starting lineSince I started working in online marketing a few years ago, my head has gotten pretty crammed with acronyms. Alphabet soup like KPI, PPC, SoLoMo, TOFU, BOFU and FOMO sound perfectly normal to me now – crazy, huh?

But by far, the acronym most people ask about is SEO, or search engine optimization. This aspect of online marketing seems to defy explanation for lots of folks.

In this post, we’re going to break it down in the complete beginner’s guide to SEO: what SEO is, how it works, what factors affect search and what sorts of changes you can make today to improve your search optimization.

What is SEO?

If you’ve ever searched for something online (and most of us have), you already know more about SEO than you think you do.

Think about how that works: You put a word or a phrase into a search engine like Google (the main search engine we’ll talk about throughout this article) that describes what you’re looking for.

simple search

Then you pick the result that seems the best or most useful for your search, from pages of results that look something like this.


But there are a few different agendas under the surface of any search. Let’s say your search is for sneakers.

  • You want to find the shoes you want (so you can look cool/play sports/etc.).
  • Your search engine wants to provide you the best, most useful results (so you’ll come back).
  • And any business that sells sneakers – whether online or in a store – wants to be the first result you see when you search (so they can sell more sneakers).

Making all those “wants” match up is the job of search engine optimization. SEO professionals employ a variety of different strategies to make websites appear higher in your list of results and make it more likely that you’ll click on them to find what you’re looking for.

SEO is important for lots of companies because if people find you via a web search and find what they’re looking for, you can receive lots of new web visitors that can help you make more money. If people can’t find you in a web search, you miss an opportunity – and they might find your competitor, instead.

SEO is often part of an overall online marketing strategy and complements other tactics like social media marketing, content marketing and more.

What factors affect a search?

When we type something into the Google search box, there’s a lot going on under the hood. Google takes into account more than 200 different factors to help it determine the results for each query. No one knows all of the factors, but there are a lot of guesses – meaning there are many different paths to optimization.

Google’s excellent Inside Search interactive resource offers a small glimpse into the process:

Let’s look more closely at a few of the major factors that we know Google takes into account as it considers your search.

1. Your question

The first thing Google tries to do is understand what you’re getting at with your query. It uses a technology called Knowledge Graph to help it better understand the nature of what you might be looking for, and whether it can best satisfy you with a definition, a list, a map or something else.

You might have noticed the way Google guesses the end of your search as you start typing and fixes your spelling if you mistype.

It also works hard in other ways to give you what you need quickly. For example, if you type “timer 30 minutes” into Google, it will create a timer for you right from the search results instead of having you click away to an online timer.

Google timer

If you’re checking on the status of a flight you’re set to take when signed in to Google with your Gmail address, Google will search through your mail to give you the status of your flight.

Google flight check

Search engines are continually working on new and better ways to predict what we’re looking for and what we need faster and more accurately.

2. Your location

A search engine not only takes into account the nature of your question but also where you’re asking it from. For instance, when I put a query like “pizza” into Google, it does some thinking for me and assumes I’d rather have a list of pizza places near me than a Wikipedia entry about the history of pizza.
local SERPs result

So local businesses have to put special effort into maximizing their SEO efforts for local visibility, which means doing things like optimizing their Google Places pages.

3. Who created it

Google likes rewarding real people who write great content. One way it accomplishes this is through Google Authorship, which gives a special designation to authors who are verified through Google+. You can identify a verified author by the small photo their byline next to their content in search results.

4. Your friends

Another factor search engines are increasingly banking on is each individual’s social network. “Social search” allows you to easily find content – like restaurant reviews, blog posts, photos and more – created by your friends and the contacts in your “social circle.”

In this search, you can see how Google has pulled one result for me specifically because Max Minzer, whom I’m connected with on Google+, shared it.

personalized, authorship SERP result

5. How it got shared

More that using your individual social network to serve you personalized results, search engines also use social sharing as a signal to determine the quality level of a piece of content.

That means social actions like Facebook shares and Google “+1s” likely play a part in how Google chooses which results to show you for a given search.

Here’s how Searchmetrics explains it in its ranking factors study:

Well positioned URLs have a high number of likes, shares, tweets and plus ones, and specific URLs stand out in the top search results with a very high mass of social signals. On one hand, this means that the activity on social networks continues to increase, on the other hand it means that frequently shared content increasingly correlates with good rankings.

