What is SEO and How Does it Work?

“What is SEO and How Does it work” is arguably the most recurrent question digital marketing agencies get. There is an increased interest in SEO among brands and businesses these days, and it’s not surprising.

SEO, which is Search Engine Optimization in full, is the practice of boosting the number and quality of traffic to a site via organic search results. It involves making adjustments to a website design and its content with the aim of making the site more attractive to a search engine. This is done with the expectation that the search engine would show the site as a top result on search engine result page (SERP) whenever there is a search query related to it.

In as much as Search Engine Optimization can get very complex due to the numerous factors that affect ranking, its fundamental process is quite easy to grasp. Search engines want to give their users the best experience. They do this by providing users with high-quality and relevant content for every search.

How Does SEO Work?

It’s impossible to discuss SEO without delving into how the average search engine works. Here’s a quick overview of how search engines like Google work.

  • Crawling

This is where it all begins. The search engine bot scans through the multitudes of pages and content on the internet looking for the most valuable in relation to a search. Search engine bots, also known as spiders or crawler, scan the internet to discover existing pages. The crawlers use the website links for its travel/sojourn across the internet.

Links connect pages on a website and websites all over the internet, and this creates a route for the crawlers to reach all the web pages on the internet. Crawlers scan through the DOM (Document Object Model) of each page to see what it has. The DOM is the HTML and Javascript code of the page looked through by the crawlers to get links to other pages.

  • Indexing

The index refers to the database with which search engines save and retrieves data whenever a user enters a query. Indexing basically means adding a web page’s information to a search engine’s index.

The index organizes and classifies:

  • The anchor (clickable) text of links
  • A map containing all the pages that each page is linked to
  • Data about the nature of web pages and content
  • Ranking

In order to present the best results to their users, search engines must carry out the following after every search:

  1. Understanding and interpreting the intent of the query
  2. Locating the web pages in the index above related to the search query
  3. Ranking the webpages and contents in the order of importance and relevance

This is one of the most important areas of search engine optimization. A good SEO should help to boost the importance and relevance of web pages for related queries.

Factors That Affect SEO

The end goal of SEO is higher ranking on search engines, which leads to more traffic and ultimately to sales. It’s however not always a smooth ride as there are a number of factors that influence search engine optimization.

While Google has not made public their exact algorithm for ranking, certain known factors have an impact on placing on the result page.

The factors can best be discussed from two points of view – on-page SEO and off-page SEO

On-Page SEO

These are factors that happen on the site to be ranked so it can be worked on. In other words, the site owner has complete control over the On-page SEO factors. These factors can be improved upon with time by following the best practices of SEO.

Below are some of the on-page SEO factors that can help improve a site’s ranking on search engines:

  • Title Tag

The title at the beginning of each page quickly introduces the page to search engines. The recommended number of characters for this is 70 or less.

  • Meta Description

The meta description on a site tells search engines more about what every page is about. The users also need this information to decide on whether or not to click on a page. This should contain the keyword and should provide just the right details to convince users to click.

  • Sub-heading

Sub-headings do not only make contents easier to read, they also help with improving SEO. Using H1, H2, H3 and other tags help to inform search engines on the organization of the content.

  • Internal Links

Linking content together on the same website will significantly boost ranking as it will make search engines interested in the sites.

  • Image Name and ALT Tags

Images are now a crucial part of blogging/writing. Anyone using images on a website or within a blog content should always include keywords or phrases in the file name and alt tag. This gives the images an advantage in image search.

It’s important to note that Google, despite encouraging site owners to use keywords and phrases, still penalizes those who overdo it. In other words, over-using keywords attract some form of punishment from the Google search engine.

Also, it’s recommended that every content focuses on not more than two keywords. This helps to make sure that the content is relevant and specific. Taking on too many keywords at once often negatively affect SEO.

Content is king, but User Experience is crucial too. That explains why it’s important to also pay attention to site architecture. The design should be for both humans and search engines. This includes testing for mobile-friendliness as the majority of users access the internet.

Off-Page SEO

Unlike the on-page SEO factors that a business has control over, there are Off-page SEO factors which businesses can’t control. These factors, as with on-page SEO, have a major impact on ranking on Google result page.

While these factors can’t be controlled, there are ways to improve one’s chances with them.

SEO factors that can boost or diminish rankings

  • Trust

Trust is a major factor Google uses to rank search results these days. This is how Google determines whether or not a site is legitimate. One of the surest ways to improve on trust level is by building high-quality backlinks from sites with high authority.

  • Links

Backlinks is one of the most known ways of building off-page SEO. One has to be careful here because there are spammy sites and they can result to being banned by search engines.

Business owners can take the time to build relationships with fans and influencers that create quality content and are willing to link back to their sites.

  • Social

One other important off-page SEO factor is social signals like shares and likes. Quality shares from influencers help a great deal in boosting SEO. This also depends on the quality of content published.

In as much as businesses have no control over the off-page SEO, constantly creating quality content can put them in a better position.

Black Hat vs White Hat SEO

SEO has two major approaches – black hat and white hat. These two represent the two different approaches businesses use to optimize their sites for search engines.

The only reason some organizations are interested in SEO is to quickly rank their content in the shortest possible time and make some money. This is where Black-Hat SEO comes in handy. It’s an approach that focuses only on optimizing for the search engine.

In other words, businesses that use this approach do not put the actual reader into consideration. They are usually willing to bend the rules just to improve their site rankings or gain traffic to make quick money.

At the end of the day, this SEO approach leaves the internet with pages that users find it difficult to read or look similar to spam.

The good news for users of this approach is that their sites will most likely rank quickly. However, the bad news is that sites like this eventually get penalized or banned by search engines.

On the other hand, there is White Hat SEO which is an effective and fascinating approach to search engine optimization and creation of a sustainable business online. This approach focuses on the audience or humans who would be engaging with the contents.

The goal for any business using this approach is to create the best content on a website that users can easily interact with, and not forgetting to follow the search engine rules.

The only way to build a business that’s sustainable online and will continually generate organic traffic over time is by following SEO best practices; create effective and engaging contents that would be valuable to your readers.


There are a lot of factors that influence or affect ranking on search engines. However, the most important factors to bear in mind are

  • Create for humans and you may not have to worry about on-page SEO
  • Create quality contents you may not have to bother about off-page SEO

It is also important to note that SEO takes time and patience – it does not happen overnight. It takes weeks, even months. And interestingly, the efforts you put in today may continue to yield fruits for years to come.

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