What is SEO and How Does it Work?

Beginner's Guide to SEO

Chapter 1

What is SEO and How Does it Work?

Why you should care about SEO

You made it! Congrats!

Some of this beginning stuff might seem a little basic for you, but we’d recommend you still give it a quick skim.

If not, this chapter is going to build a foundation for your SEO learning as we move forward.

What Is SEO?

SEO is an acronym for “Search Engine Optimization” and is the process of improving positions in organic (non-paid) search results in search engines. As a rule of thumb, the higher your website ranks for a search, the more people will click through to your website.

When you first start learning SEO you have to train your mind to work in a creative but technical and analytical way. A lot of people fail to do this because you’re not only doing SEO for search engines but more importantly, you’re doing it for the visitors of your website. 

It’s important to note that not everything is going to work exactly the same for all businesses. What works for a landscaping company may not work for a law firm. It’s about understanding how your target market searches and behaves online.

The tricky part of SEO is to not only rank highly but to rank highly for keywords  that convert website visitors into leads. 

SEO Basics

Search engines, like Google, scour billions of pieces of content and evaluate a number of factors to determine which content is most likely to answer your search and then give you your SERP (Search Engine Result Page) with the results.

They’re doing this by what Google calls “crawling and indexing” (we’ll dive more into this later) all available content on the internet (web pages, images, videos, PDFs, social media channels, etc.) and then ranking it by how well it matches the search being conducted. 

Why Should I Care About SEO?

Search engines drive the majority of online traffic to websites with organic searches… More than paid advertising, social media, and anything else you can think of.

Even with the changes to Google Ads layouts, SEO still has organic traffic leading the race at about 70% of traffic coming to websites organically. And SEO is one of the only digital marketing services that, when set up correctly, can continue to pay website traffic dividends, long after you put changes into place. If you create a piece of content on your website that search engines take a liking to, it can create a sort of a snowball effect over time, gaining additional shares, backlinks, etc. With a service like Paid Ads, as soon as you cut your budget, your ads stop showing.

Search engines want small businesses to succeed! To prove that, Google even has an SEO Starter Guide that’s similar to this guide here!

Should I Hire an SEO Company?

Even the basics of SEO can help out your website and make a huge difference in how search engines index your content. We’re confident that if you read through this guide and put in the work that you’ll be able to make a difference on your own. 

If you don’t have the time to put into learning what we go through in this guide, you can ask an SEO company for help. We always recommend you don’t cut corners though and make sure you work with someone who knows what they’re doing, as there can be negative effects of SEO if you don’t follow Google’s guidelines. 

White Hat SEO vs. Black Hat SEO

There have always been debates on how SEO can be done most effectively and what techniques you should use to get the best results possible. Any time one of these debates come up, most of the time you’ll hear arguments about both White Hat practices and Black Hat practices. 

“White Hat SEO” refers to SEO techniques, strategies, and best practices that comply with Google’s guidelines. These are ethical techniques such as:

  • Overall website optimization
  • Well-written, relevant content
  • Natural backlinks

White hat SEO is more of a long-term strategy and is proven to work with very little to no risk. We dive more into the ethical ranking factors below.  

“Black Hat SEO” are unethical practices used to cut corners and improve rankings of web pages on the SERP. They generally are directly geared to search engines and lack human user experience.  Some of these unethical techniques are:

  • Link & keyword manipulation
  • Cloaking redirects
  • Hidden text

Black hat SEO can get you to the top of a SERP in a short time, however, the long-term effects of these actions are ones that can seriously penalize your website.

Check out the list of violating practices in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Basic Principles:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

Techniques to avoid:

  • Automatically generated content
  • Creating pages with little or no original content 
  • Cloaking – the practice of showing search engine crawlers different content than visitors
  • Hidden text or links
  • Loading pages with irrelevant keywords

How Search Engines Work

Search engines have come a long way and are smarter than ever, which also means the algorithms they use are more complex than ever.

If you want to learn SEO you should make sure to use what search engines are currently using, and not go by what may have worked 3, 5, or 10 years ago. Probably the biggest improvement search engines have been able to make is to consider the human element of searches.

One thing that has been pretty timeless has been these three primary functions of search engines:

Crawl – Process of looking for new or updated web pages.
Index – Storing and organization of all content that is found during the crawling process. Once the content is indexed, it has the chance to be shown on SERPs.
Rank – How search engines order search results are based on their rank, or relevancy to a specific search.

What is search engine crawling?

Crawling is the discovery process and the first step in finding out what pages exist on the web. New pieces of content are constantly being added to the web, so Google must constantly send out their virtual team of robots, known as bots, spiders, or crawlers, to find this content. Like mentioned before, content can be a web page, a video, an image, etc., but regardless of how the content is formatted, it is always discovered by links (otherwise known as a URL or Web Address)

Once one piece of content is found, these spiders continue to navigate through your website and find all possible pieces of content that they can and add it to their index.

Note: Google doesn’t accept payment to crawl a site more frequently or rank it higher. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.

What is a search engine index?

Search engines process and file away the information they have found while crawling in an index, a huge database of all the content they’ve discovered and decided is good enough to serve up for searches.

What is search engine ranking?

When a user conducts a search, search engines try and find the most relevant content in their index and orders content based on what they believe will help the searcher. The order in which search engines display these results is known as ranking. Generally, you can assume that the higher a web page is ranked, the more relevant the search engine believes the content is to the searcher.

While search engines keep the exact calculations of their algorithms secret, many of the ranking factors are well-known.

Ranking Factors

Most of these factors are proven, but some are just speculative. Search engines also place a higher weight and importance on some factors more than others, but they keep these algorithms mostly to themself so one person doesn’t have a clear advantage over another.  Learning all of the ranking factors by heart isn’t a requirement of SEO, but it’s good to have a basic understanding of them.

Top 10 critical SEO factors for success

Other important ranking factors include, in no particular order: 

  • HTTPS – Security
  • Backlink relevance
  • Grammar and spelling
  • Social sharing
  • Domain age (and length of domain commitment)
  • Use of relevant keywords
  • Sitemaps
  • Readability

We’ll be diving more into most of these ranking factors in the next few chapters.

How People Use Search Engines

We’ve mentioned it a few times already in this chapter, but it’s incredibly important to make web pages for the end-user, humans, rather making your page only for search engines.

From the user’s point of view, this picture below shows how a lot of searches go.

How people use search engines like Google

Search engines have gotten to the point where they can tell if your content is beneficial for the audience you’re trying to reach, so always keep that in mind when creating content. However, there are basic principles of how people interact with search engines and those are:

  1. A need for information to help solve a problem
  2. A search is conducted on a search engine by keywords they think will help solve their problem
  3. Scanning through the SERPs.
  4. Deciding which content looks most relevant and clicking on that web page
  5. Scanning the info and seeing if the info can solve the problem at hand
  6. If the info cannot solve the problem, the process starts back at looking through the SERPs (Step 3).

It’s very important to at least have this kind of basic understanding of how search engines work in order to really get the most out of SEO.

Next, let’s dive into how to pick which keywords you should try and go after in Chapter 2: Keyword Research

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What’s that word mean?

If you run into any words that you’re having trouble with during this guide remember to check our SEO Glossary!

SEO Glossary

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