What is SEO?

If you’ve ever looked for something online (and the majority of us have), you already know much more about SEO than you would imagine you do.

Consider how that actually works: You place a word or a phrase into a search engine like Google (the primary search engine we’ll discuss throughout this post) that describes what you’re searching for.

Google Search

Then you select the result that appears to be the best or most useful for the search, from pages of results that appear to be something similar to this.

Google Search Results

But there are some different agendas beneath the surface of any search. Let’s say your search is for sneakers.

You wish to discover the shoes you would like (so that you can look cool/play sports/etc.).

Your search engine wishes to supply you the best, most useful results (so you’ll return).

And any company that sells sneakers - whether online or in a store - wants to be the first result you see when you search (to allow them to sell more sneakers).

Making all those “wants” match up is the job of search engine optimization. SEO professionals hire a number of different methods to make websites appear higher in your list of results and make it more likely that you’ll click on them to determine what you’re trying to find.

SEO is very important for many companies because if people discover you by way of a web search and discover what they’re trying to find, you could get a great deal of new website visitors which can help you earn more income. If people can’t find you in the web search, you miss the chance - and they will discover your competitor instead.

SEO is usually a part of an overall online marketing strategy and complements other tactics like social media marketing, content marketing and much more.

What factors affect a search?

Whenever we type something into the Google search box, there’s a whole lot going on under the hood. Google considers more than 200 various factors to determine the final results for every query. Not one person knows every one of the factors, but there are plenty of guesses - meaning there are numerous paths to optimization.

Google’s excellent “Inside Search” interactive resource provides a small glimpse into the process:

Google and their algorithms

Let’s look more closely at some of the major factors that we know Google considers during your search.

Your question

The very first thing Google attempts to do is determine what you’re getting at with your query. It uses a technology called “Knowledge Graph” to help it better comprehend the nature of the items you may be searching for, and whether it can best satisfy you with a definition, a list, a map or something else.

You may have noticed the way in which Google guesses the end of your search as you start typing and fixes your spelling if you mistype.

It also works hard in different ways to give you what you need quickly. For example, if you type “timer 30 minutes” into Google, it will create a timer for you right from the search results instead of having you click away to an online timer.

Google online timer

If you’re looking into the status of a flight you’re set to take when signed in to Google with your Gmail address, Google will search through your mail to offer you the status of your flight.

Google flights

Search engines are always focusing on new and much better ways to predict what we’re searching for and what we need faster and much more accurately.

Your location

A search engine not only takes into account the nature of your question but also where you’re asking it from. For instance, when I put a query like “pizza” into Google, it does some thinking for me and assumes I’d rather have a list of pizza places near me than a Wikipedia entry about the history of pizza.

Google search engine results

So local businesses have to put special effort into maximizing their SEO efforts for local visibility, which means doing things like optimizing their Google My Business pages.

Who created it

Google likes rewarding real individuals who write great content. A proven way it accomplishes this is through Google Authorship, which provides a special designation to authors who are verified through Google+. You are able to identify a verified author through the small photo in their byline next to their content in search results.

Your friends

Another factor search engines are increasingly banking on is each individual’s social network. “Social search” allows you to easily find content - like restaurant reviews, blog posts, photos and more - created by your friends and the contacts in your “social circle.”

The way it got shared

More than using your individual social network to serve you personalized results, search engines also use social sharing as a signal to determine the quality level of a piece of content.

Which means social actions like Facebook shares and Google “+1s” likely play a role in how Google chooses which results to show you for a given search.

Here’s how Searchmetrics explains it in its ranking factors study:

Well positioned URLs have a high number of likes, shares, tweets and plus ones, and specific URLs stand out in the top search results with a very high mass of social signals. On one hand, this means that the activity on social networks continues to increase, on the other hand it means that frequently shared content increasingly correlates with higher rankings.

This makes sense because social media is a growing way to find websites and content. The percentage of people who used social media to find websites increased 7 percent from 2011 to 2012 - in fact, using social media to find websites is growing more quickly than using search engines, in accordance with Forrester Research data.

Niche search engines

Your device

Finally it’s essential for a search engine to comprehend whether you’re on a computer, a tablet or a mobile phone as it prepares to give you search results.

Think about how your needs change from one device to another. On a laptop, you may be looking for content to read at leisure. On your phone, you may need a phone number right away, or a quick way to compare a price.

Mobile Stats

Mobile search requires a different type of result for different needs.

All these factors combined mean that my search engine results for a specific question might look completely different from yours, according to things like who we know, where we are and what type of device we’re searching on.


What does SEO do?

So beyond understanding and studying the many factors affecting search results, what does SEO actually do?

Although all SEO strategies generally share the same goal - to help an internet site be found by more people, more easily - the tactics used can vary widely.

But there are some common practices that you’ll hear about when it comes to search engine optimization. An SEO strategy:

Optimizes the site

The beginning of a solid SEO strategy focuses on the technical side of a website. Google finds information about websites via “web crawlers”, internet bots that systematically browse the internet. It’s often the job of an SEO specialist to make sure the site is easy for Google to find and crawl. (This graphic from DataDial focuses on site architecture.)

DataDial Graphic

This means doing lots of different things to optimize the site itself like assuring the site has a sitemap Google can find, making sure it loads quickly and analyzing the site’s design and architecture to make sure it works well for users. Most SEO professionals will perform a technical audit to determine a list of issues with a site.

Check Your Google, Yahoo! and Bing Ranking FREE!

Researches and optimizes keywords

Keywords will be the words you enter into a search engine to find what you’re searching for. If we go back to our sneakers example, a shoe company might want to be known for shoe-related keywords like “tennis shoes,” “sneakers” and “athletic shoes” as well as specific brands like Nike or Reebok.

SEO professionals perform keyword research to determine which keywords would be best to target for a given site. Then they make sure the site uses those keywords often enough and in the right spots in a process called keyword optimization. This graphic from DataDial is a good primer on some basic spots for keywords.

DataDial Graphic

Builds links

Before search engines like Google had fancy approaches to personalize your search results according to your friends and your location, they used one main element to figure out which stuff was the best on the web: links.

When a highly regarded, trusted website links to your website, it sends a signal to Google that you’re spending time with good company. If this takes place often enough with sufficient trusted, quality websites, Google has got the idea that you’re a trusted, quality website - and makes it much more likely that searchers will discover your website.

This means that SEO pros spend considerable time focusing on getting links in a process called link building. Link-building tactics can range from simply asking for a link to writing a guest post - and there are many others.

Link Building DataDial Graphic

Helps creates content (that builds links)

One of the best methods for getting links these days is by creating great content. Whether it’s a video, a blog post, a tool, a comic or another resource, great content naturally attracts links as people visit it, share it and discuss it. This graphic from Top Rank explains it well.

Whenever you put all the main aspects of an SEO strategy together, it looks a lot like this diagram.

SEO Diagram