What Is SEO? The 2022 Guide to Search Engine Optimization

What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the process of improving your site’s organic traffic and ranking on search engines such as Google, Bing, and other search engines. 

This includes creating high-quality content in addition to monitoring your site’s technical health, gaining links from other sites to your site, maintaining your site’s local search presence, and more.

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engines like Google use relatively complex processes—or algorithms—to organize and rank content. Algorithms take a wide range of ranking factors into account to decide how well a page ranks.

In short, search engines take in digital content and organize this information into results pages. The ultimate goal is to make searchers happy with the results they find in the search engine results pages (SERPs). 

A big part of this is incorporating keywords into your content. Keywords are words or phrases users plug into search engines when performing a search.

The keywords on your page should be relevant to your business and should ideally have a good search volume (i.e., enough people are asking a question on Google that you should write a corresponding page about it).

You can use tools like the Keyword Magic Tool or Keyword Overview tool to find keywords that make sense for your strategy.

Keep in mind that simply using a keyword many times in a piece is an outdated practice that won’t help you rank in Google. Instead, use keywords to guide the content you write about.

How Does Google Work? 

The primary goal of an SEO strategy is typically to rank highly on Google.

Google works in the following stages to find and rank content:

  1. Crawling: Google uses “bots” to crawl the web and look for new or updated pages. In order for Google to find a page, the page must have links pointing to it. Generally speaking, the more links a page has to it, the easier it is for Google to locate that page. 
  2. Indexing: Next, Google analyzes the URLs the bots discover and tries to make sense of what the page is about. Google will look at things like content, images, and other media files. It then stores this information in its Google Index (or its database). 
  3. Serving: Once Google has assessed URLs, it determines which pages are most relevant to users’ search queries and accordingly organizes them in the SERPs.

Google Algorithm 

The Google search algorithm refers to Google’s internal process to rank content. It takes a wide range of factors into account when it makes its ranking decisions. 

Google’s algorithm has changed many times over the years, but more recently, its focus is on understanding search intent via language models.

For example, Google can take the three examples below and provide relevant results even though “change” is used in different contexts each time.

Google algorithm example
Image courtesy of Google

Unfortunately, no one outside of Google’s internal circle has a crystal ball into all of its ranking factors. It’s understandable why Google would guard their magic formula so tightly. 

Luckily, Google does provide users with best practices to follow. Additionally, experts like John Mueller, a Google search advocate, provide advice and answers on the algorithm every so often.

That being said, here are a few areas you should keep in mind while optimizing your site based on the advice of Google itself:

  1. Intent: Does your content answer your user’s questions or show them what they want to see? Factors like language, freshness, and synonyms make a difference here. 
  2. Relevance: Once Google’s algorithm has deemed that your content meets the search intent of whatever query was posed, it will scan its Google Index to see where your content falls in terms of relevancy. On-page SEO is crucial here. You will likely rank higher in the SERPs if you provide searchers with the clearest and most relevant content.
  3. Quality: Yes, it might seem like content with good search intent and relevance is already high-quality. But, the reality is that quality is a factor in the Google Algorithm. Many refer to this assessment as E-A-T — expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. 
SEO success factors
While we may never know exactly what Google’s ranking factors are, here are a few best practices we recommend prioritizing on your site.

Google Penalties 

Google penalties are negative consequences or effects that impact the ranking of a website. These penalties are manual actions taken by Google to address inappropriate SEO tactics. Here is a helpful guide to avoiding the mistakes that lead to these penalties.

It can be tricky to learn the ins and outs of the SERPs — take a look at the following thread on SEO myths so you can learn to spot bad SEO advice from a mile away.

How Does Google Work? 

The primary goal of an SEO strategy is typically to rank highly on Google.

Google works in the following stages to find and rank content:

  1. Crawling: Google uses “bots” to crawl the web and look for new or updated pages. In order for Google to find a page, the page must have links pointing to it. Generally speaking, the more links a page has to it, the easier it is for Google to locate that page. 
  2. Indexing: Next, Google analyzes the URLs the bots discover and tries to make sense of what the page is about. Google will look at things like content, images, and other media files. It then stores this information in its Google Index (or its database). 
  3. Serving: Once Google has assessed URLs, it determines which pages are most relevant to users’ search queries and accordingly organizes them in the SERPs.

Google Algorithm 

The Google search algorithm refers to Google’s internal process to rank content. It takes a wide range of factors into account when it makes its ranking decisions. 

