How SEO Works

by | 29 Jul, 2021 | Digital

21 Minute Read

How SEO works is a mystery to many.  Some believe it is a waste of time, dark art that is solely controlled by Google who just rank websites they like most.  However, businesses who take the time and energy to focus on their SEO, reap benefits that others can only dream of having.  After all, who doesn’t want to be number one in Google?

Not knowing how SEO works can be detrimental to your business today.  The reason is that if you are number one in Google for your chosen targeted keyword, then you will receive a huge 33% of all traffic for that chosen keyword online.  So that’s 38% of all web traffic heading your way, freely, for typing in that keyword and finding you or your business online.  If you had an eCommerce website and you’re number one in Google for your product or service, just think of the revenues this would drive for your business.

Unfortunately, there are so many scam callers and emailers out there promising to get you to number one in the Google rankings, that it has given SEO a bad name and reputation.  No one can guarantee a number one position in Google.  So if anyone ever tells you they can be very, very wary.  However, it is possible to influence your ranking and increase your ranking exponentially by following the guidance from Google as well as ensuring your website development is thorough, that your website is properly built, to the latest standards and that is full of rich, deep and quality content relevant to your industry, services or products.

You also need to know what people in your target market are searching for.  There’s no point being number one in Google for a keyword no one needs or looks for.  Equally, there’s no point writing aimless content wishing and hoping that you’ll end up at number one just because you write lots of content.  It has to be targeted.  It has to be of relevance.  It has to be of quality.

Let’s now take a deeper look into how SEO works and the important role your content plays in your SEO strategy.

“Content is King” – Bill Gates in 1996, founder of Microsoft

What is SEO and How Does SEO Work in Reality?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation.  This is optimising your website to appear as high as you can for your chosen keyword(s) in the search engine rankings, without paying for the privilege.  It should not be confused with SEM which stands for Search Engine Marketing, which whilst similar, means you are paying for, and optimising your paid marketing efforts to appear at the top of search engines.

SEO is the must-have tactic in business today to grow your website traffic and business visibility online.  This is the free traffic you will receive to your website once your website is optimised.  It’s how people will find you when they require your information, services or products.  How SEO works are fundamental to how the Internet works in practice too.  Knowing how the Internet is used, helps us understand how SEO works better.

How the Internet is Used Helps Explain How SEO Works

The Internet is still a place where we fundamentally look for information.  Whilst we now use it for cloud services and entertainment, the primary use of the Internet is to search for information.  It is an infomediary source.  We used to do this behind large desktop computers in the days when AOL dominated and Amazon was still just selling books.  Today, we can whip out our internet-connected smartphones or tablets and search for and use information anywhere, whenever we like.

Why is this important to SEO and how SEO works?  Because how we use the internet to find information is fundamental to search engine optimisation.  This is not talked about enough.  If you provide good quality information and information that people are searching for, then you will benefit from increased search rankings in all major search engines such as Google.  This is the real secret to how SEO works and how it can work for you and your business.  This is not even a very well kept secret either as it’s right there in Google’s mission statement when you read between the lines.

Now, there is a lot more to it than that, which this article will explain more on, but if you think about it, it makes sense for any search engine to provide the most relevant information as quickly as possible to the end-user.

To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”- Google’s mission statement.

How SEO Works – A Real World Example

Let’s say you want to find out some information on how to cook the tastiest lasagne.  You type ‘tasty lasagne’ into Google and you are immediately presented with thousands of answers all related to the perfect spaghetti bolognaise and Carbonara dish… Huh?  That’s not how SEO works?  Well, no, but it shows us how important the relevance of content is to rank well.

If search engines were this bad, how often would you go back and use Google if it provided search results completely irrelevant to what you wanted to find?  I doubt you would ever go back as you would no longer trust Google nor have any confidence in the services they provide.

Looking at how SEO works this way, helps us understand how we can rank better in Google.

Fortunately, Google is rather good and that’s why so many people use it as their chosen search engine of choice and why is the most visited website in the world, every day.  For most internet users it’s even their homepage.

