing or ensuring that the strategic, tactical, and operational SEO work is completed.
- Processes: The actions taken to make the work more efficient.
- Technology: The platforms and tools used.
- Activities: The end product, or output.
Many other things factor into how SEO works. What follows is a high-level look at the most important knowledge and process elements.
Six critical areas, in combination, make SEO work:
An SEO strategy is your long-term action plan. You need to set goals – and a plan for how you will reach them.
Think of it your SEO strategy as a roadmap. The path you take likely will change and evolve over time – but the destination should remain clear and unchanged.
Your SEO plan may include things such as:
- Setting goals (e.g., OKRs, SMART) and expectations (i.e., timelines/milestones).
- Defining and aligning meaningful KPIs and metrics.
- Deciding how projects will be created and implemented (internal, external, or a mix).
- Coordinating and communicating with internal and external stakeholders.
- Choosing and implementing tools/technology.
- Hiring, training, and structuring a team.
- Setting a budget.
- Measuring and reporting on results.
- Documenting the strategy and process.
2. Monitoring and maintaining
You need to know when something goes wrong or breaks on your website. Monitoring is critical.
You need to know if traffic drops to a critical page, pages become slow, unresponsive or fall out of the index, your entire website goes offline, links break, or any other potentially catastrophic issues.
Research is a key part of SEO. Some forms of research that will improve SEO performance include:
- Audience research: It’s important to understand your target audience or market. Who are they (i.e., their demographics and psychographics)? What are their pain points? What questions do they have that you can answer?
- Keyword research: This process helps you identify and incorporate relevant and valuable search terms people use into your pages – and understand how much demand and competition there is to rank for these keywords.
- Competitor research: What are your competitors doing? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What types of content are they publishing?
- Brand/business/client research: What are their goals – and how can SEO help them achieve those goals?
- Website research: A variety of SEO audits can uncover opportunities and issues on a website that are preventing success in organic search. Some audits to consider: technical SEO, content, link profile, and E-E-A-T.
- SERP analysis: This will help you understand the search intent for a given query (e.g., is it commercial, transactional, informational, or navigational) and create content that is more likely to earn rankings or visibility.
4. Creating and implementing
Once all the research is done, it’s time to turn ideas into action. That means:
- Creating new content: Advise your content team on what content needs to be created.
- Recommending or implementing changes or enhancements to existing pages: This could include updating and improving the content, adding internal links, incorporating keywords/topics/entities, or identifying other ways to optimize it further.
- Removing old, outdated, or low-quality content: The types of content that aren’t ranking well, driving converting traffic, or helping you achieve your SEO goals.
5. Understanding how search engines work
Simply, if you want people to find your business via search – on any platform – you need to understand the technical processes behind how the engine works – and then make sure you are providing all the right “signals” to influence that visibility.
When talking about traditional web search engines like Google, there are four separate stages of search:
- Crawling: Search engines use crawlers to discover pages on the web by following links and using sitemaps.
- Indexing: Search engines analyze the content and metadata of the pages it has discovered and add them to a database (though there’s no guarantee every page on your website will be indexed).
- Ranking: Complex algorithms look at a variety of signals to determine whether a page is relevant and of high-enough quality to show when searchers enter a query.
But optimizing for Google search is different from optimizing for search other platforms like YouTube or Amazon.
Let’s take Facebook, for example, where factors such as engagement (Likes, comments, shares, etc.) and who people are connected to matter. Then, on Twitter, signals like recency, interactions, or the author’s credibility are important.
And further complicating things: search engines have added machine learning elements in order to surface content – making it even harder to say “this” or “that” resulted in better or worse performance.
6. Analyzing, assessing, and reporting on performance
If you don’t measure SEO, you can’t improve it. To make data-driven decisions about SEO, you’ll need to use:
- Website analytics: Set up and use tools (at minimum, free tools such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster Tools) to collect performance data.
- Tools and platforms: There are many “all-in-one” platforms (or suites) that offer multiple tools, but you can also choose to use only select SEO tools to track performance on specific tasks. Or, if you have the resources and none of the tools on the market do exactly what you want, you can make your own tools.
After you’ve collected the data, you’ll need to report on progress. You can create reports using software or manually.
Performance reporting should tell a story and be done at meaningful time intervals, typically comparing to previous report periods (e.g., year over year). This will depend on the type of website (typically, this will be monthly, quarterly, or some other interval).
How can I learn SEO?
For a helpful dive into SEO, our Periodic Table Of SEO Factors will introduce you to all the key concepts you need to know, including the elements for successful on-page and off-page SEO, plus the “Toxins” or tactics that can hurt your rankings.
The table and accompanying report also look at three niches of search:
- Local SEO
- Publishing/News SEO
- E-commerce SEO
The Periodic Table of SE O Factors serves as the foundation of this Guide to SEO. Together, these resources will help you learn about SEO and inform your strategy for success.
The benefits of SEO
Search engine optimization is a key part of online marketing because search is one of the primary ways that users navigate the web.
Search results are presented in an ordered list, and the higher up on that list a site can get, the more traffic the site will tend to receive. For example, for a typical search query, the number one result will receive 40-60% of the total traffic for that query, with the number two and three results receiving significantly less traffic. Only 2-3% of searchers click beyond the first page of search results. Thus, even a small improvement in search engine rankings can result in a website receiving more traffic and potential business.