An Introduction to Search Engine Optimization

Google search field auto-fill options for 'search engine optimization'

By Tony Vlachakis (SEO Strategist) and Manoli Vlachakis (Content Writer)
Last modified: May 29, 2024

SEO Basics for Beginners

SEO or Search Engine Optimization is the process of improving how pages of a web site rank in the natural or organic results of search engines.

Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios communicates that ranking high on search engines by emphasizing that "Google doesn’t rank web sites, it ranks web pages." As a result, incorporating SEO best practices for each web page on your site can increase search volume and traffic quality.

It's been documented that a web site appearing within the first few listings on page one of a search engine's results will get more clicks when compared to a web site that's not ranked as high.

Striving for that number one spot on Google's results can make a world of difference in the traffic volume that your web site's pages can receive.

Search Engine Journal presented findings from a couple of studies to support the importance of that top spot on the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). In one study, more than half of organic search clicks go to the first link and another study indicated that the top Google result gets 36.4% of the clicks.

Search Engine Crawlers

In the past couple of decades, search engines have evolved a great deal. Over the years, several search engine properties have been acquired or gone bankrupt. As of spring 2024, the top search engine ecosystems based on usage are Google sites, Microsoft sites, Verizon media, and Ask.

The following chart reveals the search engine marketing share of all home and work desktop locations in the United States by percentages as of March 2024 (data is from comScore).

Search engines use crawlers, called robots (bots) or spiders, based on algorithms to find pages on the web. Crawler-based search engines operate like automated software agents that find web sites.

From link to link, and page by page, the search robots scan the site's Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). Bots are scanning primarily for two things on a web page, the:

  1. HTML for meta tags included in the HEAD portion
  2. content from the BODY portion

Web browsers like Edge, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera allow your site visitors to see everything that is in the BODY portion of your HTML. A web page's information that is in the BODY can provide web site users with content they can consume through copy or text, images, videos, and other types of media.

Some videos, audio, and images found on web sites can be searchable, however, search engines prefer text-based content.

As bots scan your web page's content, specifically text, these automated crawlers simultaneously try to follow links on the page.

SEO expert Neil Patel believes that a critical factor to improve search engine optimization is to include a "...sheer variety of words" on your page.

Most of the links that search bots will find on your web page will be to other pages of your web site. These types of links are known as internal links.

The other links that a bot may find are external. These are links that point to another web site's page.

The results of a crawl then get returned to the search engine and are indexed.

The ultimate goal of search engines is to crawl and index web pages and then rank your content.


Google's has two kinds of web crawlers:

  1. Googlebot Smartphone: a mobile crawler that simulates a user on a mobile device.
  2. Googlebot Desktop: a desktop crawler that simulates a user on desktop.

According to Google, most sites "...primarily are indexed by the mobile version of the content. As such the majority of Googlebot crawl requests will be made using the mobile crawler, and a minority using the desktop crawler."

Google's Search Algorithm

There are many factors that influence how a search engine algorithm works. Take Google for example, nobody knows the mathematical formula it uses to return search results for a user that has performed a search query.

Google goes to great lengths to keep this a secret. A New York Times interview revealed that Google, "has been cautious about... speak(ing) with the news media about the magical, mathematical brew inside the millions of black boxes that power its search engine."

The NY Times interview spotlights Amit Singhal, a master engineer at Google, who discusses Google's “ranking algorithm”, the behind-the-scene formula determining the web pages resulting from a user’s query. The NYT interview continues to reveal;

Mr. Singhal has developed a far more elaborate system for ranking pages, which involves more than 200 types of information, or what Google calls “signals.” PageRank is but one signal. Some signals are on Web pages — like words, links, images and so on. Some are drawn from the history of how pages have changed over time. Some signals are data patterns uncovered in the trillions of searches that Google has handled over the years. “The data we have is pushing the state of the art,” Mr. Singhal says. “We see all the links going to a page, how the content is changing on the page over time.”

And speaking of Google's secret sauce, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for the Atlantic (July/August 2008 issue) titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He researched how the Internet is changing the way we read and process information.

He also addressed how intense testing is at Google and illustrated how difficult it has made it for the search industry.

Carr learned that Google, "...carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it."

In 2011, Google started making big algorithm changes with the Panda update. Major modifications to the Google search engine continued into 2012 with the Google Penguin update.

Dr. Andy Williams has authored many books on search, Google, and WordPress; such as SEO Checklist: A step-by-step plan for fixing SEO problems with your web site (Webmaster Series). Dr. Williams summarized it best by saying that Penguin completely changed the way we thought about SEO. And even more, drastic search engine tweaks came along in 2013 with Hummingbird.

Moz has a timeline documenting Google's Algorithm Change History back to the year 2000.

According to Google on How Search Works and Algorithms, if "you want the answer, not trillions of web pages. Algorithms are computer programs that look for clues to give you back exactly what you want."

Read SEO Like I'm 5: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Search Engine Optimization on Amazon Kindle.

Off-page SEO - Getting Links from other Sites

There are two types of Search Engine Optimization.

The first type is referred to as "off-page SEO". These are things done externally to your web site, such as getting links from other web sites that point back to your site.

This is known in the Internet marketing community as link building. Links back to your web site are similar to getting votes. In recent years, updates to Google's search engine algorithm via Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird, tend to favor good content on the web.

And since content is king, the same great content that you provide users who find you through search will also attract web publishers or even bloggers to reference by creating a link to your web page from their web site.

Social Media Today mentions that with link building, "search engines are deeply interested in the number and quality of links over the Internet that point back to your web page."

On-page SEO

The other type of Search Engine Optimization is called "on-page SEO". This approach to optimizing your site is all about control.