Here’s what came up for me when searching for the phrase ‘tasty lasagne’ in Google:

tasty lasagne seo example

Perfect!  And you guessed it, I clicked the top link first.  Yet there were over 21,000,000 other results for that search phrase in just 0.55 seconds.

The website was reputable, it was built to a high standard, it provided a very tasty lasagne recipe with a very lovely looking dish.  There was no need to scroll down further.  I had my answer.  This business and website had an SEO strategy in place and Google has praised this by ranking the website highly in its rankings for the search term ‘tasty lasagne’.

The average web user is not going to know about all the different ranking factors, they just want to get the information they are looking for as fast as possible.  This is also why Google place so much emphasis on knowing your search phrases and interests so they can personalise information to you whilst using their services, including targeted adverts (but that’s a whole other topic entirely).  This improves your overall experience of finding information on the internet.  After all, we want answers quickly, which are relevant, easy to read and follow….and that’s important when it comes to SEO and ranking well in Google and other search engines.

If I was a business selling lasagne, then I would be interested in knowing how many people were looking for such a phrase.  Well at OJE we can analyse such information and then provide strategies on how to rank better, based on what people are searching for, so that you can provide information and content that is relevant to their search.  This does several things.  This means you can pick your battles, find out what people are interested in and prevent yourself from ranking highly for keywords that no one is interested in.  For example, you might be number one in Google for a keyword no one ever looks for, so you won’t receive website traffic despite ranking number 1.  Equally, you don’t want to be competing against a highly competitive website keyword that you are likely never to rank for.

So let’s go back to our example and take a look at the search phrase, ‘tasty lasagne’:

tasty lasagne keywords

Keyword and search insights are a key part of any SEO strategy.

You can see here that tasty lasagne is third on the list, has a keyword difficulty of 4 and an average monthly search volume of 30.  So if I wanted to gear up our content to get potentially more website visitors, I might look at the top one there which is the ‘tasty lasagne recipe’.  This has a harder keyword difficulty rating, but, the search volume per month is on average much higher.  I could then, choose to optimise my existing content, or create new content, to rank for this search phrase if I deemed it relevant to the overall SEO strategy.

top of google seo

More than 90% of searches happen on Google – Moz

Key SEO Terms You Need to Know to Better understand How SEO Works

As with anything, some jargon and phrases are used within an industry, and SEO has more than its share. So to make this easier and to help you understand the language of SEO, here are some of the key terms you will hear when you are discussing or talking to someone about optimising your website and SEO in general.

Website Traffic

This is the one that most interests people.  Traffic is just another word for website visitors or hits.  Google changed the way it monitors this and now calls them sessions (to stop people relentlessly clicking websites to show off how many hits they got) and this helps better display a website’s overall usage.  Of course, you can go viral and get lots of web traffic, but really, you want targetted users who are interested in you and your product as they are the ones that are most likely to engage and ultimately buy from you.  Want to know how SEO works and is performing for you, then looking at your website traffic and website acquisition is the first place to look.

Keywords and Longtail Keywords

Keywords are the words that you enter into the Google (or another search engine) search box.  They are generally one word or two words in length.  For example, if I wanted to find out about tennis, I would enter tennis.  If I wanted to find out about healthy foods, I could enter healthy foods.  There is a common misconception that if you ‘stuff’ your content full of your chosen keywords that you will rank number one.  Whilst many years ago this would have worked, Google has since changed their algorithms and penalised websites that now do this.

Longtail keywords are phrases that are three to four words (and longer) in length that describe what you are looking for.  When someone performs a longtail keyword they very often have a high level of knowledge and certainty a good understanding of what they are looking for.  For example ‘Nike football boots’ or ‘the best movies of 2021’.  Those are two good examples of longtail keywords.  Sometimes longtail keywords are easier to rank for just simply because they are less competitive or are more niche to an industry.


This is the information on your website.  To rank highly on Google you need lots of relevant text.  Many sites have lovely pictures but hardly any text.  Search engines need this to know what to rank your website for.  Your content needs to be relevant, engaging and for your key pages over 500 words in length, preferably 1000 words or more.  Content can be also defined as images, video and audio, but text including images (and their alt text) are what Google is most interested in from a content perspective.


