The three letters SEO are known all too well by those working in digital marketing, but often remains the domain of technical specialists and so misunderstood by others.

The acronym SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation, which is indeed a technical practice, but there are vast benefits to it being understood by everyone in a business – especially where business owners are looking to pay for (or already pay for) SEO services.

While there’s really no need for everyone to comprehend the technicalities behind SEO, the basics can be helpful and so here we drill down to the foundations of SEO practice and take it step-by-step to help explain how SEO works, in an easy-to-understand way.

What is SEO?

SEO is the process of optimising content on a website so that the machine-learning algorithms behind search engines are able to identify their relevance and presence, placing them as high up on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) as possible.

When we talk about SEO, we are primarily referring to the optimisation practices required to best boost a website’s exposure on Google. This is because Google holds (by far) the majority market share in most countries and territories when it comes to visitors, and so it drives more traffic than its competitors.

That said, there are areas worldwide where Google is not the most popular search engine – but, broadly speaking, working on SEO for Google will not inhibit the performance on other search engines and so activities can be enacted no matter the specific focus.

When A User Searches

For the maximum efficiency, digital marketing departments should link their SEO actions to every point of the search process. First, a user performs a search by typing their query into a search engine – usually a keyword or phrase, but occasionally a full question. Immediately, they are then presented with results deemed appropriate by the algorithm; and that are hopefully helpful to answer the query made.

In order to judge the order in which the results are ranked on the SERPs, there are two main factors considered by the search engine’s AI:

  1. Relevance – the search engine must be able to scan through the content on the page and judge it to be appropriate to the user’s search term. Where the keyword or phrase has more than one meaning, it should be the appropriate one for the intended query; which can be a challenge for machine learning.
  2. Authority – the search engine must be able to judge that the webpage (and overall site) that it is directing to must be trustworthy and safe for the user to visit.

How to Demonstrate Relevance and Authority

A business’ web content must demonstrate its relevancy and authority in order to rank on search engine results for user searches made appropriately to the theme or topic.

In order to demonstrate relevance, a website’s content must clearly demonstrate its overarching theme, topics and niche. Search engine’s programming determines this through its content including words, keyword usage, meta tags, videos, imagery and comments.

This allows the machine learning to build up a picture of what the site is about and who it would be relevant for.

This makes it critical for websites’ content to remain relevant to its key theme or topic, to be presented in a way that is appropriate for the audience and to be useful enough that it can be easily shared. Those producing web content for the site must ensure that relevant keywords, phrases and language is used throughout all published content and copy – and in technical areas such as tags and names.

In order for a website to demonstrate authority, it must appear genuine and trustworthy. This is most commonly demonstrated through safety and security authentication as well as links from other sites (and links to other sites) appropriate to the theme.

If other domains online deem the site relevant and honourable enough to link to, a search engine will take that to be a positive reference and endorsement of authenticity, appropriateness and trustworthiness.

The Two Main Types of SEO

There are two primary types of SEO:

  1. On-page SEO ­– SEO activity that it is carried out on a webpage and is created and curated by the business.
  2. Off-page SEO – SEO activity that is carried out on other websites linking back to it.

On-page SEO is usually the first port of call for those looking to improve their exposure on search engines.

This includes, but is by no means limited to:

    • The basic coding of a page should be well tagged with keywords and phrases used
    • Site architecture should be easy-to-navigate with a comprehensive site map in place
    • Content should be published that is relevant, engaging and shareable
    • Links between internal sources should be clearly marked and functioning correctly
    • Images must be appropriate to the site’s theme
    • All content should load quickly and be well accessible.

Once a site’s basic SEO functions have been optimised, a business can turn its focus to off-page SEO. Generally speaking, this includes, but is not limited to:

    • Links put in place to the site from others (preferably from high-authority sites)
    • PR and social media campaigns launched to generate interest and discussion of the brand
    • Facilitation of reviews on third-party websites mentioning or linking back to the site.

Both on-page and off-page SEO combine to help best demonstrate to search engine algorithms the appropriateness of ranking a site well when certain queries are made by users.

While on-page SEO should be managed first, the impact of off-page should not be underestimated and will contribute toward the overall efforts made, particularly when it comes to demonstrating the authenticity and authority of the site to the search engine algorithms.

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Judging SEO Success

There are several measures by which businesses can judge the success of their SEO efforts – but it must be noted that all SEO activities should be enacted on a ongoing basis and not as a one-off piece of work.

How to monitor the continual progress of SEO work is often misjudged by those who don’t understand how it all works – it can be more complex than expected!

Domain Authority

Every website has a DA (Domain Authority). A DA is a score given to a site numbered between 1-100 that ranks how likely it is to show up highly on SERPs, typically with 1 as the lowest and 100 as the highest.

Exactly what is considered a high score varies between industry but generally speaking, anything above 25 can be thought of as good. Positive and fruitful SEO efforts will elevate a website’s DA score and so this improving over time can indicate progress made.

It is worth noting, however, that DA (and indeed, further search ranking) is impacted heavily by the age of a domain – as search engines are unable to build up a picture of authenticity or reliability on an immature website. This may disadvantage new businesses in the short term but the DA score will soon build and rankings improve.

Search Rankings

Perhaps the most notable example of SEO success is the SERP ranking presented when you type in a relevant query. However, this used as a measure of success in the simplest term does not work as accurately as many would assume – because there’s a lot more at play when it comes to displaying search results than most think!

While search engine rankings are what is being targeted with SEO work, it is not often that any two people typing in a matching query will be met with the same rankings. This is because the search engine takes into account the person’s search history, location and personal settings when presenting results – and so a quick check often won’t highlight the most accurate ranking.

There are specialist tools that can be used to judge the ranking of a website. It is always recommended that businesses use specialists in this space rather than trying to search for their own sites in order to avoid influencing traffic levels inaccurately.

What’s more, specific specialist services will be able to advise on areas for improvement as well as a more direct picture of action vs influence when it comes to DA improvement and SERP exposure.

Combining this with other factors such as paid-for advertisement placements, backlinking strategies and PR campaigns can help hugely improve SERP performance as well as positive public perception and brand image.

While SEO efforts are often best left to specialists in the field as well as technical web experts, there is benefit to everyone in a business understanding how and why it works. This allows for everyone to do their bit and play their part to contribute toward a wider positive public perception of the brand; both online and off.