If tech-speak turns you off, you’re short on time, and you hate acronyms, but you still feel like you need to know what all this hype is about “SEO” then this is for you. I’ll lay out here exactly what SEO is in terms that are easy to understand, and with minimum usage of acronyms and industry jargon. Let’s start with the basics.

What is a Search Engine?

Google is a search engine. You’ve also got Yahoo, Bing, and many others that are focused regionally, like Baidu in China, but Google is the 800 lb. gorilla, so any talk about search engines tends to gravitate toward talking only about Google. There are two sides to Google, the part that absorbs and stores information, and the part that spits that information out to people searching for it.

The way Google collects information is it has a sort of robot that goes out on the Internet and reads websites. This “Googlebot” then takes everything it reads, tries to figure out what it means, and then stores that information in what is called its “index.” You can think of it as a sort of huge, electronic library, with everything nice and organized on shelves, and accessible from anywhere in the world. If you set up a new website about bikes, the Googlebot finds your website, reads it, and labels it in its index as being a website about bikes.

google pacman

When someone wants to know about bikes, they go to Google and type in whatever they want to search for. What they type in are known as “keywords” or “search terms” and what Google then displays are called “search results.” A page on Google that displays search results is called a “SERP” or “search engine results page.” When you read about SEO you’ll see people saying things all the time such as “My website isn’t showing up in the SERPs!” That just means it’s not showing up in Google like they want it to when they do a search for a certain keyword.

Types of Search Results

Within Google there are two primary types of search results, those that are paid advertisements, and what we call “natural” or “organic” results. Below is a picture of the SERP that shows up when you search on Google for “women’s clothing boutique los angeles”.

google SEO

The areas around which I’ve drawn green boxes are paid advertisements. Anyone can set up ads to show up here through Google’s Adwords system. This kind of advertising is called “pay per click” because it doesn’t cost anything to display these ads but rather advertisers only pay when someone clicks on their ad. How does one get their ad to show up higher than someone else’s ad? It’s a combination of paying more and creating better ads.

I’ll mention the areas in blue before we move on to what this post is all about, the area in red. The blue outlines show search results from Google Maps. These show up when you search on Google for something that is related to a certain geography, like clothing boutiques. You’ll see the same thing if you search for something in a certain city or region like dentists, restaurants, or bicycle shops. However, if you were to search for the title of a book such as Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, you would not see any results from Google Maps because Google knows that a map isn’t relevant to what you searched for.

The area in red is what we care most about right now. These are the organic search results I mentioned earlier. You can’t pay Google to get into these search results, you have to earn them by doing the right things with your website. These “right things” are what we call search engine optimization, or SEO.

seo graphics

How Google Creates Search Results

In a perfect world, Google would know exactly what you need when you use it to search for something, and would only show you the websites that will give you the information you’re looking for. If Google could sit down with you and ask you lots of questions to learn about who you are and what you’re interested in, and if all the websites in the world did a great job of telling Google what they’re about, then Google could give you what you want with near 100% accuracy. Instead, 1,000 other people type “women’s clothing boutique los angeles” into Google each day, and Google has to guess, based on those five keywords and whatever other minimal data it can collect about you, what it is you’re really looking for. Based on those words, Google doesn’t know if you’re looking for a job at a boutique in LA, if you want to run your own boutique in LA, or if you want to update your wardrobe at a boutique in LA. Or there may be 10 other reasons you would type in those five words. But that’s not where Google’s challenges end.

Information Overload

In addition to having to guess what you mean when you type in those five words, Google has to deal with all the websites that talk about women’s clothing boutiques in LA. It’s not hard for website owners to tell Google that their website should show up when someone searches for women’s clothing boutiques in LA, but as you can see from the gray text just about the green box on the left side in the picture above, there are over 23,800,000 webpages Google knows of that have something to do with women’s clothing boutiques in LA. Google knows you’re going to be annoyed if the first 10 webpages it shows you aren’t what you want, so how does Google sift through almost a million webpages to show you results that make you say “Ah yes, that’s just what I was looking for!” This is what Google is paying thousands of PhDs to work on day in and day out, and even with the billions of dollars they’ve invested, they’re only right perhaps half the time. There is plenty of progress to be made.

Put Yourself on TOP

What is more important for you is how you can make sure your business shows up in those first 10 search results. Studies show that very few people look past the first 10 results, and in fact most people only look at the first 3. My firm is about to launch a new website for a self storage company called Value Store It which has facilities in Miami. As of the writing of this post, our client shows up at #26 in searches for “self storage miami florida” which means when someone searches for that term, they’re unlikely to ever make it down to our client. If our client can move up into the top 10 for that search they’ll start to get visitors. If they can move up into the top 3 they’ll start getting a lot of visitors, and a fair number of those visitors will turn into customers. How can they move their website up into the top 10, and then the top 3? This takes us back to SEO, or doing the “right things” that Google likes.

How Does SEO Work?

When someone searches for something on Google, Google wants to show them results they like. If people like what they find on Google, they’ll keep coming back. The more they come back, the more they click on those ads, which is how Google made most of its $55.5B in revenue in 2013. The trick to doing effective SEO is to create the kind of website people want to find when they’re searching for the products and services your company offers, and then to make sure you’re telling Google you have the right kind of website. There are three primary ways to do this:

1. Technical changes to your website.

You may have a website with lots of valuable information on it, but if it’s set up the wrong way, Google may not be able to figure out what your website is about. It’s not that Google keeps this information secret, they share much of it through their Google Webmaster Guidelines webpage. There are finer details, but most websites aren’t even doing the basics. For example, Google can’t yet read images or videos, so any text in a graphic or video is invisible to Google, yet many websites have lots of their information in these formats. Google also reads the underlying code of your website to know what it’s about. One of the most important signals to Google is the “title tag” on each webpage. The title tag is where you can tell Google, in a few short words, what that webpage is all about. Just yesterday I looked at a potential client’s website and their homepage’s title tag simply contained the words “Home page”. Google already knows this is the website’s home page, so this doesn’t help Google out at all, and as a result Google won’t place that website high up in the search results. There are many more technical changes that can be made to a website to help Google understand what it’s about and know where to put it.

