What is SEO and how does it work?
Introduction to SEO
You’ve probably crossed paths with the term SEO a couple of times. Maybe you know a thing or two about it, or maybe you’re already spiralling deep into the SEO marketing universe.
Regardless of what you know about SEO, there’s always more to learn. The world of SEO is constantly evolving as Google and other search engines continue to update their algorithms to provide the most relevant and useful results to searchers.
But fundamentally, it all boils down to one element: the users. Search engines are simply the means to an end, albeit a complex and ever-changing one.
Understanding what consumers are searching for, the words they use and what kind of content they’re clicking on is just as important as any technical implementation you do on your website.
By optimizing the content and structure of your website so that Google can find and index your website more easily, you’re making yourself more visible and accessible to the consumers who are looking for you.
And that’s what SEO is all about!
This guide is made up of many of the concepts and tactics we use at The Status Bureau, and will give you an overview of what SEO is and all the bits and pieces that make it up.
Let’s get into it.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.”
Search engine optimization is the process of improving the quality and quantity of traffic on your website by increasing its visibility on search engine result pages (also known as SERPs).
This usually means bumping up your website’s ranking on search engines, most popularly, Google.
SEO can involve a plethora of practices, but the mainstays are:
- Fixing your website’s HTML
- Building links from other websites to yours
- Telling search engines where your business physically is
By applying these processes, Google will be more likely to find and list your website for relevant queries.
How Search Engines Work
When a user searches for something on Google, the search engine combs through trillions of web pages to find an answer for the query. Think of it as a super efficient librarian who runs around the library (the Internet) to find books that contain some possible answers to your question.
They don’t spit out any random answer though. The librarian has a system of reading, understanding and indexing every single book in the library so they can extract the most useful and relevant information, in order, according to their criteria. Their criteria in our case, would be referred to as ‘the algorithm’.
Search engines rank the answers in a hierarchy based on a variety of factors, including the location of the searcher, the relevance to the query, quality of content and a whole slew of other things. SEO is about improving each of those areas so that we can be higher up in the librarian’s stack of books. But we’ll get into that later.
First, a search engine starts off by “crawling.”
Step 1: Crawling
Crawling is the process of gathering new and updated web content for Google Search results.
Search engines use specialized software called crawlers or spiders to find and retrieve content automatically. Content can range from text, images to videos to PDFs, but all of it is found via links.
Crawlers follow links from site to site to discover new URLs, downloading new content as they go and adding it to their index to be retrieved later on.
Step 2: Indexing
After the Googlebots have done their scouring, they store and organize the content in a process called indexing. Google is constantly indexing new and updated pages.
You can check which pages have been indexed from your website by typing in site:domain.com into Google. Here’s a few of ours:
When you search on Google, you’re not searching on the live web. You’re actually searching on Google’s index of web content called Caffeine. Like the index list in the back of a book, Google uses their index to pinpoint exactly what you need.
Once a page is in the index, it’ll be able to be displayed as a result to relevant queries.
If Google can’t crawl and index your website properly, you’re basically invisible. Your website won’t appear on search engine result pages, or some of your webpages might be missing.
Step 3: Ranking
Every time someone searches for something on Google, the search engine goes through its index and presents the most relevant results in ranked order.
Using various criteria aka algorithms, the search engine checks the query against billions of websites to find the most relevant and useful results.
There are literally hundreds of factors that play into your website’s ranking, but some of the more important ones include:
- Physical location of the searcher
- Quantity, quality and relevancy of links that point to your website
- Content relevancy and quality
- Website speed
Moz’s 2018 rank factors study is a good place to understand the most important ones.
Google is constantly updating its algorithms to improve overall search quality for its users, but fundamental factors like quality content and backlinks still hold true.
Step 4: Response
Google’s algorithm has a feedback loop built in to understand the quality of a website. These behavioural signals may include: a high ratio of clicks on the results page, how many people stay after they visit the first landing page, as is the time a user spends on your website.
This means you’ll want to attract more users to your website and keep them from immediately hitting the back button. Abandoning a page for another results is a sign the page’s content did not meet the needs of the user.
