Scrabble pieces on a dark wood table spelling "what is SEO".

What Is SEO and How Does it Work? The Beginner’s FAQ

SEO stands for search engine optimization and includes efforts to maximize traffic that visits a given website from organic searches (most commonly from Google).

Here we’ll answer frequently asked questions SEO, common phrases about it, and related services or tools that you’ll encounter.

Let’s get to it.

Google Maps on a smartphone displaying local SEO listings.

What Is Local SEO?

Local SEO is the art and science of getting your business listed prominently in the search results for users close in proximity.

It applies most famously to restaurants and coffee shops because they have fixed locations, but in truth it can apply to most kinds of businesses on some level. That’s because most businesses cover a given service area at the very least, even if it doesn’t have a physical storefront for customers to visit directly.

With that in mind, what is local SEO going to look like in practice? Moz and Whitespark wrote a great breakdown of it, but we’ve summarized the key takeaways here.

  • Appearances in the “local pack” of top three results, or close to it
  • Appearing on Google Maps
  • Getting positive reviews on Google My Business
  • Posting on Google My Business

Google wants to deliver the most relevant results featuring the most active businesses in the shortest amount of time (within a given area). Playing to that will take you far in your service area.

SAmple website on a steel Macbook highlighting on-page SEO elements in design boxes.

What Is On-Page SEO?

On-page SEO encompasses everything that you can do on your website to earn organic search traffic. In contrast, off-page SEO tries to accomplish the same thing by influencing search engines elsewhere on the web.

On-page SEO tactics can encompass aspects of technical SEO, but most of it happens on the front-end. This includes:

  • Title, header, and meta description optimization
  • URL slug optimization
  • Optimizing content for readability and keywords
  • Image and alt text optimization
  • De-indexing pages you don’t want people to find
  • Optimizing posts for social sharing (including thumbnails!)
  • Including some outbound links to credible sources of information
  • Writing genuinely useful content that keeps people on your page

Most of these factors can be set on a page-by-page basis because they’re so closely tied to the content itself—and, by extension, the visitor’s search (read: commercial) intent.

Two hands practising SEO writing on a notepad beside an open metal laptop on a wood grain desk.

What Is SEO Writing?

SEO writing is kind of an outdated as most people understand it (it shouldn’t be a standalone service), but still an important part of building your traffic flow as a part of your content marketing execution.

That’s because there’s a fine line between doing it properly and doing so improperly that Google imposes a penalty on your page.

Part of SEO involves search engines reading the keywords on your page and matching it up to a particular user’s search query. It then ranks your page against every other relevant page.

This goes awry with interns and junior writers a lot more often than agency owners would have you believe. We’ve seen bad SEO writing more than once

It’s not rocket science, but it is important to get it right.

What Is Yoast SEO?

Yoast SEO is one of the most popular WordPress plugins in the world. It helped popularize SEO so that everyday content creators and webmasters could practice it.

The plugin does these things:

  • Creates a handy on-page SEO checklist that updates in real time
  • Creates an XML sitemap for Google’s crawlers to read and index your site
  • Enacts site-wide settings for your SEO preferences
  • Integrates with Google Search Console
  • Associates social profiles with your site

It’s not a one-stop shop for SEO by any means, but it’s a handy tool to put basic settings in place and to optimize content on a page-by-page basis. We use it on this very site, and recommend it as a part of any website setup.

Gears turning inside a computer to symbolize technical SEO elements such as server response, DNS speed, and site structure.

What Is Technical SEO?

Technical SEO includes website maintenance, fixes, or updates that usually involve coding experience and/or knowledge of website structure to improve site performance.

In plain English, it means that someone needs to fix up the back end of your website to improve its structure and speed. This can involve several things, like:

  • Improving directory (URL) structure
  • Improving server speed and quality
  • Minifying CSS and JavaScript in your site’s code
  • Adding SSL (secure socket layer) protection to your site
  • Making your site’s design mobile-friendly (and mobile-first)
  • Creating an XML sitemap
  • Fixing duplicate content issues
  • Enabling AMP (accelerated mobile pages)
  • Setting up Search Console

Technical SEO needs to be done carefully because it affects the technology that underpins your entire site. Even if the work needs to be done, it shouldn’t be done on the fly. Make sure that plans and backup plans are in place before attempting it.

An HTML link pointing back to a page promoted through link building strategies such as the skyscraper technique.

How Does Link Building Help SEO?

Link building (or link earning as it’s called today) is the heart of off-page SEO. For all of the 250+ signals and ranking factors that Google’s core algorithm uses to provide search results, pointing links toward your website is one of the most important.

Building a backlink profile has to be done with care because you don’t want to attract the attention of spam sites (or any blackhat link networks with which they may be affiliated in Google’s eyes).

Backlinks can come from a variety of sources with different levels of weight, such as:

  • Business directories
  • Partner or affiliate sites
  • Local events and sponsorship sites
  • Businesses that link to your awesome, sharable content

Links are like “votes” on the Internet—they tell search engines that your site is relevant to their own content, or just a valuable source. It’s always worth taking the opportunity to earn those links pointing toward your sites.

What Is Black Hat SEO?

Blackhat SEO is the elephant graveyard of search engine marketing, encompassing everything that you shouldn’t do.

Blackhat tactics game the system in a decisively unfair way, and usually end up backfiring in the mid and long terms for several reasons:

  • They produce “results” so quickly that Google will flag it, possibly even putting automatic bans on your site
  • Google adapts to them pretty quickly, rendering them useless in short order
  • They are liabilities waiting to happen with penalties that can far outweigh the potential benefits of quick wins.

Old blackhat tactics that no longer work include things like:

  • Keyword spamming
  • Buying backlinks
  • Automatic and excessive article directory submissions
  • Building closed link networks (or link farms)

Stay away from anything in SEO that sounds too good to be true, because it probably is.


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Andrew is the SEO and content marketing consultant at Webb Content. He worked in several agencies full-time and alongside another 7 as a freelancer, then went in-house to give Ontario's insurance industry a kick in the pants. Now he works with small and medium businesses to build consistent, long-term traffic. He still writes content in his free time, too. It's kind of an addiction.

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Andrew is the SEO and content marketing consultant at Webb Content. He worked in several agencies full-time and alongside another 7 as a freelancer, then went in-house to give Ontario's insurance industry a kick in the pants. Now he works with small and medium businesses to build consistent, long-term traffic. He still writes content in his free time, too. It's kind of an addiction.