What Is SEO? The 2022 Guide to Search Engine Optimization

Jason Barnard

Dec 21, 202122 min read
What Is SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the process of improving your site’s organic traffic and ranking on search engines such as Google, Bing, and other search engines. 

This includes creating high-quality content in addition to monitoring your site’s technical health, amplifying your content to gain backlinks, maintaining your site's local search presence, and more.

How Does SEO Work + Examples

Youtube video thumbnail

SEO is both the art and the practice of convincing search engines to recommend your content to their users as the best, most authoritative, and most comprehensive solution to their problem.

Search engine bots “crawl” sites to create an index to collect information on web pages. You can think of the World Wide Web a bit like a spider web — the bots (or spiders in this example) travel from page to page by links.

Once the bots collect all this information, an index is created. Search engine algorithms then review the index based on hundreds of ranking factors to determine where pages should appear on the search engine results pages (SERPs) based on users’ queries.

Why is SEO important? Search engine optimization brings free traffic to your site. If you publish high-quality pages that answer a user’s query, they will appear at the top of the SERPs. This is an excellent place for searchers to become familiar with your website and business.

SERP example

On-Page SEO 

On-page SEO is the practice of optimizing content and HTML source code to define what your webpage is about clearly.

As the name implies, on-page ranking signals (more on that later) are those that Google finds on your webpage. You control these signals directly, making them easier to adjust and optimize. 

Some examples of on-page SEO factors include: 

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO, put simply, describes all of the optimization tactics that take place off of your owned web properties.

These off-page tactics help search engines and searchers to determine if your site is authoritative, relevant, and trustworthy. 

Here are a few examples off-page tactics that marketers frequently use: 

  • Public relations (PR) 
  • Link building (more on this later)
  • Content marketing 
  • Influencer marketing 
  • Frequenting forums
  • Guest posting

Off-page SEO can be an art form when done correctly. It takes a multi-faceted approach to influence how outside sources view your site and content. 

How to Learn SEO

You can take several paths to learn SEO for your business. If you’ve decided to tackle SEO in-house, the approach and learning style become particularly important. 

There are free academy courses that offer certifications, and Google itself provides training and certifications for Google Analytics, which is especially useful if you plan on tracking your site's performance.

Some businesses can’t scale quickly or efficiently enough to learn and implement SEO in-house. In this case, hiring an agency to do your SEO can be one of the more stress-free ways to ensure your brand gets the visibility it deserves. 

Take a look at some tips via our Twitter for more details of breaking into the SEO field.

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engines use relatively complex processes — or algorithms — to organize and rank content. They operate with slightly different protocols and formulas to get their ranking factors/signals. 

The long and short of it is, search engines take in digital content and organize this information into results pages. The ultimate goal is to make searchers happy with the results they find in the SERPs. 

How Does Google Work? 

As previously mentioned, several large search engines are available to users on the web. To make things simple, we’ll be discussing the most well-known search engine on the market: Google. 

Google works in three main stages:

  1. Crawling: Google deploys its bots (we talked about these bots as “spiders” earlier) to crawl the web looking for new or updated website content/pages. Generally speaking, the more links a page has to it, the easier it is for Google to locate that page. 
  2. Indexing: Next, Google analyzes the URLs the bots discover, and it tries to make sense of what the page is about. This is where multiple determining factors come into play, but critical things Google looks at include: content, images, and other media files. It then stores this information in its Google Index. Buttoned-up technical SEO is vital in these first two steps, so everything gets appropriately indexed.
  3. Serving: This is where the magic happens. Once Google has assessed URLs, it determines which pages are most relevant to users’ search queries and accordingly organizes them in the SERPs.

Google Algorithm 

The Google search algorithm refers to Google’s internal process to rank content. It takes a wide range of factors into account when it makes its ranking decisions. 

Unfortunately, no one outside of Google’s internal circle has a crystal ball into all of its ranking factors. It's understandable why Google would guard their magic formula so tightly. 

