Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of getting your website to appear in good positions in the search engine results pages (SERPs). It may sound easy, but there are many different techniques involved and the search engines are always searching for ways to improve their results, which means you need to be proactive if you want to get – and keep – top rankings in the SERPs.

Why do we need SEO?

When the first search engines appeared in 1993, there were only a handful of websites and search engines were more like directories of the sites online. In 2011, there are millions of websites and search engines act as curators of content, helping their customers to find the best content online.

There is more competition for the precious top spots in the SERPs – and it’s growing dramatically every day. Being in the top spot can bring targeted traffic to your website, leading to more sales or enquiries and increasing your revenue. If you want to get your website in front of these potential customers, you need to work on SEO marketing.

How does search engine optimisation work?

To understand how SEO works, first you need to get an idea of how the search engines work.

The search engines use pieces of coding – often known as robots or spiders – to crawl through the internet following links as they go. The search engine spiders follows links to find your website. They will “read” your site, follow your links and make copies of your website that are stored in the search engine’s index.

When a person types their query into a search engine another piece of coding called an algorithm compares the indexed copy of your site to the search query. If the algorithm decides that your site is relevant to the query and of sufficiently high quality, it will be shown in the SERPs. The algorithm decides not only which sites appear in the SERPs, but also the order that they appear in.

How search engines work

Search engine optimisation serves three key purposes to help your site to rank well:

  1. SEO helps the search engines to find your website.
  2. SEO helps the search engines to understand your website.
  3. SEO helps the search engines to rate your website.
How does SEO manage all those things? Let me show you how:

1. SEO helps the search engines to find your website.

You need the search engines to find your content – unless they know about it, they cannot display your website in the SERPs. There are a number of things that you can do to create a search engine friendly website that is easy to discover and crawl:

  • Ensure your site is designed using coding the search engines understand – flash may look great, but search engines have real difficulty processing it.
  • Creating XML sitemaps – a universal format for sitemaps that search engines understand.
  • Building links to your website from other sites.
… and there may be many more technical issues that need to be addressed to ensure that you stand the best chance possible of having your site found and indexed.

2. SEO helps the search engines to understand your website.

The spiders have found your website – but if you want to rank well for the right search phrases, you need to make sure that the spiders understand what your website is all about. It’s no good appearing in position one on Google for “business supplies” when you sell Caribbean cruises for crafters.

The first stage in this process is carry out keyword research to understand what phrases – known as keywords – your potential customers are searching for. Using this information you can then carry out on page optimisation – creating pages that focus on your keywords, looking at technical tags, on page text and even images and other content. And finally you need to build links – if other websites with a similar theme to yours link to you, it helps the search engines to contextualise your website.

3. SEO helps the search engines to rate your website.

Search engines always aim to deliver the best quality websites in their results, but how can a computer programme understand which websites are good and which are bad?

Every search engine uses an algorithm to calculate where sites belong in their rankings. They each use their own formula and keep the exact calculations a closely guarded secret, but through testing and examining patterns we can make an educated guess as to what they consider.

Google is perhaps the most studied, and indications suggest that their algorithm considers:

  • Volume of inbound links – the number of links going to your website.
  • Quality of inbound links.
  • Usage data – how real people are interacting with your website.
  • Social signals – such as Facebook likes and Google+.
  • Usability and design of your website – overuse of ads for example may harm your rankings.
  • The content of a specific page.
  • The content of your site as a whole.
  • Bad practices that they specify in their Webmaster Guidelines.
… and there may be many more besides!

So, how do I increase my rank with SEO?

You might have noticed that links are pretty important to Google, if you think that you can build links to increase your rankings you’d be right – up to a point. Links are just one of the factors that affect your ranking, you need to ensure that your website is search engine friendly, well optimised and of sufficiently high quality (both in terms of content and design) to deserve good rankings.

But, all else being equal, building links is the single most important thing you can do to increase your rank. However, you need to be sure that you are building the right kind of links to really see good results.

Google originally treated links as a vote or a recommendation – if a person has linked to your website, they probably think it’s worth visiting – so Google gave better rankings to site with more links.

As time went on, it became clear that not all links were equal and that some people had worked out ways to artificially boost their rankings by building more links. So they used more metrics to judge whether a link was really a trustworthy recommendation. This process has continued over time and there are now many factors that affect how valuable a link to your website really is, as you can see from this word cloud of link quality factors:

Link Quality Factors Affecting SEO

And while we have talked about Google, other search engines like Bing also place a great deal of importance on links – so if you want to improve your rankings, you need to build more quality links to your site.

So can I do SEO myself?

Yes, you can, but it’s an ongoing process of building inbound links and improving your website that never stops. Google, Bing, Yahoo and all the other search engines never stop evolving. They are constantly looking for ways to improve their offerings, with the result that what works today may not work tomorrow.

Keeping up to date with the latest developments can be almost as much work as actually doing SEO marketing. That’s why many companies outsource their SEO – it simply isn’t cost effective for them to dedicate the time needed to stay up to date on top of doing the actual work. If you are still interested in DIY SEO, here are some resources that might help:

SEOmoz Blog – daily updates from a team of SEO software engineers, their friends and the wider SEO community. SEOmoz is dedicated to figuring out what works and what doesn’t in SEO today.

Copyblogger’s Internet Marketing for Smart People – guide to internet marketing and seo from an online entrepreneur. Practical and easy to follow advice

Search Engine Land – the latest news and views on all aspects of internet marketing, including search engine optimisation.

Boom’s Articles on SEO – advice and tips on search engine optimisation from your favourite online marketing company.

If you decide that you’d prefer to bring in the experts, leaving your time free to run your business, you can talk to us. Visit our SEO services page to find out more about our offering, send us an email or simply call us on 0845 474 0974. We’ll be more than happy to talk through your SEO needs.