watch gears: seo works concept

How Does SEO Work? A Primer on Organic Search Marketing

Learn how SEO works, why it's important, and a few basic SEO principles you can use to start optimizing your site today.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the digital realm, you’ve come across the term SEO, or search engine optimization. Few people outside of digital marketing professionals, web designers, and content writers know what the acronym really involves. Fewer understand how SEO works.

In this article, I’ll aim to explain to you how it works, why it’s important for businesses, and how you can capitalize on a healthy blend of paid search marketing and SEO for a well-rounded digital marketing campaign.

If you’re one of our readers who already knows the answer to this important topic, I invite you to add your two sense in the comments, or reach out on Twitter. We always enjoy expert feedback from our peers, and may include it on an update or follow up article. If you’re new to SEO and there’s still something you don’t understand, reach out in the comments, on Twitter, or contact us directly via our convenient contact form and we’ll strive to answer your questions.

If you break down the words, you’ll find that SEO is the process of optimizing your digital presence for search engines. The industry uses a set of best practices, including streamlining code, creating content, developing outreach programs on social media and more to improve rankings in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and grow traffic to your site. An essential element of digital marketing, SEO helps you gauge the relevance and quality of your digital offerings as they apply to the user, the user’s search query, and the user experience (UX). The point of optimization is to drive traffic to your site and keep visitors engaged enough to meet or exceed your campaign objectives.

Why is SEO Important?

As a top priority, Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines are concerned with providing users with the most relevant page* in answer to the users’ queries. Google is the largest search engine not just because they got a jump on the competition, but because they consistently provide the most relevant results. Comparing a few searches on Bing to corresponding searches on Google will quickly point out the quality provided by Google.

* Notice I said “page” and not “website”. Although we often say “ranking your site”, that’s really a blanket comment. The surrounding context of your site matters, but the search engines rank individual pages on your site. Each page is a new opportunity.

Many SEO principles, best practices and recommendations are based on the priorities of the Big Boss of search engines, Google, and their constantly evolving algorithm updates, frequently called the “Google Dance“. Google currently holds more than 90 percent market share for online searches. They conduct minor algorithm tweaks about 500 – 600 times per year. Major updates are released on average of 4.5 times a year.

Internet Live Stats estimates that over 7.4 billion searches are made each day on Google alone. This affords the company the ability to charge for ad space, and why companies big, small and everything in between spend billions on that ad space. Everybody wants a piece of the 7.4 billion search pie and competition is fierce.

Although the other search engines don’t have near the market that Google does, their end goal is the same. To sell ad space. But not everyone can afford to put out hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands in ad spend for years on end. And this is where SEO comes in.


Otherwise known as Pay-Per-Click or just PPC, ads put you up front on search with your most important offers. However, they do so at an often hefty price. A common starting setup price is $1700. Without someone who knows what they’re doing, you can quickly burn through that without a single lead.

SEO works as a more organic version of search engine advertising. Instead of cost revolving around ad spend, it revolves around work done, hours spent and campaign results. Each method has the ultimate end goal of conversions, but how you get there is different – often drastically so.

The biggest bonus of SEO over PPC is longevity. If you stop PPC advertising, your ads immediately disappear off the search engines and the campaign is done. With SEO, it can take months for your site to start disappearing from search once you stop services.

Of course, as with all things marketing, there’s a caveat. How quickly your site drops out of the search results depends on how competitive your industry is. The more competitive, the faster the drop once SEO is stopped.

Today, the SERPs are full of a variety of search features beyond simple ads and run-of-the-mill results: People Also Ask, Featured results, video carousels, image carousels, the Knowledge Panel. Sometimes looking at a search result can be overwhelming for a marketer. However, each new search feature is an opportunity for ranking.


Ads only get you at the top or the bottom of the SERPs. SEO is important because it can get you all over the place (even beyond search engines), in a variety of ways, with lasting results.

How Does SEO Work?

Enough of the sales talk, Gabriella, how does SEO work?

The answer is: usability, content, and connections.


Remember what search engines want: to provide the best result for the user, whatever that result is. Because of this, usability is one of the first things we look at when we’re auditing a website.

For example, many people use their mobile phones to access online information, so search engines prioritize mobile-first indexing. Mobile-first means all pages should be created based on how they look and perform on a mobile device. It looks at usability:

  • how fast is the page?
  • how big (in byte size) is the page?
  • how much data will it take to view the page for mobile visitors?
  • how easy is it to use?
  • how secure is it?

For some websites, the answers to these questions aren’t good, and it lowers their ability to rank* – especially on mobile searches.

* I should note that this isn’t a direct penalty from the search engines so much as it is a prioritization of results that work well on mobile.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is the answer to usability issues that can stop your pages from ranking well. It relates to the techie side of building your website. Technical SEO directly addresses issues that can reduce your chance of ranking such as:

  • Site speed
  • How often your site site is up (shoot for a hosting provider with a 99.999% uptime history)
  • Site architecture, such as XML sitemaps
  • How secure your site is
  • Whether it meets mobile-first practices


“Content is king,” we say in the marketing world. As overused as the comment is, it’s true. Content makes the online world go ’round. Whenever we’re online, for any reason, we are content consumers. “Content” includes:

  • Videos
  • Articles
  • Images
  • White papers
  • Blog posts
  • Web pages
  • Spreadsheets
  • Vlogs
  • Podcasts

and so on. It’s that Instagram post you just clicked on, or that Facebook post you Liked. The Tweet you sent out and the blog post you shared because you liked it so much. All of these pieces of content – and the myriads of ways you interact with them – are what make SEO work.

