The internet is huge, with new content – from websites to images to videos – published daily. Search engines like Google are a go-to for finding content that covers a topic of interest or answers a specific question.
This is why businesses, organizations, individuals and publications need a web presence so they can surface in search engine results. Businesses that want to sell a product or provide information online rely on search engines to direct their target audience to their websites. But for this to happen, content must be optimized so it rises to the top of search results, and this requires following some important best practices.
A search engine organizes information that is stored on the web. When an internet user types in a query, a search engine provides a list of websites that best satisfy that query. It’s an easy way to sift through the infinite amount of content online.
Google is the most popular search engine, with YouTube, Microsoft Bing and even Amazon serving as other important examples, according to Search Engine Journal. Google explains that its goal is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google generates results using algorithms that consider factors such as the words in the query, the content on different webpages, the expertise of sources on those pages, and your language and location.
“A search engine is what helps you sort through all of that to find what you’re looking for – the answer to your question or the information that you need,” says Vanessa Fox, CEO of Keylime Toolbox, an SEO metrics and analytics company, and author of “Marketing in the Age of Google.” “The search engine basically takes everything available on the web, figures out what’s most relevant and quality and useful for what you typed in, and gives you a list of things to choose from.”
Search engines have systems that “crawl” the web to access and extract content and then store it in an index, Fox says. An index is a list of all the webpages a search engine knows about. Search engines also analyze data associated with each webpage – for instance, how popular it is and what other websites are linking to it – to better understand the page, she says.
Another search engine process works to determine the intent of the query by looking at historical search data. For example, the search engine factors in what other users have clicked on when searching the same query and what they may have searched for next.
How Search Engines Make Money
Search engines make money primarily by selling advertisements.
“Search engines provide a free service, but a portion of each page has ads on it,” says Neil Patel, chief marketing officer at NP Digital, a performance marketing agency. “A small percentage of people click on those ads, but that’s enough to make them a lot of money.”
What Is SEO?
“Search engine optimization is the art of modifying your code and website so that way it is search-engine friendly,” Patel says. “And then when people type in searches or queries related to your website, you would show up at the top.”
The more visible a page is in search engine results, the more likely a user is to click on it and drive traffic to that website.
In addition to knowing how search engines work, SEO requires an understanding of your target audience and what they are looking for on the internet, as well as the specific words or phrases they may use to search for content, Fox says.
There’s no preset starting point for learning about SEO, and you can develop the skills without formal training. But these steps can give you a leg up.
Seek out opportunities at your current job. People may be first exposed to SEO in their jobs. Fields like web development, computer science, journalism, public relations and content marketing may use SEO.
Larger organizations generally have employees who work on SEO specifically, Fox says, and they can be a good resource.
Create your own website or blog. Patel says a good way to practice implementing SEO tactics is to start a blog on a topic you’re passionate about, create content about that topic and then optimize your blog using free online tools. One such tool, Ubersuggest, acquired by Patel in 2017, uses the website URL and the keywords you want to rank for to identify what to edit on the site to maximize SEO traffic, he says.
Just going through the optimization process is good practice for learners, Fox says.
“When you go through the steps, a lot of it makes more sense and you can see, ‘Oh yeah, once I changed the headline of my article, it started to show up when people searched for things that are in the headline,” she says.
Volunteer with a small business. Once you understand the basics of SEO, reach out to nonprofits or small businesses to volunteer your time and help enhance their SEO efforts.
“In exchange, maybe they’ll give you a testimonial if you do a good job and you improve their traffic,” says Stephan Spencer, an SEO consultant and co-author of “The Art of SEO.”
Seek out courses and resources. You can take SEO classes and find trusted resources online. For example, Google offers a free SEO starter guide that walks you through the basics.
The goal of any website is to deliver content to its audience. A search engine would have a tough time understanding what a page without text is about. That’s what makes content so important for SEO.
“Content includes what keywords your potential audience is typing into Google, using those words in the right places and weaving (them) into the copy,” Spencer says.
Search engines rank the highest-quality and most relevant content they can identify. Google defines high-quality informational content as “factually accurate, clearly written and comprehensive.” Artistic content should be “unique and original content created by highly skilled and talented artists or content creators,” and news content should be “original, in-depth and investigative reporting (requiring) a high degree of skill, time and effort.”
On-page SEO is the practice of using keywords, internal links, titles and headings to rank higher on search engine results pages. “On-page” refers to optimizing both the content and the HTML source code. As search engines have evolved, they rely less on keywords and more on whether a page matches the users’ intent for visiting it.
