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What Is SEO And How It Works: Everything You Need To Know

To online marketing professionals, search engine optimization (SEO) needs no introduction. It’s the lifeblood of their industry. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to perform their jobs effectively.

But it’s a different story for entrepreneurs who plan on entering the market for the first time.

In this post, we’ll demystify SEO so that anyone can grasp its basic concept and use it to boost site traffic and sales. By the end of this guide, you should know how to integrate SEO into your marketing strategy.

Let’s begin.

What Is SEO?

People want to rank on top of search engines like Google. Why? Those who are near or on the top are more likely to receive more views.

Think about it. When was the last time you scrolled past page three of the search results? The further you are down the results, the fewer chances you have of people finding you.

Unfortunately, getting to the top is not easy. Google, the world’s largest search engine, uses a complex algorithm and takes into account a number of factors to determine which pages go on top.

This is where SEO comes in.

Search engine optimization is the process of improving your site’s chances of ranking higher in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

But that’s an oversimplification. The reality is that SEO has many components. For starters, there are three types of SEO:

  • White Hat — These are tactics that hit closest to search engine guidelines for optimization. Simply put, white hat SEO involves the use of tactics that search engines approve.
  • Black Hat — These tactics make use of strategies that undermine search engine guidelines. Black hat tactics exploit loopholes, which is why they work, at least for a little while. Google implements sanctions to sites they catch using black hat techniques. And when they do, these sites drop so far down the rankings that they rarely recover.
  • Gray Hat — Gray hat marketers use a combination of white and black hat tactics.

We will only discuss white hat tactics from this point on.

Parts of SEO

As implied earlier, SEO is a combination of strategies working together to make search engines rank you higher in the SERPs.

So the question becomes: What do you look for when you do SEO for your website?

Below are some of the factors that impact SEO. We’ll discuss each in a bit so you know what to expect when you launch an SEO campaign for the first time.

Link Structure

Links are very important in SEO. There are two types of links: internal and external.

 

 

    • are links that are pointing to other pages within your domain. For example, if you write an article and you add a

link going to your homepage — that’s one internal

    link.

  • External links are links that point to other domains. If you have two domains and you link one to the other, that’s an external link. If you link to a news site, that’s another external link.
what is seo - parts of seo - time

Time.com — Links in green boxes are examples of internal links.

Why are links important? There are several reasons.

Google considers backlinks as a vote of confidence. If Google sees that people link to a particular page often, it assumes that the information on that page is valuable.

Then there’s the concept of link equity (AKA link juice), a Google ranking factor. This refers to the value passed on by one page to another.

Finally, there’s page discovery. Search engines “crawl” pages — meaning they look at a page to go over its content and the links within. If you don’t link to other pages in your domain, Google will never discover them.

It’s like placing your content inside a box and sealing all the cracks. Google won’t have any way of seeing what’s inside.

So make sure you link to all pages inside your domain. One popular content structure for internal linking is the Reverse Silo method.

what is seo - parts of seo - reverse silo

You can read more about Reverse Siloing here.

Indexability

Indexability refers to Google’s ability to add pages to its index after they’re discovered. It’s not the same as crawlability although both share some similarities. To be more specific, some issues that affect a page’s crawlability can also affect indexing.

Indexability can be difficult for newbies to understand, especially if you’re not into technical jargon. But you want to make sure that your page redirects are correct, your site servers are running properly, and you’re not blocking Google from indexing pages.

SEMrush published a post on crawlability and indexability.

User Interface

Your site’s appearance (user interface or UI) and how users interact with your pages (user experience or UX) has an impact on SEO as well.

A great UI/UX makes pages easier to understand and navigate — two things Google looks for in a page. Search engines want the best experience for their users. And that’s why pages with terrible UI/UX rarely make it to the top of the SERPs.

And if users find your site pleasant, they’ll probably stay there longer. That’s a wonderful thing since user session duration is another factor Google takes into consideration when assessing websites.

Site Load Speed

The faster a website loads, the better it will be for SEO. Users don’t like it when sites take longer than normal to load. That’s why Google made great strides in urging webmasters to make their sites faster.

You may have to talk to your developer about adjusting your CSS and JavaScript files so they don’t slow you down. However, there are some things that you could do by yourself to make your site load faster.

This includes compressing images to reduce their file size (larger file sizes mean they load faster), choosing a web hosting platform that has dedicated server options, and enabling browser caching.

Content

SEO and content is a subject worthy of its own post. There are many theories and strategies around this very subject. And some lead to more questions than answers.

These are some of the questions you have to ask yourself:

  • What should I write about?
  • How long should the content be?
  • How do I know which articles people would like?
  • What format should I use (how-to, lists, guides, etc.)?

