Search Engine Optimization Basics: How SEO Works

Search engine optimization is the process of configuring a website in such a way as to encourage the search engines to rank it well in the search results for particular keywords and phrases. To understand how search engine optimization (SEO) works, it can be helpful to understand how the search engines work. Here’s a brief overview.

How the Search Engines Work

  1. Google and other search engines like Bing are businesses that derive much of their revenue from paid advertising.
  2. Advertisers choose to advertise on the search engines because the search engines draw many users.
  3. These users choose to utilize particular search engines (primarily Google) because the search engines help them quickly find the information and resources they’re looking for.
  4. The search engines do this by returning what they identify as the best possible websites to meet the intent of each individual search that is conducted.
  5. To determine what websites will best meet searchers intentions or answers searches questions, the search engines rely on algorithms. The search engines “crawl” or “spider” websites to gather information about them. Once a web page has been crawled by the search engines, it may be added the search engine’s “index” of pages which can be returned in the search results in response to a user’s search query.

Common Search Engine Ranking Factors

The search engine’s algorithms take into account a variety of characteristics, including:

Content: does the website have fresh, relevant, unique content that will answer the searcher’s question? Is the content shallow, or substantive?

Age: has the website been around for a fair amount of time?

Reputation: are other well-ranked and related websites linking to the site in question? Inbound links represent a “vote of confidence” from real people (webmasters). In other words, those webmasters must have thought this site’s content was important or useful, so they added a link to it from their own website.

Social: are people (and especially influential people, with lots of connections) sharing links to the website on social media?

Speed: does the website load quickly? (Websites that load quickly will provide a better user experience than slow websites, and the search engines want users to have a good experience)

Security: is the website safe, or is it infected with malware?

Mobile friendly: is the website programmed to function well on mobile devices?

Structure: is the site programmed in such a way as to allow search engines to easily ‘crawl’ the site, to discover each page?

HTML: has the site been optimized to help the search engines understand the main topic of each page?
The search engines’ algorithms also take into account the personal search history of the individual user. In an effort to best match search results to that individual, the search engines will also look at:

History: has the website been visited by this user in the past? This may indicate the user has a preference for this website.

Geography: what country and city is the user located in?

A common misconception about search engine optimization is that it’s something that is done to the site as a whole–which is only partially true. Some SEO tactics, like ensuring the website is mobile friendly, is not infected with malware, and is programmed in a way that allows the search engines to discover all of the content are tactics that improve the site as a whole. However, we must take care to optimize individual pages of the site as well, for particular topics, since individual pages are what the search engines return in the search results in response to individual searches. For example, if a user types the search phrase ‘running shoes’ into the search engine, the search engine is more likely to return a web page devoted exclusively to ‘running shoes’ rather than a web page that is more generically focused on ‘shoes.’ An important part of search engine optimization is understanding and anticipating what people will be searching for, how people will be searching for it, and then tailoring individual web pages to meet those requests. This is where keyword research and building focused, content-rich pages becomes important.

To make matters more complex, the algorithms the search engines use are evolving, as the ways people search change, as the information people want (and how they want to receive it) change, and as technology changes. The importance of various factors within the algorithms change as well, so websites need to adapt and change with them. That being said–while the technical execution may change, in general, providing a great user experience and high quality, relevant information remains the best way to rank well in the search engines.