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How Does SEO Work?

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When users search on Google or another search engine, the search engine decides which pages are best to show in the results. In general, Google is looking for three things: relevance to the search, credibility, and usability.

Think about it this way: The people searching are Google’s customers. Google wants to make them happy by showing them the pages with the best information and user experience based on what they’ve searched.

The search engine does this by looking at a variety of factors within your site and your page.


I know, I know, but how does Google ACTUALLY work?

Two steps: crawling and evaluating user behavior.


First, Google’s “bots” or “crawlers” will look through a website and evaluate what each page is about, what type of information it has, how good the user experience is, etc. They will generally start finding pages via the XML sitemap (a list of all the site’s URLs), but it can find a site either way.

The use of keywords plays a big role in the crawling process. Keywords let Google know what a page is about, essentially putting each page “in the game” to rank for search queries.

Although Google can find pages, it’s commonly believed that its AI attempts to browse through a site like a human, clicking on links to discover more pages. For this reason (not to mention ideal user experience), it helps to use a logical, easy-to-use linking structure. Any page that you want to be seen by Google should be no less than two clicks from the homepage.

User Behavior

When real-life humans see your webpages, Google pays attention to what they do.

Are they immediately repulsed and click back to the search results? If so, you’ll end up with a high “bounce rate” and a low “time on page,” two user behavior metrics that negatively impact your ranking ability.

Do they spend a lot of time on the page? Do they click through to more pages? Do they bookmark the site and visit again once a week? If so, you’ll achieve higher “time on site” and “pages per visit,” which are all good for your ranking ability.


How Search Engines Decide Which Pages to Rank

To determine a page’s relevance, credibility, and usability for any search, Google evaluates several factors for the page. Each of these will have an impact on your rank.


On-Page Content

It’s the most critical component of your SEO. There is no way around it: You need great content.

Google looks for keywords in the headings and body content to determine if it’s relevant to the searcher’s needs, and it looks for associated terms that indicate in-depth coverage of the topic. 

More intricate factors come into play, like readability, proper grammar, relevant linking, and helpful images, tables, infographics, and videos.


Meta Title and Meta Description

There are two main tags that Google considers: meta title and meta description.

Google checks these for keywords or other hints that your content matches what a searcher wants. It also compares the meta data to the content to make sure it accurately reflects the content. If not, it will lower your credibility.

Keep in mind, the meta title and meta description show up in Google search results. They’re like a promise to the user about what they’ll get if they view the page.


Domain Authority

Technically, domain authority is a score developed by Moz, a provider of SEO software. However, SEO pros deduce that Google has its own recipe for something similar to domain authority. In short, it’s a score that tells Google how credible your site is overall. 

There are three key factors — backlinks, social shares, and high-quality content — but other factors may come into play, such as how many pages are on the site, how old the site is, and how much traffic it gets.



In addition to user-friendly internal linking, Google looks for backlinks to see what other sites link to you. For instance, if a Forbes article references you and links to your site, that’s a great backlink. Quality and quantity both matter. You want a large number of backlinks from reputable sites.

Links from smaller, lesser-known sites have less benefit. And links from “link farms,” which only exist to provide backlinks, are bad for SEO and can potentially result in a link penalty that has catastrophic effects on your rankings. It’s an old “black hat SEO” tactic that was effective before Google’s algorithm became more sophisticated.

Outbound links can also benefit your site because they show Google you’re researching your content. They indicate that you’re trying to show readers the best content available, even if that means creating a bridge to another site.



As we mentioned, Google is trying to show their “customers” the sites that will give them the best experience. Now that about 54% of web traffic comes from mobile devices, one of Google’s ranking criteria is mobile-friendliness.

Your site needs to be optimized for mobile users because they’re likely to be the majority of your audience. Ideally, you want a responsive site, so it works well with any screen size.



For searches that indicate a local intent (such as “grocery store” or “hairstylist near me”), Google prioritizes businesses in the searcher’s area. You can appeal to this by making your location clear on your site, so Google ranks you higher when a searcher is in your area, and by optimizing your Google My Business profile.

On your site, list your business name, address, and phone number on every page. You can also include some city names within your content or create dedicated “city pages.”


Page Speed

Google wants its users to have a good experience with its top-ranked results. Few things will ruin a user’s experience faster than a page that won’t load.

If your page loads slowly, Google will rank you lower than your competitors in many cases. Having a well-constructed page that isn’t overloaded and has fast load times will help.


User Experience Data

As mentioned earlier, Google watches what happens after people arrive on your site. 

Your click-through rate (CTR) is the percentage of users who click on your page from the search results. The more people click, the more your page appears to give them the right information.

Your bounce rate is the percentage of people who come to your page and leave before exploring other pages. Google assumes that if you have great content, users will check out more pages on your site.

Finally, your time on page is what it sounds like: the average amount of time users spend on your page. If it’s too short, Google sees that users come to your page and leave because they didn’t find what they wanted.


HTTPS Security

This step is far down the list because it’s simple, but security is an absolute must-do item.

If your domain is preceded by “http,” your site is not secure. The data between the browser and the site is not encrypted, violating the user’s privacy. You want “https” instead.

If you don’t have it, you need to get an SSL security certificate, which will ensure site security.


Personalization Factors

You may have noticed that the Google results you see aren’t the same as what someone else sees. This is because Google tries to personalize its results to you, your location, and your browsing history.

If you’ve visited a site frequently, it’s more likely to appear in your search results later.

To see search results that aren’t affected by your browsing history, use a private browser window.


Getting Your SEO Together

Search engine optimization is a complex science. Answering the question, “How does SEO work?” isn’t a simple task. The factors above are the top criteria Google uses to determine your rank in search results, but they aren’t the only ones. In addition, Google makes “core updates” to its algorithm several times a year, and it’s commonly understood that they “tweak the dials” every day.

For a truly successful SEO strategy, look to professionals. Contact our SEO specialists today to find out what we can do for your site!