“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a web site or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results.” – Wikipedia
The Wikipedia definition of SEO is not too bad. To put it another way, you want your site to show up on Google/Bing when people search for relevant terms. SEO is the process of making that happen.
I’m going to provide a brief overview of what SEO is, and then link to some in-depth guides to how it works.
What Is SEO?
You already read two definitions. Let’s look a bit closer. Take this picture (from my guide to online marketing):
You see the blue box at the bottom? Those are the start of the organic search results (as you can see in the Wikipedia definition, organic can be replaced by several different names). Here the organic results are down a ways, beneath the local results – but for many searches, they will be right up near the top of the page. Some results pages are 100% organic, listing 10 websites in order.
With millions of people using search engines every month, it’s easy to see how showing up in the organic results could send a substantial number of visitors to your website – and if you’re ranking for commercial terms, these visitors may be very valuable.
Despite the value of appearing in search results, a company cannot pay Google/Bing to appear in the organic listings (in the picture above, it is the red areas that are purchased listings). The websites that show up organically are determined by Google’s secret algorithm, which is supposed to consider well over 100 different factors when ranking sites.
So how does a website appear in the organic results? There are two basic factors at play:
- Search engines need to find relevant content. They scan your website, and a computer attempts to determine what each page on your site is about. Computers are not as smart as humans, so part of SEO is making it easy for the search engine to understand your site.
- Once they have found your content, search engines need to determine if it is higher quality than other, similar pieces of information on the web. They use a variety of factors to evaluate this. The factor which Google pioneered was to analyze the links pointing at a website. This is now one of the leading factors at both Bing and Google.
Generally, the first bullet is relevant to on-page factors, things on your site that you can control. The second factor largely looks at off-page information; links and other factors over which you have less direct control, but can definitely influence.
Caveats, Warnings, and SEO Scams
Before I send you off to read some in-depth guides, a couple words of warning:
- Many people like to talk of SEO like it’s a secret art form. It’s not. We don’t know everything the search engines look at, but SEO professionals have a good feel for what is important, and the basics are freely available around the web. Having said that, there’s also a lot of bad information.
- Some tactics, many that used to work, are frowned on by the search engines, and can lead to your site being penalized. Some that work today will probably be penalized in the future. The guides I’m linking to will get you started doing SEO the right way – one that is long-lasting, which is the only way a legitimate small business should approach SEO.
- Largely due to the above-mentioned secrecy/confusion that sometimes surrounds SEO, there are plenty of scammers competing with legitimate SEO consultants. If you’re looking for help, get some references, and don’t consider someone that won’t really tell you what they’re going to do. For some questions to ask – check out this article (it’s titled as questions for a local SEO consultant, but has good questions for general SEO as well).
This article should have given you an understanding of what SEO is. To really start gaining knowledge, try these guides:
- Google’s Guide to SEO – A good start. Focus is on-page SEO. Will help you understand how Google feels SEO should be performed.
- The SEOMoz Beginner’s Guide to SEO – SEOMoz provides tools to help with search engine optimization. They produced this long, well-illustrated guide that will bring you well on your way to understanding SEO basics. SEOMoz also has a good blog if you’re interested in learning more.
- SEO Basics Knol and Blogger’s Guide to SEO – Both from Aaron Wall, who runs an SEO training course/forum. The Knol is a shorter summary of what Aaron considers SEO basics, and the blogger’s guide is great to read if you’re considering adding a blog to your site.