By the time you reach the end of this sentence, more than 100,000 searches will have been performed on Google. Because most online experiences start with a search, those results matter. And SEO gets you the results you want.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization, which helps your page rank higher on Google and other search engines to drive more traffic to your site.
You can design and develop your pages based on what search engines look for in a website, which changes as technology trends continue to evolve. And if you haven’t done so already, you can adjust your web presence to make sure it's useful and informative.
But SEO hasn't always been this way. In the early days of the internet, Google ranked sites by how many times each site used a particular keyword. This led to a practice known as "keyword stuffing," and it meant that even high-quality sites could easily get buried. Now Google prioritizes quality over keyword density.
If you have a website, that’s good news, because you can invest time and talent to create a site that makes you more likely to rank highly.
To learn how, you need to understand how search engines work. We'll use Google as an example because it powers the most searches in the world.
How does Google work?
When you enter a search term, Google's algorithm determines which of the countless websites out there will be most relevant to you. It then lists the relevant sites in order of importance and shows them to you on what the industry calls a search engine results page.
Google is constantly searching the web looking for new or updated pages. It uses programs known as web crawlers, which follow links across the internet and report what they find to Google's servers.
When Google's web crawlers return information about a website, a collection of internal servers analyzes each page's content to determine its main topic and message. That information goes into Google's index—the resource that the search engine uses to determine page ranking.
If you want your page to rank for certain keywords, make sure that web crawlers notice those words. To do this, you should:
- Use concise and relevant page titles
- Include headings for different topics
- Add alt text, or text that shows in place of images, to help Google process video and image content
The clearer you are about the page's content, the more accurate the indexing process will be.
When someone conducts a search, Google determines which pages appear first by considering factors such as:
- The words used in the search
- The user's location
- The age of each page
- The expertise of the page creator
The ongoing challenge of SEO is making sure that your page is up to date and geared toward its target users in its design and content.
What helps you rank higher today?
Since the 1990s, search engines have used algorithms to determine what sites should show up first on their results pages. What those algorithms prioritize, however, has changed—a lot.
Since the days of keyword stuffing, Google has been working hard to understand what makes a website relevant and informative. It applies this knowledge every few months when it releases a new update designed to rank sites more effectively.
Google still considers keywords when ranking websites, but these days, the quality of the information matters more.
Google judges quality based on:
- Relevance to the search
- Expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of the source
- Usability of the site
- Mobile friendliness and adaptability between browsers
- Page load speeds
Some of these factors are on-page, meaning that they're part of how you experience the website. Others are off-page, like other sites linking to yours. Off-page elements strengthen your site’s reputation to improve its ranking.
Classifying ranking factors by whether they're on-page or off-page will help you develop an effective SEO strategy. On-page SEO and off-page SEO both help you rank more highly, but the ways to put them into practice are quite different.
On-page versus off-page SEO
The best way to differentiate on-page and off-page SEO is by the terms themselves.
On-page SEO refers to the elements that are visible to viewers on your site. It includes both technical and content choices, including but not limited to:
- Alt text and meta descriptions
- URL structure
- Load speed
- Page copy
- Product reviews
- Blog content
The more on-page SEO elements you address effectively, the higher your site will rank in organic searches.
Off-page SEO also helps improve your ranking, but it's harder to take action to directly improve it. That's because off-page SEO involves sites that aren't yours. This may include:
- Blogs and articles that link to your content
- Video, audio, or image-sharing sites that host off-site content
- Directories and company review sites
If you run a company, you can submit your company information to sites like Yelp and Yellow Pages to start improving your own off-page SEO. To make your presence even stronger, encourage your customers to leave reviews and rate your business on these pages.
The other big part of off-page SEO is collecting backlinks, also known as inbound links. A backlink is any external link that brings users back to your site. The more backlinks you have, the more others consider you to be an authority in your industry.
Predictably, this idea caused some problems in the past. Website owners used to trade or buy backlinks in hopes of ranking higher on search results. But today, any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking can be considered a violation of Google’s guidelines and can actually negatively impact your site’s rankings in search results.
These days, the quality of your backlinks is much more important than how many you have. Every link on your page has to be relevant to your content and of interest to your audience. You can work to increase your number of backlinks, but you have to go about it honestly. Some effective strategies are:
- Submitting guest posts to respected blogs
- Creating shareable infographics
- Developing content that mentions influencers and trends in your field
- Posting multimedia content on sites like Vimeo, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Flickr
Your end goal is to develop a reputation as an expert. Then when others see the content you've created on a subject, they’ll link to it. That will increase your total of quality backlinks.
Focus on your audience
Now that you’re familiar with SEO, you can work to improve your site’s ranking and visibility. And it’s easy to get started! The more valuable your content is to your audience—and the more you optimize the more technical aspects of your site—the better your results will be.