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How Does SEO Work?

January 11, 2021

how does seo work

Do you ever have a random question pop into your head, and you simply can’t do anything else until you have the answer? 

How much do blue whales weigh?
How tall is the Empire State Building? 
What year was Forrest Gump released?

Sometimes, these questions are a bit more urgent.

Where is the nearest gas station?
How much pain reliever should I take to get rid of this headache?
What’s the status of my flight to Denver?

Humans are curious, and we are currently thriving on the ability to access information from anywhere, at any time, in any situation. Google is our new best friend, and we rely on it probably more than we should. However, it's not doing all of that work alone. 

What about the people who create the content that answers the countless questions floating around a single person’s head at a time? The results that search engines display aren’t chosen by accident. 

The marriage between search engines, web content, and SEO is what makes our constant yearning for more information, more knowledge, and more details, possible. 

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization, a practice where people make improvements to their website to increase the quality and quantity of traffic to their site through organic search results. So essentially, it’s the idea of creating relevant content to address search queries in the hopes that Google will present that information when searched and that users will click on it. The focus of SEO is on relevancy to the query. 

Say you were incredibly passionate about the environment, and you created a website full of resources surrounding that topic. You wrote an article about methods for decreasing the consumption of single-use plastics. In this case, your goal would be to show up in the results when someone searched how to reduce their plastic use, right? 

A lot more goes into SEO than that, but you get the idea.

There are three main elements that go into SEO: quality of traffic, quantity of traffic, and organic results. 

Quality of traffic refers to whether or not your core targeted audience is coming to your site and receiving the information they were looking for. So for G2, high-quality traffic would be achieved by acquiring a stream of site visitors looking to buy software. 

Quantity of traffic refers to the numbers associated with traffic. Once you have a consistently high stream of quality visits, the more traffic, the better. 

Organic results are the pieces of content that show up on a search engine results page (SERP) because of good SEO practices. Organic traffic mostly differs from ad space on a page that sites need to pay to fill. Other types of traffic your business can generate are direct traffic, which is when the visitor has the exact URL, and social traffic, which is when someone follows a link to a page from a social media post. 

Another element of SEO that isn’t so technical is people. If you want to achieve a healthy website and SEO strategy, you need to keep the reader in mind at all times. The key here is to ask yourself what you would want to read if you searched for the keyword you are addressing. The more relevant your content is to the query, the more it will appeal to search engines and readers, which can result in higher rankings for your site. 

What is a search engine?

First and foremost, search engines provide answers. They can deliver on the wildest and most detailed queries known to man. If it exists and you ask for it, they’ll show you. Examples of common search engines include Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.  

They won’t just show you any random piece of content. Behind the scenes of that process to provide answers is the idea that search engines exist to identify, understand, and prioritize great content to offer the best answer to searchers. Nothing that falls on page one of Google is there by accident. 

Search engines are deciders. While site creators and readers have an effect on the performance of a piece of content, search engines ultimately determine what’s going to rank well and what’s going to tank. 

Search engines can also be incredibly frustrating. You can crank out a piece of content you think is totally killer and sit there waiting for it to rank high on Google, but that day might never come. While confusing at times, there is a method to their madness, and it comes from their three step process: crawling, indexing, and ranking. 


Crawling occurs when search engines explore the internet for valuable information and examine the content and code for each URL they discover. This is accomplished using crawlers, also known as robots or spiders. 

Search engines find content through links. The process of crawling starts on a few basic web pages, but beyond that, crawlers need to use links to navigate sites and identify other pages marked as relevant. 


Crawled content is then indexed, which is essentially the process of storing and organizing online content. Indexes are huge databases that include all pages that have the potential to rank for a certain keyword. For a page to show up on a user’s search engine results page (SERP), it must first be indexed.


The final step requires someone to conduct a search. When this happens, search engines will go through their index of valuable information and then place it in order of relevance on the search results page in the hopes that it will answer the user’s question. Determining the order of the content is known as ranking. 

When analyzing a search results page, you can assume that content ranked higher up on the page is more relevant to the query. 

On-page SEO and off-page SEO

It’s now clear that the pages listed in search engine results aren’t there by accident. It takes attention to user intent and proper delivery on a query to earn a high ranking. 

And that’s where your SEO efforts come in! 

While things like brand awareness, visitor conversions, and generated revenue are all priorities of a company’s website, in terms of SEO, the main focus lies in helping people find the information they’re looking for. If you stay on message with your website’s offerings, this should happen naturally. Search engines will notice that. 

However, there are a few other actions you can take to better optimize your site, increase your chance of ranking, and ultimately succeed in hitting the metrics listed earlier. These efforts fall under either on-page SEO or off-page SEO. 

On-page SEO

On-page SEO refers to the practice of optimizing individual pages in hopes of earning increased rankings and traffic. On-page optimizations are done in both the content and the HTML source code of a page. Anything that you do within your own site(s) and pages is on-page SEO. 

But what does this look like in practice? 

There are seven main on-page SEO ranking factors that you can focus on to increase your position:

  • Title tag: The HTML that lives in the heading section of the page. It reveals to both search engines and readers the main topic to be discussed in the rest of the content. Title tags are displayed on the search results page and in the page window. 
  • Meta description: A description of the content on the page. Meta descriptions are displayed under the title on the search results page. 
  • Headers: HTML elements that identify headings and subheadings within your content and include important long tail keywords. Headers are displayed to readers as words or phrases that represent big ideas and offer order to the page. 
  • The content itself: All of the copy on the page. The main idea here is that you offer high quality content that serves the needs of the reader with relevant information and extra resources that offer even more value. 
  • Links: Internal links within your content help crawlers and visitors navigate your site, while also showing readers other pages you find valuable and worth sharing. 
  • Image optimization: Some pages will include images, but they can result in slow page speed and poor user experience. Image optimization refers to the format of the file and size it’s displayed on the page. 
  • URL: Also known as a uniform resource locator, URLs show the location of the page in reference to files and folders, but they also help search engines determine if a page is relevant to a particular query. 

On-page SEO methods are constantly changing to reflect Google algorithm updates or newly recognized strategies, so it’s important to make sure you keep up with what’s working and what’s not. 

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO refers to any action you take to improve your search engine rankings outside of your own website. These methods still focus on improving the perception of your site in the eyes of search engines and users, but the factors are all happening off the page. 

Off-page SEO is important because it speaks to the relevance, trustworthiness, and authority of your website. You can vouch for yourself all you want, but there will come a time when search engines and users will look to external sources for validation of your importance. 

Backlinks are the backbone of off-page SEO. A backlink is when one website links to another. These incoming links are important because it shows search engines and users that other websites find your content valuable.

It’s basically a way for websites to say, “Hey, this other reliable website has some great information on this topic, too. You should check it out.” 

There are three main types of backlinks, and each of them differs from the way they were earned: 

  • Natural links: any link created without any involvement of the page owner
  • Manually built links: links acquired through active link building activities 
  • Self-created links: adding links in things like online directories

While link building is one of the most common off-page SEO practices, anything that happens outside of your own website that contributes to improving your search ranking position is also off-page SEO. Things like social media marketing, guest posts on other blogs, and external mentions all contribute to your site’s SEO strategy

White hat SEO and black hat SEO

Applying SEO will never be completely black and white. As search engines evolve their methods for delivering the best content to readers, websites will have to adjust alongside them to earn higher rankings and performance.

However, there will always be practices that are considered ethical or unethical. The difference here is called white hat SEO and black hat SEO. 

White hat SEO

White hat SEO refers to ethical methods used to improve a site’s SEO. There are three main criteria that an SEO practice must meet to be considered white hat. 

  • Follows search engine guidelines: While it never truly reveals the secret sauce for higher page rankings, Google has a public set of Webmaster Guidelines that can offer direction. The best way to sum up these guidelines is to never ever try to manipulate search engines. They will find out, and your site will be penalized. 
  • Focuses on the human audience: You need to optimize your site with the idea that all tactics are in place to benefit the user. The good news is that optimization methods that appeal to Google will please users as well. If you were to put together a list of SEO practices that result in higher rankings and another list of practices that offered a positive experience to readers, and then compared the two lists, they would likely mirror each other. White hat SEO kills two birds with one stone. 
  • Embodies a long-term approach: Like most things, the easy way and the right way don’t align with SEO. The positive impact from white hat SEO practices will take time to show themselves. However, once you do start to notice promising trends for your site, they will have a more lasting impact. 

Essentially, white hat SEO refers to any practice that a site implements that aligns with search engine guidelines and the intent of the visitor. 

Black hat SEO

Black hat SEO is the opposite of white hat. It refers to any malicious practice that breaks the established rules of SEO. Like white hat SEO, there are a few different ways that a practice can be classified as black hat SEO:

  • Violates search engine guidelines: If an SEO practice violates any of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, it’s black hat SEO. 
  • Relies on manipulation: Black hat SEO practitioners look for ways to manipulate and trick Google’s algorithms to get better rankings for their site. 
  • Focuses on quick wins: Loopholes do exist in search engines, but focusing on these quick wins will ultimately result in being penalized, as they are a black hat SEO practice. 

As luck would have it, it’s possible that your site can see faster results with black hat SEO practices. However, they will likely be short lived. Once a search engine picks up on a site’s use of black hat SEO methods, they’ll be penalized. This can look like lower rankings or cause the deindexation of your entire site. Yikes. 

Moral of the story? Stick to white hat SEO methods that focus on offering your reader the information they seek. The results will take a little longer to appear, but once they do, you can count on a steadier stream of positive effects. 

Why you should care about SEO

The first place anyone goes to find information is an online search engine. And if someone is seeking out the best pair of socks in the world, and you sell socks for a living, you’re going to want to show up in those search results when they go looking. 


of people are more likely to click on one of the top five results for a query than any other position.

Source: Reliablesoft

To achieve high rankings, be one of those top five results, and have a chance of gaining more organic traffic to your site, you’ll need to incorporate SEO into your digital marketing strategy. Organic search is often the primary source of any website’s traffic (which differs from direct, social, and referral traffic). 

Again, nothing is on page one of the search results by accident. There is a strategy behind every page. 

Another reason you should care about SEO is because when you implement methods that look good in the eyes of search engines, they’ll provide a positive experience for your readers at the same time.

Site practices like digestible content, an easily navigable page with a visually pleasing layout, and helpful links will earn you points with search engines and readers. If done consistently with the reader in mind at all times, you could earn higher rankings, clicks, traffic, and the trust of users. 

Besides overhead costs like personnel and SaaS tools, SEO is cheap. Potential customers see right through ads, and most people scroll right past the articles that sites pay search engines to display. People want to see content that earned its position, not those that paid for it. 

Ultimately, a thoughtful SEO strategy can help you gain a place above your competitors in search results, earn more website visitors and traffic, and get eyes on the solution your business offers. Remember that SEO best practices are constantly changing along search engine algorithm updates, so a good SEO strategy is a dynamic one. 

How to make SEO work for you

Now that you know why you should care about SEO, it’s time to start thinking about how you can make it work for your business. 

There’s no easy answer to this question as SEO is a long-term strategy, not a one-off tactic. However, getting a good idea of the basics is the best way to start. Here’s how you can go about it.

1. Understand search intent

The first thing you need to do is get a good grip on what your undiscovered customers are looking for, and how it relates to your business.

For example, if you are tackling SEO for a CRM company, you would want to appeal to people who search keywords like “CRM software”. You can achieve that through common sense, but there is plenty more you can do to understand search intent. 

To avoid wasting time, identify the most popular way that people search for and stumble upon your business. You can have a good idea of what search terms people use to find your business, but there will still be plenty you won’t think of. 

SEO software can reveal the keywords and phrases people use to search for a particular topic, along with how often it’s searched and how difficult it is to rank for it. These tools can also offer a list of other ways people search for the same keyword, so the way that “CRM software” and “customer relationship management software” will land people on the same search results page. Think about other words they might add, such as free or small business

With an idea of what your customers are searching for, create a list of frequently-searched, engaging, and valuable topics that will reach your target audience. There are three important metrics you should keep in mind when ideating keywords: 

  • Search volume: the estimated number of average monthly searches for a specific keyword
  • Keyword difficulty: an estimate as to how hard it will be to earn a place on the first page of search results for a specific keyword
  • Search traffic potential: the estimates monthly search traffic to top ranking pages for a query

Gathering those keywords and gauging the feasibility of ranking for them is called keyword research, and it’s a necessary step in any SEO strategy.

2. Create related pages

Once you’ve completed the research and know the online content you need to create, it’s time to produce pages that are optimized for search engines and visitors. Conduct a competitor analysis for each keyword and take note of how they approach the topic. Let’s say it again: nothing is on page one of a search result by accident. 

Search intent should be made obvious by this competitor analysis. You can categorize the content of a SERP into one of three categories:

  • Navigational: the user is looking for a specific website
  • Informational: the user is looking for more information about a particular topic
  • Transactional: the user is looking to make a purchase

While it’s every site's dream for a user to hop online and make a transactional search for their specific product, that isn’t always the case. And if you pump out content with that mindset, your pages won’t rank for keywords where they possibly could. Notice what’s on the SERP for a query and match it in a way that’s personalized to your business. 

The next step is on-page optimization. There are a few tactics you can implement to make sure your content marketing is optimized for both searchers and engines:

  • Make your URLs short and descriptive: A URL reveals the topic of a page and should be kept as simple and straightforward as possible. Avoid long strings of random characters and try to keep it logical to human readers. Always include your target keyword. 
  • Create an intriguing meta title and description: Construct a title that is both descriptive of the page and compelling to readers. You also have a chance to offer more insight of what’s on the page with a meta description, which is the text that displays right below your title in the search results. In both of these elements, use primary and secondary keywords that are relevant to the user. 
  • Use headers to offer structure and main ideas: Gather main ideas within your page and use headers to represent them. Your Header 1 will act as the on-page title of your page, so only use that level once. Header 2 levels should represent other main ideas and can act as a method for using any keywords for which you’re trying to rank. You can also make use of Header 3 and 4 levels if there are relevant subtopics to your Header 2 level topics. 
  • Optimize all images: If your page includes images, make sure to include alternative text (alt text) for accessibility and for search engines. Alt text should simply describe what’s seen in the image. Double check that the image isn’t slowing down page speed. 
  • Offer additional value through links: You shouldn’t cover every single aspect of a topic on one page. While you want to make it comprehensive, certain subtopics can be a bit out of reach. Using links, both internal and external, allows you to stick to your topic and offer more information at the same time. 

Those are the basics of on-page optimization. If you’re looking for a more in-depth guide, Moz has a regularly updated blog category page with articles that break down more specific ideas. 

3. Make your site accessible to humans and search engines

Your next step is to make sure that all of your carefully constructed content is accessible to your two main audiences: human readers and search engines. Because your content is created by humans, you’re able to use your common sense and understanding of what human readers want to please them. 

When it comes to bots, it might not be that obvious. Here are a few technical SEO practices that will make it easier for bots to access your pages:

  • Pay attention to page speed: Humans and bots will both be turned off by slow page speeds. In fact, 40% of people will exit out of a site if it takes longer than three seconds for it to load. Things like images and poorly designed coding are the two main culprits of slow page speeds. 
  • Make your pages mobile-friendly: Just like slow page speed, a poor mobile experience can result in readers leaving your pages and choosing a competitor’s. According to a study, searches from mobile devices account for 52.6% of global web traffic. If that’s not reason enough to focus on offering a positive mobile experience, then what is?
  • Install an SSL certificate: Secure sockets layer (SSL), is a certificate that encrypts data that travels from a user’s device to your website and back. Essentially, it makes sure that any information a user enters into your site can travel safely. 
  • Create a sitemap: A sitemap is a list of a website’s URLs and where they can be found. Sitemaps tell search engines the specific pages that you want to be crawled. Not every page on your website should be considered for ranking. Submitting sitemaps to the Google Search Console simplifies that process and increases your chances of ranking by removing low quality pages from the pool.
  • Upload a robots.txt file: Robots.txt is a file that tells robots how to crawl content on your pages by offering instructions on pages that they are allowed or unallowed to crawl. 