Content is where most peoples’ understanding of SEO falls short. I can’t stress how many times we’ve had to struggle to get the budget for blog posts or convince yet another client that articles are important. After all, what good does a blog really do, right?

Wrong. A blog can:

  • rank for a specific term
  • increase perceived authority
  • bring additional links to your website
  • bring visitors to the site
  • convert a visitor to a buyer

That’s a lot for an 800 word piece of content.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO addresses issues such as:

  • removing content that isn’t relevant to the site
  • pinpointing low performing content ( no/low visits, no/low backlinks) for removal, replacement or update
  • evaluating whether your website offerings match your service or product offerings
  • evaluating your CTAs and how likely they are to attract and convert
  • locating areas of keyword cannibalization (more than one page targets a term)
  • locating areas where more information can be provided to make it easier for search engines to understand what’s on a page, such as schema markup,


I’ve written a lot through the years about connecting the dots. Digital marketing takes a lot of moving parts; connecting the dots means making sure that all of those moving parts are working together toward a common goal. An online presence can be in several places at once. For example:

  • Your website
  • Social media
  • Guest sites where you write articles or blogs
  • Places you’ve asked for backlinks from
  • Business bio websites like Crunchbase
  • Personal bio websites like

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO evaluates how well your website and content interact with other places on the web and the user’s perception of your content quality and relevance. The majority of off-site SEO focusing on developing authority and backlinks. This can happen as part of social marketing on one or more social platforms. It could also mean writing guest blogs or articles on other authority sites, creating videos that are put on Youtube or any number of other activities.

Local SEO

Local SEO is essential for anyone who owns a brick-and-mortar store or provides an in-person service. It’s location-based in order to serve people within a specific community or region. Consider key phrases like “family dentist near me” or my personal favorite “San Francisco SEO company.

Optimizing for local SEO includes such activities as:

  • Completely filling in information about your business, such as the full name, physical address, and phone number (or NAP). This should be included in all of your social media platforms, Google My Business page, and any consumer generated content such as Yelp Reviews and professional websites or profiles.
  • Adding geolocators, such as interactive maps of your local area with a flag where your company is located
  • Social media engagement
  • Keyword optimized user reviews

Putting It All Together

All the above comes together to create a complete picture of authority and brand quality. SEO works by following AIDA principles: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action.

As you develop an SEO campaign, you pull in all the elements to make a well-rounded offer. As a very basic example, before you ever actually implement a campaign you might:

  • Locate and fix any technical issues that might stop your site or page from ranking
  • Choose a single product or group of products to bring awareness to.
  • Research the terms that visitors might use to look for your chosen products
  • Research competitors and what they’re doing to get visitors and sales
  • Create a landing page for the specific products or optimize the current product page according to your keyword research
  • Create a few blog posts where you share those products or talk about how they can help your target market.
  • Develop any graphic assets: infographics, Instagram photos, Facebook images, Youtube videos on how to use the products
  • Create a plan for how you’ll discuss your products on social, and how you’ll share your link

Once each piece of content is published, the campaign begins to follow the AIDA method. As the actions of SEO go to work, the parts that make your campaign goals come to fruition move slowly into place:

Awareness: Introduce the products by publishing your targeted landing page and your first blog post, which link to the landing page. Share that blog post and the landing page in separate social media posts (one for the landing page, one for the blog post)

Interest: As each piece comes out, visitors and search engines become more aware of your content offerings. Both develop interest, and come to check it out. Visitors look to see if your product or products are worth purchasing. Search engines come to see (or crawl) your new pages to sift, sort and decide whether your page has any benefit and, if so, where it should be placed.

Desire: Interested people have a tendency to share their points of interest in blog and social media posts. As more people talk about your products and come to visit, word of mouth advertising kicks in. On top of that, all the activity surrounding your product and pages ups the relevance of your pages in the eyes of the search engines.

Action: If interest hangs on long enough (and it will if the SEO is done correctly), some of the new traffic to your site will convert and purchase the product(s). On the side of the search engines, your page(s) begin to rank for targeted terms, and your site slowly slides up the ranks in the SERPs.

Essential Elements of SEO for Boosting or Preserving Your Place in the SERPs

The top actions for SEO changes depending on algorithm updates, the year, what’s been shown to work the previous six months and so on. Here are a few SEO principles to use in 2021:

  • Research your competitors often
  • Constantly refine your keyword research and placement
  • Look more for topical keyword clusters rather than individual terms
  • Optimize your page for speedy, consistent page load times
  • Optimize images and video content
  • Improve security and user experience
  • Keep content fresh and relevant
  • Using keywords in your URL
  • Creating a concise, compelling headlines and descriptive meta data
  • Find and use relevant back links and outbound links to authoritative websites with a higher following
  • Creating high quality content
  • Always write for visitors first and then for search engines

Final Thoughts

Remember, nearly 70 percent of all traffic is driven by the first five results on the first page of the search results. Anything that ranks lower than that will most likely never be seen.

In order for SEO to be effective, it’s important to work with an SEO professional who has the expertise and time to keep up to date with current best practices and do the kind of keyword research that gets relevant results.

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Learn how SEO works, why it's important, and a few basic SEO principles you can use to start optimizing your site today.

Today's Author


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