The Truth about SEO: How SEO Actually Works

Updated: May 27

Search engine optimisation is a concept that has been around since the rise of the first search engines in the late 90s. The idea is that when a user types an inquiry into a search engine, being one of the top listed results beneficial to your site since it is much more likely that your site will be noticed. So this is where the idea of search engine optimisation comes in.


A SEO expert uses a laptop and tablet while creating SEO optimized content.

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Over time, the metrics that the search engines use to evaluate the quality or usefulness of a site have steadily improved and the algorithms that rank the search result have become immensely complex and much better at returning the content that the user is looking for.


Why is SEO important?


In order to return a useful list of results, search engines use a wide range of metrics to evaluate the quality and relevance of the sites in their database and by better understanding that process, hopefully you can rank higher.


Since search engines began; the introduction of smart phones, broader access to the Internet and greater overall business presence online has meant that SEO has become more important than ever. The rise of the Internet has broadened our possible audience more than ever and it is now almost impossible to imagine building a large following without having an online presence.


SEO, in theory at least, is a win for everybody. The user carrying out the search is rewarded with higher quality and more accurate links. The sites, receive traffic from customers that are actively interested in their content and are able to reach audiences that they would not otherwise be able to reach. And finally, the search engine benefits from providing a better service and in many cases being able to serve higher value ads due to their greater level of accuracy.


With a successful SEO strategy, you could end up with not only higher traffic but better quality traffic too. For the majority of users, search engines have become so ubiquitous that we often don’t think about what’s happening behind the scenes but in this series we’ll cover B2B SEO and local SEO and hopefully, with a greater understanding of how search engines work and the metrics used in page rankings, you will be able to make some of your own optimisations for your site.


First, let's take a look at some of the inner workings of search engines and understand the underlying theory.


What are the underlying principals?


While Google is certainly the overwhelmingly dominant player here with the largest market share of about 90%, different search engines use slightly different metrics to rank pages. Google’s dominance began in the late 90s when they started using backlinks alongside a number of on-page factors like keywords as an effective measure of a websites value. This way of ranking sites works from the assumption that if a particular site is linked to regularly then it is in some way useful and should be ranked higher.


A simplified but useful way to think of this is that Google is evaluating websites along two main axis; relevance and quality, and for a site to rank highly, they want that site to be both relevant and of good quality. An example of a metric that evaluates relevance is keywords. If a website contains may of the same keywords as your search, then there’s a good chance that its highly relevant and should be pushed higher in the rankings. Relevance alone is not enough to sort the sites though.


A laptop shows increasing website traffic, which is a result of good SEO, on an infographic.

There many be many thousands of sites which contain relevant keywords and so the search engine needs a way to also evaluate the quality of those links. The reason that backlinks are such a great way to assess the quality of a site is because it can be difficult to falsely build a large number of backlinks. In reality search engines use a huge amount of factors when assessing search results, not all of which they are transparent about. You may be able to spot possible issue with search engines allowing the exact rank criteria being transparent and widely known.


If everybody knows the criteria being used, then sites may be incentivised to game the algorithm to rank higher, rather than taking the time to create genuinely quality content. If this happened, it would result in much lower quality experience for the user because a sites ability to create content that matches a set of ranking criteria doesn’t necessarily correlate with their ability to answer your search.


Today, search engine algorithms now use technical factors that are so complex that in reality, would make it very difficult to drive a website that has little use or relevance higher in search rankings. Even the best SEO operations require at least some foundational value in the content that you are optimising for and so your first goal with SEO is to actually create great content and then we can try to optimise for as many other factors as possible.




What happens when you search?


So, now you understand where the concept of SEO comes from, what actually happens when you search?


For many (if not most) when they type a search into a search engine, they don’t really consider what’s happening behind the scenes or how the results are presented to them. For a content creator, understanding what’s happening in the background when you search can be quite useful in informing some of the decisions you have to make when creating your site.


Many people may think of Google as the portal to the Internet and that when they type their inquiry, Google goes away and searches the entire Internet before returning the top sites to you. But this isn’t really true. Before you even begin your search on a search engine, they need to index the sites in their databases. To do this they use bots called crawlers or spiders. These bots follow links from some a range of starting sites and add them to their the search engine index each time they click through to the next link.


A laptop shows a chart that shows increasing advertisement, which is related to better SEO.

The search engine index also stores some other key information about the sites such as keywords, the type of content and even when the website was last updated. Again, this is a fact that many people don’t realise and just assume that all websites are reachable by search engines when in fact, if your site cannot be reached and read by these crawlers then it won't show up in search engine results. When we talk later in this series about technical SEO then these are the kind of optimisations are referring to.


Now that you understand how search engines gather the sites that they will display on their results and some of the criteria for how they will rank them but you will also notice that often some of the top results will be labelled as ads. These ads are how the search engines make their money and they are, in a way, the perfect illustration of the value of SEO. The fact that companies are willing to pay to be the first result that you see when typing your search shows how important they believe that position is but also shows the value of SEO because you can sometimes get the same result through a number of optimisations. So, the search engines have compiled the websites into their data bases and when you search, the top results may be ads but how are the other results compiled.


As we said before, the exact ranking criteria are not shared but there are many different factors taken into account. These optimisations often fall into 2 categories; on-page and off-page.


To learn more about these types of optimisations check out [Local vs B2B SEO] but in summary, on-page SEO are the optimisations that you make to your content such as word count, keywords and technical optimisations, whereas off page SEO includes link building and your other marketing.


A phone displaying an online marketing image, pair of glasses, and cup of coffee are on a table.

These optimisations are looked at and then compared with the user that is searching for them. Modern search engines now show users personalised results. The most obvious example of where this would be beneficial is the users language settings but other things that can affect the results displayed are the type of device being used, that device’s location and even user’s previous search history. The search engine takes all of these factors into account when delivering the results to you when you search.


Search engines continue to evolve and so staying on top of the latest optimisations is key if you’re looking to stay at the top of the rankings.


The Bottom Line


As you can see, there are many moving parts in SEO and it is a system that is in some ways, purposefully complex to avoid people promoting otherwise poor content. Throughout this series we will show you the optimisations that you can make to your content in order to boost your site’s rankings and get noticed.


Thought leadership is one of the most powerful forms of content that you can aspire to create. The value created for customers and the respect for the creator in return make mean that in the best cases, everybody wins. If you haven’t already, check out our first post on thought leadership to learn more.


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