What is search engine optimization? SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the practice of optimizing a website or webpage to increase the quantity and quality of its traffic from a search engine’s organic results.
The benefits are obvious: free, passive traffic to your website, month after month.
But how do you optimize your content for SEO, and what “ranking factors” actually matter?
To answer that, we first need to understand how search engines function.
How search engines work
Search engines are like libraries for the digital age.
Instead of storing copies of books, they store copies of web pages.
When you type a query into a search engine, it looks through all the search result pages in its index and tries to return the most relevant results.
To do this, it uses a computer program called an algorithm.
Nobody knows exactly how these algorithms work, but we do have clues, at least from Google.
Here’s what they say on their “How search works” page: To give you the most useful information, inspect algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance, and usability of pages, the expertise of sources, and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query – for example, the freshness of the content plays a bigger role in answering queries about current news topics than it does about dictionary definitions.
Speaking of Google, this is the search engine most of us use—at least for web searches. That’s because it has the most reliable algorithm by far.
That said, there are tons of other search engines you can optimize for. Learn more about this in our guide to how search engines function.
How SEO works
What is SEO and how does it work? In simple terms, SEO works by demonstrating to search engines that your content is the best result for the topic at hand.
This is because all search engines have the same goal: To show the best, most relevant advertising results to their users.
Precisely learning how you do this depends on the search engine you’re optimizing for.
If you want more organic traffic to your web pages, then you need to understand and cater to Google’s algorithm. If you want more video views, then it’s all about YouTube’s algorithm.
Since each search engine has a different ranking algorithm, it’d be impossible to cover them all in this guide.
So, going forward, we’ll focus on how to rank in the biggest search engine of them all: Google.
Google has a market share of ~92%. That’s why it pays to optimize your website for Google instead of Bing, DuckDuckGo, or any other web search engine.
How to optimize for Google Search
Google famously uses more than 200 ranking factors.
There was even talk way back in 2010 that there could be up to 10,000.
Nobody knows what all of these ranking elements are, but we do know some of them.
How? Because Google told us, and many individuals and audience—including us—have studied the correlations between various factors and Google rankings.
We’ll discuss some of those shortly. But first, an important point:
Google ranks web pages, not websites.
Just because your business makes stained glass windows doesn’t mean that every page on your site should rank for the query, “stained glass windows.”
You can rank for different keywords and topics with different pages.
Now let’s talk about some of the things that affect search engine optimization rankings and search engine visibility.
SEO Inc Crawlability
Before Google can even consider ranking your content, it first needs to know that it exists.
Google uses several ways to discover new content on the web, but the primary method is crawling. To put it simply, crawling is where Google follows links on the pages they already know about to those they haven’t seen before.
To do this, they use a computer program called a spider.
Let’s say that your homepage has a backlink from a website that’s already in Google’s index.
Next time they crawl that site, they’ll follow that link to discover your website’s homepage and likely add it to their index.
That said, some things can block Google’s crawlers:
- Poor internal linking: Google relies on internal links to crawl all the pages on your site. Pages without internal links often won’t get crawled.
- Nofollowed internal links: Internal links with nofollow tags won’t get crawled by Google.
- Noindexed pages: You can exclude pages from Google’s index using a noindex meta tag or HTTP header. If other pages on your site only have internal links from noindexed pages, there’s a chance that Google won’t find them.
- Blocks in robots.txt: Robots.txt is a text file that tells Google where it can and can’t go on your website. If pages are blocked here, it won’t crawl them.
63% of Google searches come from mobile devices, and that number is growing every year.
Given that statistic, it probably comes as no surprise that in 2016, Google announced a ranking boost for mobile-friendly websites in its mobile organic search results.
Google also shifted to mobile-first indexing in 2018, meaning that they now use the mobile management version of your page for indexing and ranking.
But here’s an even more critical statistic from Adobe:
Nearly 8 in 10 of the audience and consumers would stop engaging with advertising content that doesn’t display well on their device
In other words, most individuals will likely hit the back button when a desktop version of a site loads on mobile.