Luckily, Google does provide users with best practices to follow. Additionally, experts like John Mueller, a Google search advocate, provide advice and answers on the algorithm every so often.

That being said, here are a few areas you should keep in mind while optimizing your site based on the advice of Google itself:

  1. Intent: Does your content/webpage satisfy the intent of whatever query the searcher made that brought them to your site? Things like language, freshness, and synonyms make a difference here. 
  2. Relevance: Once Google’s algorithm has deemed that your content meets the search intent of whatever query was posed, it will scan its Google Index to see where your content falls in terms of relevancy. On-page SEO is crucial here. You will likely rank higher in the SERPs if you provide searchers with the clearest and most relevant content.
  3. Quality: Yes, it might seem like content with good search intent and relevance is already high-quality. But, the reality is that quality is a factor in the Google Algorithm. Many refer to this assessment as E-A-T — expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. 
SEO ranking factors
While we may never know exactly what Google's ranking factors are, here are a few best practices we recommend prioritizing on your site.

Google Penalties 

Google penalties are negative consequences or effects that impact the ranking of a website. These penalties are manual actions taken by Google to address inappropriate SEO tactics. Here is a helpful guide to avoiding the mistakes that lead to these penalties.

It can be tricky to learn the ins and outs of the SERPs — take a look at the following thread on SEO myths so you can learn to spot bad SEO advice from a mile away.

Content

As Bill Gates once said: “Content is king,” and that is still true. 

What does that mean for you in terms of search engine optimization? The better the content, the higher positions in SERP you will claim. But what differentiates poor content from great? We’ll get into that in this section, but before we do — let’s talk about some key focus areas of content. 

Meta Titles & Meta Descriptions 

These areas of a page determine, in many cases, what Google shows its users in the search results. 

Semrush meta example

An accurate meta title that describes clearly what the content of the page offers to the user is significant — it's the reason they click on your result or not. 

Meta titles and meta descriptions are essentially sales copy that pulls the user in and help Google better understand the content and purpose of each page. Be sure to include the primary keyword within your meta description, as it's helpful for both users and search engines.

Headings 

The title the user sees when they land on your page is a critical signal to Google. Like the meta title, it needs to be unambiguous and include the terms the user searched for. Again, this is an important signal to Google and is reassuring for the user.

Writing Style 

Keep your writing simple, straightforward, and focused. Keep sentences short, break the content into logical chunks, and stay on topic. This helps readers get right to the solution to their problem. Organize your content so that the value it provides is easy to identify, understand, and engage with.

Rich Content

Include rich content such as audio, video, and illustrative images whenever possible. Keep in mind, though, that Google cannot understand the content of images or videos. 

So, when you do include these richer formats, accompany them with the appropriate meta tags to help Google and those with visual impairments understand what the content is about. You could also include a written version to make it easier for users who prefer written content. 

Outbound links — or links to external sites — lead to sources that confirm the accuracy of your content and validate your credibility and the author’s credibility. 

Authorship

Identify the author explicitly where appropriate. If they are authoritative, this will bring credibility to the content.

But keep in mind that your content does not live in isolation. It is vital to see each piece of content as part of an overall, coherent content strategy. As soon as you do that, you are thinking in terms of content marketing.

Types of Content

Different types of content are appropriate for different stages in the funnel and different users. A good content strategy will contain a mix of various formats, including: 

