SEO is a notorious black box for modern marketers.

Experts either proclaim SEO to be the ultimate online marketing solution or pronounce it dead while trying to promote the next big trend. Make your way onto any marketing blog or publication and you’re bound to find plenty of conflicting information about how SEO works and how search engines determine results.

But for small business owners who don’t have much experience promoting their business online may be asking – how does SEO work? After all, although the basic idea behind SEO may be clear, the exact process of how search engines work and how to get SEO working in your favor remain blurry.

Here’s the good news. While there are over 200 factors related to the search algorithm, modern marketers don’t need to memorize every nuance of SEO.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is a strategy that’s designed to help websites attain higher rankings on Google and other search engines for the most relevant keywords.

By appearing on the first page of search engines for keywords that your target audience types in, you can gain a steady stream of organic and free traffic, which can make SEO the most cost-effective way to promote your business.

If you can understand the 5 major factors of how SEO works, broken down into “On-Page” and “Off-Page”, you’ll be well on your way to contextualizing and understanding the most confusing aspect of digital marketing – how search engine optimization really works.

How Does SEO Work?

On Page SEO

On-Page SEO is the practice of optimizing a website’s pages so that they will rank higher on search engines. These are the easiest changes to make since you have full control over the content of your site (as opposed to off-site SEO, in which you rely on other webmasters to make changes). Key factors that improve your on-page SEO include content, site architecture, and technical SEO.


If you’re curious about how search engines work, one of the primary components is your website’s content. When Googlebot is crawling the web analyzing millions of websites, it’s looking for content that is relevant to the search query being entered by the search user. Naturally, the content that exists on your web pages, namely long-form written content, is one of the primary components.

Google looks at a few things to determine whether your content is relevant enough to show up as a result of a particular search query:

  • Content quality, and whether the content is well written or spun and/or generated by a content bot.
  • The content length, and how long the content is compared to other websites competing for the same search queries.
  • Content freshness, and how recently the content was published online. How SEO works, particularly in relation to content freshness, means that older content is less relevant than newer content and less likely to answer the search query’s intent.


Another way how search engines work is the architecture and layout of your website. Googlebot, a simple but very robust piece of software, is designed to reward websites that require the least amount of processing power – and by extension – human power, to navigate and understand. The easier it is for Google to crawl and understand the pages of your website, the better it will reward you in search results.

Some of the major areas of site architecture for optimization based on how does SEO work include:

  • Crawl efficiency, and the ability for Google to use the least amount of energy and bandwidth to understand how large your website is and what your website is about.
  • Mobile-friendliness, and whether your website has a responsive format that can be easily read and digested on a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet.
  • Duplicate content, and avoiding pages that contain the same content which can confuse a search user and reduce the value of your website for them.
  • Page speed, and the velocity in which a page will load on a website browser for the user. Google has a Page Speed tool that can analyze this for you, for free.


One of the more complicated, but just as critical, areas of SEO that Google looks at is the Technical optimization of your website, namely your HTML. Some important areas in how search engine optimization works include:

  • Title tags, and keeping the Page Title of each page optimized for proper length (to avoid truncation in Search) and keyword density (to avoid under- or over-optimization)
  • Meta description, and creating a compelling description of what each page on your website is about. This is the section of content that appears below your Page Title in your search result.
  • Structure, namely the organization and hierarchy of pages and content within the website. An improperly structured website will affect the crawl efficiency of your website, as well.
  • Stuffing, namely avoiding adding too many keywords into a single page, showing Google that you’re trying to “game the system” and produce low-quality content.

Off Page SEO

“Off-site SEO” (also called “off-page SEO”) refers to actions taken outside of your own website to impact your rankings within search engine results pages (SERPs). According to Google, off-page is the most important ranking signal in how SEO and search engines function.

Optimizing for off-site ranking factors involves improving search engine and user perception of a site’s popularity, relevance, trustworthiness, and authority. This is accomplished by other reputable places on the Internet (pages, sites, people, etc.) linking to (backlinks) or promoting your website (social media engagement), and effectively “vouching” for the quality of your content.


Off-page authority determines how legitimate a website page is from which you receive a backlink. This is NOT Domain Authority, which is a tool used to measure how well your own site is likely to rank in search results. Authority can be determined by looking at:

  • The linking page’s popularity, namely how many other reputable websites have been linking to that website itself.
  • The linking page’s age, namely how long the piece of content has been live, crawled and indexed by Google. Older content is significantly better for link authority, which is the opposite methodology for quality content on your website.

Link Quality

Off-page quality determines how efficacious a link can be from another website. There are many factors that go into a quality backlink, but the most important are:

  • The relevance of the linking site’s topic to the site being linked to, namely ensuring there is content relevancy between the page with the link and the page on your website. Simply put, if you are an accounting software company, you don’t want a link from a website page about dog grooming.
  • The “freshness” of the link, namely how old or new the placed link is. While we want the page on which the link exists to be older, we want the link on the page to be newer – this tells Google you are authoritative and relevant today, not in the past!
  • The anchor text used on the linking site, namely that the anchor text is proper for the context of the article and is optimized for your overall anchor text portfolio. Exact match anchors are extremely effective, but if they are overused they will trigger an overoptimization penalty, which can take months to recover from. This is why Sandbad has a strict process for anchor text optimization.

Not so crazy, is it?

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to do SEO yourself or hire an outside agency to deliver results; every modern marketer should understand how does a search engine work.

This insight makes you a better, more informed marketing professional. It allows you to speak authoritatively to other individuals in your organization and if the time comes to hire an SEO, discern the quality people who truly know SEO, and those who are faking it.