Search Engine Optimisation

What Is SEO & How It Works via @lorenbaker

SEO, HTTPS, PBN, KPI.

These are just a few industry terms SEO professionals use every day.

Yet if you’re a small business owner or new to the industry, you couldn’t tell you what those acronyms stand for.

And, it can seem intimidating to ask.

So, what in the world is SEO? What does all this mean?

Don’t worry. I’ll help you become fluent in the language of SEO.

This post will cover everything I know about SEO. Well, everything that I could fit into 2,000 or so words at least.

What Is SEO, Anyway?

SEO stands for search engine optimization.

At its core, SEO is the process of making your site rank as high as possible in Google when someone types in “burrito blanket” (or whatever it is you sell, promote, or talk about.)

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The higher your site ranks, the more visible your business is, and the more traffic and sales your business is likely to generate.

If you are just getting started in SEO, though, you might be a little lost.

There are tons of sites, books, guides (we even wrote one here at Search Engine Journal) – and you might find that most of those resources offer conflicting information.

Part of the reason SEO frustrates so many people is that it changes continuously.

Why? Because when marketers get their teeth into a new “strategy,” they like to run it into the ground.

Essentially, we are why we can’t have nice things.

Also, there’s the fact that Google is constantly updating its algorithm.

SEO is a never-ending battle to get more eyes on your website and convince Google that your site is worth sending searchers to.

Your Top SEO Questions Answered

So what matters when it comes to SEO?

  • Is it all about the links?
  • Does the URL structure really matter?
  • What exactly is a meta description, anyway?
  • Do you need to crank out a 2,000-word blog post four times a day?

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Before diving into the more technical aspects of SEO, I’m going to answer the most-asked questions about SEO.

Is SEO Dead?

Yes. It’s completely dead.

Our jobs are over. You should just quit now.

I’m kidding, mostly.

I’d argue that SEO is constantly dying repeatedly. Think it like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

As the strategies we’ve come to know and love are replaced by newer, more effective strategies, SEO best practices die, and new ones are reborn.

So while it isn’t dead, SEO is always changing. If you want to succeed at SEO, you’ve got to be willing to roll with the punches.

What Is The Most Important SEO Factor?

There isn’t one golden SEO factor that outranks all the others.

One of the most common answers you’ll get in SEO is, “Well, it depends…”

This might be frustrating, but it’s the truth.

  • Do links matter? Yes.
  • Do you have to have links to rank? Probably, but not necessarily.
  • Does content length matter? Yes, but a crappy long post won’t outrank a short, amazing post.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

How Long Does SEO Take to Work?

Well, it depends. (Sorry!)

Only Google knows exactly how its algorithm works.

They do release updates, and there are a few lists out there of the most crucial ranking factors.

The truth is that SEO takes as long as it takes – that might be weeks or even months, depending on your strategy. If someone else does something just a tiny bit better, you might get bumped off the top of the SERPs.

What Is The Difference Between On-Page SEO & Off-Page SEO?

On-page SEO refers to changes you make on the site you own that impact SEO.

For example, adding an XML sitemap to boost your SEO. Off-page SEO refers to SEO strategies that happen off your website, such as building links to pillar content.

Link Building Is Hard – Can’t I Just Buy Links?

You could. You could also run your hand through a blender – no one is going to stop you. But it’s an ineffective SEO strategy.

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Rather than buying links, I’d recommend starting here, with our guide to building and acquiring links.

SEO Factors That Rule Today & Beyond

Now that we’ve covered the basics, you are ready to get your hands dirty.

Below, we’ll cover a few of the most critical SEO factors.

Keep in mind that SEO trends change constantly, and what works now might not work in a few months.

Relevant, Optimized Content Wins Every Time

There are a ton of technical SEO factors – site structure, anchor text, URL structure, and so forth.

Those details matter but the backbone of SEO is high-quality, optimized content. If you get that right, the rest of SEO will be much easier.

If you want to crack the first page on Google, you need relevant, well-optimized content that earns links.

What do we mean by high-quality content?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when developing content:

  • Keywords are still critical, but context matters more. Google crawlers now analyze the context and look for related secondary keywords that share the searcher’s intent.
  • Include clear, keyword-rich titles, meta descriptions, alt attributes, H1 tags, and URLs. These factors tell Google that your site is relevant and helps it rank.
  • Length matters, but relevance matters more. Google says: “The amount of content necessary for the page to be satisfying depends on the topic and purpose of the page.”

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In short, ensure that all the content you produce is written for humans first and optimized for Google second.

Metadata Matters

Metadata is the title and lines of text that show up on the search results page.

For example, if you Google “who killed Carol Baskin’s husband,” here’s the metadata you’ll see:

Metadata tells the user what they can expect to find if they click on the page.

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Optimizing your metadata is pretty simple:

  • Include relevant but not repetitive, keywords, and variations in the title and description.
  • Keep it short, but not too short. Google cuts off meta descriptions around 160 characters, so aim for less than that.
  • Be clear and concise, so users know what to expect.

