What is SEO and How it Works

Whether you’re absolutely new to SEO or are someone who needs a quick reference guide, you’re in the right place. In this quick SEO guide, we’re going to provide you with an overview of what is SEO and how it works.

In a nutshell, here’s what we’re going to cover in this post:

  • What is SEO and how it works?
  • How do search engines work?
  • Areas of SEO
  • Black Hat SEO vs. White Hat SEO
  • Importance of SEO for businesses
  • Things to remember about SEO

What is SEO and how it works?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization which is the practice of optimizing specific elements of your website, with the goal of ranking high in the search results for products & services your business offers. An effective SEO strategy can drive an enormous amount of organic and local traffic to your website and deliver exceptional ROI. We hope you find the basic principles of SEO simple and straightforward. Should you have any questions after having read our post, feel free to contact us.  

Let’s take a step back and try looking at the big picture to make sense of the above definition.

Say you have a website about healthy food recipes. Naturally, you want your website to appear in the top results when someone searches online for something like “healthy food recipes for kids”, or “healthy food recipes for weight loss”.

In order to do this, you need to make your website “search engine friendly”, a process referred to as Search Engine Optimization or SEO for short.

Before diving deeper into how SEO is done, it’d be helpful to first understand how search engines work.

How Do Search Engines Work?

In case you don’t know this already, there are literally billions of websites out there on the web. Search engines keep track of all these websites in a special database called “index”. When people enter search terms into search engines, the search engines scan their index and try to serve the best possible results.

So how exactly do search engines collect data about websites and build an index?

Well, search engines have special types of bots, commonly known as “spiders” or “crawlers” in the world of SEO. These bots have just one job: to constantly crawl the internet for all sorts of websites, and gather and submit their data to the index. This process is known as “crawling” and goes on round the clock. These bots constantly jump from site to site, following the links that go out from one webpage to another.

The bots are smart enough to gather information about websites during crawling, even if the sites are not fully optimized for search engines. This data is then submitted by the crawlers to the index. When someone searches for something on a search engine, it will scan its index and will serve the searcher with results that it deems the most relevant for the query.

SEO is an optimization process where you make enhancements to specific areas of the website’s structure and content. This optimization ensures that when a search engine bot crawls your website, it can easily figure out what the website is all about and can then index it properly.

The end goal of search engine optimization is to win the highest possible rankings in the search results for your target keywords. Higher rankings mean more traffic and potentially, more sales.

The Core Principles of SEO:

SEO has evolved over the years and has become much more complex and multifaceted than it was a couple of years ago. However, at its core, SEO is based on two main principles. Generally, sites that are authoritative and relevant rank higher in the search engines.

Let’s try understanding what authority and relevance mean.

Authority refers to the trustworthiness of a given website. The more trustworthy a website is, the higher its search engine rankings are likely to be. Search engines take into consideration a number of different factors to determine the authority of a website. Some of these factors include the age of the website, the number and quality of links pointing to it, and the number and frequency of mentions that particular website or brand receives on the internet.

Relevance, of course, refers to how appropriate and connected your website is to a visitor’s query. Taking the previous example, if you a have a website about healthy food recipes and someone types into Google “healthy food recipes for breakfast”, your website has high relevance to the query.

SEO today is much more complex than this but it’s just to give you a basic idea of what SEO revolves around and how it functions.

Historically, people have constantly abused the above two principles and have tried manipulative measures in order to trick the search engines and win higher rankings. These practices are referred to as Black Hat SEO while its counterpart is known as White Hat SEO.

Before discussing White Hat and Black Hat, let us have a look at the different areas of SEO. These areas are:

  • On-Page SEO
  • Off-Page SEO
  • Technical SEO
  • Local SEO

On-Page SEO:

This is perhaps the simplest area of SEO. You can easily understand and perform these optimizations even if you’ve never done it before. Just as the name sounds, on-page SEO mostly deals with elements that are visible on the web page.

Let’s put this into perspective using our previous example.

Let’s say on your website, you have a page about “healthy food recipes for breakfast”. In order to implement the on-page optimizations for this page, you would have to use the target keyword (healthy food recipes for breakfast) in a number of places including the title tag, URL, and in at least one of the headings on the page.

In order to take the optimizations a step further, you’d use the keyword in the meta tag, as well as in the ALT tag for any images you have on the page. Furthermore, you’d use the target keyword (and some of its variations) throughout the text on the page.

On-page optimization is typically the first step in implementing an SEO strategy for your website. For a comprehensive list of on-page SEO factors, check out our on-page seo checklist for 2019.

Off-Page SEO:

You guessed it right. Off-page SEO is the exact opposite of on-page. These optimizations take place outside of your website. Off-page SEO basically boils down to three factors:

  • Site Trust & Authority (links)
  • Brand Mentions
  • Social Media

Site Trust & Authority use to be determined by the number of backlinks, the more backlinks pointing back to your website, the higher you ranked, regardless of spamminess and quality

Today, the emphasis is on quality and relevancy.  If you have plenty of irrelevant or low-quality links pointing to your website, Google and other search engines will actually penalize you instead of ranking you higher.

In order to win with off-page SEO, you are going to need relevant, high-quality, and ideally, authoritative backlinks pointing to your website.

Social media also plays a great role in your off-page optimization efforts. If your website is frequently shared on social media and receives traffic from social platforms, it gives you an SEO boost.

Finally, brand or website mentions also help in your off-page SEO efforts. The more mentions your brand or website receives across the internet, the more search engines will deem you as a trustworthy and reliable website.

