What is SEO and How Does it Work?

Unlike keyword stuffing and clickbait copy, search engine optimization (SEO) has come a long way since its infancy. 

Your store’s content must match a potential visitor’s intent in order to rank first in a Google search result. It can be intimidating and time-consuming to optimize a site for SEO. The key is to understand how search engines work and how searchers use them, then incorporate that insight into your pages, and then apply some fully accessible backend tweaks.

You won’t need any SEO experience to optimize your Shopify store with this step-by-step guide.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

SEO stands for search engine optimization and is the practice of increasing the quality and quantity of traffic to your website through organic search engine results. 

Its purpose is to increase your website’s ranking in search engine results. If a website is ranked higher, it will be seen by more people.

  • Many different activities are involved in good SEO, including:
  • Identifying relevant keywords with high search traffic potential
  • Optimizing and creating high-quality, useful content for both users and search engines
  • Linking to high-quality sites with relevant content
  • Analyzing the results
  • SEO is now considered one of the most important marketing activities.

Types of SEO

Understanding how SEO is evolving will keep you on top of your game as a digital marketer. Your brand, website, or company needs to be found by searchers in order to succeed.

SEO changes frequently, but its basic principles do not change. SEO can be broken down into three core components or pillars that you need to know and take action on regularly.

  • Technical Optimization: Technical optimization refers to activities performed on your site that improve SEO but are not relevant to content. These activities usually occur in the background.
  • On-Page Optimization: In On-Page Optimization, you ensure that your site’s content is relevant and provides a great user experience. The process includes targeting the right keywords within your content and can be accomplished with a content management system. WordPress, Wix, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, Shopify, and Expression Engine are examples of content management systems.
  • Off-Page Optimization: Off-Page Optimization entails activities outside of your site that enhance its search engine ranking. Backlinks contribute greatly to the reputation of a site, which is largely driven by them.

Why is SEO Important?

1. Organic search is the main source of traffic

You might be losing out on traffic and revenue if your store doesn’t employ an SEO strategy.

Wolfgang Digital estimates that online stores can expect 35% of their traffic to come from search engine results pages and 33% of their revenues to come from organic search traffic; this makes it the channel that can produce the most traffic and revenue.

2. The cost of paid advertising is rising, and SEO provides free traffic

When most of your sales are generated through channels like Facebook or Instagram, this can eat into your margins. Despite the fact that organic traffic takes time to generate, it ultimately becomes your best acquisition channel, making its costs sustainable. 

While increasing organic traffic via SEO may require time and effort, its compounded effect makes it the most cost effective way to get customers. Even though the return from SEO is not immediate, it should never be an afterthought.

3. You can get up to 30% more traffic by ranking first in search engines

The SEO world has a joke that if you want to hide a dead body on the second page, you should put it there. The reason is that being in first place gets more clicks relative to ranking in 11th place.

There’s a good chance you can improve a page to bring more traffic even if you haven’t optimized it for search, even with the tiniest tweaks.


When you search on the internet, you see two main types of results:

  • Paid Results: These are where companies pay to appear. It’s like an advertisement, and they pay each time someone clicks on their link.

  • Organic Results: These are earned. You don’t pay for them. To show up here, websites use SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to improve their rankings.

For beginners, it’s important to understand the difference between organic, natural search and paid search. These differences include:

  • Position: On search engine results pages, paid search results appear at the top, while organic results appear beneath them.
  • Time: Paid and organic search differ in terms of time as well. Paid search gives almost instant results, sometimes within minutes; organic search, on the other hand, takes months or years to deliver results. Thus, organic search has to be a medium-to-long-term strategy.
  • Payment: The cost-per-click (CPC) model is used for pay-per-click (PPC). Each time someone clicks on your ad, you will be charged. Rather than relying on organic traffic to your website, you purchase traffic by paying Google to show your ad whenever someone searches for your keyword. Traffic from organic search is free, although resources and time are required.
  • ROI: With paid search, it is actually much easier to measure return on investment. It’s partly because Google Analytics gives you access to more keyword data. Pay-per-click ROI, however, can stagnate or decrease over time. ROI for organic search is difficult to measure, but it often improves over time. Organic search offers a great return on investment over the long run.
  • Share of traffic: Searchers click on paid results approximately 20% to 30% of the time, and they click on organic results roughly 70% to 80% of the time. The organic results receive the lion’s share of clicks. 