Search intent is a popular topic amongst SEO professionals because Google has been focusing on showing different types of content for different types of searches. For example, my search query best accounting software brings up three pages.
- This Hubspot comparison page
- This Businessnewsdaily comparison page
- This Financesonline comparison page
The goal here is obvious. Google is trying to provide me with comparisons to help aid my decision since my search query (best accounting software) was so vague. My intent is to shop around popular and reliable options, and Google is attempting to match that intent.
Matching user intent is a crucial factor in SEO in recent years, as Google’s algorithm is becoming smarter with AI and machine learning. If the type of content you’re providing isn’t in the most useful format, Google may not give it much opportunity to rank.
Types of Searches
Understanding how users interact with search engines is a good place to start your SEO journey, and most Google searches can be broken down into these main categories: navigational, informational, and transactional.
Navigational search queries
The user wants to go to a specific website/webpage on the Internet. These are the most popular types of searches on the web. As of May 2019, here’s the top 10 most searched for keywords.
# Keyword Monthly Searches Return rate (times people will use the keyword)
Even though people know the addresses and brand names, it’s easy enough to simply search for the website and click on the result.
Informational search queries
These types of searches aren’t as direct as the navigational ones. The user is seeking an answer or information. They could be using search queries such as:
- tom cruise height
- vegan taco recipe
- dry cleaners near me
Transactional search queries
The user is shopping around for products. Typical queries can be:
- where to buy Sony A6000
- best beginner cameras
- nest doorbell
Search Engine Features
One would assume that having the number 1 spot on a SERP would be the be-all and end-all of SEO. You’ve done it! You’re at the top!
Well, not exactly.
While holding higher ranking positions is definitely one of the main goals of SEO specialists, the evolution of the SERPs has diverted searchers’ attentions to beyond the first few blue links.
Google has added additions to their results pages that enhance user experience:
- Featured snippets
- People Also Ask
- Product listings
- Local map listings
- Top stories
This is defined by SEO people as “position zero” in search results. It’s the People always ask or immediate answer to a query. This is one of the many ways Google is trying to hurry up the user experience. There are specific ways to try and target position zero, which Rand Fishkin outlines in this video.
Rich Answer/Direct Answers
In this “position zero” feature, Google is answering your query directly without a third party source. Whereas featured snippets scrape websites for answers and credit them at the bottom, Direct Answers are publicly available information that Google has already gathered and added to their repository. Direct Answers are common for mathematical queries (“What is 2912 x 17?”) or simple facts (“What is the capital of Uganda?”). These have no SEO value as they don’t link to any websites.
People Also Ask
People Also Ask (PAA) are a set of related questions to the original query that Google believes the searcher might also be interested in. Expanding one of the answer boxes shows a small chunk of the website’s content, similar to a Featured Snippet. Each time you click on a PAA result, more results appear at the bottom of the list, pushing down the organic links even further. If you’re targeting a specific keyword in your content, including some follow-up or related answers can help optimize your content for PAAs.
PAA’s are also useful for discovering new, related keywords you want to rank for.
These panels appear either at the top or on the right on SERPs, showing an assortment of information that Google has gathered from its own index, user-edited sites like Wikipedia and other third party data websites. Recently, Google has added features such as booking flights, listening to songs on Spotify and playing trailers on YouTube to further enhance the user experience. In a 2012 video, Google employees explain how the Knowledge Graph’s understanding of semantic search allows it to understand the searcher’s intent more accurately and show the most relevant information.
Each Knowledge Graph looks slightly different, depending on what the query is. Usually Knowledge Graphs appear for topics such as well-known figures, businesses, locations and albums.
Product Listing Ads (PLAs)
Local map listings
Google uses certain keywords (“near me” or “in Vancouver”) to determine that the searcher is looking for a physical location or business in their area. Local packs compile the the top 3 most relevant results and pin their location on a map. Listings can include pictures, opening hours and telephone numbers.
Top stories feature recent, newsworthy articles at the top of the SERP with the headline, publisher and time of publication displayed on each card. This feature mainly shows posts by reputable news publications or online magazines, and is time-sensitive. If you’re looking to have articles features in the news section, you can read up on Google’s guidelines here.
