What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and How Does it Work?

What is SEO? SEO stands for search engine optimization. It’s the practice of optimizing content to be discovered through a search engine’s organic search results. Think of a search engine as a filing system in a library.

The library has potentially billions of books with hundreds of trillions of pages. So let’s say you want to find information on health supplements. The search engine will then look through all pages in its index and try to return the most relevant results.

Now, the first search engine you’re probably

thinking of is Google. But there are tons of other search engines

you can optimize your content for. For example, YouTube SEO is the process of getting traffic to your videos in YouTube’s organic search results.

Amazon SEO is the same, but you’re optimizing

your product pages to get free organic traffic. And of course, Google SEO is the process of optimizing your website to rank on Google and drive more traffic to your web pages.

Now, search engines use sophisticated algorithms

and technology to return the best results for any given query.

Nobody knows exactly how these algorithms

work, but we have clues, particularly for Google, so we can make some optimizations.

Now, why should you incorporate SEO into your

marketing strategy? Well. 

3 major benefits of search engine optimization that attracts marketers from all over the world.

#1. Traffic from your SEO efforts is free.

#2. Your traffic will be consistent once you’re

ranking high.

#3. You have the opportunity to reach massive

audiences, you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Now, since every search engine has unique

algorithms, you and I won’t be able to cover

how each of them works. And for that reason, we’re going to be focusing on how Google works to rank pages since it’s the largest search engine and the one that we here at Ahrefs have the most information on.

So how does Google work? Well, there are two main terms you need to understand.

These are crawling and indexing. To attain information, Google uses crawlers, also known as spiders, which gather publicly available information from all over the web.

The spiders start with a list of URLs, which

they may have previously crawled or found in sitemaps.

These are called seeds. They then follow the hyperlinks on the pages from the seeds and then crawl those newly

discovered pages.

And this process goes on and on, allowing

them to build a massive index of information.

They then take all of this data back to Google’s servers to be added to what they call, their “search index.”

Their algorithms then work by taking things

like keywords and content freshness to categorize

queries so they can return the most relevant

results to searchers in a fraction of a second.

Now, Google isn’t just about matching keywords

within a search query. They’ve created something called the “knowledge graph,” which according to Google, “goes beyond

keyword matching to better understand the

people, places and things you care about.”

I’ll show you some examples of this in a bit. For now, let’s dig into the details of how their search algorithm works.

Again, Google’s goal is to sort through hundreds

of trillions of web pages within their search index

and find the most relevant results in a fraction 

of a second.

On Google’s “How Search algorithms work” page,

they say that they look at the words of a 

searcher’s query, relevance and usability of pages, the expertise of sources, and your location and settings.

These ranking factors aren’t linear, but they’re

weighted depending on the nature of your query.

As an example, they mention that “freshness”

of content plays a bigger role in answering

queries about current news topics.

However for definition-based queries like “what is search engine optimization?”

freshness wouldn’t play as large of a factor, since

this core definition itself hasn’t changed.

In addition to technology-based innovations

like artificial intelligence and machine learning,

Google also uses a group of people to manually

assess how well a website gives people who

Click on the results what they’re looking for.

These people are called, “Search Quality Raters.”

Rest assured that these aren’t people at Google

manually moving your web page around in the search results because they like or don’t like you.

These people don’t directly impact rankings, but rather helps Google benchmark the quality of their results.

For now, let’s dig deeper into a few broad

categories of Google’s ranking factors.

The first and most obvious thing they need

to do is understand the meaning of a query.

For example, if you search for “slow cooker recipes,” what do you expect to see in Google’s search results?

Probably a list of recipes, right? And that’s how Google interprets the query too. But what if you just search for the word “slow cooker?” What would you expect to see?

After keying that into Google search, you’ll see 

product listings and eCommerce category pages.

Google can interpret that someone searching

for this phrase likely has the intent to purchase

the appliance rather than look for recipes in that time.

Understanding the meaning of a query comes

down to language. Google has created language models to decipher strings of words they should look up.

They understand that when you type “slow coker”,

that you’re looking for “slow cooker.”

They also understand synonyms. For example, looking at the search results for “how to make a website,”

you’ll see that they’ve bolded synonyms within

the search results.

Beyond language, search algorithms also try

to understand the type of information you’re looking for.

For example, if you search for “ps4 unboxing,”

you’ll see that the top 10 Google search results are chock-full of pages from YouTube.

They understand that anyone searching for an unboxing tutorial would likely prefer video content over text or images. Whereas a query like “map of New York,” will show you image results as well as a widget from Google Maps.

Now, what about a query like, “best Mexican restaurant?”

You’ll see that Google shows restaurants that are close to your location, despite not entering a city name in the query.

And that’s because someone searching for this isn’t going to fly halfway across the world for lunch.

Another part of interpreting a searcher’s

the query comes down to freshness. For example, if you search for “Donald Trump,” Google understands that people likely want recent news, over biographies. So they give priority in their top stories widget from reputable sources.

