The term SEO or search engine optimization is thrown around a lot by web designers and tech professionals on a daily basis. Everyone knows it’s important. Everyone knows they need to have it. But what the heck does SEO or Search Engine Optimization actually mean and how do you do it?
Gentleman, Start Your Search Engines
First we have to understand what a search engine is. Since there is a vast ocean of information that is constantly being added and changed on the internet it is extremely important to be able to define and categorize this information in a way so that people can find it. In simple terms, a search engine is a software system that collects, analyzes and ranks websites from around the internet in real time. This process is called “indexing” and is continuously ongoing.
Prior to 1993, arranging websites into indexes on the world wide web was done entirely by hand on a central list. However, with the proliferation of webservers and expanded availability of the internet, it became virtually impossible to keep the index up to date.
In response to this problem, an automated program called a “webcrawler” was invented who’s sole purpose is to scour the internet for new websites and “crawl” (or collect) their contents in order to send that information back to the index. These crawlers collect information that is visible to human visitors such as the title of a website, written content and images. They also collect information that is hidden from humans within a webpage. This data is called “metadata” or meta-information.
Metadata is information that helps describe other data by providing details about it. For example, when you pick up a book for the first time, you don’t begin reading the fifth paragraph of page 56. You first look at the cover and read the title, see who wrote it, maybe you read the excerpt on the back, all to gain an understanding for what the rest of the book will be about before you actually read it. This is the same concept behind the metadata on a webpage.
Almost every webpage has a standard set of metadata in its initial section that gives details about what the rest of the page is about including information about the subject matter, where to find similar information, what language is used in the content and what tools were used to create the content. The accuracy of metadata is as important as the actual content of a website.
Where SEO Comes Into Play
As the evolution of the internet has progressed, search engines have become far more complex and dynamic in ranking websites in their indexes. New algorithms determine the quality and usability of a website that has been crawled based on hundreds of factors. Everything from the proper use of grammar in the content, to the relevancy and uniqueness of the content, to the page load-time and website speed, to how many users interact with your website a day all factor in to the ranking of a website.
Search Engine Optimization arose to help the automated webcrawlers understand what a site is about by providing accurate metadata and a web environment that satisfies these new algorithmic ranking factors. The better that a crawler understands your website, the more likely it is to rank higher. This is achieved through responsive web design, relevant keyword targeting, and quality content production.
Search Engine Optimization is an on-going process and is never completely done because the internet is forever changing and never static. Even if your website is ranking well now, it does not guarantee it will forever. Major search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo are constantly updating and changing their ranking algorithms and crawling tactics. Furthermore, since thousands of websites are created everyday, competition for keywords will increase and the presence of unique content will be harder to come by.