This makes sense because social media is a growing way to find websites and content. The percentage of people who used social media to find websites increased 7 percent from 2011 to 2012 – in fact, using social media to find websites is growing faster than using search engines, according to Forrester Research data.

how we find

6. Your device

Finally it’s important for a search engine to understand whether you’re on a computer, a tablet or a mobile phone as it prepares to give you search results.

Think about how your needs change from one device to another. On a laptop, you may be looking for content to read at leisure. On your phone, you might need a phone number right away, or a quick way to compare a price.

mobile search stats
Mobile search requires a different type of result for different needs.

All these factors combined mean that my search engine results for a specific question might look totally different from yours, depending on things like who we know, where we are and what type of device we’re searching on.

But what does an SEO do?

So beyond understanding and studying the many factors that affect search results, what does an SEO actually do?

Although all SEOs generally shares the same goal – to help a website be found by more people, more easily – the way they get there can vary widely.

But there are some common practices that you’ll hear about when it comes to search engine optimization. An SEO:

Optimizes the site

The first part of a solid SEO strategy focuses on the technical side of a website. Since Google finds information about a website by crawling it, it’s often the job of an SEO to make sure the site is easy for Google to find and crawl. This graphic from DataDial focuses on site architecture.

site architecture

That means doing lots of different things to optimize the site itself like assuring the site has a sitemap Google can find, making sure it loads quickly and analyzing the site’s design and architecture to make sure it works well for users. Lots of SEOs will perform a technical audit to determine a list of issues with a site.

Researches and optimizes keywords

Keywords are the words you enter into a search engine to find what you’re looking for. If we go back to our sneakers example, a shoe company might want to be known for shoe-related keywords like “tennis shoes,” “sneakers” and “athletic shoes” as well as specific brands like Nike or Reebok.

SEOs perform keyword research to determine which keywords would be best to target for a given site. Then they make sure the site uses those keywords often enough and in the right spots in a process called keyword optimization. This graphic from DataDial is a good primer on some basic spots for keywords..

keyword optimization

Builds links

Before search engines like Google had fancy ways to personalize your search results based on your friends and your location, they used one main element to figure out which stuff was the best on the web: links.

When a well respected, trusted website links to your site, it sends a signal to Google that you’re hanging out with good company. If this happens often enough with enough trusted, quality websites, Google gets the idea that you’re a trusted, quality website – and makes it more likely that searchers will see your site.

This means that SEOs spend a lot of time working on getting links in a process called link building. Link-building tactics can range from simply asking for a link to writing a guest post – and there are many others. Again, DataDial  breaks it down.

link building

Helps creates content (that builds links)

One of the best ways to get links these days is by creating great content. Whether it’s a video, a blog post, a tool, a comic or another resource, great content naturally attracts links as people visit it, share it and talk about it. This graphic from Top Rank explains it well.

content seo cycle

When you put all the main components of an SEO strategy together, it looks kind of like this diagram.

SEO diagram

More SEO reading

To learn even more about SEO, here are some in-depth resources.

Still have questions about SEO, or did I leave something out? Let’s discuss it in the comments!

If you liked this post you might also like Why Google authorship is so important for the content you create and how to set it up and The Marketer’s Guide to Google Analytics: How to Extract Numbers That Drive Action.

Top Photo Credit: gatogrunge via Compfight cc

Looking for a better way to share on social media?

Schedule, publish & analyze your posts across the top social networks, all in one place.

Start a 14-Day Free Trial
Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • You’ve been publishing some kick-ass content Courtney, I can only congratulate you.

    Great advice and tips to take away for many, this post would really come in handy to someone who’s just starting out and needs to get his brain all pumped up about SEO.

    I’m sure it will become easier and easier to understand it all. Google itself will want to simplify the process for many.

    (and good resources at the end)

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks, Alex! I totally agree about SEO becoming simpler. It’s never really been all that complex at its core, but there are definitely some SEOs out there that would like to perpetuate the idea that it’s impossible for a regular person. 🙂

    • I agree with this too. I think we’ll continue to see social relied on more and more for SEO since in the end, content that gets shared on social means that it was useful to readers.

  • David Horn

    Nice article – good to take the conversation away from ‘lets build links’ … the fact that how you search, where you are, how something has been shared, who wrote it, all have an impact on search is something often overlooked by both SEO articles, and the myriad of ‘professionals’ pitching their services. Good stuff.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Yup, links are just one part of a well rounded SEO strategy these days, i think searchers are better off for it, too!