A website ranking is its position in the search engine.  So if you rank number 1, you are position number 1.  Number 8 and you are number 8.  It’s important to point out though, that this does not include adword rankings.  This is purely a rank for your organic search position when we’re talking from an SEO perspective.  If you rank 96, then you have some work to do in optimising your website for that keyword.

Alt Tags

Alt tags are used to describe the image in your content as it loads (or doesn’t load) on your page.  So if you had an article or page relating to fish and chips (being the keyword), your alt tag for at least one of the images, and most likely the featured primary image should be fish and chips.  Search engines use this alt tag for indexing images in their image indexing.

Meta Data and Description

Metadata is the descriptive information about your article.  Typically known as the meta description.  This is the snippet of text which shows up on the search engine results page (SERP) so plays an important role in people finding your information and website.  It typically sits under the SEO title or page header.  Search engines place less emphasis on this now as they focus more on deep quality content.

Inbound, Outbound and Back Links

Links are a key feature of SEO.  After all, the “Inter-net” is a huge interconnected network made up of connections between websites.  The link structure and how links relate to your website play a large role in your website ranking.  An inbound link is a link that links to another page on your website.  An outbound link links to an external website.

A backlink is a reciprocal link between your website and another one.  Backlinks use domain and website rank to determine how relevant your website is on a subject matter overall.  For example, if you sell lighting and all your backlinks link to premier league football clubs, it’s not very relevant to the lighting industry as a whole, and won’t help people find out more about what they are looking for.

An old SEO technique used to be focussing solely on how many backlinks you had.  So people would go out and buy domain names with their chosen keywords, create small sites and then link to them.  Nowadays it’s much more important to have one, authoritative website rich with content about your chosen area of expertise.

Header and Title Tags

Header tags and title tags are key building blocks for website pages and content.  Generally, you would use Header 1 (H1), Header 2 (H2), Header 3 (H3) and may be right down to number 6 in some instances.  Title tags are the ones that are the title of your page or website.  These play a crucial role in how your content is indexed in search engines.


SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page.  This is the page that shows up when you have performed your search in a search engine and lists all your answers.  SERP can play an important role when evaluating competitor websites and also getting people to click on your website.  This is why page titles and meta descriptions play an important role in terms of the initial impression of your website.


A search engine index is the collection or database of all the information which has been crawled by robots and spiders.  When we perform a search, this is what the algorithm is comparing against and producing the results against.  As you’d expect, these indexes are constantly being updated to better reflect the relevance of the information held within them.

Robots.txt and Spiders

Robots. text and ‘Spiders’ (also known as crawlers) in SEO terms are what help work together in indexing your website.  In Google, it’s the robots.txt file that should be in your website root directory which tells search engine spiders what to index for your site.

The web spiders are what ascertain what should be included and where it should be included in the search engine results.  You can also inform search engines such as Google to crawl your website faster, for example, if you have done a large update or added a lot more content recently.


Your sitemap is the overall index of your website.  You submit this to the search engines and they use this to see what content has been added or how the website structure has changed.  The sitemap will list every page and content post of your website including important data.  This is how your website informs search engines of changes automatically when you make updates.


Analytics is part of the important reporting process in SEO.  Google Analytics provides a wealth of information on how many users your site gets, how people are finding your website, what devices they are using, which pages they are leaving your website, the busiest times of day that your website gets visited and loads more information.  You can spend weeks in there siphoning through the information.  You need analytics to assess your website’s performance.  Without it, you won’t know how many website visitors you are getting.

how to appear high in seo rankings

Using SEO and SEM you can appear at the top of Google in some ways.

