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What is SEO – Search Engine Optimization? [and How Does It Work?]

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Connor Wilkins


What is SEO

What is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” It refers to the process of improving a website’s rankings in organic search engine results pages through strategies and optimizations that make a site more visible and discoverable to search engines like Google.

The main goals of SEO include:

  • Increasing website traffic from organic/unpaid search results
  • Improving keyword rankings for target keywords
  • Driving more qualified visitors and leads from search engines
  • Building authority and trust to increase engagement

Some key SEO strategies and best practices include:

  • Keyword research and targeting
  • On-page optimization of content and website architecture
  • Technical SEO like site speed, mobile optimization, indexing
  • Link building and earned backlinks from authoritative sites
  • Local SEO for businesses targeting local areas
  • Content creation and optimization for search intent
  • Ongoing tracking, testing, and improvement of efforts

The overall purpose of SEO is to make a website more findable in search to increase visibility, traffic, leads, and ultimately conversions and revenue. It involves both on-page and off-page efforts to help search engines understand a site’s value and relevance for certain keywords.

Why Is Search Engine Optimization Important?

Over 90% of website traffic originates from search engines like Google. Without SEO, most customers will never find your business when they search for your products or services.

It holds true that powerful SEO gets you found in those critical moments when customers are actively searching for what you offer. It positions your website to rank highly in search results so you appear at the top of the page right when people need you.

More than visibility, SEO drives targeted, ready-to-buy traffic to your site. Searchers have intent – they are looking for something specific. By ranking for aligned keyword phrases, SEO directs qualified visitors who are more likely to convert into customers.

How Does SEO Actually Work?

SEO may sound complex, but it’s based on some core principles that optimize websites to earn visibility and traffic from search engines. Let’s break down the key elements of effective SEO.

Understanding Search Engine Algorithms

The first step is researching how search engines like Google determine which websites to rank.

Google uses automated programs called crawlers to index the web. Complex algorithms then analyze factors like relevance, authority, trustworthiness, and user experience to rank pages.

Different platforms have unique algorithms. Facebook might weigh engagement and connections more heavily, while Google favors backlinks and page speed. Knowing what factors influence rankings informs optimization.

Conducting Keyword and Competitor Research

Thorough keyword research uncovers popular and valuable search terms that align with your business. Incorporating those keywords naturally into your website helps search engines understand your content’s topic.

Researching competitors reveals their SEO strategies, content themes, and opportunities to differentiate. Understanding the competitive landscape aids your optimization approach.

Creating an SEO Strategy and Content Plan

An effective SEO strategy sets goals like target keywords and outlines an action plan for achieving rankings. It might involve creating new content, updating existing pages, building backlinks, improving site speed, and other initiatives.

Maps to track progress, document processes, and coordinate teams help keep efforts aligned. Content plans ensure you regularly publish optimized pages.

Implementing On-Page and Off-Page Optimization

On-page optimization means optimizing elements directly on your website through keywords, meta descriptions, tags, schema markup, internal linking, speed enhancements, and more.

Off-page optimization builds authority and awareness through social media, backlinks, directory listings, reviews, and other external signals that search engines weigh.

Monitoring with Analytics and Tools

Analytics provide data to identify issues and evaluate performance. Tracking website traffic, rank positions, broken links, slow page speeds, and other metrics enables data-driven decisions.

SEO tools like Search Console, Rank Trackers, and Site Auditors also give insights for refinement. Regular reporting keeps stakeholders aligned.

Continual Improvement

SEO is an ongoing process as algorithms change, new competitors emerge, and websites evolve. There’s always room for more optimization, from creating fresh content to improving site architecture.

With foundational knowledge of how search algorithms work, research, planning, optimization, monitoring, and iterating, your SEO gains traction. Consistency and comprehensiveness are key.

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.

