What is SEO and how it works

Forget the fluff and the endless parade of SEO 101 guides that rehash the same old advice. Let’s dive into the raw, unfiltered essence of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a domain that’s as misunderstood as it is revered. This isn’t just another guide; it’s a deep dive into the heart of SEO, leveraging personal anecdotes, expert insights, and a no-nonsense approach to unraveling how search engines tick and what it truly takes to rank.

Understanding SEO Basics

By reading this article, you will learn:
– Search engines’ primary functions: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
– How search engines determine page rankings based on content relevance, trustworthiness, and user experience.
– Steps to optimize your site for search engines, including understanding audience needs, creating high-quality content, and tracking success.

Heres what youll learn in this guide:

  • The intricate dance between search engines and SEO
  • Why SEO should be your top digital marketing priority
  • The real factors that determine your site’s ranking
  • How to craft a strategy that outsmarts algorithms and competitors alike
  • The most critical SEO tools and how to wield them for success

What is SEO?

SEO, at its core, is the art and science of making your website attractive to search engines. But let’s cut through the jargon: SEO is about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they seek, the words they use, and the type of content they wish to consume. Knowing this enables you to connect to the people searching online for the solutions you offer.

Insider Tip: “SEO isn’t just about ranking. It’s about understanding and meeting your audience’s needs throughout their digital journey,” an industry expert once told me over coffee, a statement that has stuck with me through years of navigating the SEO landscape.

How does SEO work?

Search engines have three primary functions:


Imagine the internet as an endlessly sprawling city and search engines as the explorers mapping every nook and cranny. Crawling is how search engines discover new and updated content, whether a webpage, an image, or a video, by following links from one page to another. My first website was a tiny, obscure shop in this vast city, barely noticeable until I understood the power of internal linking and site structure.


Once a page is crawled, it’s stored in a colossal library known as an index. This process is akin to adding books to a library’s shelves. The better organized and content-rich your “book” is, the easier it is for the “librarians” (search engines) to index and retrieve it. I remember the first time my content appeared in Google’s index; it felt like my site had finally ‘made it’ into the grand library of the internet.


Ranking is the process of sorting the books in the library by how well they answer the searcher’s query. It’s not just about being in the library; it’s about being the first book a librarian recommends. My breakthrough moment came when I realized that ranking was less about gaming the system and more about genuinely being the best answer to a user’s question.

What is SEO and how it works

Why is SEO important?

In today’s digital-first world, SEO is the lifeblood of online visibility. It’s not just about being found; it’s about being found first. With millions of searches conducted every hour, the difference between ranking first or second can be the difference between a business thriving or barely surviving.

During a conference, an SEO veteran shared a compelling statistic: “The first result in Google’s organic search results has an average click-through rate of 28.5%, but it drops to 15.7% for the second position.” This stark difference highlights the critical importance of SEO in driving organic traffic, generating leads, and ultimately, securing conversions.

How do search engines determine which pages to rank highest?

1. The relevance of the content to the search query

At its heart, SEO is about relevance. If your content doesn’t answer the user’s question, it doesn’t matter how well-optimized your site is. I learned this the hard way when I first ventured into SEO, creating content that I thought was interesting but wasn’t what my audience was searching for.

2. The trustworthiness of the content

Trust is a currency in the digital world. Search engines are in the business of providing users with reliable information. Sites that are recognized as authoritative sources on a subject matter tend to rank higher. Building this trust doesn’t happen overnight. It took years of consistent, quality content creation and engagement with my audience to establish my site as a trusted resource.

3. The user experience of the page

User experience (UX) has become a cornerstone of SEO. Search engines want to serve up results that provide a positive experience for users. This includes factors like page speed, mobile-friendliness, and intuitive navigation. I remember redesigning my website with UX in mind and watching my rankings climb as a result.

How do I optimize my site for search engines?

1. Understand what your audience wants to find.

SEO begins with knowing your audience’s intent and delivering content that satisfies that intent. Early in my career, I spent days poring over search data and user forums to get into the minds of my target audience, a practice that has paid dividends in understanding what content to produce.

2. Create high-quality content.

Content is king in the world of SEO. But not just any contentcontent that is informative, engaging, and, above all, useful to your audience. I’ve found that content that addresses my audience’s pain points, answers their questions, and provides actionable insights performs best in search rankings.