With all of those search-engine-pleasing practices in mind, remember that the way Google crawls content is constantly changing. It’s important to stay up to date with the latest changes in SEO, and when in doubt, keep the reader in mind. 

4. Build backlinks

At this point, you’ve got content ready to be searched and a site that’s accessible to both humans and bots. Now it’s time to bring other sites into the mix.

Part of being seen as a valuable source in the eyes of users and search engines is building your authority. The best way to do this is through building inbound backlinks. Having another site link to your pages says, “Hey, we think this page has valuable information. You should check it out.” 

There is value in that. 

Here are some popular methods that sites will implement to build backlinks to their site:

  • Take links from inferior content:If you see sites linking to a page that covers the same topic as yours, but it’s genuinely not as good, reach out and see if you can switch out their link for yours. After all, it would be offering their readers more value, too. 
  • Fix broken links: It’s possible that sites are including broken links in their pages and sending people to dead sources. Those are also people you could reach out to and ask for them to trade the broken link for your active and valuable one. 
  • Write guest posts: There’s a lot of topics out there, and content teams can only write so much of it. Guest blogging is when you write content for another person’s site. Since you are offering them valuable content, you can rightfully request that a link to your website be included within it.

When these tactics are implemented correctly, you have a better chance of establishing your site as an authority on the topics on which you’re writing. 

5. Track success

Like the last step in plenty of other business strategies, it’s time to measure. The fluidity of SEO requires marketers to be constantly checking in on the following metrics and drawing conclusions from the data: 

  • Organic traffic: the traffic your site earns from appearing in the SERPs. This doesn’t include any content you pay to be placed somewhere. Organic traffic performance points to how well your site is optimizing for both on-page and off-page SEO. 
  • Bounce rate: the rate at which people leave your site after viewing only one page. This is measured as a percentage, and the lower it is, the better. Bounce rate performance is an indicator of how well you’re hitting user search intent. 
  • Conversion rate: the rate at which website visitors are converting by navigating to other pages on your site. Conversion rate performance shows how engaging and convincing your content is. 
  • Click through rate (CTR): the rate at which searchers click on your links after seeing them in the search results. CTR reveals how enticing your meta titles and descriptions are. A high CTR can also be a result of establishing site authority. 
  • Rankings: where your pages fall in the search results page. This is also an indicator of good SEO practices, as well as user engagement. 

Another wonderful thing about SEO is that you can run tests to determine practices that are delivering results for your site and those that aren’t. For that to work, you need to pay attention to the metrics listed above, as well as those that are more specific to the focus of the test itself. 

Have some catching up to do?

No problem. It’s never too late to start implementing solid SEO practices. Getting started can be scary.

But if you walk away with just a few tidbits of information, let them be this: SEO is constantly evolving, mastering SEO means paying attention to and abiding by algorithm updates, nothing is ranking on page one by accident, and focus on the needs of the reader. 

Good luck!

If you already have a site full of content, learn how to conduct an SEO audit to clean it up.

seo software
Count on software

Use SEO software to help boost your organic performance and the rest will follow.

seo software
Count on software

Use SEO software to help boost your organic performance and the rest will follow.

How Does SEO Work? SEO is the act of creating content with three things in mind: the intent of readers, the expectations of search engines, and the hopes of converting customers.
Mary Clare Novak Mary Clare Novak is a Content Marketing Specialist at G2 based in Burlington, Vermont, where she is currently exploring topics related to sales and customer relationship management. In her free time, you can find her doing a crossword puzzle, listening to cover bands, or eating fish tacos. (she/her/hers)

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