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Imagine that you wanted to set up a cafe in a local mall. You rent a space, move in, and begin selling your coffee and croissants. Life is good.

There's one problem, though: the location of your cafe is in a remote corner of the mall. So, while you get some foot traffic, many of your prospective customers are going to your competitors near the mall's main entrance. 

One day you sit down and ponder what to do. Your products are top-notch, and your current customers are big fans of the shop. You just need a better location for your business in order to attract more clients. 

Just then, the mall's facilities manager comes up to you. He says that there is an open space for rent right next to one of the mall's big entryways. He asks you if you'd be interested in moving locations. Of course, you jump at the opportunity! From that day forward, your small cafe business grows exponentially.

In very basic terms, that scenario perfectly illustrates what SEO can do for your business. SEO has the power to push your company to the forefront of Google search results (the "main entrance" to the Internet); and with that prime location in hand, your business will be able to enjoy unprecedented growth.

What is SEO, and How Does it Work?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. It has been defined as "the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results." In other words, SEO makes your website more attractive to Google. Google, in turn, puts your website near the top of its search results.

For example, let's imagine that the owner of that cafe mentioned above has a website that is SEO-friendly. When someone in his area types into Google "great cafes near me," then his little shop's listing will appear near the top of Google's results page. How does that work?

First of all, we need to understand a little bit about how Google works. When you search Google, you are not actually searching the entire Internet. Rather, you are searching the parts of the Internet that have been indexed by Google. In essence, Google is constantly sending out little robotic spies (known as crawlers) to bring back information about new or updated web pages. Once that information is received, Google stores it in its index.

Then, when someone uses Google search, Google takes the search term, tries to understand the searcher's intent, and then seeks to match the search term to the right website or sites.

Think of it like this: a barista is constantly making coffee. Customers come in, and order mochas, cappuccinos, and espressos, and the barista does her best to deliver exactly what each customer wants. However, the barista can only make coffee with the ingredients she has on hand. So when a customer comes in and orders something really different like a "Scandinavian Egg coffee," she has to make do with the closest things to that recipe that she can find in her cabinet of ingredients.

In the same way, search requests are like "customer orders," and the Google index is the cabinet of "ingredients" Google uses to deliver those "orders." However, what if someone types in a really strange or super-specific search term?

That's where SEO comes in.

The Basics of SEO

SEO is based upon 2 fundamental components: short-tail keywords and long-tail keywords.

Short-tail keywords are one or two word phrases. For example, "red car" would be considered a short-tail keyword. Short-tail keywords have the potential to catch a lot of traffic. The bad thing is, there's a lot of competition out there for those short phrases.

To illustrate with the cafe in the mall: imagine that there are 100 customers looking for a regular cup of coffee. They could all go to that one cafe and get exactly what they want. However, they could also go to any of the other cafes in the mall and get the same result. There's a lot of potential customers, but a lot of competition.

It's similar with Google. For SEO purposes, there may be thousands of Internet users who search for "red car" on a daily basis. However, there are also thousands of car dealerships, auto repair shops, and other businesses that are competing for the attention of those users. So how can any company stand out from the crowd?

Long-tail keywords provide a partial solution to that dilemma. Instead of targeting a wide audience, long-tail keywords target a very specific niche of customers. An example would be "2004 Lamborghini Gallardo limited edition." Will a high volume of Internet users employ that particular phrase? No. Will there be a lot of competition to capture the business of those users who do? No.

Going back to the cafe illustration, if the owner specializes in making an exotic type of coffee, then only a few of the customers who come to his shop will be specifically looking for that coffee. However, he won't have much, if any competition from other cafes who don't make that kind of coffee.

Long-tail keywords in Google function in much the same way. Interestingly, about 70% of keyword searches are long-tail. Clearly, a lot of good can come from using long-tail SEO keywords in a company's web content.

How Google Ranks Web Pages

Here's one final important point to understand. Google uses a complicated algorithm to match websites to search terms. In other words, Google wants to find the web pages that best match the user's request.

And just like a figure skater's performance is judged on a number of criteria, so too Google "judges" the web pages in its index on a number of factors. Two important factors are:

  • Authority, or page rank. When examining any web page, Google looks at how many other websites link to it. Basically, each legitimate link to the page is like a "vote" from the Internet community, and each vote boosts the credibility of the page. Simply put, the more links a page has, the more Google trusts it. 
  • Relevance. Just like that conscientious barista, Google looks for websites that most closely match the searcher's intent. For instance, if you type "mocha coffee" into Google, car dealership sites are not going to appear on the results page, but local cafes and restaurant chains will.

All of this may sound like a lot. Newcomers to SEO often welcome the assistance of a reputable marketing agency to get them started. But once you understand the basics of SEO, you'll find that it's not that complicated. 

One thing is certain, though: SEO is a wonderful marketing tool that, when properly implemented, can trigger business growth on an unprecedented scale.