What Is Search Engine Optimization?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of getting pages to rank higher in search engines such as Google. Because search is one of the main ways in which people discover content online, ranking higher in search engines can lead to an increase in traffic to a website.
In Google and other search engines, the results page often features paid ads at the top of the page, followed by the regular results or what search marketers call the “organic search results”. Traffic that comes via SEO is often referred to as “organic search traffic” to differentiate it from traffic that comes through paid search. Paid search is often referred to as search engine marketing (SEM) or pay-per-click (PPC).
The Benefits Of SEO
Search engine optimization is a key part of online marketing because search is one of the primary ways that users navigate the web. In 2014, over 2.5 trillion searches were conducted worldwide across search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, and Yandex. For most websites, traffic that comes from search engines (known as “natural” or “organic” traffic) accounts for a large portion of their total traffic.
Search results are presented in an ordered list, and the higher up on that list a site can get, the more traffic the site will tend to receive. For example, for a typical search query, the number one result will receive 40-60% of the total traffic for that query, with the number two and three results receiving significantly less traffic. Only 2-3% of searchers click beyond the first page of search results. Thus, even a small improvement in search engine rankings can result in a website receiving more traffic and potential business.
Because of this, many businesses and website owners will try to manipulate the search results so that their site shows up higher on the search results page (SERP) than their competitors. This is where SEO comes in.
How Search Engine Optimization Works
Search engines such as Google use an algorithm or set of rules to determine what pages to show for any given query. These algorithms have evolved to be extremely complex, and take into account hundreds or even thousands of different ranking factors to determining the rankings of their SERPs. However, there are three core metrics that search engines evaluate to determine the quality of a site and how it should rank:
- Links – Links from other websites play a key role in determining the ranking of a site in Google and other search engines. The reason being, a link can be seen as a vote of quality from other websites, since website owners are unlikely to link to other sites which are of poor quality. Sites that acquire links from many other sites gain authority (called “PageRank” in Google) in the eyes of search engines , especially if the sites that are linking to them are themselves authoritative.
- Content – In addition to looking at links, search engines also analyze the content of a web page to determine if it would be relevant for any given search query. A large part of SEO is in creating content which is targeted towards the keywords that search engines users are searching for.
- Page Structure – The third core component of SEO is page structure. Because web pages are written in HTML, how the HTML code is structured can impact a search engine’s ability to evaluate a page. Including relevant keywords in the title, URL, and headers of the page and making sure that a site is crawlable are actions that site owners can take to improve the SEO of their site.
The search engine optimization process involves optimizing each of these core components of search engine algorithms in order to rank higher in the search results.
Search Engine Optimization Techniques
Understanding how search engines work is only the first step of the process in improving a site’s search rankings. Actually improving a site’s rank involves leveraging various SEO techniques to optimize the site for search:
- Keyword Research – Keyword research is often the starting point for SEO and involves looking at what keywords a site is already ranking for, what keywords competitors rank for, and what other keywords potential customers are searching for. Identifying the terms that searchers use in Google search and other search engines provides direction on what existing content can be optimized and what new content can be created.
- Content Marketing – Once potential keywords are identified, content marketing comes into play. This can be updating existing content or creating brand new pieces of content. Because Google and other search engines place a premium on high-quality content, it’s important to research what content is already out there and create a compelling piece of content that provides a positive user experience and has a chance of ranking highly in the search engine results. Good content also has a greater chance of being shared on social media and attracting links.
- Link Building – Because links from external websites (called “backlinks” in SEO parlance) are one of the core ranking factors in Google and other major search engines, obtaining high-quality backlinks is one of the main levers that SEOs have. This can involve promoting good content, reaching out to other websites and building relationships with webmasters, submitting websites to relevant web directories, and getting press to attract links from other websites.
- On-Page Optimization – In addition to off-page factors such as links, the improving the actual structure of the page can have tremendous benefits for SEO, and is a factor that is entirely in the control of the webmaster. Common on-page optimization techniques include optimizing the URL of the page to incorporate keywords, updating the title tag of the page to use relevant search terms, and using the alt attribute to describe images. Updating a page’s meta tags (such as the meta description tag) can also be beneficial– these tags don’t have a direct impact on search rankings, but can increase click-though rate from the SERPs.
- Site Architecture Optimization – External links are not the only thing that matters for SEO, internal links (the links within one’s own website) play a large role in SEO as well. Thus a search engine optimizer can improve a site’s SEO by making sure key pages are being linked to and that relevant anchor text is being used in those links to help improve a page’s relevance for specific terms. Creating and XML sitemap can also be a good way for larger pages to help search engines discover and crawl all of the site’s pages.
- Semantic Markup – Another SEO strategy that SEO experts utilize is optimizing a website’s semantic markup. Semantic markup (such as Schema.org) is used to describe the meaning behind the content on a page, such as helping to identify who the author of a piece of content is or the topic and type of content on a page. Using semantic markup can help with getting rich snippets displayed in the search results page, such as extra text, review stars, and even images. Rich snippets in the SERPs doesn’t have an impact on search rankings, but can improve CTR from search, resulting in an increase in organic traffic.