  • Lists: Both people and Google love lists. They are easy to skim and easy to engage with.
  • How-to guides: These are perfect for providing a step-by-step approach to a search query. Target long-tail keywords where the user is asking a specific question.
  • Long-form guides: These may involve a lot of work, but this type of content can help your audience understand a specific or a broader topic in depth. 
  • Tables: Tables of data or information on your pages are easy for Google to understand. They are also helpful to your audience when they need to process data concerning a topic.
  • Graphics: These can be images, photos, or illustrations. Google is including these in the SERPs more and more, especially on mobile. Plus, images — when appropriately used and tagged — can drive visits from Google’s image search, which is particularly popular with some industries and types of queries (i.e., fashion or travel). 
  • Infographics: Infographics are images that contain information (usually illustrations and text) that makes them standalone content. They are great content to push out to your audience via social media to generate engagement. And, they are also a great way to build links.
  • Videos: Google is including more and more videos in search results. This is particularly true of how-to videos.
  • Podcasts: Podcasts are on the rise lately, especially within specific niches. Like with videos and images, Google shows them in the standard search results.
  • Webinars: A webinar is a live online meeting or presentation open to the public. Webinars are not only effective at engaging and building your audience, but they also provide great longer-term content. This is because, after the live event, you can post it to YouTube as a video people can watch at any time. 
  • Ebooks: Ebooks are downloadable books, usually in a PDF format, that brands often give away for free. They are perfect for in-depth content that is too long for an article and can be used to acquire more information about your audiences. 

Pro Tip: If you post your videos to YouTube, then you benefit from greater brand visibility and referrals on that platform. YouTube is the second most visited website on the planet.

3 Tips for Creating Better SEO Content 

  1. It’s always a great idea to start with some in-depth competitor research. What are your direct competitors saying in their blog? What keywords are they targeting? You’ll want to identify opportunities to talk about those subjects in more detail and depth, and you'll also want to identify content gaps where you can stand out from the competition. 
  2. Length isn’t the end-all-be-all. Notice that blogs targeting a particular keyword are shorter? If you think longer content will serve your readers better, use however many words necessary to get your point across. But remember — many readers spend less and less time reading online articles
  3. Keep accessibility in mind when you write. You can use tools like the SEO Writing Assistant to help you identify the tone and readability of your content. 

Now that you know the basics, look into the following Twitter thread on content strategy tips.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is all about the quality of the infrastructure that delivers your content. Good technical SEO helps ensure that Google will readily find your content (when you want it to) and correctly assess and index the information it finds. 

What Are the Top Priorities for Technical SEO? 

  • Crawlability: Google needs to access your pages and absorb your content. The term “crawl” basically means accessing and reading a web page. If Google cannot access your content, it cannot offer the page in its results. 
  • Indexability: Once Google has seen your page, it needs to be sure that you want it to show that page to its users. The noindex tag in the head section of your pages allows you to indicate to Google whether or not you want it to consider a specific page for its search results.
  • Schema markup: This is akin to Google’s native language. Schema markup explains your content to Google in a manner it understands, making it easy to digest and understand. 
  • Speed: Every page needs to be fast. Google wants to prioritize faster pages to its users since they give a better user experience. 
  • Mobile-friendliness: Users need to be able to consume your content easily on a mobile device. Google evaluates your content according to its performance on a mobile device, so it is vital you get this right. 
  • User interface: Google wants to recommend sites that appeal to users in design and usability. Your site layout needs to ensure that when the user lands on your page, they find it attractive, understand what your page offers, and grasp the navigational options they have. 

3 Tips for Better Technical SEO 

  1. Check for duplicate versions of your site in Google’s index. 
  2. Pay close attention to site speed — revisit anything that slows your page performance down and be mindful of technical features that may slow your page speed. Google PageSpeed is a free tool that allows you to see how well your web pages perform where speed is concerned. 
  3. Don’t forget to create a robot.txt file

Curious about technical SEO in practice? Take a look at this Twitter thread with the CEO and co-founder of Schema App.

Website Architecture

Website architecture refers to how web pages are grouped and organized. Great website architecture considers the user’s experience first and foremost. If a website is easy to navigate and has solid architecture, users are more likely to spend more time with and engage with that it. 

When considering the user experience of a website, it is essential to help visitors get to where they are trying to go in as few clicks as possible. It should also be easy for them to navigate from point A to point B and back to point A again. Excellent structure also makes it easier for Google to crawl and index sites. 

