We could tell you that SEO is Search Engine Optimisation (which it is). But that isn't very helpful. What it really is is the backbone to your business's presence online. SEO is a discipline that works to improve and maintain your website's visibility in organic search results.
Organic search results are the results you see when you type a query into Google, Bing, Yahoo etc underneath paid results (usually labelled as 'Ad'). These results get the name 'organic' because they are essentially 'natural', unpaid results. The purpose of SEO is to ensure your website ranks competitively in this area of the SERPs (search engine results pages) for relevant search queries - preferably at the top!
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Search engines today are very, very clever (did you know Google is now self-learning to help deliver search results?) They use complex algorithms to determine what results will be of the most relevant to a user when they perform a search online.
SEO is utilised to help search engines discover this relevant content - they are smart, but they still need some help. Search engines have automated robots 'crawl' all the billions of pages on the internet, so there's lots of competition.
The question is, how do search engines decide what is the most relevant, popular and useful to the user? There are a number of factors that determine this, which we shall explore.
Say you search online for 'how to build a shed' and you could have one of two results. One result is a web page with step by step instructions, beautiful, clear imagery and a handy video. The other result is a page filled to the brim with text, no images and poor navigation. You would pick the first, and so would a search engine.
To determine relevancy, search engines looks at a number of things. They look at the content of your site and the language you use to define your offering. This helps them to match the best results for the user's intent behind their search. Keywords need to be well researched and naturally and expertly placed within your site - for example, in the title and in the body copy.
Whilst your content may be relevant, it also needs to be regularly updated and of a high quality - no-one wants to visit a site that's lain untouched for months, even years on end! Similarly, if a website is slow to load and sluggish with poor performance levels, Google will likely show preference to a site that is faster and clearly active in comparison. The same goes for trust. Search engines take security very seriously, so a secure site will always have precedence over one not as secure.
The way that a website has been built also defines its relevancy. Today, we search more on mobile devices than desktops, so websites need to incorporate a mobile-first design in order to stay ahead of the competition. The right coding needs to be used to ensure search engines can actually see your website - content must be in HTML text format. Image files, flash files, Java applets etc are often ignored.
Imagine you walk past two cafes - one is bustling with happy customers, the other is completely empty. Which would you visit? You'd visit the café that was filled with satisfied customers!
Even if your website ticks all of the boxes when it comes to relevancy, search engines still need to take into account websites' popularity to determine ranking in search results. The first way of determining this is by the number of quality links pointing towards your website. Lots of relevant links can indicate that you are being talked about and referenced online - you look more popular in Google's eyes. However, this is entirely dependent on the reputation, relevance and trust levels of your linking domains. For instance, if a website has lots of quality links from educational, government and well-known online publications, this indicates reputable popularity.
A website's popularity can be similarly defined by mentions and links on social media channels, as well as the amount of inbound traffic coming to a site. Lots of clicks through = popular website. However, once again, search engines take into account the usability of a website - what are users' journeys through the website like? Are they staying for a decent period of time, moving around, or leaving straight away? If they leave straight away, that's not a good sign.