How Does SEO Work? Understanding the Fundamentals of SEO

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If you’ve built a website, chances are you already know what SEO is. But answering that question only opens the door to more questions. Namely, the big one – how does SEO work?

Below, we’re unpacking everything your online business needs to know about search engines: from how they rank websites, to exactly what they’re looking for in a piece of web content. We’ll also look at the factors – from on-page and off-page to the technical – that influence SEO, and answer another burning question: how long does it take for SEO to work?

Along the way, we’ll identify the top SEO best practices and trends you need to know about, dive into the age-old conflict between good and evil, and let you in on the best website builders for SEO.

Read on!

Understanding Search Engines

Search engines – think Google, Yandex, Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, and more – are online tools designed to answer people’s questions.

Search engines are built to filter through the vast swathes of information on the internet. These platforms determine which articles and websites are most trustworthy and relevant to the query, and then present these to the searcher. Think of them as “gatekeepers” who make decisions about the sites and sources the user should be checking out.

To make these decisions, search engines employ advanced algorithms: complex formulas and sets of rules that determine the relevance and ranking of webpages. These algorithms weigh up different factors of these pages – from their content and quality to their perceived authority and trustworthiness. This decides how they should be ranked, meaning the order they’ll be presented in on the SERPs, or Search Engine Results Pages.

While the exact makeup of these algorithms is a highly guarded secret, we do know some of the ranking factors search engines are looking for.

These include:

  • Relevance: does your content match the user’s search query?
  • Authority: is your website reputable and trustworthy?
  • User experience: is your website fast and easy to use, with a logical structure?
  • Quality content: is your content original, informative, and well-written?
  • Freshness: is your content new? Has it been updated recently?

How good your answers to these questions are will go a long way to determining how high your website can climb in the SERPs.

Factors That Influence SEO

We can split the factors influencing your website and content SEO efforts up into three camps: on-page, off-page, and technical SEO.

1. On-Page SEO Factors

Optimizing your website’s pages for SEO involves several factors, including:

  • Keyword research and optimization: unearthing the terms and phrases most relevant to your audience – then integrating these into your page content, headings, meta tags, and URLs – is vital for ranking. It’ll also help your website rank for the right questions.
  • High-quality, relevant content: writing original, valuable content – that address the needs of your target audience, and offer fresh, informative insights into the topics they’re most interested in – is crucial.
  • Compelling title tags: these are the page “headlines” – the clickable sentence that appears in the SERPs. Your title tag has a few jobs: accurately describing the page’s content, containing the most relevant keywords, and enticing users to click.
  • Appropriate internal linking: linking from your site’s content to other relevant pages on your website helps search engines understand your website’s structure, and the relationship between its pages. It also helps search engines discover and index content, and distribute authority throughout your website.

2. Off-Page SEO Factors

Not all of your SEO efforts will take place on the page. Many of SEO’s most effective strategies are actually concerned not solely with your page, but with its relationship to the rest of the internet – particularly the websites that are most influential within your site’s space.

Off-page SEO factors include:

  • Backlinks: these are links from other websites pointing to your site. They serve as a vote of confidence – as social proof for search engines that suggest your content is worthy of links and audience attention. Where the links are coming from is vital, too – so focus on earning them through reputable, relevant websites to improve your domain authority.
  • Online reputation management: encourage satisfied customers to leave reviews on online aggregator platforms like Yelp and Google My Business. And be sure to respond to all reviews with grace and empathy (especially the bad ones!).
  • Guest blogging: writing content for other popular sites in your business niche is an excellent way of building your personal and professional brand – all while building backlinks, too. Just remember to include a link back to your site in the content!

3. Technical SEO

Technical SEO’s focus is less on the content itself, and more on how the content is presented – or, in more concise terms, your website. To improve your site’s technical SEO, consider its:

  • Speed and performance: how fast your website loads isn’t just crucial for its users – but for its rankings, too. So optimize your website’s load times through compressing images, minifying code, leveraging the power of browser caching, and harnessing content delivery networks (CDNs) to serve content from the servers closest to your users’ geographical locations.
  • Structured data and schema markup: using vocabulary to implement structured data markup provides search engines with extra context and information about your site’s content. This helps them understand and display your content more effectively – and can lead to better SERP rankings.
  • Security: adding an SSL certificate to your site demonstrates to web users and search engines that your website is safe land to traverse. An SSL certificate (which displays your site with the secure HTTPS URL in browsers) can also provide your website with a slight ranking boost because search engines prefer secure websites.

Learn more about how to get an SSL certificate, or take a closer look at the basics of SEO in our ultimate beginner’s guide.

How Long Does It Take for SEO to Work?

SEO is an effective strategy for growing your business and bottom line, but it’s not a short-term task to brush aside once complete.

SEO is as long-term as it gets – the algorithmic equivalent of a years-long relationship as opposed to a one-night stand. (For a fling, try paid ads.)

Over time, SEO can engender trust in, loyalty towards, and heightened recognition of your brand and business. But, like all relationships, it takes time and effort. You’ll need to be posting consistently – every week, at least – and you must put in the work when it comes to identifying keywords, researching your market and audience, and writing quality content.