3 Tips for an Organized Website Architecture 

  1. Don’t make overly complex URLs. Google likes clean, concise URLs. Use simple phrases, lower-case letters, hyphens between words, and words that describe what the page is about. 
  2. Using a site map makes it easier for Google to crawl a website. There are a few ways to do this, but the XML site map is typical.
  3. Beware of cannibalizing keywords. To learn more about avoiding this, check out our article on keyword cannibalization

Authority and Trust

Google looks at authority and trust in several ways. Two common acronyms associated with these measurements are E-A-T. and YMYL (Your Money or Your Life). Let’s take a look at both. 

E-A-T

Google uses the acronym E-A-T — Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, referring to overall credibility. They judge 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 solution it aims to provide. 

E-A-T is essential to Google; their guidelines 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 by other authoritative websites, brands, and people?
  • Trustworthiness: Do the brand and the writer have a good reputation, and is the content reliable? 

Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) Pages

YMYL, or your money or your life, is a fundamental concept for quality raters. As Google explains in guidelines, this term describes pages or topics that “could potentially impact a person’s future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety.”

For that reason, it’s crucial that the pages displaying YMYL topics be authoritative and trustworthy. Here is a list of such topics:

  • News and current events
  • Government & law 
  • Finance 
  • Health and safety 
  • Identity groups 
  • Fitness & Health 
  • Education 
  • Housing & employment 

Google claims to have “very high Page Quality standards” for such pages because low-quality YMYL content can directly affect readers' well-being.

Using both E-A-T and YMYL when crafting your web content can help you achieve better ranking results. Ultimately, you'll want to provide readers with the best option for content so that they continue to return to your site when they have other related queries and problems. 

3 Tips for Building Authority and Trust

  1. Dedicate a page on your site (most choose “About Us”) to showcase your brand when it’s featured in major media publications. 
  2. Use schema markup on your site to give Google auxiliary information about your content.
  3. Use a page on your site to showcase customer reviews and ratings. 

Link building is the practice of getting other sites to link to your website via hyperlinks. It is one of the most important aspects of SEO, as backlinks are essentially votes of trust or authority from other sites. 

The higher the amount of high-quality referring domains, the more reliable your website appears to Google.

Obtaining backlinks is also a great way to boost your page in the SERPs (provided these backlinks are coming from reputable websites).

It’s best practice to have internal inbound links as well — i.e., links from your website pointing to other pages on your website. This helps Google navigate your site and signals that the pages you are pointing to are important.

In 2012, Google released a core algorithm update called Penguin to help eliminate “link cheating” (meaning to prevent sites with spammy link profiles from ranking high).

In 2017, they announced that the process of identifying, and then ignoring, these spammy links is now running in real-time. This means that backlinks from low-quality sites will be ignored and will not help to rank.

So focus on quality, not quantity, when link building.

A good way to start building a backlink profile is to create content that will naturally earn links. Some ways to do so are:

  • Creating useful, authoritative content within your niche
  • Targeting the right keywords, i.e. delivering your content to the right people
  • Including linkable assets like infographics

However, link building isn’t always so simple — actively running a link-building campaign can help that process. 

Link building consists of identifying people with the capacity to link to your content (website owners, journalists, bloggers, etc.), pointing them to your content, and encouraging them to link to it from a relevant page on their site. Sounds simple, right?

