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What is SEO?

Learn in detail how search engine optimisation (SEO) is a critical part of any modern digital marketing strategy
Editorial team

/ Last updated on 30th October 2017

A screenshot of Google Analytics on a tablet on a desk with a coffee mug in the background

Ever wondered just how some websites get on the first page of Google for a specific search query? If so, you’ve already witnessed SEO at work. Ask ten online marketing experts what SEO is, and you’ll get ten different answers.

Related: Google, common-sense and SEO

Overall, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO for short) can be described as a set of techniques for improving your website’s organic (or unpaid) visibility on search engines for a certain query. To most folks, it’s simply a way of optimising your web page, so it ranks higher on Google (as well as Bing, Yahoo, etc.) for specific ‘keywords’.

Why SEO is no longer a choice

Whatever you search for online, you want the relevant information fast. If you’re having a dinner date tonight and you ask Google ‘how to cook a perfect filet mignon’, you’re looking for quick, simple and precise instructions that are bound to secure you that date number two.

Regarding content, you want all the steps catalogued on a single web page, presented to you in a clear and engaging manner, in a way that eliminates the need for additional info from any other web page. In other words, you’re often expecting the top result to provide you with all the necessary cooking intel, and if it does so effectively, you could care less about results 2-10. Welcome to SEO.

Market research has proven time and time again that most web traffic never makes it past page 1. Whatever you type in Google, about 91,5% of all clicks occur on the first page, with a massive 30% going to the top organic result. In other words, the higher your page ranks, the more (relevant) traffic it gets. From an online business point of view, the more visitors your site gets – all other things being equal – the more of whatever you’re selling, you sell.

That is why every webmaster and their mother has taken up SEO in the last couple of years. That is why everyone wants their site organically featured on the first page (preferably the top spot) for keywords relevant to their blog/business/cause. No love for fillet mignons on page #2.

The ABC’s of SEO

So how does Google know what each web page is actually about and how to rank it compared to other pages? (for brevity and relevance sake, we’ll use Google as a universal example of how search engines work).

Google constantly scans and analyses the Web for new content using a piece of software called ‘spiders’ or crawlers. Once these bots successfully scan your page, it becomes indexed and stored in Google’s massive database. Think of Google as the world’s most dedicated librarian, scouring through thousands of web pages each day and finding them a perfect place within its dystopian library walls.

When indexing a page, Google tries to identify the best words and expressions to describe the web page and assigns it to certain keywords. When somebody then searches using those keywords, Google compares the search query with its database and gets back to the user with a list of sites relevant to his search request. And that’s where things get tricky.

Since there are thousands upon thousands of pages competing for attention for any given search query, Google uses an algorithm that attempts to calculate the relevancy of each web page for certain keywords. In other words, when someone types: ‘how to cook filet mignon’, Google analyses each of, say, 5000 articles on the topic, and tries to rank them by how relevant they are to the user. The pages that the algorithm deems most relevant for steak enthusiasts will fill the first page and – as we’ve already seen – get more than 90% of all traffic.

SEO, then, is the art of 1. helping Google find the appropriate (key)words to attribute to your page, and 2. using its relevancy algorithm to push your web page higher up in the rankings for those keywords. All search engines are naturally pretty secretive about how their algorithms work, and it’s safe to assume they are continually evolving. Still, it is widely accepted that there are over 200 factors Google takes into consideration when ranking a page. Here are some of the most important ones.

On-page SEO

All search engine optimisation can be split into two main areas: on-page and off-page. In general, on-page optimisation includes all the ways you can optimise your page to please the search engine gods. This includes textual, visual and interactive content, HTML code, loading speed, a variety of technical factors, etc.

Given that you’re in full control of your own website, it’s generally easier to identify and directly influence the on-page SEO signals. Some of the more prominent factors you can assess and tweak immediately include:

1. Keywords

As we’ve already discussed, Google scans each web page and aims to identify what it’s about. It does so primarily based on text, i.e. by analysing the words and phrases used on the page and trying to make sense of them. For example, if there are several mentions of ‘cooking’, ‘filet mignon’, ‘beef’, ‘steak’ etc., Google is likely to conclude this particular page is about teaching people how to cook a filet mignon.

These phrases of interest are called keywords. To help Google identify what their page is about and influence what phrases they want to rank for, webmasters often integrate the exact keywords they think people will use to find their content.

In the above example, the author probably wants his article to pop up on Google when people type in ’how to cook a filet mignon’. That’s why he’ll try to include those exact keywords and slight variations a few times throughout his cooking guide. Researching and identifying exactly which keywords you want to rank for is a science in itself, and is best left for a separate article.

Keywords used to be the most important signal search engines utilised for understanding and ranking a page. However, people tried gaming a system by stuffing the page with as many exact keywords as possible to increase their chances of ranking for those phrases. As a result, they have somewhat lost their original relevance, although undoubtedly remain a significant SEO factor.

Though you should avoid artificially overflowing your page with keywords, there are certain places on the page where using them is still considered a strategic advantage. These are:

A. Page URL

The URL of this page is Guess which keywords we’re trying to rank for with this article?

B. <Title> tag

if it makes sense, try including your primary keywords in the title. Once again, check out the title of this post for reference.

