What is SEO?

Updated February 6, 2020

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is optimizing your website so search engines will recommend it more. When people search for topics you talk about, you want Google (and other search engines) to suggest your site before others.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I’ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

Why doesn’t my site show up in Google?

I once designed a website for a friend. She’s a professional organizer. After her site was complete and online, we had a discussion that went something like this:

Her: I want some business! We just launched my website. Why isn’t anybody calling?

Me: Because just having a website doesn’t guarantee you’ll be found.

Her: But why? It seems to me, if someone Googles “professional organizer in [her city]” my site should come up. But it doesn’t. Why not?

She was asking why her site didn’t land on the front page of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) for the phrase “professional organizer in [her city].”

Landing on the front page of the SERPs isn’t easy or automatic. In a sea of billions of webpages, ranking among the top eight or so for a particular search term is extremely difficult. There’s a lot of competition!

OK, so how exactly do you land on the front page?

There isn’t a simple answer because there are a lot of factors at play. Let’s back up a bit before we get to the suggestions.

Sidenote: There are many search engines but Google is by far the biggest so I will talk about Google but most everything here applies to all search engines.

How search engines work, in plain English

Search engines figure out what information is available online by reading all the pages online. (The term “web pages” here is a general internet term referring to a single page of content online.)

How do they find all that information? They use electronic robots (often referred to as bots or spiders) to “crawl” the internet constantly.

These tiny little electronic critters have two main jobs:

  1. Visit & revisit web pages. It’s the job of the bots to find all the content on the internet. If a post or page gets updated, they revisit it and march through it again.
  2. Index. As the spiders march through a web page, they read it. They’re smart. They figure out what that specific webpage is about. (“I’m reading words about chocolate chips, flour, spoonfuls, oven temperature and directions. Hmmm…this page must be a chocolate chip cookie recipe.”) Once they know what a web page is about, they store it in the gigantic Google brain-like bank of information in an organized way.

That way, when someone searches for information on a topic, it can be found quickly. Imagine if all the billions of pages on the internet weren’t organized!

So let’s review what goes on behind the search engine scenes. Bots crawl the web reading all the pages, they index and organize. 

Now let’s talk about what happens on the other (human) side. 

  1. You search or “google it.” You hop onto Google or another search engine, type in your search term (query) and hit enter.
  2. Google looks through its collection of stored pages. It identifies the ones that address your query and puts them in a list for you. This is the SERPs (Search Results Pages).
  3. But it’s not just any list! This list is ranked. The web pages it thinks you will find most helpful are at the top. 

How does Google decide which results go at the top of the list?

They decide based on many, many factors. The exact formulas they use to decide, called algorithms, are closely-guarded secrets and highly complex. Algorithms change CONSTANTLY. Almost every single day Google is tweaking its algorithm. 

But the goal is always the same: make the human searchers happy.

Why does Google want to make humans happy?

Because they really want you to keep using Google. Why? Because they make money in their search results. 

Ever see those results that pop up with “Ad” beside them?

There’s a company paying Google to put their ad in the search results. Google makes a lot of money from these companies.

If Google doesn’t keep searchers happy (you, me and humans everywhere) we won’t use Google anymore. Then companies won’t pay for ads anymore. Then Google doesn’t make money anymore.

All that to say, Google wants people who search to be happy so they can make money. In order to make money, they need to keep humans happy.

What does this mean for bloggers and website owners?

A search engine like Google is important to bloggers and website owners because it sends traffic to our sites!

When one of our web pages shows up on the first page of the SERPs for a particular search, it is very valuable. Why? Because almost all searchers click on a link on the first page of the search results. Not many searchers click over to the second page of search results. (Do you?)

So, if your page appears on the first page for a particular search, it’s huge. It means more traffic for you. Better yet, this is organic traffic, meaning, it’s completely free. You don’t have to pay for that traffic.

Therefore, bloggers and website owners try to make their site more SEO-friendly so search engines will show their site’s pages on the front page.

Google wants humans to be happy. You should want Google to be happy. If the bots and spiders can move easily through your site and get a good idea of what it’s about, without getting hung up on low-quality content or other hiccups, they’ll remember you as a good source.

Then hopefully, when someone searches for topics you talk about, the search engines will recommend your site above others.

SEO tips

Avoid black hat SEO. Black hat SEO techniques are shady and try to game the system. You might see short-term gains, but you’ll pay in the long run. The alternative is white hat SEO. White hat is the way to go.

Follow the right SEO people. With so much black hat SEO info floating around, it’s important to choose the right people to follow. I follow the guys at Project 24. Project 24 is a paid-for membership (read my full review of here), but Jim and Ricky give away a lot of information for free too. This video is a good example:

Can’t see the video? Watch it here.

Understand many SEO factors are out of your control. There are some things you can do to increase your chances of landing in a favorable spot in the SERPs (like these tips). Other things you can’t do anything about, like algorithm changes and how they affect your pages’ rankings. Just accept it.

SEO is fluid. As search engines get smarter and try to make results better, tweaks are constantly made to SEO and how it works. Your pages will go up and down in the SERPs. A drop does not necessarily mean you did something wrong.

Write to win Featured Snippets. Featured Snippets are the boxes at the top of the SERPs that provide a direct answer to a search query. They’re big and can result in more traffic. Jim and Ricky explain here:

Can’t see the video? Watch it here.

