What Is SEO and How Does SEO Work? Learn SEO in This Starter Guide

SEO — or search engine optimization — is the process of improving your website's relevance, trustworthiness, and usability to increase its rankings in organic search results on Google, Bing, and other search engines. With a higher organic search ranking, your site can earn more traffic.

Hello there! How did you end up here? You must have been searching for how search engine optimization (SEO) works or something closely related. Whether you used Google, Bing, Yahoo, or any other means to land here on this page, we’re glad you’re here to learn how SEO works.

Keep reading to learn more about how SEO optimization works — and how to optimize your site for search in this SEO starter guide. If you’re looking for a quick analysis of your SEO, enter your URL here to audit your SEO instantly and receive custom recommendations for making SEO work for you!

What is SEO and how does SEO work?

Let’s get the formalities out of the way (and answer your question).

SEO stands for search engine optimization, a digital marketing strategy that focuses on improving your website’s position in search results on search engines like Google.

Since search engines use hundreds of factors to generate search results — Google uses more than 200 — SEO works by optimizing your site for these factors, along with getting your site crawled and indexed.

When you understand how SEO works, you can use different tactics, like keyword research, content creation, and page speed optimization, to increase your visibility (or how high you rank) in search results.

How does SEO work for search engines?

Search engine optimization is the product of search engines — search engine companies develop ranking factors and use those factors to determine the most relevant content for a search. However, before a search engine can determine the most relevant content, it must crawl and index it.

  • Crawling: Search engines use crawling to discover and re-discover new and existing pages on the web. Crawlers — also known as spiders — use links to discover and re-discover content, which is why internal linking and backlinking are crucial to SEO.
  • Indexing: Search engines use indexing to store content from the web and then deliver it via search results. Indexing happens after crawling. Most pages will enter a search engine’s index, but spammy, blocked, or duplicate pages rarely get indexed.

Once crawling and indexing happen, a search engine will analyze pages against its ranking factors, like:

  • Speed
  • Backlink profile
  • Keyword usage
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • And more

Keep in mind that search engines do not publish their ranking factors.

Based on the search engine’s analysis, your content might appear in organic search results, which means you can start bringing free and relevant traffic to your site!

What is the difference between organic search and paid search?

The difference between organic search and paid search is organic search is free and paid search is paid.

When you submit a search to a search engine, the results display paid and organic listings — paid listings will have the word “Ad” attached to them. Click on a paid listing and the advertiser will pay for that click. Click on an organic listing and the website owner will pay nothing.

While paid search is valuable and has its uses, organic search’s return on investment (ROI) makes SEO a smart investment for any business. That’s why it’s important to learn what SEO is and how SEO works because you can use that knowledge to improve your site’s search result rankings and traffic numbers.

📚 Learn more: Organic Search vs. Paid Search

What are the types of search engine optimization?

You can categorize SEO tactics into three buckets:

  • On-page SEO: All on-page SEO strategies happen on your website.
  • Off-page SEO: All off-page SEO strategies happen off your website.
  • Technical SEO: All technical SEO strategies happen on your website’s backend.

Both on-page, off-page, and technical SEO aim to make your site more friendly, as well as trustworthy, to users and search engines. When search engine crawlers see how friendly your website is to them and users, it increases the chances that your site will rank well for different searches.

📚 Learn more: Types of SEO

What are the types of SEO strategies?

Every guide on how SEO works should explain the types of SEO strategies, which are:

  1. White-hat SEO: A white-hat SEO strategy uses recommended best practices and user-focused tactics to optimize your site. For example, a white-hat SEO strategy might include producing helpful content, improving page speed, and inserting keywords naturally.
  2. Black-hat SEO: A black-hat SEO strategy uses disapproved and spammy tactics to optimize your site, like purchasing backlinks, copying content from other sites, or even stuffing keywords on a page via invisible text.

If you want to make SEO work for your business long-term, invest in a white-hat SEO strategy. While black-hat SEO may deliver quick results, it will eventually result in penalties against your site, whether decreased rankings or removal from Google’s index.

📚 Learn more: White-Hat SEO Guide and Black-Hat SEO Guide

Learn how SEO works with an example

When it comes to learning how SEO works, it’s often helpful to have an example.

So, say you have two websites: Website A and Website B.

Website A isn’t responsive, which means users on tablets or smartphones will have a tough time navigating and using the site. Website B, however, is responsive, which means a better user experience for tablet, smartphone, and desktop users.

How does SEO work graphic

For search engines, it’s an easy decision which website is more friendly: Website A.

Of course, how search engines work is a bit more complicated than that. Today, search engines use more than 200 different factors to generate search results, which means a lot of different elements influence your placement in search results.

How to make SEO work for you

Congrats! You now know how SEO works. How can you make SEO marketing work for your business, though? And by work for you, we mean help your company increase its rankings and traffic, plus its online revenue.

Well, you can start with these resources, which we’ve organized by SEO element. Check them out!

