You may have heard that SEO is essential when you want to increase traffic to your website.
When you are looking to increase the volume of customers coming to your store, incoming calls, and online orders, you need to be visible in Google Search.
Optimizing your webpages helps you rank higher and convert more searchers to customers.
But how does SEO work?
In this article, you will learn about the process used by marketers to optimize your website for search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and many others.
Let’s start by learning what SEO is all about.
What Is SEO, Anyway?
SEO stands for search engine optimization.
At its core, SEO is the process of making your site rank as highly as possible in Google when someone types in [burrito blanket] (or whatever it is you sell, promote, or talk about).
The higher your site ranks, the more visible your business is, and the more traffic and sales your business is likely to generate.
You might be a little lost if you are just getting started in SEO.
There are many sites, books, and guides (we even wrote one here at Search Engine Journal) to help you get started. But you might find that many 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.
How Does SEO Work? 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 daily?
Before diving into the more technical aspects of SEO, I will 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 of it like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Strategies we’ve come to know and love get replaced by newer, more effective ones. 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, but they need to make sense.
- 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 release updates, and there are a few lists 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 often an ineffective SEO strategy.
Rather than buying links, I’d recommend starting with our guide to link building.
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, High-Quality Content Wins
There are many technical SEO factors – site structure, anchor text, URL structure, and so forth.
Those details matter, but the backbone of SEO is high-quality 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 help 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.”
In short, ensure that all your content is written for humans first and optimized for Google second.
Metadata is the title and lines of text on the search results page.
For example, if you Google [who killed Carole 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.
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 and lead to more business.
Links Matter, But…
Links have been a critical aspect of SEO as long as Google has existed.
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 topically relevant, popular websites in your niche.
User Experience (UX) Impacts Rankings
User experience (UX) plays a substantial role in how well your website will rank on Google.
However, user experience depends on many 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:
- Track internal metrics like time on page, CTR, and bounce rate. These signals are not direct ranking factors, but optimizing your site for high engagement can help indirectly. These statistics can tell you about your content’s performance. Happy users, happy Google.
- Make your site easy to navigate. Improve your website’s navigation to ensure users quickly find the page 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. Your site should load in less than two seconds in an ideal world. 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 will likely 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 Than 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?
First, Google suggests investing in responsive design. You must make your content consistent across desktop and mobile devices and ensure your site loads fast on mobile and desktop.
In short, you need to up your mobile game or 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 grown 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.
Most of the voice search optimization strategies also make sense for semantic search.
Here are a few steps to help optimize your site for voice search:
- Use natural language in content and answer questions.
- Optimize for featured snippets.
- Create and markup an FAQ page (use Question and Answer schemas).
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 the core principles of SEO. The technical stuff will change, but these SEO tips stand the test of time.
If It Seems Shady, It Will Probably Burn You
You might have heard of black hat, white hat, and gray hat SEO.
Black hat SEO refers to the 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.
This is where the 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 convincingly argued that a white hat isn’t a thing anymore.
A lot of SEO pros walk the gray hat line. And a lot of them get burned.
To succeed in SEO, you need to do things the right way.
If something feels off – like buying or selling links – it will probably burn you and torpedo your chances in search.
Trust me. It is not worth the long-term risk.
Read Real Experts
There are a lot of SEO “experts.”
Some of them claim to get you to the top of page one on Google “guaranteed!”
Others don’t actually do SEO but write about it a lot. Make sure your sources are reputable.
Take everything you read with a grain of salt because nothing is universal.
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 about determining 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 repeatedly.
If you’re using shady tactics, all your work may go to waste if Google’s latest algorithm update changes things. But if you apply SEO best practices and consistently test, you can be prepared for when the winds change.
Testing is an eternal part of any successful SEO strategy.
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 SEO’s core is figuring out what works for your site or client and then changing it when it stops working.
My final advice is this:
- Keep a close eye on your competitors.
- Follow best practices.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal