There’s a lot of confusion about what SEO is and how SEO works. If you’re not too technical, that only makes things a million times worse.

The good news is that, at its core, SEO isn’t nearly as hairy as you think.

Today, I just wanted to take a minute to help you understand what’s going on under the hood.

What Is SEO?

The best definition of SEO by far comes from

“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.”

Okay, I know I promised plain English, so let’s break that down a little:

First, a search engine can be any website or app that people use to search for things online. Amazon, the iTunes store, and Pinterest are all search engines, but 99% of the time we’re just talking about Google.

Next, traffic just means people with somewhere to go. They have something they’re looking for, so they’re searching for it.

The quantity and quality of traffic means how many people arrive at your website, and how likely they are to do something useful once they’re there. Think of quality in terms of someone who’s just window shopping vs. someone who’s ready to buy.

When you search for something on Google, you’ll see two kinds of results. Organic search engine results are the images, videos, pages, and websites that didn’t pay Google to show up in search results. The other kind of search results are paid search results, or ads. SEO only deals with organic search results.

To recap, SEO is all about getting potential customers to your site through Google’s free search results. But how does it work?

What the Internet Was Like Before Google

Before you try and understand how SEO works, I want you to remember, if you can, what the internet was like before Google.

Not too long ago, the biggest sites on the internet were home pages, like Yahoo and AOL.

First came the directories.  If you wanted to find information about the 1988 World Series, you might have to navigate to the sports section, and then to the baseball section, and then to the championships section, and so on. There was no way of telling if the information you found was right, if you found anything at all. But then again, in the early days of the internet we were all just happy we didn’t have to  go to the library.

old yahoo homepage

via flickr

Sometime later, the search box came along. All of a sudden you could forget about navigating through that directory and just type out what you were looking for. It was a lot more convenient, but once again the results could, well, suck.

It stayed that way for a long time.

How Google Changed Everything

Do you remember ever writing a paper for school and citing your sources at the bottom?

Back before Larry Page founded Google, he went to school at Stanford, where he probably wrote plenty of papers and had to cite plenty of sources.

One day he realized that, if you made a map of which papers cited which sources, you could eventually come up with a list of the most influential papers out there. Page then realized that links on websites could work exactly the same way: if you made a map of all the links on every website, you could eventually come up with a list of the most influential websites in the world.

So he did. With Sergey Brin’s help, Larry mapped out the entire internet (which, at the time, was about 10 million pages.) Then they built a program called PageRank to help them rank all of those pages in order of importance.

I won’t bore you with the details, but PageRank basically works by scoring all websites on a 100 point scale. The websites that everyone has heard of, like Amazon, automatically get 100 points. Every time they link out to another website, that site gets some points too. Links from bigger sites are worth more points. Links from sites that don’t link out often are worth more, too.

Eventually every site has a number score, based on who has linked to them. If two sites are competing in search results, like “funny dog photos”,  the site with more points will be shown first.

This became the basis of Google, and how Google’s search results work.

How Google Works Today

Google still uses a version of PageRank today, but now that’s only a tiny piece of how they pick the best results for a search. Google employees have said there are “over 200” different ranking factors, but nobody outside of Google knows the real number for sure. Some of the most important factors include:

  • How many different sites link to your site
  • Which sites link to your site
  • Which words they used while linking to your site
  • How long ago did they link to you
  • How many pages are on your site
  • How quickly your site loads
  • What kind of content is on your website
  • If your website is attached to a business, and where it’s physically located
  • Where the searcher is physically located
  • If your site is usable on mobile devices

Since you can make a lot of money if your site is ranking well for competitive terms, like “plastic surgeon in Hollywood,” Google also added a bunch of factors to catch people trying to cheat the system:

  • Did other websites link to you willingly, or did you just leave a comment?
  • Did other websites link to you willingly, or did you hack them?
  • Did you pay other websites to link to you?
  • Is the content on your site well written and researched, or did you just make stuff up?
  • Is any of your content stolen?
  • Is your content written for humans or just for Google?

There are even a bunch of things that may or may not be ranking factors, like:

  • How many followers your website has on Facebook
  • How long people stay on your website
  • How many people leave your website to visit other search results
  • How long your domain name is
  • Whether your domain ends in .com or .net

How SEO Works

So how does SEO work? Basically, it’s all about deciding which factors are important and influencing them.

Most SEO professionals agree that links are important, so most SEOs spend some time building them.

Most SEO professionals agree that content is important, so most SEOs spend time writing it or managing someone else who does.

Most SEO professionals agree that your website has to load quickly, so most SEOs can make it load faster or oversee someone else who can.

But that’s where the similarities end. People in the SEO world are always debating about which factors are the most important, which tactics are dangerous, and so on.

Some SEOs think it’s safe to build links by publishing guest posts on other websites. Others think Google doesn’t like those links.

Some SEOs think you should focus on producing lots of short blog posts. Others think you should produce a few big videos instead.

Some SEOs think you can apply the same SEO tactics to every website. Others think that every website needs a customized set of tactics.

The list goes on and on.

In the end, there are a lot of ways to do SEO right, just as many ways to do it wrong, and a lot more ways to put in a lot of work for nothing at all. To get it right consistently takes a lot of experience, and a lot of trial and error. Don’t listen to any cheap SEO company that tells you otherwise.