The integration of these features makes it relatively less valuable to have a high organic ranking (compared to the good ol’ days where SERPs were just 10 blue links). Don’t get us wrong, ranking high on Google is still amazing for your business, but these new snippets may steal some of the spotlight from your site. As more queries are being answered on the SERP through these various features, people may not feel the need to scroll down or click on the next link.
These upgrades makes looking for information a bit easier and quicker for users, but might lead to less clicks on organic results, meaning less traffic for your website. The most famous example of this is Google taking away visitors from the lyrics website genius.com.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. Instead of waving your fist at the Google gods in wrath for making all your SEO tactics futile, you can use these new Google snippets to your advantage.
Write a detailed, relevant how-to or guide that answers a popular query to cinch that Featured snippet above all the organic results. For example, if you’re a tech site, writing a blog post about “how to remove the SIM card for X phone model” may be deemed useful enough by Google to get a feature.
Local Business Listings
Google Business Listing
Since proximity is the #1 factor in SEO, one of the most immediate and helpful things you can do up your SEO game right now is get a Google My Business Listing. This is the start of Local SEO.
Google has its own review and information system, much like Yelp. That information appears in the right column when you search for the business name.
Owning a Google My Business Listing is free. The first quick keys to ownership are:
This is a great way of letting Google know that your business is active and reputable.
Google definitely isn’t the only place to list your website. Other very popular options are:
- Yellowpages (Canada)
- Apple Maps
- 604List (Vancouver)
- MerchantCircle (U.S.)
- Angieslist (U.S.)
At The Status Bureau we have a list of 200 business listing sites, but the aforementioned ones may get you started on your journey.
The Keys to Solid Business Listings
Google relies on these external websites to understand the name, address, phone number, affectionately known as N.A.P., of each business. Each one of them builds confidence in the business and its information. The crucial elements are:
If each one of the listings does not match, the confidence is lost in that information. Ensure all information matches across listings.
If each one of the listings does not match, the confidence is lost in that information. Ensure all information matches across listings.
In an instance that a head office in New York has listings and there is a satellite office in Vancouver, Canada, you’ll need that Vancouver one filled out in order to be important to that West Coast Canadian market. For Vancouver, local information such as a 604 or 778 phone number is key, as is a local address.
Keeping your information and reviews updated.
Your business name, phone number and address should be correct and constantly updated. The Google My Business platform very much responds to activity such as updating holiday hours, adding more info and responding to reviews.
Keywords & Keyword Research
So now that you know a thing or two about how search engines work, it’s time to learn how user searches work. Remember, SEO all goes back to the users on the other end of the search engine, trying to find you.
This is where keyword research comes into play.
Keywords are simply words, terms and phrases that the searcher types into the search box to find the information they’re looking for.
For example, a soccer player who just sprained his ankle might search for the keywords:
- sports physio vancouver
- best athletic physiotherapists
- ankle sprain physio vancouver
These are all keywords that an athletic physiotherapy clinic may want to rank for.
At its core, keyword research and optimization isn’t about search engines. It’s about understanding what words your target market are using to find your service, content or product.
Keyword research allows you to figure out how people are searching for information, what form of answers/content they’re looking for and what makes them click on your link. It can be done to optimize existing content or look for new content ideas.
By using and optimizing keywords, you’ll open more doors for people to enter your company’s website.
Coming up with keywords
First off, you’ll want to come up with a few keywords you want to rank for. You probably want to rank for keywords directly related to your company, including your services, products, topics and terms you cover in your website and even words in your business name.
Let’s say you own an outdoor apparel store in Vancouver. Ranking for the keyword “outdoors” might be nice, but that’s a pretty broad term, or in SEO lingo, a difficult keyword.
Keyword difficulty refers to how hard it is to rank a specific keyword based on factors such as search volume (how many people search for this keyword) and even SERP features like product boxes and People Also Ask boxes.
Keywords like “phone” “pizza” and “events” may attract a lot of queries, but there is a lot of competition, and getting an organic result to rank on the first page will take a lot of work.
SEO specialists may go for more specific, lower difficulty keywords referred to as long-tail keywords that have higher conversion rates.
