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What is SEO and How Does it Work?

Written by Ben Leach on

Many businesses owners approach us and ask, ‘What is SEO?’ so we’re delving in to the depths of search engine optimisation in our first installment of our SEO blog series.

When it comes to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), it can often seem like a hard nut to crack. The subject and its practices often seem to be shrouded in mystery. With only die-hard marketers knowing how to tame the beast that is SEO.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, when you understand the principles of SEO, it can become fairly easy to implement and control. Whilst we appreciate that there are other search engines, in this blog, we’ll be primarily focusing on Google as they have the largest market share (85%) among search engines.

What is SEO?

It’s difficult to communicate in one sentence what SEO actually is. The analogy that we prefer is that you can think of SEO as a library. If you wanted a book about cars, the librarian would ask you about the context of your search; and then produce books accordingly, that best match your search.

This is the simple version of what SEO does. When you create a web page or blog, you can assign a keyword linked to each page. When someone searches up that keyword in a search engine like Google, your website will appear somewhere in the results. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it will appear on the first page of the search engine.

Google Ad and Google My Business

It’s important to remember, there is something called Pay Per Click (PPC) results and Google My Business. Whilst these are forms of SEO, there are different ways of achieving them than organic SEO results. PPC results on Google are displayed directly at the top of the search results and are paid for by the business/organisation. The price is based on a cost per click basis, essentially, each time the paid result is clicked, the business is charged a cost per click which varies dependent on the popularity of the keyword. If multiple businesses want the same keyword, there is an auction; the business that is willing to spend the most money per click on the keyword and has the best SEO score on their website will be at the top.

Google My Business works on a location basis. You will usually see these results when you have location services turned on. These results take SEO into account, but also the distance away from your current location and ratings it’s received on Google. You can see all three types of search results below.

Screenshot of Google ads

How does SEO work?

We’ve told you what SEO is, but how does it work? Whilst we could try, there’s very little that could beat Google’s former head of web spam, Matt Cutts’ explanation of how Google trawls through websites:

“When you do a Google search, you aren’t actually searching the web. You’re searching Google’s index of the web, or at least as much of it as we can find.

We do this with software programs called spiders. Spiders start by fetching a few web pages, then they follow the links on those pages and fetch the pages they point to; and follow all the links on those pages, and fetch the pages they link to, and so on, until we’ve indexed a pretty big chunk of the web; many billions of pages stored on thousands of machines.”

When you search a keyword or phrase into Google, how does Google decide which result in its index of web pages should be on the top of the free, organic searches?

It boils down to a search engine’s algorithm for what makes a good website. Whilst Google constantly changes and adapts its process of indexing websites, through educated guesswork and reverse engineering, you can begin to build a picture of the things that Google and other search engines take into account when deciding what pages are the best match for the search:

Keyword usage

If someone is searching for ‘car mechanics in Nottingham’ and your page mentions that you are a car mechanic in Nottingham, as well as a relatively consistent frequency of this phrase, you will get ranked.

Site Structure

If people can’t navigate around your page, it’s probably worth assuming that a search engine software may be unable to successfully trawl through your website. If you have long links or a clunky site structure, you may find that it knocks you down the SEO rankings.

Site Speed

A search engine wants to make sure that its customers find what they’re looking for in a quick and timely manner. If your website takes more than 3 seconds to load, your search result may be affected.

Time spent on your site

The search engine will always look at historical data sets for your website. If people who searched a similar term to someone else spent a long time on your website, there’s a chance that it will perform better as the search engine will record your site as contextually good.

Number of inbound links

What this means is that your website should have other websites linking to it. This promotes your website as an authority in a certain area. However, the types of links and how you obtain them need to be carefully managed.

Quality of inbound links

Don’t go asking for links from lots of websites and businesses. This could seriously damage the reputation of your website. For example, if an adult website links to your website, your search result will drop. However, if reputable sources such as the BBC link to your website, your search result may raise the rankings

Mobile usability

Around 60% of total clicks on Google were from mobile last year, and if your website isn’t mobile responsive, a search engine is likely to not be favourable.

It’s important to note that although these algorithms are set up by humans, search results are determined 100% by the algorithm, involving absolutely no human interaction. This means that no matter how much you think your search result should be at the top, there’s not a great deal you can do unless you conform to the algorithm.

Need help?

At HeX, we can help you with your own Search Engine Optimisation if you’re struggling. You can get in touch with us here.