What Is SEO? The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

• updated on
December 13, 2022
What is SEO

SEO—it’s a buzzword in digital marketing. So it may seem like a new thing. But search engine optimization (SEO) has been around almost as long as Google has. 

Before there was much quality control on the internet, SEO was all about manipulating search engine algorithms in order to rank better. 

The industry has come a long way since then. 

While black hat practices still exist (and I’ll explain what those are later), the name of the game today is optimization. If you want to rank better, you need to fine-tune your website so it becomes the most relevant, authoritative, and helpful result for a search query.

SEO involves tweaking your website to rank better in search engine result pages. Specifically, you’re optimizing it to rank for the keywords that will help your customers find your website. You’re curating content that satisfies the search intent of users that come across it.

There’s a lot of mystery shrouding SEO. You might have questions like…

  • Which ranking factors are most important?
  • How does Google understand what my website is about?
  • Which SEO practices should I avoid?

Just getting started with search engine optimization? Maybe you want to review the basics. Either way, you want to iron out the answers to your burning questions.

As an SEO expert for a major agency, I’ve learned a thing or two over the years. That’s why I’ve put together this crash course on all things SEO, from why it matters to how you can implement it. 

It’s time to pull back the veil. Here’s what you need to know about SEO:

How Do Search Engines Work?

A search engine has one main job: To help you find what you’re looking for.

Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data gets uploaded to the internet. It’s an unfathomable amount. How do search engines process so much information?

They do so with the help of bots or crawlers. Bots judge the relevance of your website based on search engine algorithms. 

When someone types a phrase, keyword, or question into a search engine, these bots pull up the most relevant and accurate search results they can find.

They do this by crawling the content on your website. Bots look at the content on your site, the internal links (pointing to pages within your website), external links (pointing to pages on other websites), and other contextual information. 

They look at how mobile-friendly and accessible your site is, how quickly it loads, and how easy it is to navigate. 

Once your site is indexed and ranked, the bot loads a page of results for the user, with each site ordered from the most to least relevant. 

All of this happens within a few seconds. It’s pretty incredible when you stop to think about it. 

If you want to learn more, check out my post on The Purpose Of Search Engine Content

Optimizing Websites for Search Engines

This brings us back to our main question: What is search engine optimization, anyway?

Well, it’s how people tweak their websites to rank better in search engines. 

It’s how websites rise to the top of SERPs (search engine result pages), soaking up all the organic search traffic that coveted spot offers. It’s how businesses use the power of organic search results to boost their rankings and increase their revenue. 

You can break down search engine optimization into a few core concepts:

  • Keyword research. When people go looking for your products/services, what keywords do they look up? You need to optimize your website for these keywords so you rank for them. Through keyword research, you’ll unearth keywords that will drive qualified organic traffic to your site.
  • Technical SEO. Search engines favor sites that run fast. The longer your site takes to load, the more likely it is the user will leave—and that’s bad for search engines. Optimize your site for speed and accessibility, and you’ll be rewarded with better rankings.
  • Content writing. How do you make your site more relevant for your target keywords? By writing content about them! Use your keywords when writing blog posts and page content. 
  • Link building. Also referred to as off-page SEO, this part all happens behind the scenes of your website. Reach out to reputable websites in your industry to build external links. This will help increase your domain authority. 

This is just an overview of what a typical SEO campaign involves. With each website, you need to tailor your approach based on how competitive your niche is.

Why Is SEO Important?

You’re a search engine user. Think of your own habits. When you look something up—a product you’re interested in, a question you have, a topic you’re curious about—which are you most likely to click? The result at the top of the page? Or the one on page 2?

This illustrates why it’s so important to rank highly in SERPs. If your website isn’t on the first page, people won’t find you!

You should focus on SEO because…

  • You’ll increase your organic traffic. Rank first for your target keyword, and you’ll get 28.5% of all clicks on the page. Spot #2 gets 15.7% of the clicks. Results on page 2 get just 0.78% of clicks. Stats like these show just how much traffic you can gain by ranking better.
  • It’s free! As long as you’re doing the work yourself, SEO won’t cost you a dime. Unlike PPC (pay-per-click) ads, you don’t need to pay for your position in SERPs. You’ll have to earn it the hard way.
  • Outrank your competitors. Competing with other local businesses is tough. You’re constantly working to earn a larger share of your target market against a business with the same goals! One way to rise above the competition? By literally ranking above them in search results. 

How Do I Learn SEO?

I know from experience that when you’re first getting into SEO, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. At SerpFocus, I’ve posted lots of content on how to understand and implement SEO on your website. Additionally I offer a totally free training program, you can sign up here!

Why SEO Focuses on Google

the Google Web Search homepage in a tablet with the new Google logo

There are a handful of major search engines that dominate the market. 

But one is mentioned far more often than any other. So often, in fact, that it’s become a verb we use in day-to-day life.

Google.

Why does this search engine hog all the spotlight?

Because in North America, it gets the lion’s share of the market. It has over 90% of the search engine market share.

If you’re going to put the time into optimizing your website, you want your SEO efforts to be worth your while. Naturally, people want their websites to rank where the action is at, and that’s Google. 

It doesn’t hurt to rank for other search engines, too—like Bing, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo. But you’ll see the biggest organic traffic increases when you rank highly in Google.

When people think of search engines, they think of Google. And you want to meet your customers where they are—not make it more difficult for them to find your website! That’s why SEO focuses on Google over other search engines.

As you get started with keyword research or learning the ropes of SEO, choose content that focuses on optimizing for Google. Once you master that, you can start learning about how to dominate other search engines, too.

Google Updates Keep SEOs Busy

The life of an SEOer is always changing. Google likes to keep us on our toes.

For one, the company is constantly updating its algorithm. 

And…they don’t always reveal what those updates are about.

One day, you might be ranking at the top of page 1 for your biggest keywords. You’ve optimized your entire website, from the H1s to the internal linking structure.

The next day, Google comes out with an update. And suddenly, your search rankings plummet.

google updates

What changed? What practices are hurting instead of helping your site? How can you recover those rankings?

Google is constantly updating its algorithm; making small tweaks here and there to refine search results. But a few times a year, the company releases what’s called a core algorithm update. These updates usually have a significant impact on rankings.

It typically takes 2 weeks for a core update to finish rolling out. During that time, rankings can fluctuate wildly.

Those who implement shady search engine optimization practices—also called black hat SEO—are often hurt by updates. And those who stick to the books—which is called white hat SEO—see ranking increases from them.

Of course, this is a broad generalization. And Google doesn’t always get it right. But in general, if you stick to the practices I share on my website—actually making your website the most relevant result for a search query, instead of faking it—then you should be in the clear.

Anatomy of a Search Result

When you look at search results for any query, you’ll see two things:

  • Paid search results. You can pay to be at the top of search results—but it’ll cost you. In addition, there will be a bolded word beside your website: “Ad”. You get great visibility from PPC ads, but you miss out on the trustworthiness that organic rankings offer. 
  • Organic search results. This is your money maker. When your website ranks organically, people assume it’s there because your website deserves the top spot. You’ve got the highest rating, you’re the most relevant to their query, and you’re more reputable than any other site on the page. This is why the first result gets more clicks than any other one on the page.

You’ll also see a variety of elements that Google will display to better match your search intent. For example, let’s see what Google shows us for the search query “search engine optimization”:

SERPs

At the top of the page, there are several paid ads. Below that, the first organic result is a link to Wikipedia. But take a look at the right-hand side. Here, Google shows us images, a definition, and a few subheadings with more information about the content. At the bottom, there are books you can purchase about the topic.

Depending on the type of search, you might also see a map, images, or links to recipes. 

Common SEO Misconceptions

There are myths floating around within every industry—but misconceptions are especially rife within search engine marketing. Why? Maybe because most search engine companies are tight-lipped about which ranking factors actually matter.

But as SEOers, we can find the truth through trial and error.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned to dispel a few SEO myths:

Myth: The more keywords you include on your website, the better!

This comes from a grain of truth—that including relevant keywords is important.

But this myth takes this practice and stretches it too far.

Google is wise to the technique of keyword stuffing, where you use the same keyword over and over in your content in an effort to rank for it. Search engines certainly won’t reward you for it. And neither will your readers.

People can spot over-optimized text from a mile away. You need to write content that’s written for humans—not designed to “game the system”. 

You need to strike a balance between including your target keyword and writing content that’s enjoyable to read. 

Myth: SEO is dead!

This is one of those rumors that comes and goes every few years. 

People try to optimize their websites, but their rankings stagnate. 

So, SEO must be fake, right?

Nope. If your site isn’t ranking, there’s a reason for that. And the reason is not that SEO is a lie.

Maybe your web pages are taking too long to load. Maybe you have links built to toxic domains. Or maybe your competitors have higher domain authority. Keep trying!

Myth: Meta descriptions don’t matter!

Even though they aren’t a direct ranking factor, meta descriptions are important for the user experience.

