What is Search Engine Optimization?

SEO is the practice of optimizing your website to get organic traffic from a search engine.

by Gus Van der Walt

SEO

| 11 min

SEO is the practice of optimizing your website to get organic traffic from a search engine results page (SERP).

SEO helps you increase the quality and quantity of traffic coming to your site, which means it helps you target people who are genuinely interested in the products or services you offer. SEO is all about improving a site’s rankings in the organic (non-paid) section of a search engine results page. It’s an integral part of a well-rounded inbound marketing strategy.

In this in-depth article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of all things SEO.

A brief history of SEO

To better understand how SEO came about, let’s take a look back at where it all began — the search engine’s invention.

The story starts in the early ’90s with the launch of the first website (which, by the way, is still up and running two decades later). As more websites emerged, there came a need for structure and accessibility. In 1990, a McGill University student named Alan Emtage created Archie (short for ‘Archives’), the world’s first search engine.

What is a search engine?

A search engine is an online tool that helps people find information on the internet according to the user’s query. Search engines use robots called web crawlers to explore hundreds of billions of webpages. These web crawlers travel through the web collecting data from multiple pages and sites to create a World Wide Web searchable index. When a user types in a query, the search engine searches a database of information and provides results that best match what the user is trying to locate.

There are three fundamental principles that search engines use to gather data for a user’s query:

  • Crawling: The process of finding new pages on the web using small programs called web crawlers (commonly known as search engine bots or spiders) that follow links from recognized pages to new ones that still need to be discovered.
  • Indexing: When the bots work their magic, and a page is crawled, the data is processed and indexed. Indexing is the process of validating and storing the data from the webpages in the search engine’s database called “index.” Think of it as a storage space for all websites. To appear on a search engine results page, your website needs to be indexed. Once the data is processed and saved in the index, it can be accessed when a search is performed.
  • Ranking: To finish off the search process, the search engine determines where a particular piece of content or a URL should appear on a search engine results page. This is called ranking. Web pages that rank well will appear at the top of the list for search results.

Back in the day, Archie didn’t have very advanced capabilities, but this early technology cleared the path for many more search engines, like Excite (1995), Lycos (1995), Yahoo (1994; reborn 2002), and, of course, Google (1996) — which has dominated the search engine space ever since.

Early SEO tactics

There was a problem, though. In the early days, the only way to optimize your site for search engines was through on-page activities. There weren’t really any rules or criteria at the time — people just wanted their website or content to rank high on a search engine results page; they didn’t care how.

Because “SEO” tactics were limited to matching words from user queries on search engine results, this often led to keyword stuffing, which is the practice of repeating keywords over and over again in the text to improve rankings and drive traffic to a site. People were also using excessive backlinks to improve their authority. Using keyword stuffing and spammy backlinks to rank higher in SERPs is known as black hat SEO.

Because the ultimate goal of black hat SEO is to rank at all costs, this often meant a major compromise in websites’ quality. By the time a search engine was able to roll out algorithmic changes to penalize these tactics, it wouldn’t be long before a new black hat SEO practice was discovered that the most recent updates didn’t address.

When Lawrence Page and Sergey Brin set out to create Google, unethical SEO was one of the first issues they wanted to fix. In their paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced PageRank, the technology that Google uses to help rank search results based on quality and not solely on keywords. This is one of the significant sea changes that paved the way for SEO as we know it today.

The search engines of today

Archie may lay claim as the first search engine ever invented, but today, there are many search engine options out there. Obviously, Google is the most well-known search engine, but other popular search engines include Bing, AOL, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo.

While there are quite a few choices out there, the two brands that come to mind when people think of search engines are Google and Bing. To the average internet user, they’re not all that different when it comes to primary search results. Let’s briefly discuss the history and merits of each one.

Google

Being the world’s leading search engine, Google is undoubtedly the more popular one. The phrase “Google it” speaks for itself.

Google Search has been around since 1998, and Google is constantly updating its platform with new and advanced features and integrating with other Google products.

As of January this year, 91.45 percent of all search queries are performed through Google Search.

Google is known to give more relevant search results, and its instant search feature boosts efficiency. If you have a technical query, Google is known to dig out very detailed information. It also has an impressive reverse image search and a smoother image search interface.

Bing

While Google remains the dominant search engine choice for most people, Bing is still an attractive alternative and shouldn’t be ignored as it has many enviable features.

Bing is owned and operated by Microsoft and was launched in 2009, though it was previously known as “Live Search” and “MSN Search” before that. Between June 2019 and June 2020, Bing saw 2.75 percent of the world’s search share — making it a distant second to Google. Today, the Microsoft Bing app has over 10 million downloads in the Google Play Store alone and accounts for around 30 percent of all US searches.

What are Bing’s strengths? Bing’s video search is often considered to be stronger than Google’s. Instead of a vertical list of videos with small thumbnails, it presents you with a grid of large thumbnails that you can click on to play without leaving. Bing is also a lot more open about its algorithms compared to Google.

DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that is actually very similar to Google; however, it was designed to respect user privacy.

The search engine does not track user data; it does not follow your IP address or your search history. Google, however, tracks everything you ever search for and sells that information in targeted advertising. The advertising displayed on DuckDuckGo is not specifically targeted at the user but instead based on popular search topics.

As privacy concerns mount and remain in demand, search engines like DuckDuckGo will continue to rise in popularity and use. In 2020, DuckDuckGo grew by 73 percent year-on-year, and its mobile app is the seventh-ranked app in both the Apple App Store and Android Play Store. In 2021, the search engine recorded 100,000 searches per day, and it is expected to outrank both Yahoo! and Bing in the near future.

On-page SEO

On-page SEO (also known as on-page optimization and on-site SEO) refers to all the actions taken directly on your web pages to rank better on a results page.

Standard practices include optimizing meta description and title tags, as well as optimizing internal links and URLs. Even though Google has become smarter over the years, on-page SEO is still important today as the search engine still crawls your site for keywords. If you put effort into on-page strategies and take care to track your progress with marketing analytics, you’ll see an increase in organic traffic and a rise in your search presence.

Keywords

Keywords are unique identifiers (like words and phrases) that lead users to a specific topic on a search engine results page. They help search engines identify the topics that your content covers. Basically, anything typed into a search engine is considered a keyword. Keywords are the link between the query a user has and the content to answer or solve it.

So when users type specific words or phrases into a search engine relevant to your business, you want your website to show up at the top of the results page for those keywords. Using the right keywords in your content could lead to an organic flow of website traffic.

For example, if you sell women’s athletic footwear, you might start with some basic phrases that customers would use, like “women’s sports shoes.” You can also add “women’s sneakers.” If you want to target a specific customer, you could use “women’s tennis shoes.” Just be sure not to make your keywords too straightforward, as this might minimize your audience and affect the number of people you reach with your content.

What are the main on-page SEO components?

Adding a few keywords onto your page isn’t enough for your site to be a top SEO contender; your page’s ability to rank is also affected by how your page is optimized. Here are some of the important components of on-page SEO:

Title tags

Title tags are crucial in helping search engines understand what your page is about, and they are essentially the first impression many people will have of your page. They’re used in three key places: search engine results pages (SERPs), web browsers, and social networks.

Internal links (and external too)

How do you make your website crawlable? For starters, you could optimize your internal linking structure and link to other pages on your website. This way, users can easily navigate through your website, resulting in generating higher engagement. If you link externally, make sure to link out to high-quality authority websites or sites that offer value or elaborate on the answer you are trying to provide.

URL structure

URLs should have the relevant keywords in them to be more SEO-friendly. When optimizing your URL, stick to a single logical structure and keep it on the shorter side.

Images

People are attracted to visual elements, so it’s important to include images on your site. Search engines have also started improving the ranking of sites that use media elements, like images, videos, and graphics. To get the most out of your images, make sure to use your targeted keyword in the descriptive titles and alt tags.

The importance of content in SEO

Content is the heart of your website — and possibly the most important factor of on-page SEO. Content is why a user would type a query into a search engine — if you do not have content related to that query, there won’t be a match.

As such, it is important to create good, SEO-friendly content. When you create high-quality content, you can establish your organization as thought leaders in your field. Your content should clearly communicate your message, answer your readers’ queries, and persuade them to purchase your products and services over your competition. Whether people glance over it or actually read the text, it is important to have it as a powerful SEO resource.

What is off-page SEO?

SEO techniques are often segregated into two segments: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. We spoke about on-page SEO above (factors you can control on your own website), so what is off-page SEO? Off-page SEO refers to activities done beyond a website to increase the site’s search engine rankings.0

Components and techniques

Here are some of the important components of off-page SEO:

Backlinks

Building backlinks is undoubtedly the most significant factor of off-page SEO. When sites link to your content, you’re seen as an expert in your field — which could lead to Google granting your site more domain authority and thereby boosting your ranking.

To build backlinks organically, you could: do a guest blog and link to your site, reach out to industry influencers who’d be happy to share your content, and of course, create good content so that people would want to link out to your page naturally.

Social media

Even though there isn’t a direct tie, there’s a strong correlation between the social shares a piece of content gets and how well the site or page connects to ranks in search results. Comments, likes, and click-throughs on images all correlate with higher organic rankings.

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is a great strategy to build your brand, boost your content, and reach new audiences. It’s the process of joining forces with famous and influential bloggers or social media users to promote your product or service. It’s an effective way to tap into a diverse audience and produce intriguing, shareable content.

The evolution of Google, a timeline

Let’s take a look back at the history of the most powerful search engine on the internet.

SEO SERP changes over time

Search Engine Optimization FAQs

  • Does link building still matter?

    Google’s algorithm cleverly uses links to rank websites. A variety of variables are considered; however, some of the factors that are considered by the Algorithm are whether it is from a trusted and relevant source. The ideal link sends relevant, targeted traffic from one site to another.