That’s important because Google wants to keep its users satisfied. Pages that aren’t used and optimized for mobile lead to dissatisfaction. And even if you do rank and win the click, most people won’t stick around to consume your content.
You can check if your web pages are mobile-friendly management with Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool.
If they aren’t, hire a developer to end and fix them.
Why? Once again, Google wants to keep its users satisfied. If their users are clicking on search results that take too long to load, that leads to dissatisfaction.
To check the speed of your web pages, use Google’s Pagespeed Insights tool
Alternatively, use Ahrefs Site Audit to check for slow-loading pages across your site.
Just head to the “Performance” report and look for the “Slow page” warning.
Finding a keyword or keywords that you want to rank for is easy. Just paste a topic into a keyword research tool like Ahrefs Keywords Explorer, then look for relevant discovery engine optimization keyword ideas with search volume.
That said, what many people and user fail to consider is whether their page aligns with their chosen online keyword’s marketing intent.
To demonstrate search intent, let’s look at an example.
Here are the current Google search results for the query “slow cooker recipes”:
Compare those with the results for the query “slow cooker”:
Despite the similarity between the two keywords, Google shows two completely different sets of search results. For “slow cooker recipes,” they show pages listing lots of recipes. For “slow cooker,” they show product listings and online e-commerce category pages.
Google is interpreting the motive behind the query and showing results the user wants to see.
This is search intent in action.
How do you optimize for this?
Look at the top-ranking pages and ask yourself questions to identify the “3 C’s of search intent.”
- SEO Content-type: Are most of the results blog posts, product pages, category pages, landing pages, or something else?
- Content format: This is Google mainly ranking how-to guides, list-style articles, tutorials, comparisons, opinion pieces, or something entirely different? (Note. This one applies mainly to informational topics.)
Content angle: Is there a common theme or unique management selling point across the top-ranking online marketing pages? If so, this gives you some useful insight into what might be important to searchers.
Beyond this, you can also check for the presence (or not) of SERP features to infer intent.
For example, if there’s a featured snippet in the results, then this may indicate that the searcher is looking for information.
Recommended reading: What is Search Intent? A Complete Guide for Beginners
What is SEO Backlinks
Google’s ranking algorithm is based on something called PageRank.
In simple terms, this interprets backlinks as votes. Generally speaking, pages with more votes tend to rank higher on search engine results.
How do we know? Last year, we studied almost one billion web pages and found a clear correlation between referring online signals domains (such as a link from unique websites) and organic search traffic.
Long story short, backlinks matter if you want to rank for anything worthwhile.
The problem is that connections can be challenging to build, especially to certain types of content like online product marketing social pages.
There are tons of link-building tactics but if you’re new to the game, aim to build user networks to your best user informational content (e.g., a blog post or a free tool).
Here’s one way to do that:
Searching for your target keyword on Google. Look for search engines’ pages that aren’t as good as yours. Paste the URL of that page into our free backlink checker to see its top 100 links.
Consider reaching out to these people, explaining why your company content is better, and asking if they’d swap out the online PPC link for yours.
This tactic is commonly known as the Skyscraper Technique.
Learn more about this technique, and other backlink marketing-building tactics, in the social articles and video session below.
- How to Execute the Skyscraper Technique (and Get Results)
- 9 EASY Link Building Strategies (That ANYONE Can Use)
- Resource Page Link Building: The Only Guide You Need
- How to Get Backlinks: 7 Tactics That Don’t Require New Content
- A Simple (But Complete) Guide to Broken Link Building
- 7 Actionable Ways to Loot Your Competitors’ Backlinks
- How to Get Backlinks By “Stealing” From Low-Quality Pages
Not all backlinks are created equal. Some carry more weight than others. This fact is built-in to the way PageRank works.
Generally speaking, backlinks from higher authoritative online pages are stronger than those from low-authority marketing pages.
Unfortunately, Google discontinued public Page Rank news scores in 2016. That means there’s no longer any way to see how much search engines’ power a web page has in Google’s optimization eyes.