So instead of “outdoors” or “hiking”, you could try:
- outdoor clothing store vancouver
- where to buy hiking boots vancouver
For businesses selling products, ranking for even more specific items can be helpful
- 2 person tent MSR vancouver
- women black diamond climbing harness vancouver
These keywords have less competition because less people search for them, but they have higher conversion rates because they are more intentional. At this point in the user’s search journey, they’re probably closer to the buying stage, compared to someone who’s looking up “tents.”
Keyword research tools
There are plenty of keyword research tools.
A few great places to start with an unpaid tools:
- Google Trends
- Google Keyword Planner
- SEMRush (Limited access for free users)
- Google Search Console
- Google Autocomplete
Using keyword research tools, you can access some pretty sweet data like related keywords, search volume, keyword difficulty as well as your main competitors in those keywords. You can even search a competitor’s domain to see what keywords they’re ranking for.
A few of the Favourite Paid Keyword & Research Tools we use here at The Status Bureau are Ahrefs and SEMRush.
A quick, free and helpful keyword research trick is to use Google’s autocomplete function. Since the autocomplete results are based off of real searches by real people, the results shown are pretty indicative of what real people are searching for.
So you’ve got your keywords, you understand what SERPs are—now it’s time to put your knowledge and research into practice. The purpose of learning about how your target audience searches is to make your content:
a) easy to access
b) easy to read
c) valuable, relevant and interesting
There are no SEO shortcuts to getting more clicks and conversions for your content. Creating consistent quality content for your audience with the best SEO practices will yield the best long term results.
High rankings are byproducts of a high quality, informative and easy-to-navigate website. Here’s our top things to implement for better rankings.
Like we said, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to creating content. Videos aren’t necessarily better than articles, and 1,500 words isn’t necessarily better than 800 words.
Building a solid content strategy requires time, research and a good understanding of your target audience. It’s a unique process for every business.
Content is a pretty broad term. We’ve compiled a few ideas that you can try adding to your website:
- Guides: Thorough guides are excellent ways of helping people solve a problem. Look for an issue that you’ve solved and write about that
- Listicles or Top Tens: Its simple structure make it easily digestible while still valuable to readers. People love reading lists, especially if they’re looking to purchase something.
- Reviews: Take a look at what to review
- Fact or fiction: Debunk some myths or address misconceptions in your industry—it’s an interesting structure that your readers will learn a thing or two from.
- This vs. that: Compare two concepts, products, etc. to discuss their similarities and differences.
Consider the length of your content. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to content. Some queries are best answered in a paragraph, while others require a 2,000 word explainer article. Analyze the results from your desired keywords and see what kind of content the high ranking results are giving the searchers.
However, there is something to be said about long-form content. It’s definitely a lot more natural to add keywords into longer pieces and it usually provides more comprehensive information than shorter pieces. Just remember not to sacrifice quality of the article over the number of keywords.
Great writing is easier said than done, but it’s necessary. When flushing out content for a site, it will have to be useful in order to drive the metrics that deem it good enough to rank. Thin content just won’t cut it. Try not to only write about the subject, but provide well rounded answers, definitions and examples of what you’re describing.
Video, Images, Web apps & More
When people think of content, they immediately think of writing. There are obviously different formats of content to develop. A common bank / financial digital marketing tactic is to develop a mortgage calculator. We’re big fans of data visualization.
Organize your pages by keyword topics. This will probably come naturally to a lot of businesses, as your keywords are probably similar to the types of services you offer, or topics you write about.
- Trying to get one page to rank for more than one keywords theme.
- ‘Keyword stuff’ (saturating your content, headers, tags with your keywords). It’s an outdated technique that Google algorithms can easily sniff out.
- Rely on thin content, which is content that with little to no value to searchers. Includes things like unoriginal content, low word counts, lots of spelling or grammatical mistakes, or packed with keywords.
Optimizing Your Content
Optimizing content is all about matching it with the user’s search query. Here are the starting points that you can do to your pages to optimize for search engines.
- H1 tag
Header tags <h1> are usually reserved for the largest type on a page. This is why Google will look at it first to understand the topic of the page. The <h2> and <h3> tags all follow that rule as well. Google will scan the h tags in order to follow the page information hierarchy.