Here are some of the most notable differences between SEO and PPC advertising:

  • Cost – SEO involves free, organic rankings while PPC requires ongoing advertising payments to maintain visibility.
  • Results timeline – SEO takes time to achieve rankings but can provide lasting results. PPC offers instant visibility but disappears if campaigns stop.
  • Targeting – SEO focuses on rankings for specific keyword phrases. PPC allows granular targeting but requires constant management.
  • Traffic quality – SEO produces qualified visitors with buying intent. PPC can attract clicks with low intent if not managed well.
  • Trust – High SEO rankings increase authority and trust. PPC listings are viewed as ads so have less credibility.
  • Control – SEO relies on optimizing for search engines’ needs. PPC offers more control over placement, ads, keywords.
  • Metrics – SEO focuses on rankings, traffic, conversions. PPC focuses on clicks, CTR, spend, conversions.
  • Specialization – SEO requires specialized skills and ongoing optimizations. PPC relies more on advertising/analytical skills.

In summary, SEO takes time but produces organic, targeted traffic and credibility. PPC provides fast, controllable results but requires constant spending and management. The two can work very well together.


SEO refers specifically to organic, unpaid search results – the natural listings you see when you search. SEM encompasses all marketing done through search engines, including SEO and paid advertising.

In more detail:

  • SEO involves optimizing a website and its content to achieve higher organic rankings in search engines. This allows a site to appear in the top listings for relevant keyword searches.
  • SEM includes SEO efforts but also incorporates paid search ads and campaigns on platforms like Google Ads. SEM aims to increase visibility and traffic from all search engine sources.
  • SEO tactics include keyword optimization, website speed, developing high-quality content, link building, technical site improvements, etc.
  • SEM tactics include SEO efforts as well as managing paid search ads, setting budgets, bidding on keywords, creating targeted ad copy, etc.
  • The goal of SEO is to improve organic rankings through ongoing enhancements so a site appears at the top of search results based on relevance.
  • The goal of SEM is to cost-effectively manage both organic and paid efforts to maximize traffic from search engines through visibility, clicks, and conversions.

In summary, SEO is a component of SEM focused solely on organic rankings and traffic. SEM encompasses SEO but also includes paid search campaigns.

Are There Different Types of SEO?

Think of SEO like trying to get your business to appear at the top of the search engine results pages for keywords that potential customers are searching for. It’s like having your shop display its products right at the entrance of the world’s largest mall.

When a customer searches for something like “shoe stores near me”, Google wants to display the most relevant, helpful results at the top. SEO is about optimizing your online presence so your website earns that top spot for searches related to your business.

There are three main components of SEO – technical, on-site and off-site optimization.

In most successful SEO campaigns, an agency will incorporate all three tactics into your strategy. It’s not uncommon for a strategy to lean more heavily into one type of SEO over another, however. Of course, this depends on the website’s most critical needs.

Technical Optimizations

Technical SEO refers to all the behind-the-scenes factors that affect how search engines access and understand a website.

Properly structuring site architecture is important for technical SEO. This means using logical URL structures, avoiding duplicate content pitfalls, and preventing orphan pages that cannot be reached.

Fast page load speeds also play a big role in how search engines rank pages. Optimizing images, enabling compression, minimizing file sizes, and implementing caching help ensure quick load times, which creates better user experiences.

Making sure your website is mobile-friendly and adaptable to different devices is now essential as well.

Responsive web design that adjusts layouts for mobile, avoiding heavy graphics, and streamlining navigation for smaller screens all help with mobile optimization.

Facilitating proper crawling and indexing of pages through robots.txt files, sitemaps, and minimizing obstacles like forms also falls under technical SEO.

Implementing security measures like HTTPS and SSL also fall in the real of technical optimizations.

As does adding structured data markup to enable rich result snippets in SERPs. 

Basically, technical SEO is what creates an optimized behind-the-scenes environment for your website. 

On-Site Optimizations

On-site SEO encompasses the optimization techniques implemented directly on a website to improve search engine rankings and organic visibility.

A core component of on-site SEO is keyword optimization. This involves researching relevant keyword terms and then strategically incorporating those words and phrases into page titles, headers, content, URLs, alt text, and other key places search engines look.

