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What Is SEO? Search Engine Optimization Basics

Not sure what SEO is or whether you need it for your website? Demystify SEO basics and use our comprehensive resources to learn more about this valuable digital marketing channel.

Apr 19, 2022

5 m read

If you’ve heard that you need SEO for your website but aren’t clear on what that means, you’re in the right spot. In this article, I’m going to define SEO, share the basics, and give you resources to expand your SEO knowledge so you can better optimize your website.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization, which is the process of increasing your website’s organic traffic by making your site easier for your target audience to find through search. 

SEO can:

  • Make it easier for search engine crawlers to find, access, and index your web pages
  • Help you rank higher in organic search results for queries important to your business or industry
  • Increase the relevant organic search traffic your website receives

Relevant is the operative word here. You don’t want just any traffic heading to your website. You want to funnel people interested in learning more about the services or products you provide to your site. 

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Why Does SEO Matter?

What did you do the last time you needed to buy an appliance or even just find an interesting local eatery?

If you’re like most people, you Googled. 

Search is an integral part of the purchasing process — for consumers and businesses. Whether you’re a local B2C business or a national B2B service provider, SEO is crucial for making sure you show up in search results.

According to Google, over 60% of people start their shopping experience online first. If you want to connect with them at that crucial moment, implement an SEO strategy that includes on-site and off-site tactics.

Let’s talk about search engine algorithms and crawlers to help you better understand how SEO works.

How Search Engines Work

If you want to optimize your website to have a higher chance of showing up in search engine results pages (SERPs), it’s helpful to know how search engines work.

First, some definitions:

  • Search Engine Algorithm: A search engine algorithm is a proprietary formula individual search engines use to determine how to rank the web pages in their indices. This algorithm takes into account a variety of different ranking factors.
  • Search Engine Crawler: A search engine crawler is the process that search engines use to index the content within your website so you can appear in SERPs. They’re also known as search bots or spiders. 

Major search engines have proprietary crawlers that travel the web. These crawlers recognize their search engine’s algorithm and compare each page they visit against that internal “checklist.” Then, they determine how to categorize a site and add it to the search engine’s index. 

For example, if Googlebot visits a blog post about the best way to brew coffee, it notes the different relevant keywords used in the text, the search intent of the content, how authoritative and trustworthy the site is, what other pages are linked to in the text, how long the page took to load, and more. It would then annotate that info into Google’s index so the next time a person runs a query on “best way to brew coffee,” that page will show up somewhere in the search results.

Of course, where it shows up matters. With 55% of people clicking on the top three results (and 75% of people only looking at the first page of results), getting your web pages to rank well in Google search can impact how many people visit your site and, thus, how many sales you make. To appear at the top of search results, you’ll need to perform well on the most important SEO ranking factors.

SEO Ranking Factors

Google and other search engines consider certain factors when determining how to rank pages in search results. Unfortunately, they don’t always share what those factors are or how critical they are when it comes to scoring that top spot in search.

Thanks to plenty of research, trial and error, and due diligence, the SEO community has identified various factors that impact search rankings and estimated their relative importance.

These factors aren’t static. Search engines constantly revise their algorithms and give different weights to the factors they find most important. That means that rankings aren’t static either — to get on that first search results page and stay there, you need to implement and continue to follow SEO best practices. 

Learn more about Google ranking factors here.

SEO Basics

SEO concerns itself with two things:

  • Making it easier for search engine crawlers to access and index your web pages
  • Providing high-quality, relevant content in a user-friendly way

While these two goals sound simple, achieving them requires strategic planning and implementation. SEO is a process — you’ll want to create a strategy, implement it, monitor its success, then make changes and continue to iterate the process.

It’s also a long-term investment. It takes time to see the effects of your SEO strategy move the needle on your search engine rankings.

I tend to break down SEO into three different categories.

On-Page Optimization

On-page optimization focuses on improving site pages by enhancing metadata, naturally including keywords, interlinking content, and more.

Keyword research is a critical component of on-page SEO. Before optimizing a page, you first need to identify a focus keyphrase or keyword and its search intent. The latter is crucial as Google and other search engines increasingly use search intent to provide more relevant organic search results. 

Once you’ve gathered that info, you can create high-quality content that naturally incorporates your keywords and provide a valuable resource for your site visitors. During this time, you’ll also want to write a unique title tag and meta description for your web page and include internal links to your other pages to make your site easy to navigate. 

Technical Search Engine Optimization

Technical SEO, a component of on-page optimization, is concerned with the crawling and indexing of your website and how your site renders for users. 

Your site architecture, page speed, structured data, mobile-friendliness, and pop-ups can all affect how well your site ranks because they impact web crawlers’ ability to access and index pages and how visitors experience your site

There are plenty of SEO tools to help you assess your tech SEO performance. Use PageSpeed Insights to learn how quickly a page is loading and Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to make sure your site works well on all devices. Google Search Console’s Page Experience Report provides an overview of your core web vitals and mobile-friendliness.

Off-Page SEO

Off-site optimization encompasses all of the things you can do off-site to raise the profile of your website. This includes link building, optimizing your Google Business Profile, and submitting your website to local citations and directories.

In 2016, Google publicly shared that backlinks are among the top two confirmed ranking factors its algorithm uses to gauge a site’s authority. They evaluate the number of domains that refer to a given site and how authoritative those domains are within their niche. Thus, it’s not merely the number of links pointing to a given site but also the quality of links that determines where it will rank organically. 

Think of backlinks as votes of popularity for a particular site. The more votes received from trusted voters, the more likely a site is to receive visibility in Google searches.

Local SEO

I want to take a moment to discuss local SEO. Local SEO is SEO that focuses on a specific geographic area. It utilizes the same tools and strategies that “regular” SEO uses, though the keywords may have a more place-specific bent. 

Local SEO is ideal for restaurants, event spaces, and service businesses that want to appear in “near me” or city-related searches. Some organizations have taken to calling this “Google Maps SEO,” though the tactics and implementation are the same. To learn more, check out our article on SEO for local businesses.

FAQ: Additional SEO Questions

What is SEO Marketing?

SEO marketing is simply SEO. Because of its ability to help you connect with new potential customers, SEO plays a crucial role in internet marketing. When implemented effectively, it helps you promote the information, products, or services featured on your website.

However, SEO marketing is distinct from search engine marketing (SEM), which uses PPC and other paid ads to increase SERP visibility.

If you haven’t worked SEO into your marketing budget, use the following tools to get started.

What is an SEO?

Experts who implement search engine optimization strategies are sometimes called “SEOs.” Don’t let this confuse you! If someone talks about an SEO, they’re speaking about a person. If they talk about SEO, they mean search engine optimization.

How Do You Track the Effectiveness of an SEO Strategy?

You can use free tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console to see how well your website’s performing. You can also use paid tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and others to do keyword research, run site audits, track backlinks, and more. 

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Want to learn more about SEO? Download our SEO Checklist to get a comprehensive to-do list with valuable resources to help you improve your search rankings and drive more organic traffic to your website.

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