Chances are that you’ve never heard of search engine optimisation, or SEO as it’s more commonly known. But behind every Google search (or Bing if you’re into it), there is a dark art of bringing up the most relevant of trillions of webpages for your query. This dark art is SEO. I’ve had some experience in the discipline, working for a website-based company for almost a year (split over summers) and I’m going to explain, in basic terms, what it is, why it exists and how it is done.
You might still be wondering what SEO is. Crucial to its understanding is how search engines work. Google, Bing etc. crawl (look through) billions of webpages every day and scan their contents. They use many different measures to find out what the page is about, the quality of the information, and how important the webpage is to the internet. Search engines make an overall score for the webpage and store it to use when people make a request. When someone searches for something in an engine, the engine will look through its database for pages that are about the same thing as was searched. The search engines will then display this information ranked by its score, based off of the quality of information and how important the page is.
SEO is the tactic of improving both the quality of information and how important a page is on the internet, to make a webpage rank higher in search engines, so that more people will find it.
When looking for things on the internet, the vast majority of people will use search engines to help them. By ranking higher on Google and Bing, websites will receive exponentially more traffic and, therefore, more chance to earn money via advertising or sales. SEO is an exercise in maximising profit from a webpage.
This leads to the how of SEO. How do you improve the quality of a webpage for a search engine and how do you make a website seem ‘more important’ on the internet?
Improving the quality is simpler. By making the content of a webpage clear, concise and full of information, its quality score increases. This is called ‘on-page’ SEO.
The concept of ‘keywords’ is vital to this branch of the discipline. These are words or short phrases that are likely to be typed in to a search box by somebody looking for information. By writing content for your webpage featuring these keywords, search engines are going to pick up more easily what the page is about; and if the content is high quality, you can expect the page to rank highly for that search term. The content has to be good in the first place; the search engines’ robots can tell the difference between proper prose and lists of words, but strategically using keywords can give a page a boost.
The other branch of SEO is known as ‘off-page’ SEO, based around how important a webpage is in the grand scale of the internet. This is a lot harder to control for those running a website, as it is largely out of their hands. However, steps can be taken to improve this aspect of a website and help it rank higher in search engines.
The key factor in ‘off-page’ SEO is links. Links are the glue that holds the internet together, giving it the structure that makes it work. Search engines know this, and since their invention, have used links as an indicator of how important a webpage is. At the same time as they scan a webpage and check the content, they are also cataloguing all the links to other pages. If there are links from many different webpages to another, search engines can infer that the webpage being linked is of high importance. This means that search engines will give it a higher importance score and rank it higher. This is the basic explanation of why links matter in SEO. For websites, apart from making their content better (and therefore more likely to be linked to), the main focus of their optimisation should be spent working with other websites to get links.
The problem with links is that not all links are created equal. You can, and some website owners do, go to websites were you can easily submit links manually to your webpages to boost the total number, but this will not help your website in the way you’d hope. It might, in fact, attract a penalty from search engines, as they can detect this type of behaviour. The best links to have pointing to your site are from sites that search engines already deem important. It may seem a cyclical concept – that to make your site more important you need to gain a link from a site that has been deemed important because of the links to that site – but that is the nature of the internet. This concept is colloquially described as ‘link juice’. When you create a link, you pass some of your page’s accumulated link juice to the one you are linking to. When this webpage links to another, it passes on a small amount of its’ ‘link juice’ received from other sites to the site it is linking to etc. The more ‘link juice’ you have, the more important your page is to the search engines, and the more likely it is to be ranked highly.
So how to websites go about getting links to their own? They use ‘link-building’ campaigns. These involve contacting websites with a high level of importance (and, to be more effective, a similar subject) and asking them to link to their page. These links can be as simple as a hyperlinked word, or submitting a whole article to include on someone else’s site with links included. This is the underlying logic behind many guest posts on blogs, for example. Some strategy is required in running a link-building campaign, as often reply rates to e-mails will be low. There are many variables to be considered in planning a campaign. Offering a small amount of content, such as a link, will not be as attractive as a personalised blog post, but will take less time, and can be offered to many more sites. You can spend time trying to get a link from a site with high importance, such as writing an article for BBC’s magazine, which would be impossibly difficult, or ask many sites with a low level of importance to include your article, which will result in several successes. It’s a difficult task, but an important one in the field of SEO.
These are just the basics of what search engine optimisation is. There are many, more complex metrics that search engines check ‘on-page’ and ‘off-page’ to determine how valuable your site is for rankings, including things like social media shares, domain history and technical details such as page load times. However, search engines’ keep their true methods and algorithms close to their chest; so that we know little about how much these factors affect rankings, and only know about these metrics because they tell us so via their blogs.
If you want to go more in depth into the details of SEO, I suggest reading Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO. When I started working in the field, this guide explained all of the complex terms involved very nicely and gave me a good idea of the rights and wrongs of the world.
The work of search engine optimisation is like maintaining the transport network of the world wide web. It’s not a visible job when done right, but is crucial to the internet working in the best possible way.