Google’s algorithm has changed many times over the years, but more recently, its focus is on understanding search intent via language models.

For example, Google can take the three examples below and provide relevant results even though “change” is used in different contexts each time.

Google algorithm example
Image courtesy of Google

Unfortunately, no one outside of Google’s internal circle has a crystal ball into all of its ranking factors. It’s understandable why Google would guard their magic formula so tightly. 

Luckily, Google does provide users with best practices to follow. Additionally, experts like John Mueller, a Google search advocate, provide advice and answers on the algorithm every so often.

That being said, here are a few areas you should keep in mind while optimizing your site based on the advice of Google itself:

  1. Intent: Does your content answer your user’s questions or show them what they want to see? Factors like language, freshness, and synonyms make a difference here. 
  2. Relevance: Once Google’s algorithm has deemed that your content meets the search intent of whatever query was posed, it will scan its Google Index to see where your content falls in terms of relevancy. On-page SEO is crucial here. You will likely rank higher in the SERPs if you provide searchers with the clearest and most relevant content.
  3. Quality: Yes, it might seem like content with good search intent and relevance is already high-quality. But, the reality is that quality is a factor in the Google Algorithm. Many refer to this assessment as E-A-T — expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. 
SEO success factors
While we may never know exactly what Google’s ranking factors are, here are a few best practices we recommend prioritizing on your site.

Google Penalties 

Google penalties are negative consequences or effects that impact the ranking of a website. These penalties are manual actions taken by Google to address inappropriate SEO tactics. Here is a helpful guide to avoiding the mistakes that lead to these penalties.

It can be tricky to learn the ins and outs of the SERPs — take a look at the following thread on SEO myths so you can learn to spot bad SEO advice from a mile away.

Why Is SEO Important?

SEO is important because it helps boost the online visibility of your business.

Paid advertising and social media also help with visibility, but the beauty of SEO is that it can continue to bring traffic over time if set up correctly.

So, search engine optimization brings “free” traffic to your site. If you publish high-quality pages that answer a user’s query, they can appear at the top of the SERPs. This is an excellent place for searchers to become familiar with your website and business.

However, there are additional reasons to prioritize SEO. It can:

  • Bring conversions
  • Get you more leads
  • Encourage sales 

How Does SEO Work + Examples

SEO is both the art and the practice of convincing search engines to recommend your content to their users as the best, most authoritative, and most comprehensive solution to their problem.

As mentioned above, once Google bots collect information on pages, they are added to Google’s Index. Search engine algorithms then review the index based on hundreds of ranking factors to determine where pages should appear on the search engine results pages (SERPs) based on users’ queries.

A typical SERP begins with paid results, then shows organic traffic (which is traffic based on the quality of pages).

Google SERP example

On-Page SEO 

On-page SEO is the practice of optimizing web page content. You can control these factors, unlike off-page tactics (which we’ll cover next). 

For example, you can update title tags on meta descriptions on your own page and create your own content. 

Some other examples of on-page SEO factors include: 

  • Keywords: Start your content creation process by performing keyword research with a tool like the Keyword Magic Tool. You can see data on how many people search for a particular keyword as well as a gauge of how difficult it will be to rank for it. This will help you decide which keywords you want to target with your content.
  • Content Creation: Once you choose primary and secondary keywords about a particular topic, start creating content with user intent in mind. This means determining what people who search a particular phrase are looking for. If someone searches “Honda Pilot colors,” be sure to include the colors as well as supporting images the user will probably want to see. 
  • Page speed: Users will often leave a page if they don’t get the information they want quickly. Ensure that your page speed is fast enough by using Google’s PageSpeed Insight tool. If there are any issues, the tool will provide tips for improvement.
  • Internal linking: Google crawls the internet by using links, meaning that internal linking is a very important part of SEO. Links are seen as a vote of confidence; leverage this by linking from high-authority pages to new pages or pages that need a little boost.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO describes all of the optimization tactics that take place off of your owned web properties. These off-page tactics help search engines and searchers to determine if your site is authoritative, relevant, and trustworthy. 

While off-page SEO can include areas like social media and influencer marketing, arguably the most important aspect is link building. 

Link building refers to the practice of getting other websites to link to your website. Links function as votes of confidence, so getting a backlink from a high-authority site can bring your site more traffic as well as boost its authority.

Backlink example

Keep in mind that more links aren’t always better; spammy backlinks won’t positively impact your site and can even lead to penalties. Avoid buying links or taking shortcuts to avoid this.

