What is SEO? A beginner’s guide in plain English…

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is about making sure your website gets found online. And the way that most people find websites is via search engines.

Google is the biggest, most popular search engine with approximately 65% of traffic. Their competitors include Yahoo (approximately 15%), Bing (13-14%), plus some smaller players. *

How do search engines work?

We need to have a quick look at how search engines work in order to understand what SEO is all about.

In short, the goal of a search engine is to bring its users the most relevant results possible to their searches.

After all, if a search engine consistently gives you, the user, a load of bad results (e.g. poor quality websites, that don’t reflect what you’re looking for, or spammy websites), you’ll end up using a different search engine. The search engines want you to keep using them, so they want to give you relevant search results.

To give you relevant results leading to good quality websites, the search engines use complex formulae (known as “algorithms”) which look at a variety of factors when ranking websites. The higher the ranking, the more relevant the website is seen to be to the user’s search.

These website  ranking factors include:

  • Keywords: does the website’s content use the same kinds of words as those that the user has input? If so, that’s a notch in your favour. Keywords are good! That’s leads onto the next factor:
  • Information-rich websites: search engines love good quality websites that are rich in unique, well-written content, which is regularly updated. It’s not just search engines that love it, but readers do too. And for the website owner, it’s an opportunity to use a rich variety of keywords, which will help rankings further still.
  • Inbound links: the search engines figure that a good quality website will be linked to from other good quality websites. Notice the word quality: if you have links to your site from spammy websites, it could count against you.
  • Bounce rate: have you ever followed a link to a website; didn’t like what you see; and immediately hit the “back” button to leave the site? That’s called a bounce. A bounce indicates that the website is irrelevant to the user’s search; and a lot of bounces for a particular website tell the search engines that the website isn’t a good quality one. So bounces are bad. (You can see on your website analytics what the bounce rate is for your website.) A high bounce rate is bad; a low bounce rate is good, and it’s one of the factors used by search engines when formulating their rankings.
  • Time on site: again, if users spend a good amount of time on your site, the search engines will figure that your website’s a good one. So the time users spend on your site is another factor addressed in the algorithms.

SEO means that a website owner is actively addressing these ranking factors used in the algorithms. It’s about taking a proactive approach to a website, and increasing its chances of getting good rankings for as wide a variety of search terms as possible. This might sound easy, but the goal posts are continually moving!

Things change over time

The list of ranking factors is a basic one, to give you an overview. But you should also be aware that these algorithms aren’t static – far from it. They’re continually being tweaked and fine-tuned.

So what’s a business owner to do with these changes in the SEO world?

There’s one strategy that’s never changed: and that is to have a well-built website, that’s full with good, information-rich content, and that’s updated regularly.

Don’t be tempted to try and “cheat” the system – it’s not worth it. It’s far better to focus on having a great site that real people (as well as search engines) will enjoy using.


* 2011 data from http://www.quantumseolabs.com/blog/seolinkbuilding/bing-google-market-share/