What is SEO, and how does it work?

Search engine optimisation, or "SEO" for short, is a multi-billion pound industry. But what are the principles behind it, and what do SEO professionals do?

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Sam Sheppard
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Sam is an experienced digital marketing consultant with a specialism in search engine optimisation (SEO). He's led, created and managed the implementation of search marketing strategies for companies, big and small, across a variety of sectors.

When I meet new people, I’m usually asked something along the lines of, “What do you do for work?”.

I explain that I’m an SEO Consultant, which means I help businesses rank their website at the top of a search engine’s results page. The benefits of doing so seem clear to most people. The higher you appear in the results, the more traffic you’ll receive. The more traffic you receive, the more enquiries or sales you’ll generate.

There are caveats, but generally speaking, that’s the motivation behind SEO.

This is because people tend to favour the top results. The distribution of clicks is heavily weighted towards the websites that appear first, and data shows the click-through rate of the top-ranking website site is more than 25%.

By comparison, a website in 10th place, which is usually the final position on page 1 of the results, gets a click-through rate of less than 1%. The percentage continues to dwindle for each position after that.

After telling somebody about my job, a typical follow-up question is, “how do you do that?”.

This one is trickier to answer, especially without boring them to sleep. So I wanted to focus on it in this post. Many people, marketers and business owners included, may understand the basic principle of SEO, but not necessarily how it all works.

What is SEO?

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the process of improving how well a website ranks in a set of search engine results.

Search engines are complex but can be broken down into three essential functions: crawling, indexing, and retrieval. You can learn more about how search engines work in my last post.

In SEO, we recognise that we can do things to aid each function.

Aiding crawling

Before a search engine can even begin ranking your web pages, it must first find them. There are three main ways a search engine might find a webpage, with the process referred to as crawling:

  • It could visit your website and follow the links on each page
  • It could take a look at the list of pages in a sitemap
  • It could find a link to the page from other websites

If a search engine can’t find a page through one of these methods, the page stands little chance of appearing in the search results.

So it’s crucial to help search engines find all of our pages. We can do this by implementing a clear, hierarchical structure with well-linked menus and navigational elements.

Furthermore, it takes time and resources for a search engine to crawl a website. If it’s taking too long or using up too many resources, a search engine may stop crawling a site. We can reduce the time and resources required by making the site error-free, quick to load, and easy to navigate.

And finally, a search engine needs permission to crawl. Websites can sometimes inadvertently instruct a search engine not to crawl their pages, which can stop a page from appearing in the results.

To resolve any issues that could impact crawling, an SEO professional may conduct a technical SEO audit.

A technical audit is a bit like an MOT for your car. The mechanic completes a rigorous examination of your vehicle to find any issues before providing a prioritised list of recommendations. This is precisely what we do with your website.

Aiding indexing

Once a search engine has found a web page, it tries to understand the page’s purpose and topic. For example, is it a product page selling a pair of running trainers? Or is it an informational page explaining what runners should look for in a pair of trainers?

Understanding the difference is key to matching the right page with relevant user search queries. As SEOs, it’s our job to help search engines understand. Otherwise, the page might not rank for the search queries we would like it to rank for.

There’s plenty we can do. We can look at every element on the page and determine if it helps convey what the page is about, who the page is for, and what function the page has.

We can consider the users and think about what they might find helpful on each page. We could even look at what our competitors have done on their pages to source ideas we hadn’t considered.

We can look at the site as a whole and consider if we provide clear signals about our pages, such as how they’re grouped or how we link to them.

And finally, we can look at whether we have suitable content for the keywords we want to target. If we don’t, we have no chance of ranking, so we’ll need to create new content.

All of this is a vital, ongoing part of any SEO professional’s work.

Aiding retrieval

When a user conducts a search, a search engine retrieves all web pages relevant to their query, and it orders the results using a set of algorithms.

We don’t know exactly how the algorithms work. It’s unlikely that anyone does, even those who work for search engine companies.

But we have a good idea of what they’re looking for. From the combined experience, testing, and knowledge sharing of the SEO industry, along with feedback and advice from Google & Bing, we have plenty to go on.

Much is fairly common sense and centres around user experience.

We know users:

  • Prefer quick websites
  • Hate spam
  • Don’t like being disrupted by ads
  • Browse on their phones, mostly
  • Read web pages in a certain way
  • Want to be secure
  • Value the opinions of others

And so, there are aspects of the algorithms that focus on these factors.

Meanwhile, other aspects will consider factors that search engines deem to be important in their moderation of the internet, such as:

  • Who you are
  • Whether you’re trustworthy
  • Whether you know what you’re talking about
  • Whether you’re a popular, well-linked source of information

Again, parts of the algorithm are designed to evaluate these aspects before or during the retrieval process. By understanding this, an SEO professional can work on these factors over time to improve a website’s performance.

Summary

Earlier, I said SEO is “the process of improving how well a website ranks in a set of search engine results”. Well, we can now expand on that definition a little. SEO is the process of taking what we know about how search engines work and then applying it to a website to improve how well it ranks in a set of search engine results.

To do this, as SEO professionals it is our job to find new issues and opportunities that could affect ranking performance. These may be related to the crawling, indexing or retrieval of a website by a search engine.

It’s also our job to communicate these issues and opportunities to our colleagues or clients. To show them how it fits into a broader SEO strategy for their (or our) business. To drive the implementation and to measure the effect. Arguably, this is where a good SEO shows their true value.

Key Takeaways

  • SEO is based on the premise that better rankings generate more traffic, which leads to more business
  • This is because the better a site ranks, the higher its click-through rate
  • SEO is the process of improving rankings, using what we know about search engines
  • It’s an SEO professional’s job to find opportunities to fix or action

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