There Are 5 Ways to Appear at the top of Google with SEO and SEM

Believe it or not, there is more than one way to appear at the top of Google and other search engines.  You can do this organically (SEO), or you can do this via paid search where you pay to appear in the Adwords part of the google results (SEM).  See if you can spot the difference between the two in these 5 ways below:

Organic Search

These appear with no ad signs on them and the traffic you receive depends on the position of the organic result that your site sits at.  I.e. number 1 or 5 in Google, for example, the higher your site, the greater the reward/traffic you will receive.  Persistence and pushing as hard as you can for keywords to get to number one on the list will ensure you increase your traffic over time ‘organically’.  If you rank number one in Google, on average you will receive 38% of the clicks than you would for position two in Google (18%).

Organic Search Results for SEO

Organic search results example in Google.

Google AdWords

This can be expensive, but the simplest way to explain it is that you are paying for advertising space above the organic traffic.  You will pay different rates based on where you wish to show up on the list. You only pay if someone clicks on the link.  If you get many thousands of clicks you can get massively increased traffic, but this also means you are paying out more and it doesn’t always mean you are getting your desired customers.

Google Adwords Example

Google Adwords example. Notice the bold Ad text next to the website title.

Featured Snippets

These are short pieces of text which show the above organic results.  They often show up when a question is being answered and they are defined as position 0.

Featured Snippet Example

Featured snippet example for our transport software Road XS.

Google Local (Map Listings)

Here you can list your business on the side of the Google result and appear in the knowledge panel as a local result.  Below, is an example of the phrase ‘tennis racquets’.

Google Maps Search Listing Example for SEO

Google Local maps listing example.

Use Other People’s Websites

Appearing on third party websites can also get you noticed.  This can happen when you write articles or posts on other websites which are then producing content on your behalf from other domain names. You can also perform a link back to your website from the article or simply appear on the website as a sponsor for example.  It’s still just a link forming a reciprocal backlink.

In the example below, many of these official sponsors have a page dedicated to rugby and sponsoring the lions’ rugby tour so that they come up in search rankings relating to rugby even though their products have nothing to do with rugby. Because they are linked reciprocally to the Lions Rugby website which has a high, credible rating and ranking, their credibility rises in search engines estimations.  None of those is spammy links but highly credible websites.

Backlink Example for SEO

Lions rugby tour website with backlink examples.


how google ranks websites

There are lots of different website ranking factors which influence your website’s position in search engines.

How Google Ranks Websites, the Foundations of How SEO Works

A simple view of SEO and increasing your site ranking is to assume that you need to show Google that your website deserves to be at the top of Google.  As you now know, Google’s reputation is based upon providing the right information, to the right people relating to the right keywords they have entered.  No single person knows the exact algorithms which Google follows to rank websites, that’s why no one can ever tell you that they can get you to number one!  If they do they are lying and this is something you often see promised in spam emails.

Despite this, it is generally accepted that there are 3 key pillars to Google’s site ranking algorithm.  These are:


This is all about how relevant your website and content is to the phrases being searched for.  Google is dominant today because it provides the most relevant information with the fastest online.  This means your content (words in blogs and pages), your images used (the alt tags, descriptions, titles etc), are all used to judge your website’s relevance to a search topic.  If you have little, outdated and inconsistent content relating to your keywords, you will never rise the rankings.  If the words you are wanting to rank for aren’t being used, then Google cannot determine your relevance.

It is also worth mentioning that Google also interprets how people interact with your website.  If they wanted to buy a new ergonomic chair, they would type in ‘ergonomic chairs’.  This would produce a SERP (search engine results page).  Google uses this as part of a user’s judgement in terms of what is most relevant to the search.  So if a user consistently jumps off (bounces) off your site, this will also impact your ranking as they are not staying long enough, therefore do not value the content you have on offer.  For relevance, Google has a positive feedback loop built-in which is why website content plays such a crucial role in a website’s ranking.


The other method Google uses is to assess the authority of the site, or another way of looking at is, the popularity of the site.  Imagine recommending an ergonomic chair to a friend and then someone else recommends the chair to someone else, who then also recommends the chair to someone else and so on …  Google uses a similar approach by assessing those you link to and those who link back to you (known as a backlink).  This helps build what is known as a websites page rank.  This is essentially the metric for determining how authoritative a website is in the grand scheme of things.

