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How SEO Works

how seo worksDefinition of SEO: Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results. Other forms of search engine marketing (SEM) target paid listings. –

Having a basic understanding of how SEO works, and why proper web design is essential to having a successful campaign. You can’t build a house without first understanding the fundamentals of building a solid foundation. You can’t visit Paris without first scheduling your flight and learning a little French. So, If you’re new to the art and science of SEO then let us learn a little French and spend some time getting acquainted with the elements involved before we even begin talking about website traffic, keyword rankings and the intricacies of analytics.

I like to think of search engine optimization like how you might dress up to impress and woo a potential date. You take a shower, you choose just the right clothing and maybe a little jewelry. You spray on a little cologne or perfume, hit the bank machine, borrow dad’s car, show up on time, make it to your reservation on time, engage in good conversation, eat great food – with at least “ok” manners – then after dinner hope for the best. It’s the same with SEO except you’re trying to win over a 10,000-pound gorilla and you don’t have perfume or wine to get the job done. That gorilla is a search engine like Google.

Google and other search engines are looking to be impressed. It wants to know that you have manners and that you’re worthy of a relationship. Unlike real life though, you want to wine, dine and impress every search engine you can, then jump in the sack at every opportunity. In a perfect world, you want to be the marketer on your block that sleeps with – and marries – every search engine that comes calling.

So how do you do that? As in the dating example, you need to dress to impress. Your website needs to be dressed properly which means that it’s built-in a way that appeals to a search engine. Your website needs to convey that you are respectable by presenting the search engine with content that is engaging, informative, interesting, and extremely useful. Just like a Sucubis on a mission, a website is only interested in what you can do for it and you must impress otherwise it will be on to the next opportunity.

Getting in bed with search engines really requires one important thing. If you get this right you’ll be more than halfway home. The secret is great content. Content is definitely not the only element of SEO as we’ll explain but it’s the big one. Search engines like Google love content that is relevant to the search query, well written, and respected. The goal of search engines is to return relevant results to their searchers – their business model relies on this. If they don’t give searchers what they want, they will lose them and along with that they’ll lose revenue, respect and – God forbid – revenue and investors. So I would say that finding and returning the most useful and relevant search results is a search engine’s topmost priority. Providing them what they want and need should be yours.

Designing and writing great content can be your best and most effective SEO tool but it has to be produced correctly. I’ve achieved top ten rankings for fairly competitive key phrases armed with content alone. But that content is great content. It’s useful, well written and highly targeted to the key phrase that I’m pursuing. It’s built well internally and externally which means that it’s well written and designed correctly within the code of the page. As you’ll learn, this is the art of SEO and why a concept so simple can often fail for those who do not study the fundamentals before they begin a campaign.

Now that you’re dressed for success, you need to have some respect and this is where we get into the science of SEO. If you are in the music industry you would strive to be McCartney and Lennon, not Britney Spears or the latest “hit”. Britney Spears has “the look” but underneath she has no substance – and no respect. So how do you get respect on the web? Links. Links. Links. Getting a link to your site from another relevant website is the elusive goal of all SEO professionals and the most difficult goal to achieve. Beyond content, high-quality links are the number one reason that sites get top rankings. Getting links is not easy though and search engines like it that way. A link to your site is like a vote. In the world of SEO (in theory), the more votes you get from high-quality, relevant sites, the more Google will respect you, consider you a good resource and therefore rank you higher in their listings for that key phrase. Easy, right? Not really. Getting someone’s approval and therefore getting their vote involves more than just asking. It involves having the whole package and that can be complex. This is why SEO is an art, a science and a billion-dollar industry. Getting a high-quality link — and I stress high quality — must be made to be hard and the process made to be complex otherwise it would be easy to manipulate the system. Search engines do not like manipulation because this in turn provides their searchers with content that is low quality. As we’ve said previously, if searches don’t return the results people are looking for or the results are continually low quality then they’ll simply go elsewhere. Not a good thing for Google’s stock.

What makes this all even more difficult is that nobody knows exactly what the search engines want. This is why it’s hard and difficult to manipulate. To use the dating metaphor again, it’s like trying to get a date with the most popular, good-looking, intriguing and respected person in school. Getting that date could be complex and you have to play your cards right. Learning how to approach that person and from the right angle takes time and maybe even a little experimentation. Similarly, Google doesn’t tell us what it likes. Over time and with research and study we’ve been able to determine a lot of what works, but the details and factors are always changing – and we’ll never really know for sure.

As I’ve explained though, we know the basics and the fundamentals and here is a summary. Learning the proper ins and outs of the following fundamentals will get you that date with Google but it’s going to take some effort:

  • Develop your website so it’s attractive to search engines.
  • Design your website so it’s attractive to visitors.
  • Create great content.
  • Create highly useful content.
  • Create content that is keyword-rich and targeted to your target audience.
  • Get respect through links.
  • Get more links.
  • Once you think you have enough links, get a few more.

This is search engine optimization in a nutshell. Obviously, it can get infinitely more complex as you try to fulfill each of these elements and deal with the never-ending complexities contained therein. But the fundamentals are simple. Just like getting that date with the best-looking person in class it just takes a little bit of preparation, study, effort and sometimes even just a little bit of luck.


Definition of SEO and other resources: Start here to read how Wikipedia and it’s contributors describe SEO as well as many other links to resources and reading.

How the internet and web servers work: If you’re unsure it might be a good idea to step back and look at how the internet actually works. Learning this is akin to knowing that a car moves forward because it’s on wheels.

The SEO Fundamentals Pyramid (Video): This is a quick summary of the elements that encompass SEO and their priority in the overall hierarchy.

How to write great content: There are many sources on the web about writing and great content. But there are two that are specifically related to the web that you should visit often. You could spend years reading these sites and learning from the masters.

SEO Pitfalls: There is a lot you need to do to succeed with SEO but just as important are the things that you should NOT do. Before diving into SEO you should make sure that you know and understand the things that you should not do that might end up biting you along the way. These sites are also excellent and well-respected sources for learning about SEO so bookmark them and visit them often. Also, consider doing a Google search for “seo pitfalls” and there you will be presented with an excellent source of dozens of sites and opinions on this subject that should keep you busy reading and learning for days.

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About Chris Auman:

Chris Auman is a veteran digital marketer with over 25 years of experience in the trenches. As Sanctuary’s founder and President, Chris has successfully guided online marketing efforts for companies large and small.

Learn more about Chris.

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