2. Valuable content. 

People love content that gives them something valuable and useful, and that means Google will favor websites that have valuable content. If you want your website to show up more in searches on Google, create useful content on a regular basis. For example, if you work at a law firm, this would mean giving away free advice people can use and turning your website into not just an electronic business card or online brochure, but an information resource. By creating this content you’ll be giving Google lots of information to absorb and display to people searching for it, and the added bonus is you’ll be showing off your expertise. Some people might use the information you give away for free and not hire you, but many will be convinced of your expertise because of your content and will become your customers. This practice, in addition to being a core part of SEO, is also called “content marketing” and it’s how my firm grew by over 1,000% during the past year. It’s time consuming, but it pays off.

3. High quality links to your website.

Because Google has limited information on which to base its decisions about how websites are displayed in its search results, it depends on the input of others. One factor affecting how your website shows up is the number and quality of links pointing to it. Google figures that whenever someone links to your website it’s a vote of confidence, and that people will like websites that have a lot of “votes” from reputable sources. It used to be that quantity was more important than quality, but in recent years Google has switched things 180 degrees. Today, it’s better to have a small number of links pointing to your website from high quality sources than a lot of links from low quality sources. In fact, a large number of inbound links from low quality sources can hurt your websites rankings in search results.

How does one go about getting these links? You could ask for links from other websites, but the best way to get links is in a natural way by creating valuable content people want to link to. Once again, the content on your website is the key to good SEO.

How Long Does SEO Take to Work?

There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question. Once you start SEO, you may see progress within days or a few weeks. But if the progress is that your site merely moves from #90 in the rankings to #80, this isn’t going to produce any additional traffic or revenue. Even when SEO begins to drive traffic and result in leads and sales, there is always room for improvement. Just because you see a 10% improvement in lead generation during the first six months of SEO doesn’t mean you should stop doing SEO. First of all, stopping might mean you slide back and lose the progress you’ve made. Second, if you stop you might miss out on improving lead generation by 100% instead of just 10%.

A few of the factors influencing how fast you can get good results from SEO include how competitive the space is, the amount of people searching for what you provide, and the quality and quantity of your SEO efforts. For a new website, I tell people to expect to put 6 to 12 months into SEO at a moderate to aggressive level before being able to see the true potential of SEO. However, it can happen faster. One of our clients, Messy Motors, buys junk cars throughout the U.S. We told them to wait at least 6 months before seeing tangible results, but here is how things worked out in terms of traffic:

visitors mwi

Instead of six months, Messy Motors only had to wait three months to see significant traffic coming to their website. More important than the number of visitors, Messy Motors also saw a lot of conversions.

conversions mwi

A “conversion” is what we call it when someone performs a desired action on a website. In the case of Messy Motors it’s filling out a form requesting more information or a phone call. This graph only tracks online conversions, not phone calls, which are also a form of conversion and in Messy Motor’s case are quite significant in number as well.

Although we were able to get these results for our client quickly, I would still warn anyone else to plan on making a 6 to 12 month commitment to SEO.

How Much Does SEO Cost?

Hiring a good SEO firm will cost at least $1,000 per month for local SEO, and at least $2,000 per month for a regional or national campaign. These are minimum prices. I would not trust any firm that charges less, with rare exceptions. My firm has a minimum monthly retainer of $5,000 per month, although we occasionally make exceptions.

If your SEO budget is lower than what I’ve said here, my recommendation is to do the best you can on your own and save up until you can afford at least a 6 month campaign at these levels, but preferably 12 months. I’ve seen too many companies go with low-cost SEO firms that promise the sky and deliver nothing in return, or even do harm to their clients’ websites. I’ve also seen many companies dive into SEO with good SEO firms, but run out of budget after 3 months and have to quit. Either way, the money is wasted, and the clients would have been better off spending nothing and doing what little SEO they could do on their own. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule according to my experience.

SEO vs. PPC

Reading this, you may be thinking “Wait, if I hired your firm you’re telling me I would pay $5,000 per month, and I might not see my sales increase for 6-12 months? Why shouldn’t I ignore SEO and focus on PPC where I can see results immediately?”

This is a great question, and the answer is that SEO is not always the right fit. If you need sales right now, SEO will not deliver them, whereas PPC can. SEO is a long term strategy, and companies that expect to do well with SEO need to prepare to make a long term investment. The reason companies are willing to make the long term investment in SEO is because once it is up and running it provides a much better return on investment than PPC. Many companies start out with both PPC and SEO, and either scale back PPC as SEO results start coming in, or continue PPC alongside SEO if the return on investment for PPC means it makes sense to keep doing it.

Where to Learn More

This post is a very brief introduction to SEO. We didn’t even touch on important topics such as usability, conversion rate optimization, site speed, and other SEO factors and related services. For a more thorough introduction read Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO. After this there are many places to learn more if you want to dig in to details such as Search Engine LandSearch Engine WatchClickZSEJournal, and countless blogs and other websites. For advice specific to your website, most SEO firms will gladly provide you with free preliminary feedback in the hopes of winning your business. And of course I’m always happy to answer questions. You can reach me via email at josh@mwi.com.

Joshua Steimle
Joshua Steimle is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing firm with offices in the U.S. and Hong Kong. He is a TEDx speaker and a writer for various business publications including Forbes and Entrepreneur.