While it may be straightforward, it's also time-consuming. Here are the basic steps one would take to begin a link-building campaign: 

  1. Find the appropriate publishers: This is one of the more time-consuming parts of the process. You’ll want to find reputable publishers (bloggers, news sources, etc.) that operate within your industry or niche. You can make a list using our Link Building tool. Knowing where your competitors are getting published can be especially helpful. 
  2. Draft a pitch: You’ll want to have a pitch ready to send to the publishers you've identified. This pitch should be professional, friendly, and feel organic (in other words — don't make it sound too gimmicky). Let them know who you are and explain why your content would be relevant to them and their readers. 
  3. Send your emails to publishers: Next, you'll want to send off your pitch. You can use our link-building tool to do this and monitor your correspondence with publishers. You’ll want to make sure you're answering any communication you receive in a very timely fashion. 
  4. Do link management and upkeep: One of the easiest ways to maintain visibility is to ensure that the links you’ve earned stay current (not broken). You can use our Link Building tool to do this. You can also use the Link Building tool to identify publishers already linking to your page with no-follow links and reach out to them to get that follow. 
  1. Create pieces using data: Create content that includes unique and helpful (or interesting) analysis of data, especially original data.
  2. Be emotional: Content that appeals to people’s emotions is effective for earning links.
  3. Be humorous: If you can hit the right note and your humor appeals to your audience, this type of content is a big winner for gaining merited links. It is also great for creating a buzz and gaining brand visibility on social media. 
  4. Focus on collaborations: Create content that includes quotes or interviews industry influencers or leaders. This type of content will have authority ‘built in’ since you associate your brand with a recognized and relevant industry leader. With this type of content, you’ll likely have one link right out of the box — from the party you collaborated with!
  5. Aim to craft authoritative pieces: Creating this type of content is challenging but pays dividends when done right. If your content covers a topic thoroughly and accurately, it brings value to the target audience, making it easier to get links. 

Read this Twitter thread for some tips on link building in practice.

Local SEO

Local SEO refers to a set of tactics used to optimize a business’s online presence for local-specific search queries. For instance, if you’ve ever looked up “car dealers near me” on google, you were performing a location-specific search query. 

Location-specific queries yield results with (typically) three parts: 

  1. The location map 
  2. Local Pack (Google Business Profile) 
  3. Organic search results 
Honda dealer local search result
Local SERP results for “Honda dealers near me”

Google Business Profile

Google Business Profile or GBP (formerly Google My Business) is a Google solution that provides high-visibility branding to businesses in the SERPs. It also offers businesses a knowledge panel (which can signal trustworthiness). 

Prospective customers can use your GBP to contact you through a growing number of methods. Leveraging your GBP page is a great way to increase your local SEO efforts. 

GBP ranks content on three main factors: 

  • Relevance: How relevant is your business to a searcher’s location-specific query? 
  • Distance: Google calculates the distance of each relevant result from the search terms. If a searcher opts not to include much detail about their exact location, Google will take what information they have about the user’s location to give the best result. 
  • Prominence: This refers to how well the business is known. It's also based on how much information is available about the company online. 

3 Tips for Improving Your Local SEO

  1. List as much information about your business and its operating hours as you can on your Google Business Profile. If people get accurate results about your business, they are more likely to be repeat customers. 
  2. Be sure to select the correct category (and any relevant subcategories) for your business on your GMB page. This helps ensure that your business has the appropriate relevance to users’ search queries. 
  3. Take a look at what your competitors are doing. What can you do better for your business?

Here are some further tips for succeeding in the local SERPs.

Social Media

It might come as a surprise, but — yes — using social media is a part of best SEO practices. Social media doesn't directly impact rankings, but it is a crucial off-page SEO tactic that helps businesses gain exposure, amplifies content for possible backlinks, and helps establish brand awareness in your industry.

For example, some businesses use social profiles like Instagram to showcase their employee work culture and answer customers’ questions about products (or address concerns) quickly and personally. 

These platforms, when used correctly, can be great for brand reputation management and organic shares. Again, it’s not going to impact your website ranking directly, but the exposure could lead to backlink opportunities, which in turn do help boost your site ranking in the SERPs.

Pro Tip: Social media is vital to your marketing efforts beyond SEO, so having a well-thought-out social media strategy is an essential aspect of your digital marketing strategy. Social media activity helps build your reputation, brand awareness, and audience. Over time, it is a great channel for maintaining contact with your existing audience, expanding your reach, and distributing the content you create.