The goal is to help search bots understand the main topic of each page.

Creating high-quality content is also essential for on-site SEO. Unique, fresh content that answers user questions and provides value has a better chance of ranking highly.

This content should naturally incorporate relevant keywords – not just awkwardly stuff keywords in for the search engines.

On-site SEO creates the optimal internal website environment to make it easy for search engines to crawl, index, and understand pages so they rank well for targeted keywords.

This happens through keyword optimization, publishing valuable content, internal linking this content, metadata optimization, implementing logical information architecture, and much more.

Off-Site Optimizations

Off-site SEO encompasses techniques and strategies implemented outside of a website to improve its search rankings and visibility.

One big part of off-site SEO is getting other websites to link back to your site. When popular or reputable sites link to you, it shows Google that your site is trusted and important, which helps your ranking.

Getting positive reviews, mentions, and references on other sites in your field also helps build credibility. This makes Google think your site is a leader that people rely on for information. Being active on social media like Facebook and Twitter helps people find and share your content too.

Making listings and profiles on directories and niche websites gives your site more visibility to people looking for your products or services. Posting content and articles on other sites gets more eyes on your brand and brings visitors back to your website.

Monitoring what people say about your business online is crucial too. Responding to comments on social media and forums helps manage your reputation. Taking advantage of PR opportunities can position your brand as an expert leader.

While on-site SEO focuses on optimizing your actual website, off-site SEO builds your authority and reach through other channels online. It takes effort across many platforms, but helps people find and trust your website more.

SEO Specialties

Search engine optimization continues to evolve into more specialized branches beyond “traditional” SEO. While the core principles remain constant, emerging subfields require added dimensions to stand out in crowded niches.

Ecommerce SEO, for example, magnifies product visibility through honed use of categories, on-page tags, faceted filters, and other bells and whistles to polish the buying journey.

Enterprise SEO confronts unique challenges like influencing decisions across a vast organization and moving the needle on properties with millions of pages. Patience and collaboration become competitive advantages here.

International SEO adapts to the needs of multinational brands by localizing touchpoints from translations to regional domain extensions. No two markets behave alike!

Local SEO helps businesses cement visibility among geo-targeted audiences by managing online listings, reviews, and other location-based signals. A restaurant needs different optimization than a law firm with five regional offices.

For news publishers racing against the clock, speed and agility keep content visible during volatile news cycles. Appearing quickly on aggregators like Google News feeds or leveraging platforms like Google Discover turns scoops into traffic.

While core SEO skills apply everywhere, these specialties show unique demands. But those able to adapt reap major returns through distinguished visibility.

As search evolves, skillful SEOs evolve along with it by sharpening strategies specific to their niche. Specialization drives success.

What are SEO Ranking Factors?

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. 

  • Page speed and performance (10-20%)
  • Mobile optimization (10-20%)
  • Domain authority and trust (10-15%)
  • On-page optimization (10-15%)
    • Keyword usage
    • Page titles and meta descriptions
    • Headings and content
    • Image alt text
    • Internal linking
    • Schema markup
  • Off-page optimization (20-30%)
    • Quality backlinks
    • Social signals
    • Local listings and citations
    • Brand mentions
  • Click-through-rate from SERPs (5-10%)
  • Bounce rate from SERPs (5-10%)
  • Site architecture (5%)
  • Page experience signals (5%)
    • Safe browsing
    • HTTPS
    • Ad experience
  • User behavior (5%)
    • Time on site
    • Pages per visit
  • Localization and translation (5%)

The exact weighting of these factors can vary quite a bit based on the search and the type of result. Google also does not publicly share how its algorithm works in detail. However, focusing on the factors above can generally help improve rankings. 

Page Speed

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 Optimization

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 Optimization

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.

Off-Page Optimization (Backlinks)

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.


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.

What About SEO Penalties?

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.

The Most Common Seo Mistakes Businesses Make

We’ve recently published a list of the most common 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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