It’s not just about the links you link to you or who link back to you, or the total number of links, it’s also about the value of these links and what they have to offer.  If you link to sites with a more favourable page rank/credibility, you will be rewarded and so will they.  As you build your page rank, so theirs increases too.

It is worth noting also that each page with its page link is treated individually.  If your link exists on a page with all sorts of other links, that value will be shared.  If you are on their website and you are the only link, your value to them and your website increases.  The bigger the website, the greater opportunity you have to increase your page rank.  This is again why it is so important to have a properly structured website with appropriate content schemas.

Trust (Quality of the Build)

Trust is another key factor in Google’s ranking.  Image Google presented to users looking for information websites that were insecure, full of spam, rubbish links and were slow to load.  It wouldn’t take long before people stopped using Google.  Therefore, the quality of the website is also considered.  This is why they also consider what other websites link to the site itself.  If unreputable websites link back to a website, chances are something is up.  This is why for example, a website domain name and SSL certificates play a crucial role in how Google establishes trust online.  It’s a metric of ranking well.  Several reasons need to have soundly built. safe to use the website.  If you go looking for HSBC bank and yet the link you click takes you through to a copy-cat fraud website and you lose your money, Google’s reputation is lost.  It’s an interesting paradox, because whilst Google needs to trust the website’s it ranks highly, they are too constantly seeking our trust in them so that we keep using their services.

seo tips

Some helpful insights to increase your website ranking from today.

Tips On How Your Website Can Rank Higher in Search Engines

Improving the quality of your website to improve ranking performance is a must for increasing SEO.  As a minimum, the following areas of your website should be addressed which will provide you at least a small boost in your SEO ranking without speaking to SEO experts:

Increasing Your Website Content is How SEO Works Out Your Relevance

Websites with not much content will not rank well or high.  This means low word counts, poor writing, poor images.  Increasing and improving existing content is one way to almost fly up the rankings especially if the site is a long way down the list.  Very often people get nervous about doing this and don’t want to diminish their brand or state that it’s incomplete.  Google doesn’t care.  It wants to see the information.  You can always add and improve the content in the future and reap the benefits again then!  Google rewards websites with a higher ranking when they are deemed to know what they are talking about by ‘proving’ themselves to Google.

Fixing Broken Links and 404 Errors

If you clicked on a page and found that it went nowhere from Google’s SERP you wouldn’t be very happy.  For this reason, it’s important to check that all the links go to where they need to go.  This is why, if you ever change a domain name all links need to be repointed with a 301 redirect to ensure Google knows the location of the new content.  If you discover you have these problems, it’s not all bad news, because once they are fixed you will reveal an increase in your ranking soon enough.

Keeping a Simple Link Structure

Your website link structure should be simple and easy to, with the URLs working from natural, human language.  This makes it easier for search engines to index your website.

For example, is much more user friendly than  Not every human right?  The menu structure and URL wording play a crucial role in your websites navigation and user experience and Google recognises this too.  Keep it simple, and keep clicks as low as possible to your key content.

Ensuring Mobile Friendliness

Your site must be ‘responsive’.  This means that it must load cleanly on a mobile and tablet device.  It’s a given and standard these days.  If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, then you need to ensure you plan for it to be.  48% of all internet search is now done by mobile phone and Google penalises any site if they are not mobile-friendly or responsive.

Making Sure Your Website is Technically ‘Optimised’

You must ensure that your images are compressed and that your website is ‘cached’ as a bare minimum to ensure your site remains fast.  You should also review hosting if your site begins to get sluggish, but this is only relevant slightly so not the first port of call.  You should also ensure your site has an SSL certificate and ensure it works from HTTPS:// as this is another major ranking factor used by Google to assess the quality of your website.

content is king for seo

Quality and deep content play a major role in SEO rankings.

