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How does SEO work? An illustrated guide for non-techy people

Updated: Feb 5

When you have a website, the best way to ensure people can find it when they're using a search engine is by 'optimizing it for search'.


There are lots of little steps (and some big ones) involved in making sure your website is search-engine friendly. Very often, this means making your site very 'human friendly' too.


You might be surprised to learn that spiders play a key role in helping search engines to find websites and learn about website content.


Of course we aren't talking about real stuff-of-nightmares spiders, we're talking about digital spiders, but for the purpose of making this really easy to follow, let's just pretend that they do actually look like cute and friendly spiders.

Black and white illustration of a friendly-looking cartoon spider lowing itself down on a thread and waving

So, with the help of some friendly spiders like the little guy above, here's what we're going to cover:



1) How does SEO work?


To be grammatically correct, Search Engine Optimization is a term we use for marketing that is designed to take advantage of what we know search engines are already looking for in terms of content. So a better question is actually this:


What are search engines looking for?


Search Engines like Google have made their criteria for prioritizing search results quite clear. Google wants all content to be 'useful and accessible'. They have also given us hints that they are looking for content that delivers these four things to users:

  • Experience, e.g. first-hand accounts of something, not just theory or heresay.

  • Expertise, i.e. your content proves you are an expert in your field.

  • Authority, which means other people are liking and sharing your content elsewhere on the internet, and

  • Trustworthiness. Is your site safe, healthy, and do people trust your brand sufficiently to leave their email address or interact with your site in some way.

Let’s say you have a website. You want people who don’t know you, or who don’t already have a link to your website, to be able to find your website, and read your content. They need to be able to find your website via a search engine.

Black and white illustration of a website being awarded first place in search rankings by a search engine that looks like a brain

For this to happen, you need to present your website to search engines in such a way that it’s easy for them to recognize your content as relevant, useful, and appropriate for a particular search term.


How do search engines work?


Search engines send out millions of data bots called 'spiders' to gather information about websites and information on the internet. They then relay this information back to the search engines, which use algorithms to prioritize the content that is presented for each search result.


In order to be able to do this, search engines need to understand a lot about the content on a website. The more they know about a website, the more search engines will prioritize certain websites high in their search rankings.



Getting to the top of search rankings is the holy grail for a lot of digital marketers. Luckily, if you understand some of the basics of how search engines work to gather information about your website, you can be sure to present your website's information to them in the best possible way, so that your website appears high in the rankings.


2) How do search engines find a website?


Think of your website like this. When you first hit ‘publish’, it’s on its own, floating around in cyber space. It isn’t connected to anything.


Until you start linking your website to other parts of the web, search engines have no way of knowing that your site exists.

Black and white illustration of a website labelled 'my site' floating around in black cyberspace

As soon as you share a link to your website with the rest of the internet, either by sharing a link on social media, or by someone else sharing a link to your website on their website, search engines can then learn of your existence.

Black and white illustration of a website labelled 'my site' being connected to a vast array of other websites that are also all interconnected against a black background of cyberspace

This is where the spiders come in.


Search engines are constantly sending out bots called spiders to check for new and existing content on the internet.


Once one page of your website is connected to the rest of the internet, the spiders can start crawling from that page of your website to every other page on your website that is linked together.

Black and white illustration of 'my site' connected to lots of other websites, which are all also connected to one another. Between the connections, lots of friendly-looking spiders are running.

Spiders can only find pages that are linked from one to another. If a page of your website isn’t linked, the spiders can’t get to it.

Black and white illustration of two spiders on the left-hand side of a ravine with a broken bridge. The spiders look alarmed.

The search engines don’t like this. If a page exists, they like for the spiders to be able to access it. If the spiders can't access it, they can't report back to the search engines about the kind of content that is included on this page. If you have lots of pages that aren’t linked to one another, search engines consider your website to have poor health. So make sure all the pages of your website have links to at least one other page, so that the spiders can find them.

Black and white illustration of a friendly-looking spider on the left side of a ravine with a broken bridge. The spider is fixing a 'danger' skull sign at the edge of the ravine to warn others not to cross.

3) What SEO information are the spiders looking for?


The purpose of spider bots is to index the content of websites. They are looking for data which helps search engines to understand how important your website is when measured against all the other information on the internet.


Unfortunately, these spiders aren’t particularly flexible. So even if the content on your website is good, if it isn’t presented in a particular way, it’s impossible for them to convey the information to search engines. And this means your site won’t show up well in search engines.


There are certain things we can do to make it easy for spiders to understand our content.


Spiders are looking for:

  • key words and phrases within your content

  • internal links to other pages on your site

  • links to and from external sites

  • logical hierarchical headings and information on each page.

Black and white illustration of a friendly-looking spider facing away from the user, holding a sign above its head with its front two legs. The sign has three headings: H1, H2, H3 and some writing.

So that search engines then know how important the content on your site is for various search terms.


4) What can I do to help the SEO spider bots understand my website?


Spider bots are adrenaline junkies. Make sure your website is as fast as possible.


Spiders don’t like roundabout routes. Make navigation super easy for them. Every page of your website should be no more than 2-3 clicks from the homepage.


Spiders have a short attention span. Use easy-to-follow and logical headings on each page. To make this super simple, you can use a template like this one I wrote.

Black and white illustration of a friendly-looking spider on roller skates moving fast towards a signpost. The signpost is confusing: all the signs point in different directions, but the destination is the same, 'H1'.

5) What do the spider bots do with this information?


The spiders then relay all of this information back to the search engines. The search engines then store the information and use their algorithms to prioritise the information they present to users in search results.

Black and white illustration of a spider running along a connection between a website called 'My site' and a search engine shaped like a brain.

And that, in summary, is what’s happening whenever you search for something in Google. There are lots of spiders and bots at work to gather information. And it is why links, navigation, and page headings and hierarchies are so important in SEO performance.


So all these techniques you hear people (including me) talk about to improve your SEO performance are effectively ensuring that spider bots can access the information they need as quickly as possible, so that they can take it back to the search engines and prioritize your site’s search appearance effectively.


And one day, if you keep feeding lots of good information to your new spider friends, you can hopefully reach that top spot in Google.


And that perhaps concludes the simplest description of the inner workings of SEO that you’re likely to find anywhere on the internet.


I would love to know if you found it useful – even if you don’t know anything about SEO or particularly want to know anything about SEO. If you liked it, drop me a line and let me know. I would love to hear from you.


Big thanks to @illunastasia for creating the beautiful illustrations that you see on this page.

 
Photograph of Claire Ransom

My name's Claire and I’m an SEO and content strategy expert. I help startups and ambitious businesses improve their content, so that customers can find your website in search, and so that when they do, they convert.


I’m a former startup CEO, and I’ve worked for some of the world’s biggest publishers (Penguin Random House, Oxford University Press), as well as training with Google's in-house SEO team. I even built a website to attract 45k in organic search visitors/month. Drop me a line if you need help of any kind with SEO and content.

 

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