SEO for Beginners #1: What is SEO, and how does Search work?

by Matt Burgess on April 1, 2010

SEO for Beginners is a regular column on this site, in which we discuss the fundamentals of marketing in the world of social media for businesses. As the name suggests, this is a column for those looking to get their toes wet for the first time, although even if you’re already experienced in the search engine optimisation world… well – despite what they tell you – you certainly can teach an old dog new tricks. To keep up to date with this series, be sure to subscribe to our free updates.

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SEO for Beginners #1: What is SEO, and how does Search work?

First off, I’m going to put up my hand here and admit that a lot of this series will be based on “search” as it applies to Google. This is in no small part due to the fact that Google absolutely dominates the Australian search market. In fact, the latest Hitwise data shows Google’s share at nearly 90%. So, while we should always bear in mind that there are other search engines out there, in terms of SEO, Google is – quite frankly – where it’s at in Australia… at least for the foreseeable future.

So with that in mind, let’s dive into this week’s first question: what exactly is SEO?

SEO is an acronym for “search engine optimisation” (or “search engine optimiser”, when referring to an individual’s profession), which answers that question rather neatly, doesn’t it? To expand though: SEO is the process of optimising a website – through internal and external factors – to increase the traffic that the website receives from search engines. While that may sound complicated, at its core it really isn’t. As I’ve said before, when you boil it down to the fundamentals, SEO comes down to three things:

  • good content
  • good site architecture
  • good links.

This means that if you’re looking to make sure your website is optimised for search engines, then start by paying attention to those three things.

Over the course of this series, we’ll be looking into each of these in far more depth. But I really don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves… so let’s start right at the beginning, and first take a closer look at how search itself works.

How search works, and how search engines answer your questions

It may seem like magic at times, doesn’t it? You go to your search engine of choice, type in your query, and click one button. And there they are: websites upon websites that seem to answer your question. Easy, huh? But what really goes on behind the scenes?

Well, our good friends at Google have a short video (3:15) to answer that exact question. So take three minutes out of your day, and watch the video embedded below.

As simple as that video makes the whole thing seem, it really does answer pretty much everything about the basics of SEO.

As the video explains, first off, search engine “spiders” crawl the web by following links between pages.
These links not only help spiders discover new websites, but also allow them to see how “popular” a website is. This means that the more quality links a website has, the more authority it will have in the eyes of the search engines. It makes sense, when you think about it: each link pointing into your website is basically a vote of confidence for your site; the more votes it has, the more trust and “pagerank” it accumulates. Again, we’ll discuss links in more detail in the coming weeks… for now, it’s enough that you recognise that links are important to your website’s performance in the search engine results.

It also explains how the content on your website affects its rankings… is the content relevant to the query being asked? Are the key terms in that search query featured on your page? Is the content helpful? Do users appear to be interacting with that content? There are multiple content factors to consider, but it boils down to: search engines aim to return the most relevant results for search queries, so make sure your site has quality content, that helps solve your customers problems. Remember… relevant, high quality content. It’s that simple.

Finally, the video makes the need for “good site architecture” clear. Basically, good site architecture enables the search engine spiders to efficiently crawl your site. If the spiders cannot crawl your site, they cannot include your website’s pages in their “index”. If your pages are not in their index, then they won’t be returned in their search engine results. This is perhaps the single most common failing when it comes to the SEO of websites. And this is because search engine spiders can process many, but “not all, content types. For example, they cannot process the content of some rich media files or dynamic pages“. Again, we’ll dive deeper into this in the coming weeks, but for now, remember one rule of thumb: every page on your website should be reachable from at least one static text link.

This week’s task

In this week’s lesson, we’re going to start off by taking a look at how Google views your website. Once you have an idea of how the search engines view your website, you’ll be able to see if there are any existing issues that need to be addressed.

First off, we’ll take a look at how much of your site Google has in its index. We’ll do this by using what is called the site command. The site command is simple to use: simply go to Google, and type in “site:yourdomainnamehere” (leaving out the http://www” part of your domain url). So for this website, it would be:

site:conversationmedia.com.au

This will take you to a page that tells you how many pages from your website are included in Google’s index. In this case (being a fairly new and small website) the number of this website’s pages will be fairly small… but if you have a large website (say, for example, one that offers many different products), then this search will show you how many of your pages Google actually knows about. Here’s a screenshot showing the results page…

the site: command results page in Google

You see the highlighted section there? That shows you how many results Google has recorded for your site in its main index. Do you have more pages on your website than the number that is returned here? Then that’s something we’ll need to look at in the future.

The second part of this week’s task is to look at how Google sees the pages from your website. Again, this is simple, and something you can do right from the “site command” results page.

On that results page, you’ll see a link saying “Cached” . This means that this is the cached (recorded) result that Google has in its index of your webpage, and can tell you some interesting things. Click on that link (which I’ve highlighted in the below screenshot).

Google's "cached" link

The resulting page tells you a number of interesting things. First off, it will tell you the last time that Google visited and recorded your webpage, as can be seen in the below screenshot…

Click to enlarge (and then click "back" to return to this post)

It also allows you to view a “text only” option. This is important, because it allows you to see the text that Google can access on your page. Have text in images? It won’t show up here. Have text in flash? You won’t see it in the “text only” version. So what exactly does Google see for your page? Hit the link highlighted in the below screenshot…

That will show you all the text (and the order) that Google sees on your page. Here’s an example of mine:

Try this for your website, and scout out various webpages. Do you see anything missing, when you click on the text only version? Is it something important? Is it text that you want Google to see? Make a note of what’s missing, and you’ll be able to see why. How much of your website is affected by this?

I think that’s enough for lesson #1. How did it go?

Any questions about this week’s lesson?

Image credit: iboy_daniel

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