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What is SEO and How Does it Work

What is SEO - a guide to search engine optimization

What is Search and What is SEO

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and it includes all activities you are doing to and around your website to make it more attractive to search engines. 

The goal of SEO is to get your website to rank higher in search results, thus getting more clicks, qualified traffic, and sales leads.

These results are called organic — that concerns everything that comes up on Google “for free” under the ads.

When consumers are using organic Google search to find information, products, or services almost all of the websites ranking at the top of the results have invested in SEO.

Considering that 93% of all web experiences start with a search engine, SEO should be the first thing you invest in after getting a website.

Pros and Cons of SEO

SEO is just one of the major ways of getting traffic. You can also get website traffic using paid ads and social media; you can get direct traffic using offline advertisements, and a lot more. SEO as a method of traffic acquisition holds a unique place among all of these strategies.

Compared to paid traffic SEO takes more time to kick in, and it requires consistency. However, once you have gained a decent share of organic SEO traffic from Google it’s relatively easy to sustain, and will provide a consistent stream of inbound leads for your organization.

Another important advantage of SEO is that SEO leads convert better than most other channels — at a nearly 15% conversion rate.

This is explained by the fact that consumers have more trust to businesses that they found themselves, rather than those that came up in ads.

SEO Activities and Types of SEO

Activities focused ON your website are called on-page SEO — they include tweaking the titles of your pages, your content, images, and other elements.

Anything you do outside and around your website is called off-page SEO.

There is also technical SEO — it is a sub-set of on-page SEO and it takes care of all the under-the-hood stuff — invisible but important meta tags, website speed, XML sitemaps, and other similar techie things. 

Poor technical SEO can be a deal breaker for large and complex websites, like e-Commerce stores or directories. Minor tweaks to the code of these pages can bring about drastic ranking improvements on Google rather quickly.

If you are optimizing a local business website, technical SEO is usually more straightforward, since most site builders produce optimized websites by default.

What Types of Businesses Need SEO?

In short, any business that has a website needs to be doing SEO to some extent.

Whether you will make SEO traffic the main source of your sales and leads is up to you, but refusing to invest in SEO means leaving money on the table, which ends up going straight to your competitors.

If you sell or offer services globally then SEO will need to be the cornerstone of your strategy together with paid ads. If you are a local business, then Local SEO is what you need the most.

What Type of Website is Best for SEO?

In terms of SEO, the simpler your website is the better. Search engines are best at reading and evaluating simple HTML and text elements, and that’s what they rank you for.

You don’t need to have a sophisticated site builder — as long as you have the option to create pages and update them — in order to create a website that ranks.

Some businesses decide to skip a website altogether and focus only on social media or marketplaces, like Instagram, Etsy, and others. 

However, having even a simple website is a good idea because it allows you to have a “home base” to fall back to and stay immune from cancellations and social media algorithm changes. Even if a social media channel is getting you all the sales you need, invest in building out a website gradually.

What are Keywords and Keyword Research

Keywords are a major concept in SEO that you will keep coming across no matter how deep you get into search engine marketing.

In SEO terms, keywords are search queries that your target market makes on Google. The whole process of SEO is aimed at ranking higher for the keywords you are interested in.

On-page SEO is focused on adding keywords to your page elements, and off-page SEO helps you get mentions on other sites that are relevant to these keywords.

“Austin Locksmith 24/7” is an example of a keyword that a locksmith business would be interested in ranking for. They would need to add the keyword to the title and body text of a page on their website and get backlinks with the same anchor text.

Keyword research means using various tools and data sources to find great keywords that represent your services to Google and to consumers. In a way, keyword research means packing your offer into clear searchable entities. 

Normally keyword research is done at the start of your SEO campaign — in fact, it can be done even before you create a website. Read more about it in our keyword research guide.

Ranking Factors in SEO

Google uses a set of ranking factors that help determine the order of websites in search engine results pages (SERPs). All in all, Google (and other search engines) are looking to reference sites that provide the most valuable information and experiences that meet the user’s search query.

Please keep in mind, however, that paid ads are the main income source for Google so their main goal is to sort of encourage you to pay for PPC ads. That is why there are no real SEO “tutorials” from Google, only a set of recommendations they produce on their blogs and Twitter accounts.

In this sense SEO is very practice-based — you need to focus on things that work and don’t cause any penalties (more on those below). We can safely say that there are 100% valid and working ranking factors that influence how your site performs on Google. They are:

Your Site Speed, Accessibility, and Code Clarity

Google has been clear about it – site speed is a major ranking factor. Visitors won’t wait for sites that load more than 3 seconds, and Google doesn’t rank them either.

Have a professional web designer audit your site for potential issues. Very often a huge unoptimized image is costing you tangible money in revenue.

Mobile Accessibility

Mobile-first indexing has been a thing for a while. Whatever your goals and tactics are, the mobile version of your site should be fast, optimized, and offer a great user experience.