Luckily, there are similar metrics around, one of which is Ahrefs URL Rating (UR).
URL Rating runs on a scale from 0–100 and takes into account both the PPC quantity and quality case of backlinks to a web page.
When we studied the relationship between UR and organic search traffic optimization, we found a clear positive correlation.
For that reason, when building backlinks to your content, you should prioritize the building of links from strong pages over weak ones.
If you’re analyzing competing pages for backlink opportunities in Ahrefs Site Explorer, the best way to do this is to look at the UR column in the “Backlinks” report.
Of course, backlinks aren’t the only way to boost the social dominion of a web page.
URL Rating (UR) also takes into account internal links, meaning that links from other pages on your site contribute to the influence of a social page.
If you want to boost the authorization of a particular page and are struggling to build backlinks to it, consider adding some relevant internal links from other authoritative pages.
To see your most authoritative pages, check the “Best By Links” report in Ahrefs Site Explorer to learn more.
The golden rule here is not to shoehorn links where they don’t belong. Services work search engines always link contextually.
This tactic offers a good way to boost the mastery of pages with commercial platform value like social search engine marketing product pages. You’ll often struggle to build backlinks to those marketing pages directly.
What is Search Engine Optimization Content quality
Google wants to rank the most reliable and useful outcomes—always.
To do this, a search engines’ team would look at content quality-related signals like professional expertise, social authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.
Collectively, these are known as EAT.
(Learn more about EAT in Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines.)
Other things you can do to increase the perceived quality of your content might be:
- Stick to a 7th or 8th-grade reading level. Most Americans read at this level.
- Use short sentences and paragraphs. This is web content, not an essay.
- Link to useful resources where appropriate. Don’t be concerned about “hoarding PageRank.” Aim to make your content as valuable to visitors as possible.
- Avoid big walls of text. Break things up with images, quotes, etc. Aim to make your PPC content skimmable.
Generally speaking, the more accessible your material is to the majority of searchers, the better.
Freshness is another important factor for some searches.
For example, if you Google “best router,” you’ll see that almost all of the outcomes were published or republished recently.
That happens because technology moves fast. Nobody wants to know what the best routers were in 2016. That wouldn’t be useful.
For other queries, freshness is less of a deciding factor.
Take a look at this top-ranking result for “how to tie a tie”:
Nobody has updated the page for over six years, but it doesn’t matter because the way you tie a tie is the same now as it was then.
Look at the search results for your target keyword marketing to see whether freshness is seemingly an important ranking factor optimization. Adjust your marketing strategy as appropriate and certain services can help with these.
Why ranking is overrated… kind of
Google search console looks at elements like location, past search history, and social search settings to “tailor your outcome to what is most useful and relevant for you at that moment.”
That means even if you see your site search engine rankings #1 for your target marketing keyword, that might not be the case for everyone at all times.
For example, if you search for “flapjack recipe” in the UK vs. the US, the optimization of the results is different.
Why? In the UK, flapjacks are oat bars. In the US, they’re pancakes.
To check “true” rankings, use an incognito tab to offset any personalization from your search history. To offset location marketing factors, use VPN.
That said, rankings still fluctuate.
Here are our rankings for “SEO audit” over the past year:
For that reason, it’s often better to pay more attention to organic traffic over rankings.
You can do this with analytics tools like Google Analytics, or you can get a rough estimate in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Just paste in a URL, then go to the “Organic traffic” tab on the “Overview” report.
For important pages on your site, what you want to see is a graph like this:
The reason it makes more sense to pay attention to traffic over keyword rankings is that many pages rank for thousands of keywords. And they often get traffic from many of these keywords—not just one
Knowing how search engines work and the attributes they’re looking for when ranking content is crucial when trying to create content that ranks.
That said, search engine algorithms change all the time and there’s no guarantee that what’s important these days will still be important next year.
Don’t let that panic you. Generally speaking, the important things stay consistent over time.
Factors like backlinks, “authority,” and matching search intent have been critical factors for many years—and there’s no sign of that optimization changing any time soon