Fortunately, there are tools like BuzzSumo, Copywritely, SEMrush, and CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer that can improve your content.

And if you’re looking for a solid content strategy, look into the Skyscraper Technique developed by Brian Dean.

what is seo - parts of seo - brian dean

Keyword Research

For your pages to rank, you must insert keywords throughout your domain. But you can’t add just any keyword. You want to use well-researched ones so you only rank for words and phrases that relate to your business.

A few things to remember:

  • There are two main types: head terms and long-tail keywords. Head terms are broad and short. Long-tail keywords are three or more words and are specific. For example, “iMac” is a head term while “How much does an iMac cost?” is a long-tail keyword.
  • You should spread keywords sporadically throughout the post. And should not sound spammy when used.
  • There are online tools you can use for keyword research. The Google Keyword Planner Tool is an excellent place to start (plus it’s free).

Meta Tags

Meta tags (AKA metadata) are those snippets you see whenever you look at search results.

what is seo - parts of seo - juice cleanse

Examples of meta tags in green boxes.

Not only do these help users understand the context of your page before clicking on the link, but they help search engines too.

That’s why you should insert keywords in your meta tags. But never to the point that it doesn’t make sense. Don’t spam your meta tags with keywords; Keyword placement should feel organic.

WordPress users might want to install the Yoast plugin.

what is seo - parts of seo - yoast

Once installed, you can make changes to your meta tags as you edit your pages.

Code

You can learn a lot by looking at your site’s source code. And if you know what to look for, you might find underlying flaws in your site.

What kind of flaws? You can find manipulated content. Or you could discover scripts that slow your site down. You can even review your metadata.

It’s also useful for verifying codes from Google Analytics and others like it.

Status Code Errors

Status code errors are issues where web browsers can’t connect to the requested page. Error 404: Not Found—which appears whenever you can’t access a web page—is arguably the most popular type, but there are more out there.

Moz has a list of status code errors if you’re interested in learning more about it.

Inspecting your status codes does a number of things for your SEO:

  • It makes sure that all pages are crawlable and indexable.
  • It improves your UI/UX.
  • It makes sure that none of your pages are “lost”.
  • It sees that all your redirected pages are loading correctly.

Schema

Schema markup is a special code that you add to your pages to give them additional information. Search engines will use this to add more data when the SERPs display your page.

what is seo - parts of seo - choco cookie

When you search for a recipe, for example, you’ll notice that some of the results show you info like ratings, prep time, and ingredients instead of the usual metadata.

This is the schema markup in action.

Google prioritizes sites with schema markup because it improves their user’s experience. Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper will enable you to add schema to your pages without the need to code.

On-Page SEO

On-Page SEO refers to tactics you can run on your site. We’ve discussed a few of them already — meta tags, content, code, status code, and schema are all part of on-page optimization.

Because on-page SEO does not require you to work with third-party webmasters, you can accomplish these strategies by yourself or with the help of a small team.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is also known as link building. Earlier, we discussed how search engines use backlinks as an indicator of a site’s quality. If you get links from trusted sources (like news sites), then Google deems you a trustworthy source of information as well.

Therefore, the more high-quality backlinks you get, the better your chances are of ranking in the SERPs.

Link building is the practice of reaching out to other site owners in hopes of getting backlinks.

Local SEO

Not all businesses need to rank nationally. Local businesses have specific needs. They need to rank in and around areas where their business operates in.

Local SEO is a branch of search engine optimization that deals with this need.

There’s no real significant difference between regular SEO and local SEO. It’s just that there’s more emphasis on localization in the latter. This means your keywords, backlinks, and content would have to cater to a specific area.

The Benefits of SEO + SEO Case Studies

Now that you know what SEO is, let’s talk about its importance. Why do you want to implement SEO and make it a part of your business strategy?

Is it really better than traditional advertising?

Let’s look at some of the benefits of search engine optimization.

SEO Generates Greater Traffic

The biggest reason for implementing SEO strategies is its effect on your site traffic. In one case study that WordStream published, one business managed to increase its traffic by 600% in 24 months.

The company did this by:

  • Running an in-depth content audit
  • Reaching out for link building opportunities
  • Publishing SEO-driven content
  • Implementing an internal linking strategy

If you focus on SEO, you can expose your brand to more users. This will result in better sales in the long run. And while there’s still merit in using traditional marketing in certain cases, the internet has farther reach.

In a recent Forbes article, it stated that small- to medium-sized businesses are now shifting their businesses online because it’s more effective.

“The traditional form of business relied on word of mouth to promote brand visibility and managing multiple spreadsheets manually instead of using seamlessly integrated cloud solutions. However, the digital business economy mandates the usage of online marketing methods to enhance a brand’s value and connected cloud-based solutions to improve operational efficiencies.”