Technical SEO:

Technical SEO wasn’t even a thing until a few years ago. However, with the constantly changing SEO landscape, technical optimization is becoming more and more important to consider.

Technical SEO deals with the structure and architecture of your website. It deals with advanced topics such as sitemaps, website speed, redirects, and crawlability of your website.

Frankly speaking, technical optimizations are not beginner-friendly and take time to understand and implement. However, they’re well worth the hassle because having these optimizations in place makes all the difference between an average optimized website vs. one that is supercharged to rank higher.

Local SEO:

Local SEO, as the name suggests, deals with the optimization of your website to appear in results for searches/ search maps that have a “local intent”. It is quite different from your standard SEO. Local SEO is meant for businesses that intend to rank in specific geographical areas rather than national rankings.

Generally, the scope of SEO is on a national level, i.e. websites are optimized to win rankings for specific keywords throughout a given country. Local SEO, on the other hand, focuses on enhancing your website to rank it for local searches. Searches like “best restaurants near me” or “plumbing services in [location]” have a clear local intent.

Based on the type of your business, you might need to focus more on local SEO than the standard one. According to Google, almost half of all searches have a local intent. If your business operates in a specific geographic location, it’s best to optimize your website for local search.

Local SEO focuses on “localizing” your website. That means, including the name of your city or area throughout your website. You’ll also need to claim your business listing on “Google My Business”, as well as on other prominent directories.

Finally, you’ll need to win lots of citations and reviews online. Citation simply means a mention of your business NAP (Name, Address, Phone) anywhere on the internet. The more citations you have, the higher you’re likely to rank in local searches. Reviews also help in winning you higher rankings for local searches.

Blackhat vs. Whitehat SEO:

Blackhat SEO refers to deceptive and manipulative practices or short-cuts that some webmasters use to manipulate their way to higher rankings. Some of these practices include questionable or poor quality backlinks, link farms (networks), and keyword stuffing which is the practice of excessive keywords in the body of content.

While these methods worked well till a few years ago, today these methods don’t help at all. And even if they do, that effect will last for a very short time and you will eventually end up getting your website penalized by search engines.

You need to be aware that search engines today have grown much smarter than you would think. Almost all search engines, particularly Google, have introduced stringent penalties for websites that are found to be involved in deceptive SEO practices.

Whitehat SEO refers to the SEO best practices that are recommended by search engines and industry experts. We’re not going to drill down into the details of Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO. The only piece of advise we have for you is to focus on building websites with high-quality content and to optimize your sites only using White Hat SEO practices.

Importance of SEO for Businesses:

We’re living in the digital age. Having an online presence is of utmost importance today for any type and size of business. And once you build an online presence by having a website, the first thing you need to do is SEO.

A proper optimization will drive traffic to your website from the search engines, resulting in more sales of your products and services. Regardless of the industry, you’re in and the size of your business, you can damn well bet that your competitors have a website are utilizing SEO, at least to some extent.

Traditional marketing tactics are gradually dying out and getting replaced with digital marketing. SEO is the most crucial part of online marketing since, without SEO, your website would be equal to non-existent.

People are searching for all sorts of products and services online and with SEO, you can ensure that your website shows up when people search for the products and services that you offer.

Things to remember about SEO:

Having discussed the basics of SEO, we’re gonna leave you with some key principles of SEO that you should always remember.

SEO is not an action, it’s a process:

This is absolutely essential to understand. SEO is not a one-time thing that you can just “do and get done with”. It’s an ongoing optimization process. Search engine results keep fluctuating and you’ll make sure to keep an eye on your rankings, as well as those of your competitors. Google constantly rolls out new changes to the ranking algorithm and rankings fluctuate pretty much all the time. In order to stay in the top results, you need to stay on your toes.

SEO takes time to show results:

You gotta play it really cool and calm with SEO. It usually takes somewhere from 2 to 4 months for your performed optimizations to show their fruits. Any SEO changes you make are only registered once a crawler visits your site. There’s really no sure-shot way to ‘force’ the crawler into crawling your website. Don’t get frustrated if you perform optimizations and don’t observe any changes in your rankings for a couple of weeks. Give it some time…

SEO is Constantly Evolving:

There’s always gonna be some folks who try to find an easy way out with SEO. They constantly try coming up with ways to manipulate the search engine results and win rankings. Search engines too are aware of this and they constantly upgrade their ranking algorithms. What it means for you is that you need to keep in touch with the latest happenings in the SEO industry so that you can keep your website in its best shape.

Don’t Compromise on UX for SEO:

Our last tip is that you should always give the greatest regard to user-experience, even before SEO. While SEO is of utmost importance for online visibility, don’t forget that the ultimate users of your website are humans and not search engines. In fact, Rank Brain, Google’s latest machine learning algorithm, keeps track of UX data of websites and then ranks those websites accordingly. Rank Brain keeps track of analytics such as the average duration of time a visitor spends on your site and the number of pages they visit etc. If Rankbrain learns that most users immediately exit a website, it will push that website down in the Google rankings. An opposite behaviour from the users will eventually raise rankings of that website. Moral of the story is: optimize your website primarily for users. Search engines are secondary.

If you’re a business owner looking for DIY SEO tips and tutorials, be our guest. We regularly publish detailed tutorials on all things SEO. However, if you feel you simply don’t have the time to take care of your SEO, leave it to us. We’re Canada’s largest SEO company offering full stack digital marketing services. Book a free consultation today and learn how we can help with your business.

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