SEO decides where your website ranks on search engines - here's how it works and how to improve your search ranking

SEO decides where your website ranks on search engines - here's how it works and how to improve your search ranking
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is an incredibly important part of website building.JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of designing your web pages so that your website ranks higher on search engines like Google and Bing.
  • SEO has become an essential tool for businesses big and small, as they compete to have their websites shown to the widest audience possible.
  • If you want to improve your own website's SEO, there are a number of easy — and free — steps you can take.

If you're looking for the best slice of pizza in New York City, chances are that you'll type "best pizza NYC" into Google.

The results that pop up may not be the "best" pizza places necessarily, but the businesses you see listed used the best tool they have to get your attention: Search engine optimization (SEO).

SEO is how publishers drive traffic to their websites. They do this by utilizing specific, targeted key terms and phrases (like "best pizza NYC") that the average searcher is bound to type into a search engine whenever they have a query. The better their SEO is, the higher they rank on search engines like Google and Bing.
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In the past decade, SEO has gone from a niche topic to the basis of an entire industry. Here's what you should know about SEO works, and how to improve your own website's SEO.

How SEO affects search engine rankings

Search engines like Google and Bing are website aggregators - this means that when you search for something using them, they give you hundreds of results related to what you typed in.

Search engines gather these results by "crawling" the internet for content, then organizing it into what's called a Search Index, or, a catalog of websites grouped together by key terms. This Search Index is what makes Google so fast - they've already made their own lists of the best results for whatever you searched, so they don't need to round every website up at once.
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But how does Google decide what comes first? This is where SEO comes in.

Google prioritizes websites that meet certain criteria. Some of these criteria include:
  • The website contains the keywords that you've searched for. So if you searched for "Best pizza NYC," you're going to get websites that use those words more often.
  • The website is popular. Websites that people visit, stay on, and share links from more will climb up the ranks faster.
  • The website has pictures. Google loves websites that are visually appealing, and will often place them above sites that only contain plain text.
  • The website has paid for their spot. As we'll discuss below, some websites pay Google to earn a higher spot - these results are usually marked as advertisements.
There are hundreds of things that factor into a website's SEO. This is why SEO has become an industry - major websites employ specially trained writers, editors, and website designers to improve their SEO.
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SEO decides where your website ranks on search engines - here's how it works and how to improve your search ranking
The first result on Google will be the website that best fits Google's SEO criteria.William Antonelli/Business Insider

How websites can improve their SEO and keep it

There are two types of search traffic: Paid and organic.

Paid search traffic is when a publisher pays a search engine for the top spot on the page when someone searches for specific terms. On Google, you may have seen links with the words "Ad" or "Sponsored" next to them. These come from publishers who pay Google for prime advertising space to drive traffic to their site.

That said, the majority of SEO work focuses on organic traffic. Organic traffic comes when you don't pay Google for anything - your SEO practices are simply so good that you reach the top spots by yourself.
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If you want your website to rank higher on Google, but don't want to pay for advertising space, you should:

Know where your website currently ranks

Websites like https://www.authoritylabs.com/ and https://seo.co/ can show you where your site ranks on search engines like Google and Bing.

Identify your website's keywords

This part may require some extensive research. In short, what you're looking for are the words, phrases, and terms that you use the most on your website, and what Google searches people are making that bring them to your website.
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Google Trends and Google Ads are both great places to start seeing just what users are searching for online. You can even run comparisons between different words and see which one is searched more.
SEO decides where your website ranks on search engines - here's how it works and how to improve your search ranking
Google Trends can help you see what's popular online.William Antonelli/Business Insider

The best thing you can do to ensure you've chosen the best key terms is to think about what sets your website apart from your competitors. Don't try to deceive users with promises you can't keep.

Check your website's health

Is your website free of spelling and grammatical errors? Do any of your pages include broken or expired links? Are your page titles clear, concise and descriptive? Do you have duplicate pages? Does each page have a meta description that accurately sums up the content of your page? Are your URLs short and filled with key words? Are pages loading quickly, or do they lag? Are you using compelling images and media?
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These are all questions you need to tackle before your SEO ranking can truly reach the top. If your website is relevant, visually appealing, accurate, and easy-to-navigate, you can expect better Google results.

If you're looking to build your website for the first time, here are the five best platforms for web design beginners.

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