Other factors like page loading time and mobile friendliness also affect its ranking.
To master on-page SEO, you should know the following terms.
- Meta tags: This text describes the webpage’s content but only appears in its source code, not on the actual page. Search engines can read meta tags.
- Headers: These titles organize a piece of content. The H1 is the title at the top of the page, while the H2 breaks down a page into sections, similar to how a book is broken down into chapters, Patel says. H3s divide H2 sections into even smaller subsections.
- On-page keyword use: The inclusion of specific words or phrases in webpage titles and other written content increases the likelihood of a page ranking near the top of search results for a specific search inquiry.
- HTML: This acronym stands for hypertext markup language and refers to the language used to create and structure webpages.
Technical SEO – part of on-page SEO – ensures that search engine bots or crawlers can find and index a website and its webpages. Poor technical SEO can prevent great content from ranking well.
When learning about technical SEO, know the following terms.
- Site structure: This is how a website is organized and presented, including how its homepage and webpages are interconnected and grouped.
- XML sitemaps: This is a list of all the pages on your website, similar to a directory for the site.
- Robots.txt: Search engines use these files to determine what pages to crawl and not to crawl. This is important for websites with restricted access. For example, a financial company may publish reports for customers to view with a login, Patel says.
- Duplicate content: This is content found on your webpage that has also been published on another website.
- Site speed: This refers to how fast your website loads.
Off-page SEO is content on other websites that links to your site, and it’s out of your website manager’s control. Off-page SEO can either help or hurt a page’s ranking in search results, Spencer says. While you could ask the webmaster of another site to link back to yours, you generally won’t have much of a say in the decision.
“‘Off-page’ is harder to do because you have to create amazing products, amazing content, amazing services, amazing user experience to try to get links on pages beyond your control, which is why off-page SEO has so much weight,” Patel says.
According to the SEO software company Moz, off-page SEO can also include social media marketing, guest blogging, linked or unlinked brand mentions, and influencer marketing.
Together, on-page, technical and off-page SEO create an impact. Rather than thinking of them as individual roles or jobs, they work in unison to help a website rank in search results. Some websites might be stronger in one area than another, which is why an SEO professional is charged with discovering shortcomings and implementing strategies to improve performance.
Search engines like Google frequently update the algorithms that determine webpage rankings in search results. In general, these algorithm updates can alter how the search engine works – how it crawls webpages, indexes content, and determines what’s relevant and authoritative, Spencer says.
A search engine makes these updates to ensure it is giving users the best, most up-to-date content available at the top of the search results.
“All of that stuff is behind the curtain, and we, as SEOs, want to figure out how these algorithms work,” Spencer says. “What’s happening behind the curtain? What is Google wanting, and what is it penalizing for?”
An algorithmic update can either help or hurt how a webpage ranks, Spencer says. An update may demote a webpage in the rankings if it includes too many keywords and appears to be written more for a robot than for a human.
“As they get more and more sophisticated because of machine learning and all that, you have to continue to innovate,” Spencer says.
Google makes hundreds of algorithmic changes per year, most of which address more minor faults.
Sometimes, Google will make broad core updates, which are bigger changes to the main search algorithm that tend to have a greater impact on webpage rankings. In some cases, broad core updates are announced by the company.
“You can’t control the algorithms,” Patel says. “Sometimes you’re on the benefitting side, sometimes you’re on the losing side of the update. But if you keep cranking, in the long run you should see great results for SEO.”
Beyond the list of organic links, features often appear in search results that offer additional types of data. For example, a local maps box may appear if a search engine determines a query, such as “coffee shops near me,” has local intent. Fox says search features may also include images and videos; recipes; “People Also Ask” modules; and product ratings, prices and availability.
Search features don’t change the order of websites in search results, though these websites may get fewer clicks when the search features give users the information they need.
“In SEO, you’re competing against not just the other organic listings but everything else on the page that is potentially going to drive the user, the searcher, to those things instead of to you,” Spencer says.
Below is a list of online resources you can use to learn the basics of SEO and explore ways to incorporate it into a marketing strategy.
SEO courses may not be a necessary investment for all learners, especially if there are opportunities to learn SEO at work. While plenty of free SEO resources are out there, some learners may benefit more from a structured environment with insights from expert instructors.
Those considering an online course should weigh the pros and cons of a virtual format. Taking online classes at home on your schedule allows for greater flexibility, but there may be less direct interaction with an instructor.
When it comes to SEO course offerings, do your research and cast a wide net to determine what would suit you best.