SEO Explained for Users

Jen Dodson

Chief Creative Officer

Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of those things most people only understand as a user. They do searches, find pages, and will refine the search if it’s not what they’re looking for. This post is intended to shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes to get search engine results.

How does a search engine work?

  • It scans the internet for new content which it catalogs for later as an Index.
  • Search engine results pages (SERPs) are what you see after conducting a search. They consist of ads, links to pages, and other content types. The other content types include results using features like maps, images, shopping, answer boxes, relevant searches, etc.

What shows up on my search?

There are some exceptions, but in general for organic, non-paid results:

  • The blue text is the title of your page.
  • The green text is the URL
  • The text below is your meta description
  • Sometimes Google will show additional links from the same site below the listing. These are called sitelinks.

What makes a good keyword?

Very few searches are one word. Despite many still saying “keyword,” we usually mean phrases. To identify a keyword with high opportunity, we look at:

  • Your business model and what determines success
  • How your audience thinks when searching for things relevant to what you do
  • What searches are most likely to be a qualified visitor (ex. increasing specificity: purple coat vs. the best purple coat vs. where to buy purple coat)
  • What currently shows up for that phrase on a search
  • Alternative ways of saying the same thing (top hat vs. formal hat)
  • How much traffic that phrase gets for your target market (you could rank, but if no one searches that phrase what does it matter?)

What determines how a site ranks?

There are countless ranking factors. These are high-level, fundamental elements:

  • Content: It needs to read like content someone wants to read. Nothing stuffed with keywords. Since search engines can’t view pictures or video, make sure you have alt text to describe each asset.
  • Performance: The site needs to be safe, fast, and functional
  • Authority: This is the popularity factor and the reason Amazon will outrank many sites. Building strong links to your site through database listings, PR efforts, and such, helps.
  • User Experience: This insures your audience enjoys the site. If the bounce rate is high, you have a problem.

What else matters?

Just because you are strong in the areas above, doesn’t mean you’ll rank in the top three. Some possible reasons include:

  • Your competitors are more popular
  • The content is outdated
  • Previous issues with the search engine (url is blacklisted)
  • Human error where your site is blocked from search engines

Then What?

In the bucket of marketing tactics, SEO is just one element of digital marketing and the best results come from an integrated approach. Digitally that could mean using email, social media, paid search, display ads, video, etc. It’s also critical to remember offline synergies as well. For instance, if you promote your product at a tradeshow as “electronic dust bunny” but your site is only optimized for “digital dirt rabbit” you could be missing out on sales.

As you can see, a lot goes on behind the scenes for a website to rank in SERPs – and we only scratched the surface. To get a deep dive into the inner-workings of SEO, we suggest The Beginner’s Guide to SEO from Moz.