    Links are one of the top three ranking factors. To create a good SEO strategy, it is important to consider that it is not the quantity of the links that matter, but rather the quality. The ideal link-building strategy should aim to include as many quality links as possible.

  • What is the average title tag length?

    Although there is no specific number of characters required in a title tag, Google usually displays the first 50 to 60 characters when delivering search results based on the screen size you are using. If the title tag is longer than 60 characters, important elements of the title might be lost, such as the keywords or a call to action.

    Traditionally, title length was measured in character length; today, search engines measure the length of a title tag in pixels, the smallest building block of your screen. The minimum suggested length of a title tag is 285 pixels; this would equal rough 30 characters. In terms of the maximum length, 575 pixels would be the max, which equates to 60 characters in length.

  • Should I include my brand name in all title tags?

    Including your brand name in a title tag could help create title tags, as long as it’s short and catchy. This allows people to see consistency and builds brand awareness. That said, don’t include your brand name on every title tag; these are called ‘boilerplate titles’ and aren’t always needed.

  • What are the most commonly used search engines?

    There are roughly seven search engines that are used today across the world. These range from sheer numbers to be the only search engine available. These are the most commonly used search engines:

    1. Google
    2. Bing
    3. Baidu (Chinese search engine – This is due to the large population in China)
    4. Yandex (Russia)
    5. DuckDuckGo
    6. Yahoo!
    7. Contextual Web Search

    Another to mention would be Yippy Search. This search engine is focused on uncovering or locating hard-to-find information typically located within the deep web.

  • Should I optimize only for Google?

    No, it would be best if you focus your optimization efforts with humans in mind first.

    Once you have created and optimized content for people, you can look at the search engines. Google is the most popular search engine but don’t forget about Bing or DuckDuckGo.

  • What are long-tail keywords?

    Long-tail keywords are terms that contain three or more words. The intention is typically more transactional in nature.

  • How often should I update my blog?

    The answer here is to focus on quality over quantity. Freshness is a factor that search engines consider, but the quality is far more important in the long run.

    To better understand how often you should be publishing content, you need to review what your competitors are doing. How often are they publishing content, and can you match the same amount of posts per day or week? If not, ensure that you are creating valuable content as often as time allows you.

  • What is a good length for a post or article?

    Again, review what your competitors are doing in terms of content length. Studies have shown that the top ten sites ranking on page one have an average word count of 1,447 words on average. However, this is not the rule. The more direct answer is how long it takes to answer the question as directly and concisely as possible. It’s also important to think about how much value you can add with a longer-form piece of content.

  • Where do I start my SEO strategy?

    The starting point is understanding what people are searching for (keywords) and how you can solve their problems.

    The next starting point would be to do an SEO audit on your website to gauge where there is room for improvement. Setting the foundation is critical to a successful SEO strategy.

  • Is SEO dead?

    No, SEO is not dead. Tactics and methods within the search engine optimization field have changed, and new tactics are available, but as long as people use search engines, SEO is still going strong.

  • What’s the difference between WordPress categories and tags?

    If your website runs on WordPress, you may already be familiar with categories and tags, which are used to organize your content by topic. Establishing a logical taxonomy for your content is critical, but maintaining that taxonomy can sometimes go off the rails. If you aren’t sure if you are using WordPress categories and tags correctly, never fear. We can help you audit and reorganize your categories and tags.

  • Can you help me fix negative SEO?

    Yes. Negative SEO can hurt your website for years to come, but our team can help you fight back against these attacks by disavowing malicious backlinks, creating great content, and making sure you are employing white hat tactics going forward.

  • What is a good SEO ranking?

    According to a study conducted by Ignite Visibility, the top three positions are good rankings according to the CTR. We have highlighted this below:

    • Position one sees a CTR of 43.32%
    • Position two sees a CTR of 37.36%
    • Position 3 sees a CTR of 29.90%

    While we often target the top three positions on a results page, we need to be ranking in these positions for the right keyword. It is pointless ranking in the top 3 for a set of keywords that do not target the right audience or search intent. Focus on the audience and search intent before rankings.

  • Gus Van der Walt | Senior SEO Strategist

    Gus van der Walt is a Senior SEO strategist here at SiteCare, LLC. Gus has been growing traffic and visibility for 10+ years. In his spare time, Gus can be found researching new SEO tactics or snapping photos of Cape Town.

    3 Comments

    • G
      Guide to Search Engine Algorithm updates | SEO | SiteCare 1 month ago

      We refer to ‘algorithm’ in the SEO sense, we’re not talking about mathematics, but you can look at it from an arithmetic perspective.

    • H
      How to Build a B2B SEO Strategy | SEO Insights and Tips By SiteCare 1 month ago

      Of course, building organic growth has its own set of difficulties. There are several differences between B2B and business-to-consumer (B2C) optimization strategies that can change the performance of your SEO campaigns.

    • A
      Aayushi Jain 2 weeks ago

      AMAZING ARTICLE. KEEP SHARING

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