3. Optimize your sites on-page SEO.

On-page SEO involves optimizing individual web pages to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic. This includes optimizing title tags, headings, content, and internal links. A turning point for me was learning how to craft compelling meta descriptions, which can significantly impact click-through rates.

4. Optimize your sites off-page SEO.

Off-page SEO refers to actions taken outside of your own website to impact your rankings within search engine results pages (SERPs). This primarily involves link building. Earning backlinks from reputable sites in my niche has been instrumental in boosting my site’s authority and rankings.

5. Measure and track your contents success.

SEO isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process. It requires constant monitoring and adjustment. Tools like Google Analytics and Ahrefs have been indispensable in tracking my content’s performance, helping me understand what works and what needs improvement.

What is SEO and how it works

What are the most important SEO ranking factors?

While search engines keep their exact algorithms a secret, years of experimentation and analysis have revealed that several key factors consistently influence rankings:

  • Quality of content
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Page speed
  • Secure and accessible websites
  • User engagement
  • Quality backlinks

Understanding and optimizing these factors can significantly improve your site’s visibility and ranking.

How can I learn SEO?

SEO is both an art and a science, requiring a blend of technical knowledge, analytical skills, and creative flair. The best way to learn SEO is through a combination of formal education (courses and certifications), hands-on experience, and staying updated with the latest industry trends and algorithm updates. Websites like Moz, Search Engine Journal, and, of course, Ahrefs, offer a wealth of knowledge for beginners and seasoned professionals alike.

What are the benefits of SEO?

The benefits of SEO are manifold:

  • Increased visibility and organic traffic
  • Higher credibility and trust from audiences
  • Better user experience
  • Insight into customer behavior

In essence, SEO helps businesses connect with their target audience at the moment of interest, driving more qualified traffic and ultimately, conversions.

What are the disadvantages of SEO?

Like any marketing strategy, SEO isn’t without its challenges:

  • It requires time and patience to see results.
  • SEO is constantly evolving, requiring ongoing education and adaptation.
  • It’s highly competitive, especially in saturated markets.

Despite these challenges, the long-term rewards of a well-executed SEO strategy far outweigh the disadvantages, making it a crucial component of digital marketing.


SEO is much more than keywords and backlinks; it’s about creating a seamless, enjoyable online experience for your audience while positioning your brand as a trustworthy, authoritative source in your niche. The journey of SEO is one of constant learning, testing, and adapting, but it’s a journey worth taking for the tangible benefits it brings to businesses and websites alike. In an ever-evolving digital landscape, SEO remains a key driver of organic success, a testament to its enduring relevance and impact.


What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization, which is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.

How does SEO work?

SEO works by optimizing your website’s content, improving its technical aspects, and building high-quality backlinks to help it rank higher in search engine results pages.

Who benefits from SEO?

Businesses of all sizes can benefit from SEO, as it helps increase their online visibility, attract more potential customers, and ultimately drive more sales and revenue.

How long does it take for SEO to work?

SEO timelines can vary based on the competitiveness of your industry and the current state of your website, but typically, noticeable results can be seen within 4 to 6 months.

What are common objections to SEO?

Some common objections to SEO include the perceived complexity of the process, concerns about cost, and skepticism about its effectiveness. However, with the right strategy, these objections can be addressed and overcome.

How can I measure the success of SEO?

You can measure the success of SEO through metrics like organic traffic, keyword rankings, conversion rates, and return on investment (ROI) to see the impact on your website’s performance.

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Xavier Berkness

Xavier Berkness is the President of PERC, a renowned Digital Marketing Company. With an impressive career spanning over two decades since 1996, Xavier has earned a reputation as a leader in the field of digital marketing. He has leveraged his deep understanding and expertise in building websites to author a highly-regarded book, 'Mastering On-Page Optimization - The Secret Sauce of an SEO System.' Xavier's impactful contributions to the industry have been recognized in a Star Tribune feature, where he was hailed as a 'Mover and Shaker.' Outside the professional realm, Xavier is a nature lover who cherishes time spent near the ocean. He continues to fuel his passion for digital marketing, relentlessly seeking new knowledge and strategies every day. His combination of professional prowess and personal charm make Xavier a trusted authority in the digital marketing industry.