In summary: Not only can SEO deliver better traffic for your site, but it also follows the trajectory that most businesses aim to head toward — online.

SEO Is Scalable

Another advantage of SEO is that you’re able to pivot immediately once you sense the need to do so. And in that sense, SEO is completely scalable.

In fact, SEO is so scalable that you can get a site to reach 100,000 organic sessions from scratch.

That’s exactly what Tyler Hakes did. He detailed in his case study just how he did it.

what is seo - benefits of seo - tyler hakes

His strategy revolved around creating three types of content:

    • Evergreen Content — Content that will stay relevant for a really long time. It’s filled with topical and keyword-focused content.
    • Social/Viral Content — Content that’s easy to promote within their target demographic. They’re designed to generate likes, shares, and clicks from social media channels.

 

  • Link Building Content — Content that other sites can link to. They help generate backlinks to your site.

As the company rolled out its content strategy, it started to see their traffic go up. The biggest spike saw 250,000 users visit their site in one week.

It also helped that Tyler used free (and publicly available) data to create rankings, maps, infographics, and other resources.

So even on a low budget, you can implement strategies that can scale your business at any point in your marketing campaign run.

SEO Increases Your Conversions

The whole point of getting more views, especially for businesses, is to increase conversions. And SEO definitely helps with that.

This is even truer for local businesses. We talked about local SEO earlier and how it can help make local shops stand out from its competitors.

That’s what this case study from SEMrush demonstrates.

A local taxi company was having trouble ranking for location-based searches. But after making SEO tweaks on the taxi company’s site, it experienced a significant boost.

what is seo - benefits of seo - taxi company

What actions did the company take? Here’s a couple.

  • Changed the NAP (name, address, phone number) — NAP needs to be consistent on all platforms. Also, you should enter an address located in the city you want to rank for.
  • Created Guides — They published airport and city location guides to be exact. They did this to appear in the local packs (a list of companies shown on top of search results).

There are other ways SEO can increase your conversions as shown in this Impact case study. For example, changing your call-to-action location can bring your conversion rate up by 591%. There’s even a case where improving the site copy boosted sales by 22%.

How Does SEO Work?

Although there are different layers to SEO, all campaigns start and end the same way. We’ll walk you through the steps you have to make to assess your site and have a general sense of what you need to do.

Below is a breakdown of tasks you need to accomplish when planning an SEO strategy.

Running a Website Audit

First, you need to know what problems you need to address. This is when website audits come into play.

A website audit can be technical by nature. Tools like Screaming Frog will help you find pages that are not working correctly, pages with no meta tags (meta title and meta description), broken links, and other issues that impact SEO.

what is seo - how does seo work - screaming frog

However, you can also perform a content audit. Audits help you get an inventory of your existing site pages, blog posts, and other assets like infographics and videos.

By the end of the content audit, you’ll have a better understanding of which pages need to stay and which ones you should discard.

You might be wondering: Why is there a need to remove pages? Doesn’t having more content improve my chances of ranking in the SERPs?

The answer: Not necessarily.

If these pages don’t serve any purpose—maybe they have neither the right keywords nor the relevant information—they could end up unused. They are taking away link equity that should go to pages that have value.

To remedy that, you can delete these pages altogether, redirect them to other pages, or repurpose them to include your targeted keywords.

But there’s another reason why you’d want less content on your site. By limiting your pages, you’re actually giving Google a better shot at crawling through your entire domain.

Set Your Content Goal

Your website audit will need to have a goal. What do you want to happen after implementing your SEO campaign?

Goals can range from better brand recognition, improving your conversion rate, find new business leads, or get more backlinks.

Once that’s set, go over your pages and see which of your pages contribute toward your goal.

You can use Google Analytics to see which pages are your top performers in terms of conversion, social media performance, or organic traffic.

Compile All Your Pages

Create a spreadsheet and list down all your pages. Use Screaming Frog to see if which of these pages have issues. You should check if they have meta tags, uncompressed images, or any of the other site issues we’ve discussed earlier.

It’s also worth noting which sites slow down when loaded.

Do your best to fix these problems. You can ask your webmaster for help if you run into technical issues. You should also take advantage of the SEO tools we mentioned in previous sections of this post.

Categorize Your Content

Mark your pages. Indicate if you should retain, remove, or update each.

You should keep pages with high conversions and traffic. Update pages that have value but aren’t ranking. You should redirect or remove those pages with little to no value.

What classifies as pages with no value?