Keyword research

Keyword research is critical to how SEO works because keywords signal to search engines a page’s topic. That’s why keywords often feature in title tags, header tags, and throughout content. The key, though, is learning how to research and integrate keywords.

Learn how with these guides:


How does search engine optimization work? With content! Content is a core component of SEO. If you want to use SEO to bring traffic and revenue to your site, you need to learn how to develop, create, and promote SEO content.

Here’s how to get started:

Header tags

Header tags, which include title tags, meta descriptions, and more, are another critical SEO factor. Make SEO work for your business by learning how to create SEO- and user-friendly header tags that showcase your content’s relevance and usefulness.

Check out these resources to get started:

Web design and development

SEO works with on-page, off-page, and technical SEO. Web design is a big component of technical SEO and requires collaboration with developers and designers. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself so you can inform designers and developers of SEO best practices.

Explore these resources to get started:

Structured data

Structured data is a fantastic way to better communicate a page’s content. Learn how to use structured data to share information about your organization, authors, page content, and more with these resources for SEO beginners:

Page speed

Create a faster website that delivers a better user experience with page speed optimizations. Learn how to make this ranking factor work for your SEO with these resources for beginner SEOs and web developers looking to improve their knowledge:

Crawling and indexing

Understand how SEO works even better with these resources on crawling and indexing, which are the basis for SEO and search engine functions.

Link building

Optimize for one of the most talked-about SEO ranking factors with these resources for link building:

Why care about how SEO works?

Why you should care how SEO works

The Internet has really put the world at our fingertips. We are usually not more than a few clicks away from almost any information we could be looking for. When people are looking for information, services, products, and so on, they go online.

Try to remember the moment you thought, “I should really look up how search engine optimization works.”

You knew exactly what to do: You got on the Internet and you searched for “how SEO works.”

What did you do then?

Odds are you clicked on one of the first few results, at least initially. If you didn’t find a site that met your expectations, you probably clicked the back button and scrolled down the page until you found what you were looking for.

If your site isn’t properly optimized, it’s safe to assume you’re only coming up on the first page for your branded search queries — although depending on the name of your business, that might not even be the case.

That means people who don’t know you exist but are looking for someone like you will never find you, and you’ll never even have a chance to tell them why you’re better than the competition.

That’s right: Without SEO, you’re giving leads away.

The good news is you’re making it really easy on your competitors who are doing SEO. Odds are, they are loving you for not putting up a fight.

So, who cares how search engines deliver results? You definitely should!

Why do search engines care about SEO?

Why on earth does a search engine care if you use them or another search engine? After all, you’re not paying them? That’s right, you aren’t paying them…but someone else is! So the answer to this question is that they care because they make their money from advertising.

The page you are delivered to after you enter a search query is called the search engine results page (aka SERP). The SERP presents you with what are called “organic results” as well as “pay-per-click ads” (or PPC). The organic results are those that are influenced by SEO, while the PPC ads are paid for.

You cannot pay Google or any search engine to occupy any position in the organic results.

However, the ads on the page are how they make their money. So, the better the results they deliver you, the more likely you and others are use that search engine again. The more people using the search engine, the more ads they can show and the more money they can make. Make sense?

A technical explanation of how SEO works

So now you know why search engines work so hard to provide you with great results and why you should care, we can talk about how SEO works in a little more detail.

Search engines have spiders — not the creepy kind, but the automated robot kind.

These spiders collect all kinds of information about your website and the pages that make up your site. This allows them to easily determine when to serve a searcher a page on your site. They collect things like page speedtitle tagssocial signalsinternal linkingbacklinks, and so on.

With over 200 ranking factors used by Google in their algorithm, there are a lot of things to consider, and actions that can be taken to try to optimize a website. There are both on-page and off-page ranking factors that determine how well your site is optimized, and therefore how well it ranks.

Google Search Console algorithm explanation graphic

The on-page factors are exactly what they sound like: Things that are actually on the page. This includes title tags, content, site speed, page URLs, image alt tags, internal linking, and more. Off-page factors, meanwhile, are almost entirely based on links to your site from other sites.

It’s important to keep in mind that these bots are automated computer programs and not actual humans.

As you might imagine, that means they have some limitations.

They can’t access a website like you, or I would because they don’t actually see the website: they crawl the code of the website. This means they can’t see images or videos, nor are they impressed by flashy designs or audio clips.

In fact, they can’t even comprehend content like we do!

Independent research from Clutch has named WebFX the

top SEO company in the United States.

Clutch has personally interviewed more than 250 WebFX clients to discuss their experience partnering with us.

Read More Clutch Reviews

You know how SEO works — now make it work for you!

Optimizing your website for search engines isn’t an insurmountable task by any means. If you’re a little less technically inclined, you might find it to be challenging, but you can always reach out to a web strategist for help.

WebFX is an SEO agency that has many years of experience optimizing client websites to make them more attractive to search engines. Whether you’re brand new to SEO or want to take your optimization to the next level, we’re eager and willing to help you out!

Get in touch with an SEO expert at WebFX today to discuss how we can optimize your website with a custom SEO plan. We can’t wait to hear from you!