How SEO Works

Posted by Josh Wardini
how seo works

What Is Search Engine Optimization?

Search engine optimization, commonly referred to as SEO, is an internet marketing practice that drives traffic to a website based on its search engine results. SEO is a complex niche based on a multitude of marketing strategies. Understanding the basics of SEO is simple. Mastering the fine points can take serious study.

Smart SEO strategies can help websites achieve increased visibility in search engine results that drive up traffic. The quality of the traffic is important, however. Website owners need to rank for specific terms directly related to their site’s niche.

The purpose of this knowledge page is to educate readers on how SEO works as a whole. This is essential in discovering how to carry out top-quality results-centered optimization.

Smart SEO strategies rely on a multitude of factors, including website content, on-website SEO, off-website SEO, linking, loading speed, website architecture, images, videos, content value, keywords, and more. Some of the main topics that will be covered here include how search engines work and how search engine algorithms operate.
How SEO Works

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engines are the main gateway to the World Wide Web. While typing URLs in the address bar lets you access specific websites, search engines yield multiple results. Most of the time, searching for a certain piece of data is much easier to do via a search engine.

When you attempt to search for something on Google, for example, the engine reads your keywords and attempts to come up with relevant web pages containing those particular keywords. 

How does it work? After you click on search, the engine scans its index of websites to find content that answers your question.

Clearly, you want your website to be on that index. Search engines like Google use programs commonly referred to as web crawlers to create the search index. These programs constantly navigate the internet, collecting data and performing analyses in an effort to understand what each website is about. The crawler stores data related to the web pages it’s visited, adding each page’s URL to the index. The process is repeated until all web page URLs are copied, indexed, and organized in a huge database.

All the web pages Google lists in response to a query have been visited by crawlers and analyzed in this manner.

Certain websites may not want to have their content indexed by search engines for various reasons. Indexing can be stopped by blocking web crawler access.

Given the gazillions of pages on the internet, search engines need to store massive amounts of data. This is why Google and other companies have built tons of next-generation data centers all over the world. When you make a search, the query is sent to the nearest data center. Programs look through billions of crawled web pages to determine the right answer to your query. Variables control which sites are listed first, second, third, and so on. Your website’s position on the results page is its “ranking.”

Understanding Search Engine Algorithms

Algorithms let search engines determine which pages and websites are the most relevant, accurate results for search queries. They sort the results by relevance for display on search engine results pages, or SERPs. 

Algorithms are the key answer to the question, “What does a search engine do?”

Search engine algorithms work by taking numerous factors into account and giving each of the factors a weight in the final score. Then, the algorithm displays the results by taking everything into consideration.

The factors used by search engines include, but are not limited to, keywords in the content, the age of the web page, the latest update, loading speed, website architecture, internal links, external links, quality of the content, plagiarism, duplicate content, URLs, location, machine learning preferences, images, video, website traffic, traffic from internal sources, traffic from external sources, title relevancy, description relevancy, content relevancy, ads, website security, infringements, penalties, and value. Since search companies tend to keep their algorithms secret, there may be a multitude of other factors being taken into account when coming up with search results. 

As these factors are assessed, a value is assigned to each ranking factor. Some are positive and some are negative. 

Let’s say you search for “gourmet restaurants in central Prague.” The search engine will instantly give Prague-based restaurants priority over all the other food joints in the world – sites that may have ranked well when taking other factors into account. So you see, the value assigned to each web page isn’t an unchanging score, but a value that is calculated based on user criteria like keywords, specific questions, and other factors. 

This is the main reason search engine optimization isn’t an exact science. You can follow most SEO strategies to the letter, but if your site fails to implement a feature the algorithm wants, you’ll end up ranking badly in the search results. 

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and numerous other dynamics worth taking into consideration when coming up with better SEO strategies. 

Understanding the interplay between searches, algorithms, and content is essential to understanding exactly what SEO is and how it works. 

In the past, Google has released limited information about its algorithms and how they work. For example, the Google search engine employes the Panda algorithm to penalize, reward, filter, and judge content while taking other factors into account. Another example is the Penguin algorithm, which Google uses to fight spam and judge links. Google and other search engines also rely on organizing, data collection, content organization, and task-specific algorithms, among others.