It is very common to have an <h1> tag as a logo or a <h2> as a footer element. This wouldn’t be an ideal scenario because it doesn’t give any context to the information on that specific page.
If you have a blog portion of your website, try not to have auto-generated URLs such as:
Instead, ensure your URL reflects what your content is about.
This will help Google and the user fully understand the page topic and rank it appropriately.
- Internal linking
Internal linking (linking to other pages on your website) makes it easier for search engine crawlers to understand and rank all your site’s pages. This makes your website easier to crawl and index (remember Step 1 and 2?). This process also helps visitors navigate your website.
- Readability & Helpful Content
Creating readable content means writing comprehensible, digestible information for your audience. This is not only beneficial for the reader, it also optimizes your content for voice search, which is becoming a bigger part of searching. To improve readability, avoid jargon and meanderingly long sentences. Also use a helpful information hierarchy that matches the search query of the user. Wikipedia is a great example of how to do this.
Speed is a major factor for SEO. And why wouldn’t it be? Google wants to show answers to questions very quickly. If your site is slow, there is a difficult road ahead to ranking well. We have seen it as the #1 factor for rankings in some cases.
Critical Rendering Path
Understanding how web pages are assembled and loaded is important as site speed can be affected at this stage.
- First off, domain names are purchased (ex. “statusbureau.com”) and linked to an IP address (ex “22.214.171.124”) via DNS (domain name server).
- When a searcher clicks on a search engine result link, their browser makes a DNS request to convert the domain name to its IP address.
- The server receives the request and sends back the website code for the browser to assemble.
- After receiving the website resources from the server, the browser constructs and renders the web page for the user in their browser.
After all of these steps, the website appears in the searcher’s browser.
As you can imagine, the critical rendering path (the steps that happen before a web page is loaded on your browser) can take a long time.
This means your web page could potentially take awhile to load up, which both Google algorithms and users will frown upon.
Measuring Site Speed
Check your page speed through the GTmetrix page speed tool. It will provide a thorough investigation of what is fast and slow. Then, cross reference those results with the Google Page Speed Insights. That will provide a good starting point for digging through which pages need to be loaded faster.
Improving Site Speed
GTmetrix will spit out dozens of great technical elements things to check out, but here some big ones to look at first:
- Get better hosting. If your hosting is slow, there’s no chance to speed anything up. We use WPEngine as we work on a lot of WordPress sites.
- Optimize your images. Sometimes we will find a homepage with a 2MB file on it for no good reason. Ensure your images are reduced as much as possible.
- Compress your HTML and CSS files. This will make it faster for browsers to download them.
- Avoid tons of external resources. A few here or there are fine, but pulling dozens of external resources into the page can seriously slow down the page load. News websites such as CNN are often the worst offenders and would benefit from limiting external content.
The back end part of SEO may seem intimidating to those unfamiliar with coding, but understanding how a website works and how to optimize it for search engines will go a long way for your business. Even if you can’t implement these practices yourself, you’ll be able to communicate with your web developer or SEO specialist.
Robots.txt is a public file that tells crawlers which parts of your website you don’t want to be crawled. You can check out your robots.txt file at: www.example.org/robots.txt
Robots.txt can be a friend or a foe. Getting this incorrect can lead to a site owner telling Google not to crawl their site. It happens more often than SEO professionals like to admit.
Query Strings & URL Canonicalization
Many websites rely on a query string in order to render the page’s contents. They are seen in urls as question marks (?) and equal signs (=).
This query string could be changing the content on “page-name” and adding content about dalmatians. Therefore, it is a different page than:
Query strings can set many options into a page, as seen below:
These pages are all the same document (/page-name) but the url is telling the page to display different content. Many times, pages are not all different and want Google to know that. For example, if you are a shoe retailer you may want Google to know that all of these different pages are simply one page:
Adding a canonical tag into the page lets search engines know these pages are all the same one. By using the tag rel=”canonical”, you can point the search engine in the direction of original, source page instead of its duplicates.
Schema is a method to classify the content on your web pages so that search engines have a better sense of what certain elements are.
Schema markup works wonders for SEO rankings. Google will show certain ones in the SERP which can lead to more information for the user, and more clicks.
