What is SEO and How Does it Work: A 2021 Guide

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. A fairly new marketing strategy in the grand scheme of things. Although, if you are talking about digital marketing, SEO is actually pretty old in the game. According to some of our sources, SEO has been around since the mid 90’s – even before Google.com existed.

Before we do go deeper into what SEO means and how it works in 2021, let’s roll back the tape and have a look at how everything started.

The History of Search Engines

The history of the world wide web is pretty interesting in my opinion. Whilst the first website was launched on the 6th of August 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee, the idea of a search engine was born decades before that. You have to go all the way back to 1945 when Dr. Vannevar Bush at the Office of Scientific Research and Development got the idea of creating an archive for all the data in the world. Then again, it would take several decades before anything that even reminds the slightest of what a search engine is today, was created and launched.

Exactly when which and who was the first search engine and its creator is still under debate. Some people, including myself, consider Archie to be the first search engine created, which was launched on September 10th, 1990, and turned 30 years in 2020.  

Archie - The First Search Engine

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about Archie before though. Archie was a search engine for FTPs and the world wide web as we know it didn’t exist. Because it would take till 1991 before Tim Berners-Lee published the first website, remember?

But you might have heard of Yahoo, Lycos, Altavista, and Excite. You might even remember using them!

It wasn’t until 1998 the search engine Google.com was launched. The search engine that would change how we use the internet in most parts of the world.  

How does a Search Engine Work? 

As the internet grew the search engines became more and more advanced. As you probably can imagine, finding and arranging a couple of thousands of websites based on a search query is not that hard. 

But as the internet started to grow at an incredible pace and it obviously became harder and harder. By 1997 the number of websites had already reached 1 million. To organize millions of websites obviously required a completely different mindset. First of all you need to find all the websites. When you have that figured out you need to come up with a way to organise them.

To find websites search engines uses something called bots, or web crawlers. Their job is basically to save a copy of each and every website whilst looking for new ones.

When this part is done, it’s time for the algorithms. The algorithms are usually what decides how to organise the websites, based on factors like relevance, trust and more. 

Back in the later part of the 90’s one of Google’s founders, Larry Page, came up with an idea which they called PageRank. PageRank would become the foundation of Google, and probably was a huge part of their success.

The PageRank algorithm basically looked at which other websites a website was linking to. The more websites linking to a website the higher PageRank that site would get. But a link from another site with PageRank was also worth more. 

Nowadays similar algorithms to PageRank, which takes links into account, are part of every big search engine. Together with, sometimes, hundreds of other algorithms working simultaneously to rank the most relevant websites against a specific search query.

What is SEO

So now when you know a bit about the history of the world wide web, search engines and how they work, it’s finally time to talk about SEO. Because that’s why we are here right? One could think that SEO is about optimizing the actual search engine, but that’s not really the case. Well, one could also argue that you are helping the search engine understand your website. 

A more common view, or definition if you like, is that search engine optimization is all about making websites rank better in search engines for certain search queries and keywords. This could be your own website, a friends website or a paying clients website. 

SEO is a trade or a technique that spans over a lot of different disciplines within IT and marketing. You will find SEOs with a strong knowledge in everything from tech to parts of the traditional marketing, and other verticals. Most SEOs today know a bit of both, but you could also come far as an SEO, only by being an expert of one extreme like programming. 

For example, a person with a strong knowledge in IT and web could probably be able to help a website increase their rank by making improvements on the technical side. Examples of technical improvements could be everything from proper markup or making sure the servers are running fast enough.

Another example would be a person with a background in writing, helping a website to improve the rankings only by improving or writing high quality content.

But to come really far as an SEO, search engine optimizer, it’s super valuable to understand all aspects of SEO in my opinion. 

SEO or Google Optimization?

Google’s position in the search market is strong. Their current global market cap is 86%. Bing has around 6% and Yahoo just under 3%.

In some countries and regions, Google isn’t the market leader though. In Russia for example, Yandex has over 50% of the search market. In China, Baidu has more than 74% of the search market. Still, neither Yandex nor Baidu have reached even a 1% market share globally.

So why are we back at talking about search engines, and market shares, instead of SEO? Well, to be frank, SEO in 2020 is mostly about being visible on Google. Hence some people actually refer to SEO as Google Optimization.

That being said, if your audience is based in China or Russia, you should probably be focusing on Yandex or Baidu. And if you manage to become a master of Bing or Yahoo optimization, that might be worth a lot since the competition usually is close to none.

The difference between SEM and SEO

SEM is another common acronym within the field of digital marketing. SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and purely based on that name you would think SEM would include search engine optimization. But that’s not really the case.

When people talk about or refer to SEM they usually talk about paid search engine advertising. The ads usually show up at the top when you are searching.

SEM is also a profession that requires a certain kind of skill set, but it’s very different from the skill set used in SEO. Both professions, or skill sets, usually overlap when it comes to some of the tools being used. And sometimes from the analytic side of it. Except for that, the two professions don’t have that much in common. 

How to become an SEO

Until very recently all SEOs were more or less self-taught in some way or another. It wasn’t until very recently SEO started to become available at various educational institutes. Often as a part of another program or course. Which is great! 

In my opinion trial and error is still the best way to learn SEO. After all, you only need a website to get started. There’s a lot of great resources available for free about search engine optimization.

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines are a good starting point to understand the basics. Reading blogs like this is a good way to expand your knowledge and keep up to date with trends and changes. The latter is especially important. You will soon realize that SEO changes a lot, and some things that worked really well 10 or 5 years ago won’t work at all today.

Also use a tool like Wincher, preferably from day one, to understand and keep up with your progress. 

In our next article, we are actually going to talk more about how to learn SEO.

As usual, please let us know what you thought about our article in the comments below and share your first SEO experiences!

What is SEO and How Does it Work: A 2021 Guide

What are you waiting for?

Try Wincher for free

Let’s get going