A search engine algorithm isn’t a mathematical formula where you simply solve for X and get the answer. They are much more complicated than that – which is why hundreds of SEO agencies and professionals study results pages and run tests to learn more about successful SEO strategies.
How SEO Works

Factors That Influence the Impact of Search Engine Optimization

SEO is an ongoing process that requires the implementation of multiple strategies. The only real way for website owner to determine what works best is trial and error.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the main factors that impact SEO and how to do search engine optimization:

1. On-Page SEO

On-page SEO refers to the strategies that website owners have complete control over. You can experiment with a variety of on-page SEO techniques to determine which ones end up bringing you the most organic traffic. Success will come with time as long as you continuously implement best practices. Here are some examples of on-page SEO:

Website architecture

Google’s web crawlers must find logic in how your website is organized. Implement an easy-to-follow architecture that’s user friendly. Web crawlers will make better sense of what your website is about and reward it with better ranking.

Keywords in titles, content, meta descriptions, and subheadings

Keywords should be integrated into all written text on your site. But don’t over-encumber the content, as this can lead to penalties. Meta descriptions tell search engines about your website and what each page is all about. They also help readers better assess whether you’re offering what they’re looking for.

Internal links

These are very useful in guiding web crawlers through all the sections of your site. They also help improve traffic and the time spent by readers on your website.

2. Off-Page SEO

Website owners cannot directly control off-page SEO. However, these factors have an important influence over your search engine rankings. No one outside of Google knows precisely how off-page SEO factors are weighed, but it’s clear they are important. Here are some examples.

Trust and authority

Search engines are bound to reward the websites they deem trustworthy. But how can Google determine the amount of trust it should give each website? The answer isn’t entirely clear (due to the secrecy of the algorithms), but it’s believed that backlinks from authoritative websites can increase trustworthiness in the eyes of search engines.

Social signals

Social media and SEO go hand in hand. In fact, Google’s algorithms also scan for social signals. This means that you should try your best to interact with your audience and create some form of engagement. The more comments, likes, and shares a page has, the better it will rank in search engine results. They also bring you more traffic. This is why some marketers rely on SEM, search engine marketing. That’s all about using paid searches – pay-per-click – and social media marketing to boost traffic and influence ranking.
How SEO Works

SEO Don’ts and Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO is based on techniques that are easy to implement but fail to drive organic, quality traffic to websites. These short-term strategies are focused entirely on increasing traffic artificially while driving up ad revenue. These strategies had an impact In the past, but they led to a lower-quality internet. Nowadays search engines implement algorithms that detect black hat SEO techniques. Websites implementing such tactics are penalized or removed from search engine results entirely. Here are a few black hat SEO techniques that you must avoid to keep your traffic organic and your website safe.

Don’t stuff your articles with keywords

A relevant keyword that is legitimately related to the page’s content should be placed once every 70 to 100 words. Keywords must make sense in context. Avoid using hidden text to increase the number of keywords.

Quality content is almost always rewarded by search engine algorithms

If you know what is SEO writing, you know to avoid duplicate, copied, and plagiarized content. Additionally, techniques such as article spinning, or leveraging scrapped content, will not only get your website penalized but may also attract legal trouble. Search engine algorithms frown on clickbait too. Website content should be designed to provide value to readers rather than simply influence search engine results — this is probably the most important lesson in learning how search engines work. There is no benefit in attracting lots of traffic if readers click away as soon as they see the type of content you offer. Content should appeal to the reader first. After you’ve got quality content, you can employ white hat SEO strategies to boost traffic organically.

Linking is essential for quality SEO

Algorithms scan the number of links pointing to a page in an effort to determine its value and popularity. But beware: Link manipulation techniques will surely lead to worse SERPs.


  • web-linking rings in which website owners build link-sharing relationships with related websites
  • link farming, the practice of artificially increasing inbound links
  • link comment and blog spams
  • redirects via link exchanges
  • commercial linking via anchor text keywords

Paid links are also a bad idea. If a search engine finds you guilty of buying and selling links or paying for fake advertisements to increase website authority, your SERPs will plummet.

Every once in a while someone discovers a new black hat SEO technique that works for a while. But it doesn’t take long for search engines to make the discovery as well—thus leading to website penalization. If a strategy seems too good to be true, it probably is.
How SEO Works

Go Forth and Rank Highly

Now you have a better idea of how SEO works and what makes search engine algorithms happy.

Ultimately, SEO is an on-going practice and educational experience. Employ these techniques, study the results, and you will gradually learn which strategies yield the best results for your sites.

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