image of a rocket taking off on the how seo works blog page
SEO is not rocket science.

If you are a small business owner wanting to increase your website’s traffic and sales, a good place to start is with an understanding of how SEO works.

SEO or search engine optimization is not rocket science, but it is complicated. It has a lot of moving parts that all have to come together before you show up and rank well in search results.

Moving parts include:

  • your business and website;
  • market demands;
  • the rules search engines use to decide who ranks on top; and
  • the competition.

The competition isn’t just standing still waiting for you to catch up!

SEO is hard work and it requires a lot of patience. Because there are so many moving parts, my advice is to focus on the things search engines and visitors care most about, and the things you have the ability to influence or control. I’ll explain those next.

What Search Engines Care About

Google is the only search engine you need to worry about.

Repeated studies have shown that Google commands 65 – 85 percent of the search market depending on who you ask and what they measure. Remaining searches are done on country-specific search engines (like Baidu, Yandex, Naver and Yahoo Japan) or specific Auto, Finance, Food, Entertainment, Shopping and/or Sports sections of the Yahoo / Bing sites.

If you focus on native search alone, Google is, by far, the market leader.

how seo works for small business owners. a venn diagram showing the intersection of relevance, reputation and architecture. Google says it looks at roughly 200 hundred ranking factors when deciding who to rank at the top of search results.

At 30,000 feet, you only have to worry about three:

  • Is your site relevant?
  • Is it reputable? Has it earned the right to rank well in search results?
  • Do search engines even know about it? Is it built / architected in a way that search engines can easily find and index?

Your Site Must Be Relevant

Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google, once described the “perfect search engine” as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

photo of a homeless man holding a cardboard sign that says "need rich woman"
Image complements of Josh Swieringa on Flickr.

Google’s goal, as stated on its website, is “… to make it as easy as possible for you to find the information you need and get the things you need to do done.”

Relevance is key. If Bill is searching for “needs rich woman”, your website has to use that same language (or a semantic equivalent) or it won’t even be eligible to rank, never mind rank in the top 10 where most people tend to click.

Your Site Has To Be Reputable

Google rarely has a problem finding relevant search results. In fact, it usually finds too many.

If I search for “needs rich woman” on Google, 126 million pages in Google’s index contain those words and are eligible to rank. So how does Google decide who to put on top?

snap of google search results for "needs rich woman"

Remember Google’s goal is “… to make it as easy as possible for you to find the information you need and get the things you need to do done.”

Google decides who to rank at or near the top of search results by looking for evidence that an eligible-to-rank web page previously satisfied the information wants and needs of searchers.

SEOs refer to this as a page’s popularity and authority. A page is deemed popular when Google sees evidence that people visit it and find it’s content useful. Things like:

  • lots of visits and page views;
  • repeat visits and page views;
  • lengthy time on page and site; and
  • relatively large numbers of incoming links and social mentions.

The more visits, repeat visits, page views, time on site and incoming links and social mentions your site has, the more popular it will be perceived to be by Google.

Authority derives from the sources of those links and social mentions. When links and social mentions come from important and influential websites like government and news organizations, industry websites, and educational facilities, your page will be deemed authoritative.

All things being equal, the more popular and authoritative your web content is, the higher it will rank.

snap of search results for "needs rich woman" showing domain authority and inbound links

In the snapshot above, you can see the same search results for “needs rich woman” as I showed you before. This time however, I’ve included a couple of metrics that are intended to reflect the content’s perceived popularity and authority.

The highest ranking search result is a page on Facebook. Facebook has the highest domain authority (DA) possible, 100 out of 100. The numbers to the right domain authority are the number of incoming links and link sources as measured using the Moz toolbar, a popular SEO tool. Both are extremely high numbers. Without digging any deeper, it easy to understand why this page outranks all others.

Your Site Has To Be Architected For Search Engines

When you enter a search query into Google, Google doesn’t search the Internet, it searches its own, proprietary index of the Web. If your site is going to show up in search results, Google has to know about it first.

Google is a company and a ranking algorithm. It isn’t a human being that can read and understand language nuances. In order for Google to accurately interpret your website content, it has to adhere to strict technical protocols, rules, guidelines, and best practices.  If you don’t, your website and its content won’t get indexed by Google and you won’t appear in search results. You might as well be invisible.

a small grey frog on rock - well camouflaged, nearly impossible to see
If you’re not in Google’s index, you might as well be invisible.

What Searchers Care About

Searchers also care about relevance. They care about being able to find high quality and useful information quickly. Searchers and site visitors don’t like feeling like they’ve been manipulated or mislead. Don’t like having their time wasted.

More often than not, searchers want answers to questions or solutions to problems. They want to be able to skim your content quickly before deciding what to do next.

Look at the above example one more time. If I’m searching for “needs rich woman”, notice how those words are repeated in the search results? That’s because the ranked pages contain those words. They’re relevant. Google deliberately repeats those words back in search results to reassure folks the results are relevant.

All that to say, if you know what your audience is searching for, publishing that information on your website and you’ll be relevant and eligible to rank in search results.

snap of "needs rich woman" search results with convincing meta description highlighted

Looking at our example results one more time, notice they all contain our search terms? They’re also different. You can control what’s displayed in search results and that way speak specifically to your audience. If you know your audience is homeless, for example, you can speak to that in the hope of getting their attention and convincing them to click through to your content versus someone else’s.

What You Can Influence / Control

You know your business best. That makes you the best choice for guiding and/or authoring your website content. Figure out who your audience is and where they like to hang-out online. Write content to satisfy their information wants and needs. Do it with consistency, accuracy and quality.

Let your SEO do what he or she knows best. Your SEO knows how to ensure your site will be found and indexed by Google. He or she can help you determine where your audience likes to hang-out online, how to write relevant and convincing copy that will attract the attention of search engines and your audience and earn links and shares. Use him or her for that.

Baseline and measure. SEO is not an exact science. A good chunk of it is trial and error. Baseline your starting point and checkpoint from time-to-time. Not too frequently or you’ll drive yourself crazy with all the daily ups and downs and prevent yourself from getting any real work done. Check often enough to know you’re making progress, and to know when you need to shift gears or focus.

There is No Silver Bullet

portrait of a happy couple There is no silver bullet when it comes to how SEO works. It’s the result of a well researched, thought out and executed plan that satisfies the technical and information wants and needs of Google, your peers, prospects and customers. It’s hard work that produces the best results when there’s commitment on the part of all participants, and when the interrelated parts align and come together.

What do you think? Do you think there’s a trick or shortcut to SEO? Let me know in the comments below.
This article was originally published on the B-SeenOnTop blog as How SEO Works; A 30,000 Foot View For Small Business Owners.