Tell Google your site exists. Landing on the first page of the SERPs won’t happen if the search engines don’t know your site exists in the first place. You can help this process by add your site to Google’s Search Console.

Make sure your site works on mobile. Most Google searches happen on mobile. If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you’ll lose out. There are plenty of themes with mobile-friendliness baked right in. Here are the themes I recommend.

Make sure your site loads fast. Speed is important. Remove things on your site that slow it down. Use as few plugins as possible. Don’t use random widgets, gadgets and apps. Use a well-built WordPress theme with speed in mind. Use this tool to see how fast your site is. Get it above 90 and as close to 100 as possible.

Optimize your images. Speaking of slowing things down, images can be the worst culprits. Don’t upload images directly from your camera to your site. Resize them. Compress them. Use alt tags. Get details about how to do these things in this post.

Use Yoast’s SEO plugin. The WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast gives you a lot of SEO functionality without you having to think. It’s a solid plugin and it’s free. Here’s Yoast’s documentation for the plugin.

Get worthwhile backlinks. A backlink is an incoming link to one of your site’s pages. For example, here’s a post on ProBlogger in which he links to my post, How to Make Money Blogging. That link on ProBlogger’s website is a backlink for me because it’s linking back to my site. Make sense?

As far as we know, the number and kinds of backlinks you get to your site impact your SEO. There are good backlinks and bad backlinks. Obviously and unfortunately, you can’t always control who links to you, but there things you can do to try to get good backlinks.

Work hard on building meaningful relationships with others online so that if and when the decide to share your content, you will benefit from those backlinks.

Don’t beg for backlinks. One “SEO tip” a lot of people give is to email site owners and ask them to link to your site. I don’t recommend this. As a site owner myself who gets so many of these requests, I delete them instantly. It’s annoying. Instead, make your content so people link to it naturally.

Understand keywords. Keywords are the words or phrases that sum up what a piece of content is about. For example, the main keyword for this post you’re reading is “what is seo.”

If you’re a blogger or website owner, keywords are the words or phrases search bots associate with the content on your web page. If you’re the person searching for this topic, keywords are the main terms you’ll type into Google or another search engine.

Not sure what the best keywords to use are? How would someone search for the information in your post or page? What would they type into Google? Those are likely good keywords you can use in your content — in the body of your posts or pages, in your permalinks and even your domain name when appropriate. If you use an SEO plugin like Yoast’s, it’s easy to include keywords in your meta descriptions as well.

I don’t use keyword tools for the same reasons Jim and Ricky mention in video above at about the 13:26 minute mark.

Use long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords have 3+ words in them. (“Keyword” is a bit of a misnomer since they are really more like phrases or strings of words, but you get the point.) Long-tail keywords often return better search results for real people and are therefore more useful for bloggers and website owners.

For example, my daughter and I were looking for items she needs to make paper beads. Specifically, glaze. When I searched, I didn’t use the term “paper beads.” Instead, I used “best glaze for paper beads.” The latter returned much more relevant results for me, and would be a better keyword choice for someone writing about it.

Short keywords with one or two words (like “dog” or “cake recipes”) are very difficult to rank for these days, simply because there are so many sites competing for them. So use keywords that are longer and more specific. Niche down.

Don’t use too many of the same keyword. Some people use keywords in an unnatural way in the hopes of improving their SEO. Search engines see right through this tactic and will often tag a site as spam when they see “keyword stuffing.” If you write normally, for humans, you won’t have a problem.

Also, don’t use the exact same keyword word or phrase over and over in your content. Mix it up. Use keywords that are similar. If you’re talking about how to mow the lawn use “mow the lawn” but also use “how to edge properly” and “types of lawn mowers” and “best lawn mower brands,” etc. Think of related ideas or concepts someone might be curious about if they are searching for information about mowing their lawn.

Watch out for broken links on your site. Always address broken links on your site quickly. Broken links don’t make for a good user experience. Plus, a broken link is essentially a dead end for bots and spiders since they use links as “doors” to find more web pages. Here’s a tool you can use to check specific pages on your site.

Also, change your permalinks with caution. Once you’ve published content, don’t change your permalinks either sitewide (in Settings > Permalinks) or on individual posts or pages, without redirecting the old URLs. Each time you publish a piece of content on your site, it is assigned its own URL. This is its unique web address. If you change an already-published URL, wherever that link has been shared (on other sites, on social media, etc.) it will no longer work since it is now different. Broken links are not good for SEO.

My top SEO tip

So many bloggers worry endlessly about SEO. Many times they ask me what they should do to improve their SEO and what I do to improve mine. Here’s the deal: I hardly spend any time on SEO.

Write great content. Excellent content is the only thing that has consistently withstood the dramatic algorithm changes I’ve watched over the years. You can’t go wrong with solid, original, high-quality content. That’s not just me, Matt Cutts (of Google fame) says it.

A lot of people spend a lot of time and money on SEO but the truth is, writing good content on a regular basis, in the long run, will be best for your SEO.

Conclusion

Is SEO real? Yes. Is good SEO helpful? Sure. But if you’re like me and you’ve got limited time, stress less about SEO. Note the tips above, but most of all, write good stuff! Write helpful stuff! Get involved in community. Be authentic. Build relationships and let your great content work for itself.