How SEO Works – Content is King

There is a certain irony in the computing world, that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft (not Google), in 1996 predicted that the future of computing would be that “Content was King”.  Microsoft lag well behind and came late to the game in terms of their search engine called Bing.  His comment and prediction today ring more true than ever.  Content is everywhere and yet it’s Google that leads the way in providing the most relevant search results, which is why so many people continue to use it.  Google performs on average over 5.6 billion searches a day.

Content plays such a major role in search engine ranking and optimisation.  Google cannot classify a website as worthy unless it can determine the content is relevant to the searches being performed.  This means you must ensure your website content is geared towards what people are searching for online.

What this means is that each page (including blog posts) needs to be of high-quality content and authoritative.  This means if you have a services page that lists your services you also need a whole dedicated page for each of those services.  E.g. /services to then /service1 /service2 /service3 etc.  These pages we recommend should have at least 500 words of relevant content on them.  This can be hard to do but is essential to get a ranking in Google for your keywords.  It’s difficult to write a lot of content about something which sometimes can be very dry.  Your blog posts also need to be the same, with a minimum of 500 words but aim for 1000+ words for your cornerstone (most important) content.

The content you generate also needs to be optimised within the website itself.  So whilst the content is key, this may also need to be optimised to align with your keywords and to ensure Google interprets this content properly.  In tracking this content, you can then see how Google interprets this over time and improve accordingly.  This way you get a return on investment on the articles you write because they are ‘never done.  We spend time optimising content to ensure it meets the standards set out by Google, but the hardest part is getting to write in the first place.  However, you will reap the rewards from organic search results.  We also work on the readability to ensure that Google ranks your content higher in relevance to the users searching for it.

Never Duplicate Other People’s Website Content

Duplicating content from someone else’s website is not good form and is a waste of time.  Google values unique content and unique pages.  Websites that rely on duplicate content tend to not rank well.  Duplicate content will appear throughout your website ie your footer, which Google will not directly penalise you for, but copying paragraphs directly from other websites they most certainly will not.  You will be penalised.  This is why it’s never good practice or wise to just copy and paste news articles into your blog or news feed thinking it will benefit your ranking.  It won’t, because the content is not unique.

Google needs to differentiate your site from others.  If it sees thousands of sites using the same header names and the same content, your site has no hope because you will likely have a lower page rank.  You need to ensure your content is unique and meets the standards required by Google.

You can also develop knowledgebases, FAQs, videos and all sorts to increase your content, but the beauty of a written article is that it can be reused in mailshots, social media and general email communications.  You can re-use your content in more ways than you realise and continue to improve on it all the time.  The hardest part is generating it in the first place.

how seo works a summary

Here’s a quick summary of how SEO works.

A Summary of How SEO Works

This article on how SEO works is just a very basic summary relating to how SEO works.  Given the length of the article on this topic, it just goes to show you how much work goes into SEO.  The content in this article relating to how SEO works is by no means the be-all and end of what you have to do, but it highlights the building blocks and unearths of some of the mystery of what is going on behind the scenes at Google and other search engines.  You can see from this, however, that content is one of the key requirements for rising the rankings.  It should come as no surprise that whilst Google leads the way as being the best search engine, it is also the world’s most popular website with the most visits per day.

Given that people focus so much of their time around a website design, it’s the content that plays a crucial role when determining how well your website will rank.  There is a sense of irony to this too because the most popular and most visited website in the world is and yet all it has is a search box and a few images.

So here’s a final, quick summary on how SEO works and the key topics we have covered today in this article together:

  • SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and is different to SEM which stands for Search Engine Marketing
  • The internet is fundamentally an infomediary source – we use it to find information first and foremost
  • Providing good quality, deep and relevant content is key to SEO success today
  • Keywords can be researched and analysed to ensure you are ranking for content people are searching for
  • There is more than one way to show up at the top of Google
  • There are 3 pillars to Goole’s site ranking algorithm which are relevance, authority and trust
  • Content today is king, but don’t duplicate other people’s content as you will be penalised

Hopefully, this article has provided you with a much broader understanding of how SEO works.  If you have any questions or would like us to look at how your website is performing, or what your customers are searching for in Google so you can gear your content towards them, then please don’t hesitate to reach out and contact us.