Link building can be difficult, but the results can really pay off in terms of traffic, brand recognition, and authority.

We’ll dive deeper into link building shortly. First, let’s discuss the ins and outs of the main areas or SEO

Content

As Bill Gates once said: “Content is king.” And that still reigns true.

What does that mean for you in terms of SEO? The better the content, the higher positions in SERP you will claim.

But what differentiates poor content from great? We’ll get into that in this section, but before we do — let’s talk about some key focus areas of content. 

Meta Titles and Meta Descriptions 

These areas of a page determine, in many cases, what Google shows its users in the search results. 

Semrush meta example

An accurate meta title (also known as a title tag) that describes clearly what the content of the page offers to the user is significant — it’s the reason they click on your result or not. 

Meta titles and meta descriptions are essentially sales copy that pulls the user in and help Google better understand the content and purpose of each page. Be sure to include the primary keyword within your meta description, as it’s helpful for both users and search engines.

Headings 

The title the user sees when they land on your page is a critical signal to Google. Like the meta title, it needs to be unambiguous and include the terms the user searched for. Again, this is an important signal to Google and is reassuring for the user.

Writing Style 

Keep your writing simple, straightforward, and focused. Keep sentences short, break the content into logical chunks, and stay on topic. This helps readers get right to the solution to their problem. Organize your content so that the value it provides is easy to identify, understand, and engage with.

Rich Content

Include rich content such as audio, video, and illustrative images whenever possible. Keep in mind, though, that Google cannot understand the content of images or videos. 

So, when you do include these richer formats, accompany them with the appropriate meta tags to help Google and those with visual impairments understand what the content is about. You could also include a written version to make it easier for users who prefer written content. 

Outbound links — or links to external sites — lead to sources that confirm the accuracy of your content and validate your credibility and the author’s credibility. 

Authorship

Identify the author explicitly where appropriate. If they are authoritative, this will bring credibility to the content.

But keep in mind that your content does not live in isolation. It is vital to see each piece of content as part of an overall, coherent content strategy. As soon as you do that, you are thinking in terms of content marketing.

Types of Content

Different types of content are appropriate for different stages in the funnel and different users. A good content strategy will contain a mix of various formats, including: 

  • Lists: Both people and Google love lists. They are easy to skim and easy to engage with.
  • How-to guides: These are perfect for providing a step-by-step approach to a search query. Target long-tail keywords where the user is asking a specific question.
  • Long-form guides: These may involve a lot of work, but this type of content can help your audience understand a specific or a broader topic in depth. 
  • Tables: Tables of data or information on your pages are easy for Google to understand. They are also helpful to your audience when they need to process data concerning a topic.
  • Graphics: These can be images, photos, or illustrations. Google is including these in the SERPs more and more, especially on mobile. Plus, images — when appropriately used and tagged — can drive visits from Google’s image search, which is particularly popular with some industries and types of queries (i.e., fashion or travel). 
  • Infographics: Infographics are images that contain information (usually illustrations and text) that makes them standalone content. They are great content to push out to your audience via social media to generate engagement. And, they are also a great way to build links.
  • Videos: Google is including more and more videos in search results. This is particularly true of how-to videos.
  • Podcasts: Podcasts are on the rise lately, especially within specific niches. Like with videos and images, Google shows them in the standard search results.
  • Webinars: A webinar is a live online meeting or presentation open to the public. Webinars are not only effective at engaging and building your audience, but they also provide great longer-term content. This is because, after the live event, you can post it to YouTube as a video people can watch at any time. 
  • Ebooks: Ebooks are downloadable books, usually in a PDF format, that brands often give away for free. They are perfect for in-depth content that is too long for an article and can be used to acquire more information about your audiences. 

3 Tips for Creating Better SEO Content 

  1. It’s always a great idea to start with some in-depth competitor research. What are your direct competitors saying in their blog? What keywords are they targeting? You’ll want to identify opportunities to talk about those subjects in more detail and depth, and you’ll also want to identify content gaps where you can stand out from the competition. 
  2. Length isn’t the end-all-be-all. Notice that blogs targeting a particular keyword are shorter? If you think longer content will serve your readers better, use however many words necessary to get your point across. But remember — many readers spend less and less time reading online articles
  3. Keep accessibility in mind when you write. You can use tools like the SEO Writing Assistant to help you identify the tone and readability of your content. 

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