How Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Works

October 5, 2017
Peter McEllhenney

Search engine optimization (or “SEO”) is the process of getting traffic from the “free” or “organic” search results on search engines.

How search engine optimization works is complicated. Google says it uses over 200 different SEO ranking “signals” to compile their results.

How SEO works to build your business – and whether you should make it a focus of your marketing – is a bit simpler to explain. When talking about SEO, I think the best place to start is with the two major types of search keywords: “brand” keywords and “category” keywords.

Brand keywords contain the name of your business, the people in your business, and brand name products and services. For example if I owned a restaurant, one of my brand keywords would be my restaurant’s name, “Pete’s Perfect Pizza.”

Category keywords describe the category or type of your business, products, and services. For example, category keywords for Pete’s Perfect Pizza would include “pizza Philadelphia” and “pizza near me”.

Brand keywords are the best converting search terms because people who use them have a high intent to do business with you. They would not be searching on your name if they didn’t. Brand keywords are also generally easier to SEO because fewer websites typically want to rank on your business name. You always want to rank well in search results on your brand keywords.

Category keywords convert less well because people who use them have a lower intent to do business with you. They are looking for a business like yours. They aren’t necessarily looking for you. Category keywords are also generally much harder to SEO because many more websites are competing to rank on the same terms.

Now the major advantage of ranking well on category keywords is of course that they can get you new customers – people who hadn’t heard of you before they searched Google but are now giving you money. Hopefully lots of money. New customers help businesses grow.

So it is always worth it to rank well on your category keywords right? It kinda maybe depends.

Is Search Engine Optimization Worth Your Time and Money?

Category keywords take more time and money to SEO because more websites are competing to rank well on them. So you need to estimate the value of winning the SEO contest for these keywords before you start. To do this, you need to know five things:

  1. How many searches there are on your category keywords.
  2. How many website visits you can get from these searches.
  3. How many website visits you need to earn one conversion.
  4. The average value of these conversions.
  5. How much time and money the SEO will cost you.

Let’s use Pete’s Perfect Pizza as an example. There are 18,000 searches a month in Google on the phrase “pizza near me” made by people in Philadelphia (these are all mobile phone searches by the way).

Estimate that good SEO can get me 300 web visits a month because Philadelphia is a big place and not everyone will be near Pete’s.

Say one in every ten web visits gets Pete’s a sale with an average value of $30.00. That’s 30 sales worth $900 a month or $10,800 a year with some of those sales earning repeat business because Pete’s Perfect Pizza is … perfect.

That sounds like a decent opportunity. Which means we should think about spending some time and money on SEO. Which leads to the next hard questions …

How Much Does SEO Cost? How Can I Know It Will Work?

A lot and you don’t. Well, that’s not really true. Professional SEOs working for large companies do consistently deliver results. They have superb technical knowledge of how search engines and websites work AND they are masters of their target markets and content that persuades them. The big pros do get paid a big chuck of change and they have big project budgets to boot however.

The problem with this truth is that it does not help anyone with a small business or a tight budget. Small businesses with tight budgets are typically pitched by people promising they can deliver SEO that is “fast, cheap, and easy.”

These people are lying. Well, that’s not always true. If you aren’t ranking on your brand name keywords, you probably can fix your SEO without too much work if you have a somewhat unique name. (The owner of “John Smith Inc.” faces SEO challenges.)

Ranking on category keywords is usually another matter.  To understand why, look at the skills SEOs need again.  They need to be computer engineers AND experts in human psychology AND understand your business.

Also consider the types of SEO signals Google and other search engines use to rank their results:

Content: Is the information on your site useful to people?

Architecture: Is your site well organized? Does it load fast and is it easy to use on all devices?

HTML: Does each page have appropriate html keyword tags and descriptions?

Trust & Links: Do reputable organizations and people share your site or link to it?

Personal: Are you and the search engine user in the same country or location?

Social: Do respected social media users share your site content?

To get any one of these types of SEO signals right takes time. Some of the most powerful SEO wins are hard to get (a link from The Wall Street Journal for example.) And getting any one of these SEO signal types right is not by itself going to be sufficient if you aren’t also doing at least a couple of the other types right too.

Get on Page #1 or Forget About It

Just in case you weren’t discouraged enough, let me say one more thing. If you aren’t on the first page of search results for your category keywords – then SEO ain’t gonna help you.

Well, that’s not always true. But it often is.

Studies generally find that 90% of all search users never look beyond the first page of results. A lot of studies estimate that 60% of all search users never look beyond the first three results. For many businesses, this means they have to be one of the top three results if SEO is going to make any real difference to their bottom line.

Now there are exceptions. If you rank on the second page of results for a term that gets 100,000 searches a month then appearing in search results 10,000 times can still be pretty good. If your average sale is $10,000 then only getting one or two sales a year from SEO can also be pretty good.

But being on page 2 of search results is not going to help Pete’s Perfect Pizza much.  Page 2 for Pete’s will get him 30 visits a month instead of 300 visits and 3 sales a month worth $90 instead 30 sales worth $900. And $90 just ain’t a whole lotta money.

So I Should Just Say “To Hell with SEO” Right?

No. First, everyone needs to rank well on their brand name keywords. If people search on your business name and can’t find your website, that is a big problem.

Second, ranking well on category keywords makes sense for many businesses. You just need to do research and analysis to decide if this SEO is right for your business.

Third, most of the things that help a website rank well in search engines make sense to do for other reasons. A well organized website with great content that loads fast offers a better experience to every user – no matter how they come to your site. People saying good things about your business on social media is good for your business – independent of the SEO impact.

So that’s how search engine optimization works. In our next segment in the series, we will discuss a topic which complements SEO in many ways. And that’s “pay-per-click” advertising on Google and Bing.

 

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