How Do Search Engines Work?

A person uses a search engine when they have a question and want to find the answer on the internet. The algorithms of search engines look for clues to give users the exact results they are seeking. 

For any given keyword, search engines determine which web pages to rank based on algorithms. Search engines work in three stages: crawling, which is the discovery stage, indexing, which is the filing stage, and ranking, which is the retrieval stage.

Step 1: Crawling

Crawling is the first step. To find new pages, search engines send web crawlers out to look for them. This type of web crawler is sometimes called a spider or robot. Their objective is to discover new web pages, and to periodically check the content of those they have already visited to see if it has changed or been updated.

Whenever a search engine crawls a web page, it follows links it has already found. Because of this, a search engine crawling your homepage might follow the link to your blog post when searching for another link to follow.

Step 2: Indexing

Indexing is the second step. Search engines index content after it has been crawled, and then decide whether to use it. A crawled web page will be added to an index by a search engine if it is deemed worthy. It is this index that is used in the final ranking process. A web page or piece of content that is indexed is filed and stored in a database from where it can be retrieved later. Web pages that offer valuable and unique content are typically indexed. Web pages may not be included in the index if:

  • Content on it is considered duplicate
  • Content on it is considered low-quality or spammy
  • The thing couldn’t be crawled
  • The page or domain lacks inbound links

Step 3: Ranking

Ranking is really the third step, and it is the most important. Indexing and crawling are both required before ranking can occur. After a search engine crawls and indexes your site, you can rank it.

SEO relies on over 200 ranking signals that fit under three pillars: technical optimization, on-page optimization, and off-page optimization. Search engines use signals such as:

  • Keyword presence in title tag: Whether or not a keyword or synonym appears on the page and in the title tag
  • Loading speed of web page: The loading time and mobile-friendliness of the web page
  • Website reputation: A website or web page’s reputation for the topic being searched for

The Google Hummingbird algorithm determines how search engine results are ordered and ranked. There is also a sub-algorithm in Google’s search engine called RankBrain that uses machine learning:

  • RankBrain connects a word or phrase to similar search queries when it sees a word or phrase it doesn’t know.
  • Google is thus able to provide better search engine results – even when searching for unusual terms – by converting keywords into known topics and concepts.
  • RankBrain rewards websites that deliver the results that the users expect, not those that are the best keyword-optimized.

How Does SEO Work?

SEO works when different elements come together:

  1. People: These are the individuals or teams in charge of planning and carrying out the SEO work.

  2. Processes: These are the steps taken to make the work more effective and organized.

  3. Technology: This includes the platforms and tools used to execute the SEO strategies.

  4. Activities: This refers to the final results or outcomes of the SEO efforts.

Several other factors contribute to the effectiveness of SEO. Here’s a basic overview of the key components:

There are four essential areas that, when combined, make SEO successful:

1. Relevance

In SEO, your main task is to make sure your content is relevant. Why? Because Google’s main goal is to show users results that match what they’re looking for.

Relevance goes beyond just showing pages about dogs when someone searches for “dogs.” It’s also about meeting the user’s search intent—the reason why they used a specific search term.

There are four main types of search intent:

  1. Navigational (e.g., “Udemy login”)
  2. Informational (e.g., “what is Udemy”)
  3. Commercial (e.g., “Udemy review”)
  4. Transactional (e.g., “spotify subscriptions”)

Let’s break it down with an example:

Consider someone searching for “healthy breakfast recipes.” In this case, the user is likely looking for recipes to prepare a nutritious breakfast.

A page that provides a variety of healthy breakfast recipes would be the most relevant. However, pages discussing the benefits of a healthy breakfast or the history of breakfast foods, while interesting, may not align with the user’s immediate intent.

Based on user behavior, Google recognizes that for the query “healthy breakfast recipes,” the user is interested in practical recipes. Therefore, search results will prioritize pages offering a collection of nutritious breakfast ideas.