  • alex

    hey, different alex here.
    as a designer who dabbles in web (learned it organically) i’m constantly coming up against the “mystique” of SEO. I keep reading stuff trying to figure out what the big mystery is but it always comes back to the same core things: keywords, content, links, etc. I do this and then my clients say “what about SEO”? and i think, am i missing something? what are these “SEO companies” doing that i’m not? LOL.

    thanks for the great overview Courtney.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hey Alex! It’s fascinating to hear about that disconnect. “Mystique” is a great word for it. Sounds to me like you’re on the right track! 🙂

  • Hi Courtney,

    My only quibble would be to place ‘technical SEO’ at the top of the list. It’s really hard to change the site architecture after the fact. Otherwise, great overview.
    @alex – it’s all the SEO ‘gurus’ at the swap meets who confuse SEO for the rest of us!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Smart thoughts, Nicolette–you’re so right about the order of things. I’ll make that switch.

  • Great read Courtney.
    One thing I would check (unfortunately I can’t find the link now to where I read it) but I’m told that Google does now have a concept of site ranking as well as page ranking. The architecture and structure image says it’s just pages 🙂

    All that said I’m not sure how reliable the other source was but it was recent 🙂

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great idea, Rad. I’ll check on that graphic. SEO moves so fast that it’s hard for infographics to keep up.

  • Wow, I’m blown away by the quality of your post Courtney. This is the type of post I want to create too, just bam in your face bad-ass content. I’m new but would love to know, how long does it take for you to create a post like that? Thanks!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hi Ling! This one took about 8 hours of research and writing time. And, you know, 4 years of learning SEO by osmosis, practice and reading a lot. 🙂

  • Chanie

    This is a really awesome way to explain SEO to newbies. Like it a lot.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks; so glad it was helpful!

  • Kannan

    I must say this post was brilliant
    So well explained and am sure everyone will understand this easily
    Thank you Courtney ; a job well done for sure.

    • Courtney Seiter

      I appreciate that! glad it was useful for you. 🙂

  • ronellsmith


    I can say, without reservation, this is the type of information folks new to SEO need. Info such as this serves as a perfect primer, provoking clarity, quashing confusion, and not overloading noobs with too much information.

    I’m bookmarking this to send to folks new to the field, of which there are many.

    Now, stop showing out, will ya?


    • Courtney Seiter

      Ha! Thanks so much, Ronell!

  • Sandhya Khattri

    Thank you for this in depth article, I am learning a lot from it.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great to hear that!

  • Great post with useful and clear information 🙂 I’m trying to learn a little about SEO techniques for my blog and this is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Glad to hear that, Marina!

  • Great article, packed with a lot of info!

    One thing that might make this article even better, at least on small screen devices, would be to have the youtube iframe responsive, so on smaller devices there isn’t a weird horizontal scroll.

    Theres a great tool for helping with this called Embed Responsively that can help with that (I’m not affiliated with it, just a fan):

    Hope this helps!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks for the tip, John! I’ll make sure we look into that tool.

  • Steve Vera

    This blog was well-written, extremely informative and a reservoir I will be visiting to both study and link to (ha!). Thanks for the breakdown.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Sweet, thanks for the link! 😉

  • SEO is just a adaption game!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great way of putting it; i tend to agree. 🙂

  • Thank you Courtney for the article it breaks down the SEO problems people struggle with!! easy format so that us newbie SEO creators can have a understanding and try to apply some of the practices ourselves

    Thank you Wayne.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Good luck!

  • Ian

    Love this statistic:

    “The way we find is changing”
    32% = Search w/ social networking sites

    • Courtney Seiter

      Yeah, social’s going to keep grabbing a bigger piece of that pie!

  • Kent F

    As good as I’ve ever seen – wow – and thanks!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thank YOU for reading!

  • Odair

    Congratulations for the post, really enlightening.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Awesome; so glad it was useful for you!

  • Mark Roberts

    how do you set up a comments area like this on my website?

  • Great article, I shared on Twitter and FB already. Only fair to share when you come across good advice like this. One of the things that makes your article stand out are the visual aids — clearly you put a lot of time and thought behind this article to help others understand what SEO is all about. And, thank you — so many “experts” use buzz words and complicated terminology to try and make their readers think they are smart rather than just explain key concepts in meaningful ways. You did a really great job here — no dumbing down and no talking over heads.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks so much! Yep, there are some great SEO visuals out there; it was fun to pull them together. And I have definitely seen plenty of the SEO over-complication you describe 🙂 But there are tons of smart, great SEOS too, of course!