C. Image alt text

rather than the title (or the caption) of the image, image alt text isn’t usually visible to the user, but rather appears when the image won’t load for whatever reason. Google has previously confirmed it almost exclusively uses alt text to understand what an image is about.

. Body copy

i.e. having keywords in the actual text. Again, this does not mean keyword stuffing, which Google nowadays penalises anyway. It just means your keywords are likely to naturally find their way into the text. How is anyone supposed to write an article on cooking filet mignon without including the words ‘cooking’ and ‘fillet mignon’ multiple times throughout the post? Google is really good at recognising synonyms and related phrases as well, so you should definitely not feel compelled to sacrifice the quality of your text by heavily tampering with keywords.

2. Outbound links

Although some people believe it to be counterproductive, adding links to other sites on your page is another valuable element of SEO. There are a few caveats, however:

A. Be wary of the site’s reputation 

Linking to sites that are considered shady or spam by Google can negatively affect your own page’s ranking. Why would Google encourage introducing its users to unsafe content? Conversely, linking to highly reputable sources such as popular news outlets, universities or trusted web directories can be beneficial for your overall SEO.

b. Don’t overdo it

Some studies suggest you shouldn’t link to more than 100 sites on a single page, but you should probably stop well before that number. Google forbids buying or procuring links in exchange for any material benefit. The more sites you link to, the more suspicious you look.

3. Outstanding UX

About 50% of web users expect your site to completely load in under 2 seconds, according to a 2014 poll. On the other hand, Google clearly has a direct interest in referring users to websites which will not only provide them with relevant content but also offer a superb user experience.

If your site’s loading too slowly, you may want to consider compressing images (or getting rid of them entirely), switching to a quicker hosting platform or implementing a variety of technical modifications to help users better enjoy your content.

Also, ensure that your site is easily consumed across all browsers and devices. Making your website universally accessible is becoming increasingly important in today’s SEO, and is still one of the areas where it’s relatively easy to gain a competitive edge.

4. Long-form Content

Over the last couple of years, we have seen Google shift to awarding better rankings to comprehensive guides and in-depth articles compared to short-form content. This happened for a couple of reasons. One, Google has become vividly aware of the fact that anyone can write a 500-word piece and riddle it with keywords. This increases the competition but lowers the general quality of information out there.

Second, as already mentioned, Google is moving toward a one-click philosophy, where every possible facet of a search query is examined and answered on a single web page, and you don’t need to scavenge the search results to find the information you want. Aim for at least 1500 words when looking to rank for relevant keywords. In general, aim to produce a uniquely valuable and informative content that answers the user’s question better than anything else on the Web. In the end, all of Google’s signals are trying to identify whether your content effectively fulfils that role.

Apart from these, there are dozens of other on-page SEO factors to consider. Some of them do require rudimentary coding skills and a basic grasp of your site’s technical composition. We’ll be covering these and more in upcoming articles.

Off-page SEO

Off-page optimisation refers to all the ranking signals outside of your own page that search engines take into account. Mainly, this refers to the quality and quantity of websites that have linked back to your page, as well as a growing influence of social media on SEO.


Also called inbound links, backlinks are simply links to your web page from other websites. Say an online marketing blog is doing a piece on the fundamentals of SEO. While researching, they come across this post and decide to mention it in their own article. They may say something like: ‘for more information about off-page optimisation, check out this cool guide by Entrepreneur Handbook’ and add a hyperlink to this page. These are backlinks, and they are incredibly important in SEO.

As we’ve already mentioned, what Google is really trying to accomplish with its ranking algorithm is simply find the best answers for any given question. In doing so, user satisfaction with your content is clearly going to be high on the list. Google attempts to measure how highly people value your content in various ways. Signals like the average amount of time a user has spent on your site, bounce rate (the % of people that left your site after visiting just one page) are all indirectly saying to Google whether users enjoyed your website or not. Backlinks work much the same way.

Google’s rationale in valuing backlinks is simple: if your content is good, other websites will link to it. If there are two articles on cooking filet mignons, one which has been linked to by several reputable cooking blogs and news outlets, and another which has earned zero links from its industry peers, it’s easy to see which of the two is going to rank higher.

Measure your links

When trying to get people to link back to you, keep in mind that all backlinks are not created equal. Google’s algorithm rates every website according to its authority and trust. Web sites like Wikipedia, Guardian and New York Times are considered more authoritative than a personal blog with 400 monthly readers. The higher the authority of the site that links back to you, the more valuable that link is to your own ranking strategy.

This means that acquiring backlinks is not just about quantity, but at least as much about the quality of the websites. Taking this point further, there are some backlinks that can actually negatively affect your overall SEO. Getting links from sites that are considered spam or unsafe by Google is a signal your site might also be unsafe. Why else would link to you ten times over the last two months? If you locate these sorts of backlinks when examining your link structure, make sure to disavow them as quickly as possible.

Finally, this is by no means an exhaustive guide to search engine optimisation (otherwise, there’d be no need for a multi-million dollar industry that sprung around the concept). Still, it’s important to remember that regardless of what your website is about, how popular it is and how long it’s been online, the fundamentals of ranking well in search remain the same for all. Help Google understand what keywords you want to rank for, optimise your on-page elements according to Google’s algorithm, and get as many reputable backlinks as possible. That’s how Google helps you nail that first date.

Related: How to get your website noticed

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