  • Company announcements that are no longer relevant today
  • Blog posts that have outdated information
  • Articles with thin content
  • Duplicate content
  • Pages that share the same keywords (can lead to keyword cannibalization; each page should target one main keyword)

Researching Keywords

Now that you’ve categorized your existing pages, it’s time to do keyword research. People use keywords when they search on Google. If you’re able to determine what users search for, you can optimize your pages to rank for those terms.

Use Google’s Keyword Planner Tool to find relevant keywords in your industry.

After you log into your Google account, you only need to enter your main topic. Google will do its best to bring you related keywords along with other information like the keyword’s popularity (or average monthly searches).

what is seo - how does seo work - keyword planner

However:

This tool focuses on keywords for Google Ads and not content. So you may want to find other keyword generation tools.

Not sure where to begin?

Try this: Think about your business and what terms you want to rank for. What topics do people talk about when they think of your niche? What do people in your industry search for normally?

By doing it this way, you’re looking at user intent, an important factor for keyword research.

Once you have your keywords, it’s time to optimize your content.

Creating Content (and Optimizing Your Old Ones)

You can start by researching the keywords you want to rank for. Go to Google and enter your keyword. Once you do so, you’ll see which websites are in the top ten results. These are your competitors.

Look at each of your competitors and see what kind of post they published. Take some notes and think about how you could surpass them. Remember the Skyscraper Technique we mentioned earlier? This is how it works. By making better content than your competitor, you’ll have an excellent chance of overtaking them in the SERPs.

If you’re able to surpass your competition, you could generate more backlinks and clicks from users.

Once you have your content, don’t forget to add keywords to the meta tags, headings, and URLs (you can replace the random string of characters with keywords at the end of a URL).

what is seo - how does seo work - neil patel

How about your old content?

Update them. If you think the content still works, you could just sprinkle in some of the keywords throughout the post and it’ll be fine. But most pages would require you to make significant changes.

How so?

If the competition has better posts, you should update your post so you can level the playing field.

Also, you can add new images, videos, infographics, and other resources or assets that could improve your old articles. Some even repurpose their old content to bring them back to life. You could convert them into podcast topics or SlideShare presentations.

You can even convert them into YouTube videos, and insert links going back to the original post.

The point is: You don’t want your old content to grow stale, especially if they’re not performing well on your domain.

Building Backlinks

Once you’ve sorted your content, you can then proceed to link building. Promoting your pages not only increases brand recognition, but it also generates backlinks for your site.

But remember:

Just because you get a backlink doesn’t mean it’s beneficial to your site.

If you get backlinks from untrusted sources (pornography sites, sites that sell illegal stuff, etc.), then those links will do you more harm than good. You can say the same thing for backlinks on sites that don’t have high domain authority.

What kind of backlinks would be best?

Those that come from news organizations, educational institutions (particularly those with the .edu domain extension) and known personalities (people respected in their field).

But getting backlinks from these sites won’t happen organically (unless you’re really lucky).

So you’d have to put in the work. You can try strategies like blogger outreach. There are different ways to make bloggers link back to you. One of them is guest posting. This is where you write a post for them in exchange for a link. Or you can try building a working relationship with them and get them to link back to you.

You can also do press releases, submit your page to resource sites, and enter our page in article directories.

Moz has a post on the different types of link building strategies that you can use to promote your pages. We suggest that you check it out if you want to learn more about them.

Monitoring the Results

Earlier, we discussed how search engines work, including how they crawl and index pages. We also mentioned how they rank pages based on different factors.

All of these elements determine how your pages rank.

Let’s talk about how you can monitor the results of your hard work.

The easiest way to track your progress is through Google Analytics (GA).

what is seo - how does seo work - ga

So long as you have GA pixels installed on your site, you can track your pages and their performance. You’ll see how many views they get, where those views are coming from, and how much money they’re generating.

You can even see what keywords drive traffic to your site.

If you want to see how users interact with your pages, you can look at their behavior flow. Google Analytics really is an integral part of any SEO plan.

You can also monitor the bounce rate, which is the percentage of people dropping off of your site.

There are also third-party tools that can show you the rankings of your pages in the SERPs based on keywords you provide them. These are handy if you want to see how far you’ve progressed (and if your pages got on the first page of Google).

Conclusion

This guide to SEO is full of information and yet we’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s worth mentioning that even though SEO can sound complicated at times, it’s one of those skills you want to master.

Why?

Because SEO will always have a place in online marketing. It’s not a trend. For most businesses, SEO is the only way they’ll be able to stand out from the competition.

Now, if you want to get in depth with the information discussed above, I suggest you take it to the next level by taking Craig’s training courses. He covers the basic and advanced SEO tactics so you can come up with strategies guaranteed to help your site or clients’ increase their ranking.

seo profile image

Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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