Links remains one of the most important factors in SEO ranking. By collecting links from reputable websites, you establish authority for your website.
Links are HTML hyperlinks that help search engine crawlers navigate the web by guiding them to other websites. They’re a strong indicator of a site’s reputation and basically serve as a recommendation from another website to check out your website.
Internal links are links on a web page that point to other pages on your website. They don’t have the same influence on SEO as back links (or external links to your website) do, but they help crawlers determine which web page is more important.
Quality of Backlinks
Having a wine connoisseur recommend you a specific wine is much different from having your coworker recommend you a bottle (unless they’re also a wine connoisseur). The choice that the expert suggests probably seems a lot more high quality.
The same goes for links. Links from expert, trustworthy websites with more domain authority are more valuable than links from questionable, sketchy websites.
The more well-known, established and credible a website is, the more weight its links have. News websites like CBC and DailyHive fit into this category. Links from government (.gov) or academic (.edu) websites also score some pretty sweet SEO points.
Beyond the reputability of the linking website, there are some other factors that go into what Google deems as a high quality link:
- Relevance: If the website that’s referring you has nothing to do with your content, it probably won’t seem as credible. (A gardening blog referring a dentist’s website)
- Single versus sitewide links: Typically, single links (links that appear once on a web page) are more valuable than sitewide links (links that appear on every page of the website).
- Anchor text: Anchor text is the text the link is attached to (example: the text “SEO marketing firm” links to statusbureau.com). Anchor text lets Google know what the link is about. If you have links coming from other sites with similar anchor texts, Google will have a better sense of what your website content is.
Follow and No Follow Links
When other sites link to your website, it’s almost like they’re giving you SEO points or votes. They value your content, and are recommending it to their audience. This tells Google that an outside source endorses your content. What if you want to link to website, but you don’t want to pass on your “vote” to them?
There are two types of links: follow and no follow.
No follow links use the attribute “rel=nofollow” to instruct search engines not to follow the link they used. Search engines may still follow the link to find new URLs, but these links don’t earn any of the aforementioned SEO points.
Follow links are regular links that can be seen as a point towards SEO for the website.
Do’s and don’ts of link building
- Create link-worthy content: We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the key to good, long-lasting SEO is making useful content. Creating useful guides and resources might garner citations from other blogs, websites and businesses in your industry. You can create relevant, timely blog posts about things going on in your field, or create comprehensive guides (possibly similar to this one) that will attract businesses and consumers alike.
- Promote on social: Drive traffic to your website’s content by sharing it across your social platforms. Put your brand name out there.
- Purchase links: Paid back links are considered a black hat (unethical way to improve rankings) SEO method to get links. Search engines are looking for websites that earn their links, and are getting better at detecting which links are paid for.
- Exchange links (at a mass scale): Of course, agreeing to exchange links between partners and businesses you work and trust is acceptable, but agreeing to exchange links with a whole whack of websites undermines the value of links in SEO and makes the user’s experience much more confusing and unclear.
This could easily be step one. Determining the results of all of the SEO work put into a website. However, there’s no definite ‘good’ SEO score. It’s all relative to the competition when it comes to performing well on the SERPS.
Before you begin to measure how the optimization process is going, you should outline clearly what the business objectives are and a set of KPIs that match those objectives.
From our viewpoint, it’s important to understand:
- What is the business impact of the SEO?
- Which metrics are important to you? Where do conversions come from? Are you improving the pages that are directly impacting key metrics?
- What are the overall organic traffic signals saying?
- Which parts of the SEO are not working and possibly need more investment?
With that said, here’s some ways to track your SEO success:
GA won’t tell you much about your organic keywords, but it’ll tell you about the overall business impact of what the SEO is doing. Spend time here cross referencing anything and everything against your business goals.
Google Search Console is one of the most fundamental SEO tools as a website owner. You can use Search Console to choose what content you want to be indexed (and what not to be indexed), analyze keyword rankings and a whole lot more. Tip: Configure your Search Console site with Google Analytics. More over, Search Console can help you determine if there are missing pages, broken links, 404s or other technical errors.
There’s a million of them and you’ll have to find the right one for your level of expertise, experience and granularity. Here’s the ones we come across most in the SEO industry: