What is SEO? Learn the Basics and How it Works


Have you ever searched something on Google and wondered how the results came to be? For instance, why is Google showing a particular page from this specific website and not another? And what is the search engine’s basis for ranking website A higher than website B when they tackle the exact same topic? More importantly, how can you make your website be the number one result?

In a digital-first world, search engine rankings are a winner-takes-all game. The top result has an average click-through rate of 28.5%. That average CTR sharply falls after position one with the second and third results having CTRs of 15% and 11% respectively. By position nine, it drops to just 2%.

Banking on the fact that there are approximately 89,206 Google searches happening per second, the Internet has now become an integral channel for advertising and marketing your business. If your website doesn’t appear on the first page for relevant search terms or queries, it’s not reaching its full potential.

That’s where search engine optimisation (SEO) comes in.

What is SEO?

Most of the top search results you see on Google and other search engines didn’t happen by accident. SEO helped them reach those highly coveted spots.

In a nutshell, SEO is the practice of optimising your website for organic web searches to improve the quality and quantity of the traffic it receives. Many brands have built their websites to adhere to SEO algorithms to reach the top positions.

SEO involves technical aspects such as your website’s architecture (how your website is structured), and other elements like keyword research, content creation and user experience.

On paper, SEO sounds relatively simple. However, SEO is a moving target, even for the most experienced digital marketers. Algorithms constantly change and the SEO tactics that once worked can suddenly land penalties for your website. To keep a website optimise, one needs deep and current knowledge of how search engines think, and how real people react with your site’s content. This mix of site architecture, usability and optimised content creation means SEO is all about seamlessly connecting search engines and people.

How Does SEO Work?

As much as we would it want to, SEO results don’t happen overnight. The average time for rankings to go up takes between four to six months, and that timeline is influenced by a number of factors. But when done right, SEO can yield unimaginable results as long as you regularly update your site and abide by quality guidelines. For a comprehensive overview of how Google understands and finds your website’s pages, you can refer to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

If a search query or term returns hundreds of thousands of results, how can you ensure you’re the one at the top? Well, it’s all about convincing the search engine that you’re the best result.

Crawling and indexing

Google alone handles an estimate of 3.5 billion searches per day. It pores over all of the websites to return relevant results in seconds. In order to do that, these three things happen behind the scenes:

  • The search engine creates an index of pages on the web
  • It then instantly accesses this list
  • It pores through the list and decides which pages are most relevant to the search query

In the world of SEO, this process is known as crawling and indexing.

The web is made up of sites with an ever-expanding mass of pages interconnected by links. Search engines crawl and index these websites continuously, keeping track of recently added pages, deleted ones, fresh content and new links. When an online user performs a search, Google then has an updated index of billions of possible solutions for the searcher. All that’s left to for Google is to rank these results according to quality and relevance, among other factors.

Factors that Affect SEO Ranking

There are 200 factors that influence a search engine’s decision to rank you on the first page. It’s keen to know that determining the best and most relevant results aren’t done by a team of humans at the Google Headquarters. Instead, the search engine uses algorithms to understand search intent, find relevant results and then rank those results based on popularity and authority.

That said, search engines don’t reveal exactly how their ranking algorithms work. However, most algorithmic decisions are influenced by the following major factors:

  • Content Type: Searchers looks for different types of content, from blog articles and infographics to videos and product reviews. Search engines prioritise various types of content based on intent.
  • Content Quality: Search engines prioritise informative and useful content. While those are subjective measures, SEO specialists generally regard this as content that’s original, thorough, based on data and solution-oriented.
  • Content Freshness: Search engines typically show searchers the latest results, as long as they meet other ranking factors. So when the algorithm judges two pages to be of equal quality, the most recent one is likely to appear on top.
  • Page Popularity: Google still uses a variation of their PageRank algorithm, which measures a page’s quality based on the number of links that point to it, alongside the quality of those links.
  • Website Quality: Search engines bump down spammy websites with poor quality.
  • Language: Not everyone searches using English. Search engines also prioritise results in the same language as the search query.
  • Location: Many searches are local (e.g. “dental offices near me”). Search engines understand this and rank local results higher when applicable.

By keeping these factors in mind, SEO marketers can execute a strategy and create content that’s more likely to be found and ranked by search engines.

Important SEO Terms to Know

SEO is a complex subject matter, so let’s discuss the most common terms associated with it.

Keyword Research

Search engines use keywords to figure out searcher intent, or what an online user hopes to find when they enter a search query. Keyword research helps SEO marketers understand what users are searching, specifically what keywords they’re using to do so. Those keywords will bring traffic to your website.

There are three main types of keywords:

  • Short-tail: uses only one or two words. These keywords have high search value but they’re also extremely competitive. Examples: ‘shoes’ or ‘digital marketing.’
  • Long-tail: uses three or more words. These are more specific with respectable search volume. Examples: ‘high heels for sale’ or ‘what is digital marketing.’
  • Latest Semantic Indexing Keywords (LSIs): these provide search engines with contextual information. For instance, a page ranks for a vague term like ‘parasite.’ It could be about the film, the organism or even a dictionary definition. Google uses LSIs to figure out which one a searcher wants to see. For instance, a page about the Bong Joon-ho film could contain LSI terms such as ‘Choi Woo-sik’ or ‘Oscar-winning film.’

Technical SEO

This is the art of optimising a website for crawling and indexing, making it a crucial step in getting a website to rank. If you build a site on unstable technical SEO foundations, you likely won’t see good results even if your on-page content is of high quality. That’s because sites need to be structured in a way that crawlers can easily access and understand the content.

Technical SEO mainly focuses on site infrastructure and architecture. It has nothing to do with content creation or link building strategies. It deals more with URL hierarchy and structure, page speed and XML sitemaps.

On-page SEO

This refers to the process of optimising individual web pages so they rank higher in search results and earn relevant traffic. On-page SEO involves optimising website content as well as the HTML source code. Internal links also comes into play. In other words, if technical SEO is the back end, on-page SEO is the front end.

Off-Page SEO

This encompasses factors that occur outside your website but still influence your rankings. Factors such as the number of backlinks you have and the quality of those backlinks fall under this category. Off-page SEO basically affirms to search engines that your site is authoritative, valuable and deserves to rank high in search results.

Link Building

Link building is the process of acquiring links to your website in order to increase your site’s authority and drive referral traffic. There are two types of links:

Inbound: also known as backlinks or external links. These are links from other websites that lead to your content. Think of them as positive votes regarding the quality of your content.

Internal: links that lead to pages on the same domain. These improve your site’s crawlability and triggers signals to Google about the most important keywords on a page. Internal links also keep visitors on your site longer and helps them better navigate your site.

White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO

White hat SEO is the act of doing SEO by using only strategies and techniques deemed acceptable by search engines. As major search engines have guidelines, SEO marketers are encouraged to follow them when optimising a website for SEO.

Black hat SEO, on the other hand, involves using unethical tactics such as keyword stuffing, hidden text, page cloaking and so on. Not only will black hat SEO get a website penalised and lose a big chunk of traffic, but it will also bring in users who aren’t relevant to your business.

Why Do Businesses Need SEO?

Imagine a situation where you need to buy a new pair of headphones. You want them delivered straight to your home so you head to Google to search for an e-commerce store. You type in a search query and all the gadget retailers in your area pop up. It’s likely you will click on the top three results. You browse through their website, look at their products or services and then check out reviews. You might even make it all the way to the checkout page.

That transaction happened because you saw the website on the top positions. And the reason why that website is on the top is because of SEO.

As long as people use the Internet, SEO will help deliver quality leads to your business. SEO increases your online visibility, boosts brand awareness and ultimately drives more sales. Of course, the process involves all of the things mentioned in this article and more. Once you manage to master SEO and utilise it correctly, it will be a formidable part of your overall marketing strategy.

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