What is SEO? A Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization
Definition of SEO
SEO is the art and science of persuading search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, to recommend your content to their users as the best solution to their problem.
If you want search engines to offer your content in results, you need to do three things:
- Ensure these search engines understand who you are and what you offer.
- Convince them that you are the most credible option for their users.
- Make your content deliverable.
How high in the rankings and how often you appear is merit-based; these engines will show the results they consider to be the best fit for their users.
Why is SEO important?
Search Engine Optimization brings you the most precious traffic (also known as organic traffic), which is “free” — when a search engine shows your content to its users in the organic part of a SERP (Search Engine Results Page), you do not pay for the ranking. When the user clicks on the result and visits your site, you do not pay Google for a visit. And that briefly describes what is SEO used for.
On that same SERP, there are often paid results; they are identifiable by the ‘Ad’ icon to the left. When a user clicks on a paid result and visits the site, the advertiser pays the search engine for that visit.
So for ads, you pay to be the top, front, and center, and with organic search results (“SEO results”, if you prefer), you are top, front, and center through merit, and it is free.
The big advantage of SEO traffic is that, if chosen Search Engine Optimization strategy is effective (and we will look at how to make that happen below), then it is an ongoing source of free traffic.
How Search Engines Work
The fundamental aim of search engines is to satisfy its users. They want to provide the best results when a user searches for something. When someone uses a search engine, such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo, they are looking for the solution to a problem or the answer to a question. These engines want to provide the most helpful, relevant, and credible answer or solution.
How Google Works
Google says, “we are organizing the content of the web.” That is a lovely way of putting it. Google organizes the content of the web to be able to deliver to its users the best answer to their question or solution to their problem. You can look at this as Google being a reference system for all the information on the web. It keeps references to every page (and the information it contains), and then when someone asks for specific information, Google can point them to the content that best supplies the answer or solution.
It is very helpful to approach SEO from the perspective that you are providing solutions to Google’s users, and you are asking it to recommend your solution.
In SEO, we often refer to ‘keywords’ — this is slightly misleading. ‘Search queries’ is a much better term. We are not looking at individual words; we are looking at combinations of words that express a problem or a question.
Note: even when a user searches with just one word, they are still expressing a problem or question — they are just not being very clear!
What is your audience searching for?
To work effectively on your SEO, you need to figure out what your potential customers are searching for. Find the phrases that they use to search, and then create content that brings a clear, simple, and helpful solution to the problem that the user expressed. Today Infotech offers a tool that allows you to find out based on your market and your competitors.
Google is striving to recommend the most relevant answer from the most trustworthy source in the most appropriate format for its user.
- Relevant – Google aims to match the best answer to the question it has understood. That is relevancy in a nutshell.
- Trustworthy – Google wants to send its users to content from a source it is confident will satisfy its user — a credible brand or person it trusts.
- Consumable – This is an awful word, and I apologize, but Google wants to send its users to the kind of content they want to engage with, in a format they can consume.
Matching User Intent to Truly Useful Content
So here are two things Google needs to match. On one side, user intent: when someone searches on Google, they are expressing a problem they need a solution to. But they often express that problem incompletely or ambiguously. Google tries to understand what they mean. What is their intent? What is the specific problem they are trying to solve? Google needs to understand the question or the intent. We will look at that in more detail a little bit later.
On the other side, what is the best content to satisfy the user, given their intent — the most accurate and most helpful and useful content on the world wide web that reliably solves that problem? Google needs to understand the available solutions, their relative merits, and their appropriateness. And this is what SEO is practically about. SEO is your means to present your content to Google in such a way that it is confident that your solution is the most helpful, the most trustworthy, and the most appropriate for their user. In short, convince Google to recommend your answer or solution.
The word “algorithm” can seem scary, but it is simply a computer code that understands the question and evaluates the relative merits of the answers. In SEO, we are mostly focused on the second part. We aim to send the right signals to Google’s algorithm to convince it that our answer is the best, most useful, and most appropriate for the question it has understood.
- Google is constantly updating its algorithm on a daily basis. But most of these updates are small and won’t lead to noticeable changes in ranking or traffic for individual brands like yours.
- From time to time, Google implements major updates. These can affect your site’s rankings and traffic quite drastically.
- Some updates in the past were specifically aimed at reducing the impact of cheating by some brands and websites. It gave these updates names — Panda (related to the quality of content) and Penguin (about quality of links) are famous examples.
- Today, Google announces most major updates, and you can find those announcements on Twitter via .
Machine Learning in Google’s Algorithm
As the name suggests, “Machine learning is functionality that helps software perform a task without explicit programming or rules.” Google gives some examples of tasks machine learning may perform:
Personalize product recommendations based on customer behavior
Look for keywords in massive numbers of text documents
Enable software to accurately respond to voice commands
Machine Learning at Google
RankBrain and BERT are the most famous machine learning updates. Rank Brain is a machine-learning artificial intelligence system Google uses to help sort through its search results. BERT is a neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP), and it stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It is used to understand the nuances and context of words within searches, and it helps provide better matches to the queries with more relevant results.
Google has thousands of quality raters, and they are used to help improve the search experience. According to Google, “quality raters are spread out across the world and are highly trained.” Google is always experimenting with search results, and they use feedback from third-party search quality raters to make sure changes are useful.
So what are the raters looking for when they are analyzing the results? Let’s find out.
Quality Rater Guidelines
Quality Raters are considered “highly trained” because they are expected to follow a very long and detailed document — 168 pages as of January 2020 to be exact — that explains what constitutes a good result and what raters should look for to identify bad results. The document is worth reading because it sets out what content Google wants to serve its users and how Google judges the fit-for-purpose content quality. It does not tell us what the ranking factors/signals are or exactly how the algorithm works (more on that later).
These guidelines are updated frequently.
Here is a brief overview of what Google raters are looking for to identify quality content (and by extension, this is an overview of what you should aim to achieve).
Intent of the Query
When looking at the results, the raters stay focused on the intent of the user — the problem they are aiming to find the solution to. So they are asking themselves, “Is this result a good solution, and does it help the user?” If Google is to recommend particular content as a solution, that content must have beneficial value to the user in the search for a solution to their problem. The content must be user-centered and user-focused.
Credibility Signals (known as E-A-T).
Google uses the acronym E-A-T — Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness — which could also be expressed globally as credibility. They are judging credibility or E-A-T at three levels — the page, the author, and the website. Furthermore, they are looking to see if the content is credible in the context of the solution it aims to provide.
E-A-T is incredibly essential to Google; in the guidelines, they use the words expert, authority, and trust (or variants) over 200 times.
Let’s look briefly at each component of E-A-T.
- Expertise – Is the information accurate? Should this writer or brand write about this topic?
- Authoritativeness – Is the author well-respected in their field? Is the brand widely recognized in the industry? Is the content referred to elsewhere on the web by other authoritative websites, brands, and people?
- Trustworthiness – Do the brand and the writer have a good reputation and is the content reliable?