Here’s what a meta description looks like in organic search results (it’s the black text below the blue title):

meta descriptions

A meta description makes your website far more enticing to click on. It also helps it stand out among other web pages; as you can see, parts of the description are bolded to catch the reader’s attention.

So even if they don’t affect search rankings, meta descriptions do increase your click-through rate.

SEOs Wear Many Hats

I’ve referenced it a few times already in this post: The concept of white hat and black hat SEO. But up until now, I haven’t bothered to explain it.

You’ve made it this far. So I owe you that much, at least. 

White hat and black hat SEO are two ways of explaining SEO strategies. 

The ones who wear white hats are the “good guys”; they do things by the books. 

And the ones wearing black hats take a different approach—they try to game the system to boost their rankings. 

Gray hats are somewhere in between.

When you hear people talk about the different colored hats in SEO, here’s what they mean:

White hat 

Prefer to play things by the rules? When it comes to SEO, that’s the way to do it.

I mentioned earlier that most search engines are secretive about the nuances of their algorithms. 

But there are practices that search engine companies have come out and told people to do.

Following these practices is called white hat SEO. It’s a way to optimize your website in accordance with Google’s terms of service. 

What makes white hat SEO the most impactful? It has the power of longevity. These tactics will stick around for years to come. You won’t rank well one day and suddenly get de-indexed the next. 

To show you what I mean, I’ve listed a few examples of white hat SEO practices:

  • Making your website more mobile-friendly
  • Improving the load speed of your web pages through on-page SEO
  • Considering the user experience whenever you make changes to your website
  • Matching search intent to your content

In general, white hat SEO is aligning your website with what your business actually does. If you’re targeting keywords about a product or service, then your business should sell those products/services (or at least offer credible information about them).

Overall, this creates a satisfying search experience for the user. And really, that’s what search engines are looking for. 

The happier a user is with their experience, the more likely they are to continue using that search engine! That’s why websites that stick to these practices are rewarded.

Gray hat 

Life isn’t all black and white—there are gray areas, too. And SEO is the same way.

Gray hat SEO is that fuzzy in-between stage. You’re towing the line between following Google’s guidelines and going directly against them. You’re taking some tips from column A, some from column B, and designing an SEO strategy that blends the two.

It’s not as bad as black hat SEO, but it’s not great either.

Popular gray hat SEO tactics include:

  • Writing well-researched contentbut buying backlinks from other sites, instead of organic link building
  • Using auto-generated content on your website and stuffing it with keywords
  • Building spammy links to your competitor’s websites to hurt their Google rankings

It might be tempting to try and get quick wins with these techniques. But I honestly believe it’s better to stick to a white hat SEO strategy. 

Yes, it usually takes longer to play it by the books.

But what if Google finds out about your gray hat tactics? You risk getting a penalty, something that can permanently impact your rankings. 

With white hat SEO, you eliminate any risk of being penalized for breaking Google’s terms of service.

Black hat 

Black hat SEO is all risk—and sometimes reward. Temporarily.

This is the practice of manipulating search engine results. You aren’t trying to make your site the most relevant for a search query or an authoritative source of information. Black hat SEO is all about cheating the system.

These are techniques that search engines look down on, and may punish your rankings if they catch you doing them.

Black hat SEO is bad for local businesses. Your website could get a penalty and your site might never recover. It sounds bleak, but it’s the reality of using these shady tactics. 

Avoid these black hat tactics!

  • Adding redirects that take users to different pages once they click your link
  • Hiding text and links behind images or using colors that blend into the background
  • Buying backlinks
  • Adding low-quality content to a website for the sake of trying to rank
  • Spamming your website URL in blog comments

Don’t take the easy route just to end up regretting it later. Stick to practices that genuinely make your website a great resource for readers. Like I said earlier, put the user experience first! Both your customers and search engines will appreciate it.

Set Up a Call for White Hat SEO Consulting Services Today!

After all that, I hope I’ve fully answered your main question: “What is SEO?

I’ve covered where search engine optimization (SEO) started, where it is today, and why it matters for your website. 

That leads us to your next question.

How do I do SEO?”

I’m glad you asked. At SerpFocus, I offer SEO consulting services. Imagine never having to worry about how you’ll get new leads again—your organic search rankings will do that for you. 

We can set up a free, no-obligation call, where I’ll show you how to take your business to the top of SERPs. Book a call today!

From The Author

Terry Williams (fresh)

Terry Williams

For the past decade I've been building businesses and using SEO to rank them in top positions. For the last 5 years I've worked at a premier search engine marketing agency where it's my job to test and use SEO software, plugins, and strategies. Read my full bio here

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