Think of metadata as ads for your content.

Why should users click? What can you tell them?

Use the meta to encourage clicks, which will drive traffic, which will lead to more traffic.

Links Matter, But…

Links have been a critical aspect of SEO as long as Google has existed.

Essentially, links work as ‘votes’ telling Google that other sites think your content is useful and relevant.

The more high-quality, relevant links you acquire, the higher your site will likely rank for related key terms.

In short, links are still fundamental to SEO.

But, quality matters more than quantity.

If you invest in link building as part of your SEO efforts, target links from high-authority, high-traffic websites.

User Experience (UX) Impacts Rankings

User experience (UX) plays a substantial role in how well your website will rank on Google.

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However, user experience depends on a ton of factors like site infrastructure and layout, content, and so forth, making it hard to measure.

If you want to win at SEO, UX should be a top priority.

Here are a few best practices to follow:

  • Ensure time on page and CTR are high, and the bounce rate is low. These signals are not direct ranking factors, but optimizing your site for high engagement can help indirectly. Happy users, happy Google.
  • Make your site easy to navigate. Improve your website’s navigation to make sure users quickly Google said Way find a page that they are looking for. “The simpler, the better” approach works perfectly here. Navigation bars, drop-down menus, internal links, and a site search will help.
  • Site speed matters a lot. In an ideal world, your site should load in less than 2 seconds. Image compression, code and structure optimizations, and faster servers will help. Start with Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to see where you stand.

As Google becomes smarter, UX is likely to play an even more important role in the future.

So now is the time to learn the basics and implement best practices on your site.

Mobile Matters More the Ever Before

In 2018, Google moved to mobile-first indexing, which means the search engine uses mobile versions of your site to rank your sites in their results.

Google’s move makes sense because more than 50% of traffic worldwide is generated from a mobile device.

What does that mean for SEO?

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First, Google suggests investing in responsive design. You need to make your content consistent across desktop and mobile devices and ensure your site loads fast on both mobile and desktop.

In short, you need to up your mobile game or your site to languish at the bottom of Google search results.

Don’t Ignore Voice Search

When it comes to voice, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.

Google said, way back in 2016, that voice searches made up around 20% of all searches performed in the Google app.

Today, over a quarter of all Americans own a smart speaker. Yet 72%  of marketers have no plans to optimize for voice search.

Does voice search matter? It does.

Voice search has been growing in popularity and will likely continue to do so. It shouldn’t be your #1 SEO priority, but it does make sense to start optimizing for voice search.

Here’s why:

Most of the voice search optimization strategies make sense for semantic search, as well.

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Here are a few steps to help optimize your site for voice search:

Voice search optimization is not a must-have right now, but voice search optimizations make sense for Google in general and may give you a leg up in the future.

3 Tips for Actually Succeeding in SEO

There are two types of SEO advice – the technical stuff I covered above, and then there are the core principles of SEO. The technical stuff will change, but these SEO tips stand the test of time.

If It Seems Shady, It Probably Will Burn You

You might have heard of black hat, white hat, and gray hat SEO.

Black hat SEO refers to practices that are totally against Google’s terms of service. Like building 10 sites and interlinking them to make Google think your crappy bitcoin sites are legit.

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This is where that acronym PBN comes into play.

Then there is a gray hat, which may not be technically wrong but walks a thin (gray) line.

White hat is above the board, totally legit SEO. Some have argued convincingly, however, that white hat isn’t really a thing anymore.

A lot of SEO pros walk the gray hat line. And a lot of them get burned.

If you want to succeed in SEO, you need to do things the right way.

If something feels off – like buying or selling links – it’s probably going to burn you and torpedo your site.

Trust me. It is not worth the long-term risk.

Read Real Experts

There’s a lot of SEO “experts.”

Some of them claim to get you the top page of Google “Guaranteed!” Others don’t actually do SEO, but write about it a lot.

Follow the real SEO experts and take the others’ advice with a grain of salt.

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What works for an ecommerce site in tech isn’t necessarily going to work for a restaurant supply store.

Pay attention to what comes from Google directly from folks like John Mueller and Gary Illyes.

Test, Test, and Test Again

SEO is all about figuring out what works for your site in your industry based on your unique landscape.

The only way to figure that out is to test – and keep testing over and over again.

Remember, all your work may go to waste if Google’s latest algorithm update changes things or if your competitor does something new.

Testing is an eternal part of any successful SEO strategy.

Conclusion

SEO is ever-evolving.

Every SEO professional would love to find the magic formula that rockets their sites to the top of SERPs and keep them there forever.

Unfortunately, SEO doesn’t work that way.

There are rules and best practices, but the core of SEO is about figuring out what works for your site or client and then changing it when it stops working.

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My final advice is this:

  • Keep a close eye on your competitors.
  • Follow best practices.
  • Test.

Featured Image Credit: Paulo Bobita


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Search Engine Optimization