To ensure your page aligns with the search intent:

  1. Topical Relevance: Optimize your page with keywords related to healthy breakfast recipes. Use terms like “nutritious breakfast,” “healthy morning meals,” and variations that match the user’s likely search terms.

  2. Type of Content: Ensure your page contains recipe content rather than just general information about breakfast. Look at the types of results that currently rank for similar queries and tailor your content accordingly.

  3. Content Freshness: If you’re sharing recipes, consider updating your content with new and seasonal recipes. This keeps your content relevant to users seeking the latest and most appealing breakfast ideas.

  4. Location: While less relevant for a recipe search, location can still play a role. For instance, if your recipes cater to a specific cuisine or dietary preference common in a particular region, highlight that in your content.

2. Content Quality

Just finding the right keywords isn’t enough. You’ve got to make content that stands out for those keywords. Content creation and making it awesome for search engines (SEO) go hand in hand.

When Google’s John Mueller was asked about the most vital thing for getting to the top of search results, he had a simple answer:

To rock it on Google, your content needs to be one of the top 10 on that topic.

The first page of Google has 10 natural results, and that’s where you want to shine.

Here are some things that make awesome content different from just okay content:

  1. Thoroughness: Cover the topic completely and answer every question a reader might have. It’s not about using a ton of words. Make sure each page is a full guide for searchers.

  2. Originality: Your content shouldn’t just be a mix of the top results. Always bring something extra—whether it’s a unique perspective, useful data, helpful examples, or original visuals.

  3. E-A-T Signals: Google really cares about Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T). Give accurate info, be an expert on your topic, and show it both on your site and off.

  4. Readability: Make your text easy to read. This means organizing your content well, using short sentences, avoiding passive voice, and keeping a consistent tone.

3. Usability

Google likes websites that are easy for people to use.

Technical SEO is important for this. It’s not just about making sure Google can find and understand your website, but also about making your website easy for people to use.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Site Security: Your website needs to be secure, like having an SSL certificate (using HTTPS instead of HTTP).

  2. Page Speed: Faster pages are better according to Google. They show up higher in search results because they give users a better experience.

  3. Mobile Friendliness: Google looks at how well your content works on a mobile device. This is called “mobile-first indexing.” Mobile SEO makes sure that people using phones or tablets can easily use your website.

  4. Ease of Use: Your website should be easy to understand and navigate. It needs a clear structure so visitors can find what they want without any problems.

To see how well your website is doing, you can do a complete site audit. This helps you understand if your website is easy to use and meets Google’s standards.

4. Authority

Search engines rely on off-page signals to decide if your website is trustworthy. A key signal is backlinks—links from other websites to yours. Think of them as votes of confidence for search engines.

The more high-quality links your page gets, the more authority it gains with Google. This can boost your rankings. That’s why link building, getting backlinks to your site, is vital for SEO.

Here’re some common link building strategies:

  1. Create Linkable Assets: Make content that offers great value, attracting natural links (e.g., original studies, interactive pages, free tools).

  2. Guest Blogging: Write posts for other sites with links back to yours.

  3. Broken Link Building: Find broken links on other sites and suggest your pages as replacements.

Focus on quality when building links. A single backlink from a high-authority page is more powerful than many from irrelevant, low-quality pages.

While more links are good, they must be from relevant, quality pages related to your site’s topic.

Google assesses authority at a page level, but the total backlinks to your site can influence individual page rankings. You can use internal links to pass authority between pages.

It’s important to make sure your important pages have enough internal links. Google’s John Mueller emphasizes the importance of internal linking for guiding both Google and visitors to key pages: “[It is] one of the biggest things that you can do on a website to kind of guide Google and guide visitors to the pages that you think are important.”

How to Learn SEO

Now that you have a basic understanding of what SEO is and how it operates, it’s time to delve deeper and become an SEO expert.

Searchers’ behaviors are always evolving, leading to frequent changes in algorithms. Technology breakthroughs, like the sudden integration of generative AI in search results, also have a significant impact.

To stay relevant in the SEO business, you should make a habit of reading, watching, or listening to the latest SEO news, research, and best practices regularly—whether it’s daily, weekly, or monthly. Attending a few events each year can also be beneficial.

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