They also understand that if you’re looking

for something like “best headphones,” that you likely want fresh information since new models and manufacturers are always on the rise. And you can identify this right in Google’s

search results seeing as all top-ranking pages

have the current year in the title.

Most, if not all of the things we’ve covered here

can be summed up into what SEOs often refer to as “search intent,” which means the reason behind a searcher’s query. This is arguably one of the most important

things to master as an SEO.

If you’re unable to match the searcher’s intent, in terms of content type and format, your chances of ranking are slim.

But there are additional layers to understand

how Google works. This leads us nicely into how Google identifies

relevance through content on a web page.

In the most basic form, search engines will

look at the content of the page to see if the words on that page are relevant to your query. But they’re sophisticated enough to go beyond “exact match keywords.” Google understands related keywords too.

A page increases in relevance with other semantically

similar keywords. For example, if you have an article on how

to get a driver’s license, you may have subsections

on licensing for cars, motorcycles, and buses.

These are all automobiles and should have keyword overlaps that help connect the topic as a whole.

For example, “road,” “driving,” “seatbelt,” “safety,”

“exam,” and “test,” these would all be semantically relevant 

keywords that can help search engines better understand what your post is about.

Another example would be if you were creating

a post on “the best luxury watches.” Now, I want you to think of a 5-letter word that pops to mind when it comes to luxury watches.

Let me help you out a bit. Rolex.

And if you look at the content of the top

10 ranking pages, you’ll see that they all include that brand,

other popular luxury brands, and likely have to watch related jargon like “bezel,” “bridge,” or “chronograph.”

Rather than returning results that have “best

luxury watches” written 100 times on the page,

Google can see which pages are the most relevant

to the searcher’s request.

And Google confirms this by saying: “These relevance signals help search algorithms assess whether a webpage contains an answer

to your search query, rather than just repeating

the same question.” Another factor Google looks at is the 

“quality of content.”

Google tries to prioritize and rank the most

reliable sources. While “quality content,” is impossible to

objectively nail 100%, they use 3 broad categories to help identify quality pages. These are, expertise, authoritativeness, and

trustworthiness on a given topic; Also known as EAT.

One signal that Google mentions are getting

websites to link to your content, which SEOs call backlinks.

Links build up a page’s “authoritativeness,” which is outlined in Google’s famous patent on PageRank.

From a general view, think of backlinks as votes.

When people link to your pages, they’re essentially

vouching for your content and telling their readers that they should check out your page for more information.

Now, to prevent people from “gaming” the system,

Google uses spam algorithms to try and identify

deceptive or manipulative behaviour.

One example would be “link exchanges,” meaning

you contact other webmasters and ask them to link to you.

And in return, you’ll link to them. We won’t dig too deep into these factors, but if you’re interested in learning more,

I’ll link up to Google’s search quality rating

guidelines in the description, which has nearly

50,000 words on how they assess “quality content.”

Another factor Google considers is the usability

of webpages. Google wants to show results that keep their searchers happy. And this goes beyond providing the “right”

content for the query. There are a couple of confirmed ranking factors that relate to usability.

The first is page speed. Google found that as page load time increases, the probability of bounce, or the chance of

someone leaving your website without visiting

another page, go up dramatically. And it makes sense.

If Google were to show slow-loading pages

that result in bounces, then that dissatisfaction would increase amongst their users. As a result, Google announced in 2018 that

page speed will become a part of their mobile search ranking algorithm. The second usability factor is “mobile-friendliness.”

Today, websites should appear correctly no

matter what device you’re on and no matter what browser you’re using. This is often referred to as “responsive design.”

Google has shifted to “mobile-first indexing.”

This means that they’ll predominantly use the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking. And as of July 1, 2019, all new websites will be “mobile-first” by default.

All of these things and many more factors

can be summarized in the user experience.

Google wants to return results that are both

relevant and provide a solid user experience.

A very cool and somewhat controversial way

that Google works are through personalized data.

Google keeps track of your location, past

search history, and search settings to “tailor your results to what is most useful and relevant for you at that moment.”

But as many people are becoming aware of the privacy

issues on the internet, this may leave you

extremely satisfied or perhaps, on edge.

Let’s look at a few examples of how personalization

affects your Google searches. I’m in Toronto, Canada, so when I type in the letter “b,” Google provides relevant search suggestions to my location like “blue jays,” which is our baseball team, and “BMO,” which is a major bank in Canada.

Now, if I change my IP address to one in Chicago,

then you’ll see very different results like

“bank of America,” and “Barnes and noble,”

which is a popular bank and bookstore respectively.

Now, let’s look at how they tailor search suggestions

based on previous searches. Let’s say I want to find “hotels in Barcelona.” I’ll start typing in “hotels,” and let’s say that I changed my mind halfway through the search.

Take a second and look through the results. You’ll see that they’re all tailored to my current location. So let’s delete this.

