Search engine optimization (SEO) has become an essential part of running a website, but all the information and discussion about it often make it out to be much more complicated than it really is. In reality, although SEO is quite simple, it can have a powerful effect on a website's traffic. In this article, we’ll take a look at SEO and break it down to its simplest concepts.

Reasons for SEO

Search engines provide an important service on the Web. They allow us to quickly find relevant information in response to our queries, and they do it fast. This convenience means that fewer people are going to sites they trust or like to find the content they want. Instead, users search for content across the entire Web, and land wherever the search engines take them. This means that site traffic is increasingly coming through search engines compared to direct means like bookmarking or clicking around from a home page. If you have a website, you need SEO to ensure that you are getting the search engine traffic you should be. Fortunately, SEO is relatively simple. (Get some basic SEO tips in 3 SEO Tactics That Google Loves.)

SEO Ying and Yang

There are two basic types of SEO: black hat and white hat. Black hat is the dark side of SEO, where a webmaster uses link farming, hidden text and other controversial methods. White hat SEO, by contrast, just involves strengthening key areas of a website to help search engines determine the type and quality of the content on the page.

The Anatomy of White Hat SEO

How search engines work is a bit of an open question. There are some factors we know are important - and then there a number of factors we think are important, but aren’t quite sure. There are very likely some factors that we have no idea about. Search engines keep this level of secrecy to prevent people from gaming them with black hat SEO.

Here are some of the basic factors we know/think make an important difference in a Web page’s search engine ranking:

  • Content
    Good content is at the heart of what search engines look for. They want to deliver the best content for a particular query, so if you have informative and useful content, a lot other aspects of SEO fall into place.

  • Inbound Links
    When another website chooses to link to some of your content, it is seen by search engines as a positive thing. Essentially, that website is telling its users that something on your site is worth checking out. This link matters even more if the linked text is accurate. For example, getting a link for “great article” is not as significant as a link for “article explaining SEO.”

  • Trustworthy Inbound Links
    Not all inbound links are created equal. Every website creates a profile of itself that is an aggregation of its content. A site like www.nytimes.com has a high trustworthiness factor, so a link from The New York Times to your site is a huge boost. The New York Times got to where it is by producing high-quality content and earning those inbound links, social media "likes," and so on.

  • Site Links
    Although probably not as significant as inbound links, links within your site help define your content rather than waiting for inbound links to do so. For example, this article will appear as a related link on the SEO terms on Techopedia. This signifies that a) the article is related to SEO and b) the terms that feature it as a link are related to SEO.

  • External Links
    Providing external links from your content to related content on other sites also provides relational data that can help search engines figure out what your content is about. For example, if a piece of content has three outbound links that all go to sites that publish DIY home repair content, that article is probably about DIY home repair.


  • Keywords
    Traditional keywords – the ones that could be stuffed into the background of a page – are virtually dead. What seems to work now is incorporating keywords naturally into content and then highlighting their importance. So, instead of bolding subtitles, you can change them into secondary headers (h2 and h3 tags in HTML.). But this also means that you may sacrifice cleverness in favor of being clear – in this article, SEO Ying and Yang would work better as SEO Types: White Hat SEO vs. Black Hat SEO. That said, part of using SEO properly is not overdoing it.

The Takeaway

We have focused on the SEO of a particular piece of content, but SEO also takes place at the domain level. Plus, there is much more to the social media side of SEO that we haven’t covered here. There are also more technical areas we haven't covered here. However, the key thing to remember is that SEO is not that complicated. It is basically a list of little things that you can control and improve with some effort. The bottom line in SEO is that when you have good content that a search engine can recognize as such, everything else will click into place.