Search Engine Optimisation: What it is and how it works

Most of my clients are new to digital marketing. If you’re like them, search engine optimisation (SEO for short) can seem like a complicated subject.

In the first few conversations with clients about how we’re going to get them found online, I usually get blank looks or awkward silences when I start using phrases like SEO copywriting, organic traffic or Google’s algorithm. Once I explain how SEO works in terms they can understand, though, most people get it straight away.

Here’s how I explain it.

How do search engines work?

Imagine that Google is a giant library and every website in it a book.

For a book to be considered an authority on a subject, it would need to satisfy certain criteria.

1. It should be fairly substantial. A one-page brochure wouldn’t be considered a book or an authority on any subject, whereas a hefty volume with lots of pages might be.

Single page websites are the same. They may look pretty and have all the important information a client needs to know, but they’re going to struggle to compete with a multi-page site dedicated to one specific topic.

2. It should be mentioned or referred to by other well-respected works. If a book is cited in many other important books on the same subject, then it would follow that it’s well respected and a book worth mentioning to someone looking for information on that topic.

The digital equivalent of citations are called backlinks, which are links to your site from other sites. The more important the sites linking back to you are, the better for your site (and your business!).

3. It should include a diverse range of language related to the book’s subject, rather than having a narrow focus on repeated words and phrases.

Keyword stuffing is the digital version of this narrow focus. It’s an ineffective technique where the same keywords or phrases are repeated throughout a page or site. Keyword stuffing reads badly and lacks depth. In the past, it could give short term gains with search engine rankings, however as search has become more sophisticated it’s become a big no-no.

4. It should be readily available to borrow. A book that has been out of print for 20 years isn’t much use to someone who wants to read it.

Similarly, a site should be available when visitors want to see it. It should load quickly and have minimal downtime. This is determined by the quality of the web hosting provider that the site is kept with. Thebigger and more complicated the site is, the more efficient the hosting needs to be.

5. It should be about what it claims to be about on the cover. If people keep picking a book up and putting it back down because the title or genre are misleading, then it’s probably not going to be used very much.

Search engines take into account a statistic called bounce rate, which refers to the first block of time a reader spends on the site. If they arrive only to leave straight away, Google assumes that’s because the site wasn’t a good match for the query that the reader typed in.

6. It should be in a format that readers are able to use without being inconvenienced. A bound book would be a more convenient format for readers than a roll of parchment or pallet of stone tablets.

Search engines recognise that more people are using mobile devices, so if a site isn’t able to be viewed easily on a range of devices, then the search engine isn’t going to recommend that site unless there are literally no other options.

7. Information should be presented logically and neatly. A book with missing pages or sections out of sequence would be hard to follow.

Sites that are built with attention to detail are more likely to rank well because they’re easier for search engines to process and readers to understand. Missing header tags, missing alt tags, deleted pages with no redirects and illogical structuring, all go under the heading of sloppy work. Website owners who put a premium on building the best possible foundation will be rewarded with slow but steady gains.

What is search engine optimisation?

Now that you know how search engines work, let’s look at what search engine optimisation is and how it relates.

SEO is about using the principles that search engines base their ranking decisions on, to give your website the best possible chance of getting found online without having to resort to paid traffic.

It’s a commitment to creating the most genuinely useful content you can, that your ideal customers will rave about.

What search engine optimisation is NOT

It’s NOT about quick and dirty tactics in exchange for temporary (if any) gains. It’s not about ranking well for words or phrases that are easy to get, but that potential clients would never use to search for you.

Like losing weight or building a house, there are no shortcuts with optimising your website for search.

If you keep these principles in mind when building and maintaining your website, regardless of the platform it’s on or how many updates to the search engine formulas come and go, you’ll be well placed to have a site that will rank well organically over time.


Algorithm: The formula that search engines use to match a request typed into their search bar to all the available content online.
Search Engine: A search engine is a website with the capacity to reference all the content on the internet and return relevant matches. Examples of search engines are Google and Bing.
Browser: A web browser is a piece of software that allows you to view content on the internet. Examples of web browsers are Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer.
Organic Traffic: Organic refers to your site’s ability to be found based on its structure and content.
Paid Traffic: Paid traffic refers to Google or Facebook advertising to have your website listed at the top of the page, above the organic traffic.
Keyword Phrase: A word or group of words that a search engine will attempt to match content with.
CMS: A content management system. Examples of a CMS are WordPress, Wix, Squarespace.

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