Instead, I want to search for things to do in Barcelona, 

so I can choose a hotel around that location.

Now, I’ll search for “What to do in Barcelona.” Lots of fun stuff!

Now, it’s time to find a hotel. So if I start typing in “hotels,”

you’ll see that Google’s first autosuggestion

is, “hotels in Barcelona,” which as you saw before was not the case. These are just a few basic ways Google works.

And you must understand this when you’re learning SEO. By understanding how search works, you can begin optimizing your pages with some level of direction. So how do you start optimizing your website for search?

If you’re new to SEO, then I highly recommend

you read on SEO for beginners, where you’ll get a top-level view of how you can optimize your website for higher Google rankings.

We’ll cover what SEO is and how you can use it to increase traffic to your blog. In a recent survey, many of you asked us to create content that will help you increase traffic for your website. 

One of the best ways to do that is to optimize your site for search engines and in this series, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started with SEO and by following the tips, you could easily add 1,000 more visitors to your website in a month. So let’s dive in. 

If you’ve researched how to increase traffic to your website, you’ve probably seen everybody talking about “Improve your SEO” on your site but what does that mean? Seo stands for Search Engine Optimization or just how easy it is for Google to find your website. 

Now there are several different search engines out there. You have things like Bing and Yahoo, Yandex but 90% of searches are done on Google. So that’s usually what we’re talking about when we say search engines and basically, search engines just go out and scour the web to find pages and index them in their catalogue. 

It’s very similar to when you have a book and at the end of the book, you have an index where it tells you where everything was talked about and the location. That’s pretty much Google and their indexing system as well on the web in the cloud. 

Now, this is a typical search page with results. You can see that these are ads, this is what’s known as a knowledge graph and what it’s doing is it’s pulling in a result that might be further down on the page but since Google thinks it’s answering the query really well it’ll get shown up here as well as down further on the page. 

Then below all of that, you have organic results. Typically they’re about ten organic results on one page and organic listings simply mean that these results aren’t paid at all. They show up on Google because they’ve done a good job of telling Google that this page is about this particular query. 

Then you have a people also ask area and this simply shows the related searches that people will do on this topic. Now, fewer than ten per cent of people will ever click on the next page. If they don’t find what they’re looking for on the first page they’ll simply adjust their search criteria and that’s why Google added in this ‘People Also Asked’ area and here’s the biggest why SEO is so important for your website. 

These top three organic results, they get over 70% of all the clicks. This first position usually gets the bulk of the clicks. Between 35% and 40%. The second will get between 15% and 20% and then the third position will get around 10%. So, that’s why it’s so important to make sure that your website is first on Google. 

But, how does Google even determine what should go on the first page? The biggest factor is relevancy. You want to make sure that your website is exactly what the searcher is looking for when they’re searching Google. 

Now Google uses over 200 factors to determine what’s relevant in their algorithms and there’s no way that we’re going to be able to cover all of those but if we can concentrate on a few then we have a fighting chance to get seen in the search results. 

In addition to relevance, you’ll also want to make sure that your site is useful. All that means is that when a user clicks on your site, the information that they’re looking for is easily found. Think about the last time you searched. If you went to a page that you thought had the answer but you had a hard time finding it on the page, did you stick around? 

Most people will click back and go look for a different answer. So make sure that your site is also useful and that you’ve arranged the answers for the topic in a meaningful way that’s easier for readers to find what they’re looking for. 

So there are two main ways that you can work on SEO on your website and they’re called on-page SEO and off-page SEO. On-Page SEO is simply telling Google and the reader that you have everything that they’re looking for. You have all the indicators that they’re looking for and really, this just means you have all the right keywords on your site. 

Now, on-page SEO is easier to deal with because most of the changes needed are within your control. For instance, if your site is is about barbeque then you want to make sure that your site has the right keywords in the title, in the body, in the image descriptions, it also means you have supporting keywords in it like BBQ recipes, grill temperatures, types of meat, best BBQ grills and everything else that is related to that topic. 

Throughout this article, we’ll cover all the ways that you can do on-page SEO so you can get started soon. And the cool thing is if you already have a website with some articles on it then you may be just a few tweaks away from seeing massive results with your traffic. 

Without writing any new content. So if you want to see about that, make sure you click on the subscribe button and go ahead and click on the notification bell to be notified of all of our videos coming out. With Off-Page SEO, that simply means that you are making sure that other websites are linking back to you. 

These are called backlinks. Off-Page SEO is a little bit more out of your control because you’re relying on other people to believe that your site is worthy of a link but if you’re writing great content and networking with your industry or your topic area then it shouldn’t be a problem. 

Now I just want to let you know, as we go through this SEO process, just realize that search engine optimization does take time and sometimes it can be a little frustrating when you’re not seeing the results fast. 

But if done properly, the results from your SEO efforts can last months or even years depending on the topic you’re in. So now that you know a little bit about what SEO is and how it can improve the traffic on your site.