SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” In simple terms, it means the process of improving your site to increase its visibility when people search for products or services related to your business in Google, Bing, and other search engines. The better visibility your pages have in search results, the more likely you are to garner attention and attract prospective and existing customers to your business.
Search engines such as Google and Bing use bots to crawl pages on the web, going from site to site, collecting information about those pages and putting them in an index. Think of the index like a giant library where a librarian can pull up a book (or a web page) to help you find exactly what you’re looking for at the time.
You can categorize SEO tactics into two buckets:
Both on-page and off-page SEO aims to make your site more friendly, as well as trustworthy, to users and search engines. When search engine crawlers see how friendly your website is to them and users, it increases the chances that your site will rank well for different searches.
When it comes to learning how SEO works, it's often helpful to have an example. So, say you have two websites: Website A and Website B.
Website A isn’t responsive, which means users on tablets or smartphones will have a tough time navigating and using the site. Website B, however, is responsive, which means a better user experience for tablet, smartphone, and desktop users.
For search engines, it’s an easy decision which website is more friendly: Website A.
Of course, how search engines work is a bit more complicated than that. Today, search engines use more than 200 different factors to generate search results, which means a lot of different elements influence your placement in search results.
Why on earth does a search engine care if you use them or another search engine? After all, you’re not paying them? That’s right, you aren’t paying them…but someone else is! So the answer to this question is that they care because they make their money from advertising.
The page you are delivered to after you enter a search query is called the search engine results page (aka SERP). The SERP presents you with what are called “organic results” as well as “pay-per-click ads” (or PPC). The organic results are those that are influenced by SEO, while the PPC ads are paid for.
You cannot pay Google or any search engine to occupy any position in the organic results.
However, the ads on the page are how they make their money. So, the better the results they deliver you, the more likely you and others are use that search engine again. The more people using the search engine, the more ads they can show and the more money they can make. Make sense?
So now you know why search engines work so hard to provide you with great results and why you should care, we can talk about how SEO works in a little more detail.
Search engines have spiders — not the creepy kind, but the automated robot kind.
These spiders collect all kinds of information about your website and the pages that make up your site. This allows them to easily determine when to serve a searcher a page on your site. They collect things like page speed, title tags, social signals, internal linking, backlinks, and so on.
With over 200 ranking factors used by Google in their algorithm, there are a lot of things to consider, and actions that can be taken to try to optimize a website. There are both on-page and off-page ranking factors that determine how well your site is optimized, and therefore how well it ranks.
The on-page factors are exactly what they sound like: Things that are actually on the page. This includes title tags, content, site speed, page URLs, image alt tags, internal linking, and more. Off-page factors, meanwhile, are almost entirely based on links to your site from other sites.
It’s important to keep in mind that these bots are automated computer programs and not actual humans.
As you might imagine, that means they have some limitations.
They can’t access a website like you or I would because they don’t actually see the website: they crawl the code of the website. This means they can’t see images or videos, nor are they impressed by flashy designs or audio clips.
SEO is a fundamental part of digital marketing because people conduct trillions of searches every year, often with commercial intent to find information about products and services. Search is often the primary source of digital traffic for brands and complements other marketing channels. Greater visibility and ranking higher in search results than your competition can have a material impact on your bottom line.
However, the search results have been evolving over the past few years to give users more direct answers and information that is more likely to keep users on the results page instead of driving them to other websites.
Also note, features like rich results and Knowledge Panels in the search results can increase visibility and provide users more information about your company directly in the results.
In sum, SEO is the foundation of a holistic marketing ecosystem. When you understand what your website users want, you can then implement that knowledge across your campaigns (paid and organic), across your website, across your social media properties, and more.
There’s no better resource I’ve found as a starting place to learn SEO than The Beginner’s Guide to SEO from Moz. It’s free, and it starts out answering the most basic questions like “What is SEO?” Read the entire guide once and you’ll know more than the people sending you those spam SEO emails every day. Read it twice and you’ll know more than a lot of the so-called SEO experts. If you only have the time to do one thing to learn SEO, reading the Moz guide is it.