Do this, and you should start noticing tangible improvements in your rankings, traffic, and time spent on pages within just a few weeks. We recommend giving it three months to start; if nothing’s happening after six, it could be time to revisit your SEO strategy.

That said, regardless of the industry, niche, or topic you’re exploring, the internet is already full of websites tapping that exact same vein. So don’t get downhearted if your website is struggling to rank even after a few months – keep it up!

Black Hat vs White Hat SEO

Jedi vs Sith. God vs The Devil. Aslan vs The White Witch.

History – and all the best stories – have pitted good against evil; arraigned the forces of light against those of darkness. And SEO is no different.

As an ethical endeavor, SEO can be loosely divided into two groups: White Hat and Black Hat.

White Hat strategies encompass the array of ethical strategies for improving a website’s rankings and visibility. This is typically achieved through writing high-quality content, providing an engaging website user experience, and building natural backlinks through guest posting and strong, strategic outreach efforts. Basically, everything we’ve promoted above!

Black Hat strategies are the opposite. These are unethical (and, quite frankly, lazy) efforts to climb the SERPs. Black Hat strategies include keyword stuffing – packing target keywords into content over and over again, in a way that’s unnatural and compromises the content’s usefulness – and purchasing backlinks.

Keyword stuffing example
This example, from ContentWriters, demonstrates how keyword stuffing can look on a page – and why it’s a Black Hat SEO strategy that should be avoided! 

And, just as the forces of good tend to overcome their nefarious counterparts, White Hat SEO strategies always win out over Black Hat ones. Search engine algorithms are complex, and can sniff out and squash Black Hat strategies faster than you can say “penalties”. Which, if you pursue SEO’s dark side, is exactly what your business and brand will be getting!

SEO Best Practices and Trends

SEO isn’t something that, one day, you suddenly achieve. It’s not a box to tick and then forget about – but an ongoing process of optimization, repetition, experimentation, and iteration.

So to ensure your website continues to rank, read up on the SEO best practices and trends:

  • Design your site to be responsive and mobile-friendly: make your website mobile-friendly so that it adapts to different screen sizes – and renders well on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.
  • Create high-quality, user-focused content: we really can’t say this enough. Valuable, well-researched, and comprehensive content – that satisfies user intent, provides an excellent user experience, and solves problems – is the best thing you can do for your website’s SEO efforts.
  • Invest in local SEO: optimizing for local searches is vital, especially if your business has a physical presence – a brick-and-mortar store, for example. To do this, be sure to claim your Google My Business listing (and ensure its name, contact details, and address is accurate), and actively seek out online customer reviews.
  • Optimize your videos: videos are an excellent way of engaging your audience and showing off your brand – providing, that is, they’re well-optimized for search engines. So make sure all your videos have detailed descriptions, relevant titles, transcripts, and thumbnails that hook the reader – and compel them to click.
  • Find your voice: virtual assistants (such as Apple Siri and Amazon Alexa) are on the rise – as well as the number of people using voice-enabled smart devices to make searches online. To optimize your website for voice searches, use long-tail keywords, conversational language, and provide direct answers to common voice search queries. It’s worth checking out our comprehensive guide to voice search optimization too!

How Does SEO Work? A Summary

So – how does SEO work? We’ve covered the essentials here, but the ultimate answer is that, even with everything we know about it, SEO is still a…bit of a mystery. It’s a process of trial and error. Of fumbling and fiddling with different tools and techniques, and being willing to constantly throw your lot in with a new approach – or embrace a fresh mindset.

With SEO, what works for a similar business might not work for you – and vice versa. So it’s important to take the principles and understanding of SEO we’ve laid out here (high-quality content, backlinks, video, image optimization, and more) – and turn them into something that works for your website. Find a scalable, sustainable approach that allows you to continue to meet the needs of your audience – and answer their most pressing questions.

If you want to improve your SEO knowledge, why not plunge into our in-depth SEO glossary for a jargon-busting journey through the full list of SEO terms you need to know about? Or start ticking items off your business’ SEO to-do list with our SEO checklist.


From the Moz Toolbar to Semrush to Wordstream and far, far beyond, there’s a huge array of SEO tools to boost your website’s SEO efforts.

And the best part? They don’t have to cost you a dime.

We’ve put together our list of the 15 best SEO tools to boost your business – on a budget!

According to Website Builder Expert’s in-house research into the best website builders, Wix is the best overall website builder for SEO. And, handily, the most beginner-friendly, too!

Squarespace is the best website builder for built-in SEO-boosting features, while is ideal if you’re seeking more hands-on experience. Weebly has a whole bunch of helpful, high-quality SEO plugins and apps, while GoDaddy’s SEO support is brilliant.

For more information about the best website builders for SEO, dive deep into our guide dedicated to just that.

Written by:
I’ve written for brands and businesses all over the world – empowering everyone from solopreneurs and micro-businesses to enterprises to some of the ecommerce industry’s best-known brands: including Yahoo!, Ecwid, and Entrepreneur. My commitment for the future is to empower my audience to make better, more effective decisions: whether that’s helping you pick the right platform to build your website with, the best hosting provider for your needs, or offering recommendations as to what – and how – to sell.

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