3 Tips for Leverage Social Media in SEO

  1. LinkedIn is a great platform to share professional content with followers. If you are looking to engage your audience and showcase thought leadership, this is an excellent platform to keep updated with all of your pertinent information. 
  2. Use social media to share any exciting business updates. The more authoritative content you share across your social media platforms, the better chance of having that content featured. 
  3. As mentioned previously, it’s a great idea to utilize social media share buttons on your site. This on-page optimization allows people to share your content, and it can help you generate backlinks.

Learn more about how to avoid striking out in social in the thread below.

F.A.Q.

How Fast Does SEO Work? 

Search engine optimization is a long-term strategy. For your strategy to bear fruit, you must implement a holistic SEO strategy, including both on- and off-page optimization.

Some of your efforts will pay off in the short term after implementation. Typical examples are changing meta titles and headings or improving the content on a few pages. 

Other efforts, such as implementing Schema markup on pages, creating a substantial volume of informative content, building authoritative links, or attracting positive reviews, take time and pay off in the long term. 

How Do I Rank #1 in Google? 

No single thing will revolutionize the performance of your SEO strategy. All the elements described above work together, and it is the combination of all the signals Google reads that will make the needle move for you. 

Your best bet is to base your content strategy on the right keywords, create consistent content, optimize for local and technical SEO, and pivot strategy as necessary based on performance.

What Is SEO for a Business?

Implementing SEO for a business can be done in one of several ways. Some businesses opt to go with external resources. These outside resources can be agencies, marketing specialists, or freelance SEO strategists. Additionally, businesses can purchase SEO-focused content through the Content Marketplace

Some businesses prefer to handle SEO in-house. Companies that decide to do so will need to have experts on staff to produce the content and the content amplification they need to make their SEO strategy work. 

What Are Some Examples of SEO?

A holistic SEO strategy involves tons of competitive research, content creation, and content amplification — in addition to the technical elements of optimizing a website. Great SEO can include: 

  • Creating a keyword-targeted blog campaign
  • Optimizing existing content so that your webpage has a better chance at being used as a featured snippet in the SERPs
  • Working on technical SEO elements to improve page speed
  • And much more

If you’re looking for some helpful tips and trends that show just how versatile SEO can be, check out this article on the latest in SEO

Conclusion 

If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information out there on SEO, don’t be! We have paths forward for professionals at every level of SEO experience. SEO is an art and a practice that takes time to learn, and things are constantly changing in the world of search engines. 

All it takes to learn SEO is a curious mindset and a passion for helping searchers find the information they need.

Want to read more about SEO? Check out these ten advanced techniques for SEO

Want to watch some compelling content on SEO? Take a look at our webinar series on creating a winning SEO strategy.

Want to see how your SEO skills measure up? Take one of our free SEO certifications through the Semrush Academy.

References 

Author Photo
Jason BarnardCompany: He is founder and CEO at Kalicube – a groundbreaking digital marketing agency that, through the Kalicube Pro SaaS platform, helps clients optimise their Brand SERP and manage their knowledge panel. Author: Jason is a regular contributor to leading digital marketing publications such as Search Engine Journal and Search Engine Land and regularly writes for others including Wordlift, Semrush, Search Engine Watch, Searchmetrics and Trustpilot. Speaker: Major marketing conferences worldwide regularly invite Jason to speak about Brand SERP and knowledge panels, including BrightonSEO, PubCon, SMX series and YoastCon. Podcast host: Spanning 3 seasons his podcast, ‘With Jason Barnard...‘ has become a weekly staple in the digital marketing community. Guests include Rand Fishkin, Barry Schwartz, Eric Enge, Joost de Valk, Aleyda Solis, Bill Slawski… Over 180 episodes available, and counting. The conversations are always intelligent, always interesting, and always fun!