Wikipedia elaborates about on-page SEO by stating that "optimizing a web site primarily involves editing its content and HTML coding to both increase its relevance to specific keywords and to remove barriers to the indexing activities of search engines."

Since you may do the content management or editing of your site with an HTML editor like Dreamweaver or through a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress, SquareSpace, Wix, or SharePoint then you do the on-page SEO.

You can also apply these tactics to web editors, blogging platforms, and wikis.

For any web site looking to get optimized for the search engines, both on-page and off-page SEO must be considered to have the full benefits of ranking well.

The next few paragraphs cover some basics and best practices you can apply to your web site or blog right now through on-page SEO.

You will need to access each web page's HTML, properties, or settings through your content management system, blog, wiki, or web editor.

On-page SEO will be the focus for the rest of this article.

Meta Title Tag

The title tag is commonly what appears on the search engine results pages. The title tag is found in the HEAD portion of your web page's HTML.

For example, here's a screenshot of the title tag used for the SEO Introduction you are currently reading. It looks like this:

Meta title tag in HTML head

The words within the tags are the title that is seen at the very top of your web browser window or tab on a web page.

You should use appropriate keywords in the title of each page of your site. So when your page appears in the search engine results, potential visitors skimming the SERPs may gravitate towards your site's listing by clicking on it.

Keep title tags brief because Google shows about 60 characters on search engine results. So you don't want your title getting cut off and appearing incomplete in the results.

And very importantly, each page of your site should have a unique title tag.

Meta Description Tag

Just as important that each web page's title tag of your site is unique, it's strongly recommended that a unique description for the meta description tag be used as well.

The description tag is also found in the HEAD portion of your web page's HTML below the title tag. A blog, content management system, or web editor will probably have a field you can enter through a settings page.

The character count of the page's description should be around 150 and no more than 160 characters.

Remember, a different description should be placed for each of your pages. That can't be emphasized enough.

Many times, this description tag shows up on the search engine results page beneath the title tag.

And from a web site marketing perspective, this can be an effective method to market your idea, service, or product to appear on the search engine's results page.

Not to mention, if you have a well-written description, it works like a free ad on Google or Bing that may attract a potential user, client, or customer to click on your SERP listing.

Here's another screenshot. This time it's of the meta description tag used for this Search Engine Optimization Introduction article you are reading:

Meta description tag in HTML head

ALT Image Tag

Another ranking factor that Google considers important is the ALT image tag. Optimizing your web page images is another critical factor for SEO. Search engines can't see images.

Therefore, utilizing the ALT attribute can be an opportunity for better search engine rankings.

Use the ALT attribute to provide descriptive text for each image on a web page.

Best Practices for Keyword Phrases

Ultimately, your goal is for your site's web pages to be found by your potential clients, customers, or users on all search engines. Regardless of your audience, you want each page to have a focus, like a topic.

For example, this web page topic you have been reading is a basic guide to search engine optimization. This is a reference to get you started on SEO.

You will note that the topic "SEO" and "Search Engine Optimization", appear many times on this web page, but naturally throughout this article in different variations.

Andy Crestodina blogged in 3 Key Steps to SEO Fitness that your web page's keyword phrases should be a healthy mix of, "plural forms, synonyms, acronyms, and abbreviations."

For example, "Search Engine Optimization" or SEO key terms and similar variants are found in the following parts of this article:

  1. The URL of this web page
  2. The main article title above the article's image, which has an H1 tag
  3. Title meta tag within the HEAD section of this web page's HTML
  4. Description meta tag within the HEAD section of this web page's HTML
  5. Within the context of this entire article

Be careful not to go overboard with your targeted keywords. Keyword stuffing is frowned upon by the SEO industry and search engine companies. Google or Bing may consider your site as web spam and impose a penalty on it. As a result, your web pages will not appear in search engine results.

Content policies from Google inform webmasters and content creators that "keyword stuffing refers to the practice of loading a web page with an attempt to manipulate a site's ranking in Google search results."

Google continues that keywords should appear naturally on a web page such as, "in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose)." And take heed, Wordstream warns us about over-optimizing a web page with the dangers of SEO keyword stuffing.

Google concludes that, "filling pages with keywords...results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site's ranking."

Your web page topic should focus on providing users with unique and compelling content that utilizes keyword phrases within context.

As a result of your great content, users will want to share and promote it on social media.

In addition, other webmasters, content creators, or bloggers may be inclined to link to your information-rich page from their web page or blog, which would have a positive impact on your site's SEO through link building.

Semantic Markup

You have mapped your content and topic along with various relevant keywords. But that's not enough, your content should employ the proper use of HTML through semantic markup.

This is key if you want your web page to be found by search engines. HTML was designed to convey meaning and specify the structure, those paragraph formats include:

  • Headline 1 (H1)
  • Headline 2 (H2)
  • Headline 3 (H3)
  • Headline 4 (H4)
  • Headline 5 (H5)
  • Paragraph
  • Lists states that semantic HTML applied to your website's content is essential for search engine visibility. Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton explain how semantic markup heavily impacts your site's search appearance by listing the following reasons:

  • Information architecture
  • Efficient web coding
  • Universal usability
  • Maximum display flexibility


This article provides basic concepts to understand search engine optimization and how to improve web page ranking through natural or organic results of search engines. The article explains that SEO is the process of improving the visibility of web pages in a search engine's unpaid results.

Google doesn't rank web sites, but instead ranks web pages, so incorporating SEO best practices for each page on your web site can increase search volume and traffic quality.

The article also mentions that appearing in the the top few spots on Google's search results can make a huge difference in the traffic volume that your web site's pages can receive. Additionally, it covers the use of search engine crawlers, the importance of including a variety of words on your pages, and the role of internal and external links in SEO.