  • Thanks for this great article. I wanted to do SEO with a narrow-mind but I think it is a sea in itself. I’ve saved the images in article for getting help from them in future

    • Courtney Seiter

      Good luck! 🙂

  • Thanks for a informative article Courtney, reading it gives a very good refresher from what I learned in ClickMinded SEO Training. Its worth the read

  • Felix Brown

    I agree with your points. Good original content, well implemented on page optimization and a solid link building campaign is usually more than sufficient for SEO.

  • Shaniya Muhammed

    Thank you for the great article and for the resources as well.It is very much helpful for the Internet Marketers like me and my other friends as well. Beginner’s Guide to SEO

  • Rashedul

    Just want to say thank you so much!I faithfully return to
    your website, time and time again for great savings. You are the best!! Montreal Carpooling Canada Carpooling Nearest Drivers Montreal Rides

  • Rashedul

    I have read
    so many article of this site in which some of them were very interesting and inspiring.This article has
    good title with good description.i am very happy that i found this site. I have
    bookmarked this site to visit again and find out the new post.I just want to
    say, this is a wonderful crowdfunding creditunion entrepreneur

  • Aine D

    great post- it’s all becoming clearer now, thanks!

  • Gaurav Sharma

    Hey Courtney,

    Its pretty good stuff but I would like to add few more points which you and other visitors would love it for instance, in On-Page stuff page download speed of a webpage, presence of structured data like review markup, video markup, address markup, organization markup, etc… , presence of social media, http headers, sitemaps and few more things which you can find here, are way important to get visibility clear to crawlers. After Hummingbird update presence of structured data on site are way beneficial and website structure with organized navigation is very important as we you mentioned already.

    Now moving to off-page, backlinks will always be the key of good rank but with few conditions. Only editorial links will benefit your site and it will show you significant improvement in ranks. No other back link is powerful than editorial embedded link. Furthermore. Co-citation and co-occurance are also important concept and will be more important with Google new update.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks for adding all this great info! Maybe it’s time for the Intermediate Guide to SEO. 🙂

  • A good read for sure! Too bad it’s time to update the section on authorship.

    • Great point! Just took that part out since it’s not so much a factor anymore. 🙂

  • I agree researches and optimizes keywords is really important that is why i used best keyword research tools.

  • Good article ;;)

  • Portman

    Great article, lots of info in there, some of which is new to me, some of which didn’t seem important before your context 🙂 It would be fantastic of Google would make the actual PR public in real-time, they don’t necessarily have to give us the algorithm, but there is no stopping webmasters from valuing that measure, and way Google treats it,
    makes webmasters cling onto it even more, no matter how Google try’s toplay it down publicly (whilst actually envoking it’s importance indirectly by its actions). Will be keeping an eye on your blog! Also making a list of High-PR free Directories with dofollow links for websites to submit to..go here

  • Naveen Kumar

    Thanks for sharing this valuble information and it is very useful for me and who wants Latest Search Engine Optimization Updates and Techniques

  • Khakan

    Awesome post Courtney this post is worth a gold mine for the people who are starting their journey in the field of seo, you explained everything so clearly and in such a simple manner really, I applaud you for the effort you have put into this post.

  • Cheritta Stewart

    I’m so greatful to have found this article. It answers my questions about what SEO’s do so perfectly. I would like to know how you feel about Google authorship being changed, what are your thoughts in the matter and how do they effect SEO?

  • thanks, nice tips

  • Maya Taylor

    Brilliant piece of information,I kept my robot.txt as user agent:*, is that code helps to crawl all my pages.
    best seo service india.

  • Well done, Courtney. Thank you, Kevin

  • Love the infographics simplicity and ease of understanding on the topic of SEO. Very well structured and broken down Courtney!

  • Good post, thank you for the info & Links.

  • Barbra Barry

    wonderful post, I learned new things form your blog, thanks for sharing.
    seo india.

  • Great article..! A good start to the beginners and SEO learners.

  • Great advice Courtney, how would all this change though based on the latest Google algo updates? Surely massively?


  • Excellent post. This post is very useful for beginners.

  • SEO is really new for many, even if we are already living in a very technology-oriented world. Anyhow, this is such a great post on what SEO is and what it can do, more so for businesses. We at Rosser Media stand at the same page with you about the power of SEO!

  • Hitesh Chikani

    It was really good Article. Thank you for that.
    I want to know more how can i do more SEO of my Picasa weblink.
    If any one have any document about that than kingly email me on [email protected]

  • Natasha Hood

    Thanks, these information will be very helpful to me in the seo blogs, and hope that other articles like this keeps up. I am getting seo SEO Gold Coast tomorrow for one of my websites. Thanks for sharing this post!