How SEO Works: Guide to search engine optimisation

Our guide to understanding the basics of optimising for increased web traffic.

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is activity for the purpose of increasing the amount of qualified web traffic a website receives. SEO is essential if your goal is to make your website an efficient sales generator, but the concepts and language can be difficult to understand if you don’t have a background in IT. We’ve prepared this guide to introduce you to the principles of SEO.

Illustration showing signpost pointing to 'SEO'
Understanding the basic principles of SEO can get you moving in the right direction!

What are Search Engines?

Internet search engines are automated online information retrieval tools.  When you want to find some information online, you can simply type in words or phrases that relate to what you’re looking for, and have the search engine present you with the most relevant results.  From there, you can view a summary of each result, and click through to whichever page you think might have what you want to know about.

Search engines are extremely popular in internet browsing. They’re effective and easy to use, so most people now find them more convenient than using bookmarks or shortcuts. As well as information, people use them to find local businesses, nearby utilities and suppliers of particular products or services. For this reason, many business owners now view search engines as an essential source of new customers.

What is a SERP?

A SERP is a Search Engine Results Page. This is the page returned to users by the search engine every time they conduct a search; when Google shows you a page full of items in response to your search terms, a SERP is what you are presented with.

Typically, a single SERP shows results referring to ten different web pages that the search engine thinks are the best match for the keywords used. These are the most relevant results, as judged by the search engine, but there are probably a lot more; at the bottom of the page, you’ll usually find links to additional SERPs that contain lower-ranked results.

In general, the first SERP returned by an engine is much more important than subsequent SERPs; Normally, users don’t view the later pages unless they are very keenly looking for something that is out of the ordinary. Therefore, appearing on the first SERP returned for keywords relating to the products or services that are described on a business website is an important priority for the owner.

A SERP Snippet is text taken from a web page that appears within the SERP. This typically shows the page title, URL (web address) and an extract of page content. You can suggest a description in your page code that is often used by the search engine for the snippet extract, allowing you greater control over the information users see in the SERPs.

How does Online Visibility Work?

It can help to think about a website as being much like a shop – exposure is a key factor in attracting customers. With a physical shop, being located on a busy street corner offers a high degree of visibility, so you would expect more visitors than a similar shop located down a quiet lane. Higher visibility means a shop will be seen by more potential customers.

Visibility is just as important for a website, but in this case it’s about a different kind of position – your position in the SERPs that relate to keywords relevant to your products and services. The higher your position, the more people that will notice your search snippet, and click through to your web page. The top of the search results is the internet’s equivalent of a busy street corner, where people are constantly seeing your shopfront.

With that in mind, search engine optimisation is about identifying the terms that people may use when looking for businesses like yours, and creating the conditions that will help your website get placed highly in the resulting SERPs.

What is meant by On-Page SEO?

On-page SEO is primarily concerned with optimising the content provided on a webpage so that it ranks highly in the SERPs. However, the structure of internal linking and the design of your website can also relate to on-page SEO. The relevance and quality of the content and the ease to which related content can be reached from the web page forms the basis of a good User eXperience (UX) which largely determines how well the page ranks.

What does it mean for Content to be Relevant?

When a person uses a particular search phrase, the SERPs delivered represent webpages that contain content that is theoretically highly relevant. The search engine is able to do this because it has obtained prior knowledge of each webpage on the internet to determine how relevant they are to all possible search terms. Because there will typically be many results relating to a popular search term, the engine sorts them in an order based on how relevant they are. This means that the first page of the search results should contain search snippets relating to the most relevant webpages available.

Search engines judge relevance by inspecting the content of the pages in advance (called “crawling”), and recording what subjects or topics the page is most focused on. It discerns this by looking at a number of things, but the text that makes up the main content is generally understood to be the most important. If your page content prominently features words people use when they’re searching for the products or services you sell, it will appear to be relevant when crawled by the search engine.

While there are millions of potential search phrases, only certain ones are particularly important to your business. One of the first stages of SEO is researching the most popular search phrases that relate to your products or services, and choosing which ones are best to “target” with your website (see this article on keyword research). If you have several different phrases that are of similar importance, you may need a dedicated webpage for each of them.

The content of your pages need to be carefully composed to establish relevance to your target search terms. It’s not enough merely to mention target search phrases; the content must include related words that help emphasise the target phrases, even if those words aren’t important search terms themselves. Links to and from other webpages can also help establish relevance, as long as these other pages contain related information.

How significant is Content Quality?

Because their business model depends on satisfying users with useful results, search engines focus a lot of their effort on connecting SERPs that refer to high-quality content.  This has led them to develop remarkably effective methods of evaluating page content. It’s easy to create “word salad” content that includes masses of relevant words with little context, but since the resulting pages would be meaningless to human visitors, search engines work hard to detect and eliminate such pages from appearing prominently in their results, if they they include them at all.

To show the search engines that your website is worthy of inclusion in their SERPs, you need to present high quality content. That means creating unique content that establishes relevance to key phrases, while pleasing human visitors at the same time. When your content is relevant, original, informative, grammatically correct, easy to read, engaging and uniquely valuable, it can be called high quality content.

What is User Experience (UX) all about?

User experience describes everything about how a visitor engages with your site: how long they have to wait for it to load, how easily they can find what they came for, and whatever else goes on during their visit. A positive UX relies on content, interface, layout, aesthetics, and more.

With their access to vast amounts of behavioural data, search engines have become increasingly sophisticated in understanding just how engaging a web page actually is. When they observe behaviour that indicates a poor User Experience, they assume your page is less useful to include in their search results.

While a large part of user experience is determined by the relevance and quality of the content, there are additional factors as well. Pages need to load quickly and without errors. Layout and visual design needs to be aesthetically appealing. Text needs to be a good size, left aligned and displayed against a highly contrasting background so that it is easy to read or scan. Navigation needs to be easy to understand, and work well on any screen size or ratio. Content needs to be visually engaging without slowing down load times or breaking layout. Please see: The Importance of High Quality Content for SEO.

What does Web Design and Crawlability have to do with SEO?

Visual impact is an important aspect of web design. However, a webpage that looks amazing can easily underperform, if it has been designed without SEO and User Experience in mind. When a business spends a lot of money on a flashy “designer” site, the crawlability is often overlooked.

Because the visual appeal of a website is immediately apparent and easy to understand, good structural and content design often goes unappreciated by the new website owner. A truly well-designed website should not only look good but should also load quickly, perform well on multiple browsers and devices, be accessible by the greatest possible number of users, and have a valid HTML structure that facilitates SEO.

Within the HTML coding of a page, it is possible to provide many different clues for the search engines to be able to better understand the content. Therefore, the design of a website needs to incorporate recognised ways for information important for SEO to be included.

When search engines gather information about the content of a website, they read the content through a process known as crawling. There are different types of content, text, static and animated graphics, audio and java applets all supported by the HTML coding that organises and defines the various elements on a webpage. HTML is text based code that is readily understood by web browsers and search engines. Of the various types of content, text is really the only form that is readily crawlable. Non-text content still has value but needs to be accompanied by crawlable text to inform the search engines about the relevance of the non-text content.

Good web design enhances the crawlability of a website helping search engines to appropriately index each page. With suitable HTML coding, search engines are able to correctly understand the content and associate its relevance to the right search phrases.

What is meant by Off-Page SEO?

The success of a particular webpage in the SERPS is affected by factors that involve information gained from other webpages, either on the same site or on other sites. Off-page SEO mainly relates to the number and quality of links that lead to pages on your site but also relates to social media and brand recognition.

Why is linking critical?

Search Engines use the quantity and quality of inbound links as factors in the ranking of a particular webpage. A web page can gain a prominent position in the SERPs if it has many inbound links. More inbound links suggest greater quality and relevance because people are more inclined to link to pages that have high quality and relevant content. However, inbound links can sometimes be extremely harmful to the success of a website, particularly if the links appear to have been created unnaturally, for the sake of better ranking.

In the past, SEO was very much about link building strategies. This led to all kinds of ways for obtaining inbound or backlinks. One approach was to establish link farms, where many pages were created purely for the purpose of providing links, which made it possible to have low quality web pages rank highly. Over time, the search engines became motivated to introduce measures to counteract these kinds of strategies. They now have various methods for identifying unnatural linking schemes and apply penalties to websites where unnatural linking is discovered. It is now rare to find webpages of low quality or relevance appear on the first page of search engine results.

While links from other websites are most useful, conscious link building activities are not advised unless you really know what you are doing.  The safest way to gain links to your website is to provide content that is highly useful and uniquely valuable. This kind of content increases the chances that someone will decide to link to your website.

What is “rel=’nofollow'”?

In the html code of your page, rel=’nofollow’ is an attribute that can be applied (typically by your web developer or SEO expert) to links you have created. Its purpose is to tell search engines that the presence of the link shouldn’t influence the rankings of the page you’re linking to. This is important for links you have created to your site, coming from elsewhere on the web – for example, on a business directory or social media account.

Since you could create as many links as you like in this way, they don’t provide a fair idea of how useful your page is; search engines don’t want them to influence your rankings in their SERPs. If your page appears to be artificially inflating its rank with a high volume of links you’ve created yourself, search engines will penalise you for trying to game the system. By adding the “rel=’nofollow'” attribute to any links you create or buy yourself, you can signal to search engines that you aren’t trying to cheat.

What is the role of Social Media?

Social Media covers a vast array of websites designed to allow people to interact with each other online. The big players are Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Many consider that social media is an important way to boost the amount of web traffic to your website. The idea is that it works rather like word-of-mouth. If one person reports that they had a great experience with a particular business, anyone within their social network is going to hear about it. As the word spreads via social media, you will find you attract more customers via social media.

Google takes notice of social media activity in formulating its search rankings, however, creating a strong social media presence can be a lot of work and does require a lot of skill and knowledge. It is probably worthwhile creating a social media presence for your business, however, unless you find the work of maintaining a high profile, enjoyable, it may pay to focus your effort on other activities, such as content generation.

What’s the difference between Paid and Organic Results?

Google is currently the most popularly used search engine. It has built up a reputation that is mostly based on its organic (or natural) results. The organic results provided by Google are the product of sophisticated algorithms that rank web pages based largely on how relevant and informative they are. The natural results are provided free of charge and no-one is able to gain favour by paying Google to obtain higher organic positions. The position of a web page in the organic results (for a relevant keyword) more or less relates to its quality.

Screenshot showing organic sercrh results for the term: 'search engine optimisation wollongong' (2014-03-09)
Organic results for the term: ‘search engine optimisation wollongong’ (2014-03-09)

The other results on the page are paid advertisements. These cost advertisers money every time someone clicks on them and so are called pay-per-click (ppc) adverts or Adwords in Google’s case. These paid advertisements represent a major revenue source for Google. Advertisers are able to specify keywords to make their adverts appear whenever related searches are performed. However, it is important to keep in mind that for most of the time people use Google’s search engine for its high-quality organic search results.

For more information, please see this simple SEO checklist for Australian Businesses.

You may also be interested in how to think when it comes to SEO.