On-page and Content

You need to at least take care of the basics with your on-page. Make sure every page is optimized for no more than ~3 related keywords, and make sure the main keyword is used at the beginning of the title, in the headings, and several times throughout the text.


Backlinks are HTML links to your website from other sites on the web. Every once in a while there are rumors that Google will stop considering backlinks as a ranking factor, but that is very unlikely to happen any time soon. The whole Internet is pretty much made of links between sites, and the more links a site has the more authoritative it looks to search engines.

There are literally dozens of ways you could obtain links to your site — from leaving comments on other blogs and publishing guest posts on other sites to sponsoring events, sending out press releases, or working with newspaper reporters.

In link building, only your budget and creativity are the limits. Most local business websites, however, start doing pretty well on Google with only the foundational backlinks — all major social profiles, some forums, communities, directories, and listings.

There are many variables here — the age and authority of the sites that link to you, anchor texts (the text of the link), the page your link is placed on, the page element (text/footer/sidebar), and so on.

The rule of thumb is to get many diverse links from quality natural websites.

Google RankBrain

This is a trickier ranking factor because it just means an AI mechanism that Google uses internally to rank pages. Basically, RankBrain is an AI that is trained to a) understand keywords and their intent, and b) understand and measure user satisfaction with results.

RankBrain uses a set of behavioral factors as signals of keyword satisfaction — those are bounce rate, the click-through rate in SERPs, time on page, and several other ones.

Topical Relevance

This is a more subtle ranking factor, but it can give you an edge over your competition. Plan out your site’s pages so that they form topical silos without overlapping or having several unrelated subjects on one page.

Penalties and Filters

Google is doing its best to keep its search results clean and free from manipulation. 

Businesses, on the other hand, only care about getting higher in search results.

As you promote your website it’s important you stay within the lines and do not risk your long-term growth for quick gains or questionable SEO tactics. 

While there are no right or wrong ways to do things, and Google may be shifting goalposts all the time, your best bet is to avoid these things:

Thin, Spammy Content

Do not try to overstuff your content with keywords. Mention your main search queries closer to the top of the article, but then just have it written naturally. 

Google is good at picking up natural writing and it gets rewarded with sustainable longtail traffic.

A lot of businesses are following the AI hype to produce thin, meaningless content that makes sense grammatically but doesn’t really speak to the target market’s interests properly.  This will possibly cause issues down the line.

This is not to say that using AI to produce content is a bad thing. In fact, Google has said that they aren’t prejudice against AI-generated content so long as it’s valuable, informative, and meets the intention of the searcher. 

So, if you’re using AI writing tools, take the time to carefully craft solid prompts that will elevate your writing and provide a great experience to your users. 

Backlink Spam

While you may not be getting toxic low-quality backlinks yourself, an agency you work with or a contractor may be selling you spammy link disguises as genuine guest posts or outreach.

Telling the good links from the bad links comes with experience, so consider getting a professional opinion on your backlinks when in doubt. In a nutshell, go for backlinks from real sites made for real people, not autoblogs or content farms.

What is SEO Software

Many SEO software types serve different purposes. Different SEO tools will have their own principles and learning curves, and serve different target audiences. If you are doing SEO as a local business, you will need to invest in some SEO software, but a lot of products will be over the top for you.

These are the main SEO software types:

Rank Trackers

These tools check the position of your website in Google’s results for any keywords you put in. These tools are good for tracking your general SEO progress.

Link Analyzers

These tools are invaluable for link-building campaigns. The best part is you can see what your competition does in terms of SEO and link building and replicate some of their tactics – up to the point of asking sites linking to them to change the backlink to your site. Sounds cruel but it’s only natural if you offer a better resource for linking.

If you are doing Local SEO (you should) then having a link/citation tracker is a must because citation consistency is a major Local SEO ranking factor for Google. As local search marketers, we’ve developed a handy tool, Direction Local — it takes care of most of your local SEO software linking needs.

Link Building Software

These can be borderline spammy and produce a lot of lower-quality automated links. Generally, not a good idea to be using those unless you really know what you are doing and are willing to take the risk of losing your website’s rankings forever due to penalization.

The Most Common Seo Mistakes Businesses Make

We’ve recently published a list of the most common local SEO mistakes, check it out. There are also several major conceptual SEO mistakes that a lot of businesses are making, these are:

1) Not doing SEO

2) Being SEO-centric

Google is not the only source of traffic. In fact, Google is in a way an intermediary between you and your customers. E.g. if there is a forum with discussions related to your products, you can establish your presence at the forum directly and work with your audience there, rather than hope they will come to your site through Google.

3) Following shady practices 

We’ve discussed the do’s and don’ts above, please stick to them! Remember that there are no shortcuts or hacks to this, SEO is consistent effort applied over and over again, until the effects accumulate.

How Much SEO Do You Need?

If you need help deciding what exactly to focus on and would like a professional opinion — get in touch with us. We can help you figure out if it makes sense to focus on SEO or any other activities for your business and suggest the services that will bring you the maximum ROI.

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