April 9, 2022

SEO: what optimization is and how it works

SEO is the branch of Digital Marketing that deals with improving the position of web pages in the organic (non-sponsored) results of search engines. In this guide we will see in detail what it is and how it works.

SEO: definition and meaning

SEO is the set of strategies and practices aimed at increasing the visibility of a website by improving its position in the rankings of search engines, in the unpaid results, called “pure” or “organic” results. S.E.O. is an English acronym (acronym) that stands for Search Engine Optimization, literally translated: “optimization for search engines”.

These practices are many and concern different aspects of a website: the optimization of the structure of the site, the HTML code, the textual content, the management of incoming links (i.e. that from other sites point to your site, called inbound links or, more commonly, backlinks) and outbounds (which point to others from your site).

Since Google is by far the most used search engine in the world, most of the SEO activities concern the study of the Google algorithm and its periodic updates, and the related actions to make the sites more “welcome” to this algorithm. .


SEO explained to a 6-year-old child

When we search for something on search engines, we expect to find the best results first, that is, those most relevant to our search. For example, if I search for “3-star hotel in Bologna”, I don’t want to find the site of a bed and breakfast in Naples. And I also want to find a lot of information about that hotel, such as what the rooms are like, how much it costs, where it is, etc. SEO therefore means first of all writing rich and relevant content with the words we want to be found with.
Links are the “roads” of the web, that is, the paths we use to move from one site to another. A site with many links leading to it is like a very busy intersection, therefore very important. And – just like in cities – the more important the site that links to us is and similar to ours in content, the more comfortable the road that leads to us will be. For this, doing SEO also means trying to get a good number of links from sites that are as relevant and relevant as possible.



SEM stands for Seach Engine Marketing and is the broader discipline that incorporates SEO. SEM includes both paid search results (where you can appear using tools like Google Adwords or Bing Ads, formerly known as Microsoft adCenter) and organic search results (SEO).

A complete SEM strategy uses both paid advertising and the implementation of SEO techniques. A keyword analysis is performed for both SEO and SEM, but not necessarily at the same time. SEM and SEO must both be monitored and updated frequently to adapt to the evolution of best practices.

In some contexts, the term SEM is used exclusively to indicate pay per click advertising, but it would be more correct to call the latter SEA, or Search Engine Advertising (see next paragraph).

Difference between SEO and SEA

An important distinction must be made between search engine optimization and search engine advertising (SEA). SEO differs from SEA in that in the first case there is no direct payment to the search engine to appear in its results. The SEA on Google is carried out through the Google AdWords circuit, the platform that allows you to create sponsored link campaigns, which are marked with the words “Ann.” and are displayed, if present, as the first (maximum 4) and last (maximum 3) results of the page.

The payment mechanism for sponsored links is PPC (pay per click), that is, the advertiser pays a certain amount each time a user clicks on his link. The amount to be paid, according to the auction logic, depends on how much other advertisers are willing to pay, so those who bid more will be higher in the results than those who bid less.

Unpaid results are called “pure” or “organic” results, which is why SEO, which is not about paid results, is also called pure or organic positioning. SEO and SEA both fall within the macro-activity of web marketing called SEM, or search engine marketing (marketing through search engines).

Small SEO dictionary

  • SERP: “Search Engine Result Page”, literally translated as search engine results page, is any Google page that appears after you have entered the term or terms to search for. The image above is an example of a SERP.
  • Query: it is any search carried out on the engine. when you enter one or more words in the Google search field, you are performing a query.
  • Keywords: “keywords” (or search key), are the words you enter in the search field when you perform a query. By keyword we mean not only single words but also text strings, for example the search “web marketing Bologna” is a keyword.
  • Robot: (also called spider or crawler), it is the software that search engines use to analyze all the sites on the network automatically. The robots run continuously to scan the entire network, passing from page to page by means of links. They make a text copy of all the documents visited and insert them in an index (see indexing). The Google robot is called Googlebot.
  • Indexing: is the process by which the robot adds the material to the database of its search engine and then returns it, ordered in a ranking (see ranking) based on relevance with the search key, when a query is performed.
  • Ranking: it is the ranking of the results with respect to a given query. When we enter a keyword, the search engine returns a SERP of results sorted according to the relevance of the indexed documents with respect to that keyword. Ranking is also synonymous with positioning (see), in the SEO field we say “ranking factor” any element, internal or external to the site, which influences the position in the ranking.
  • Optimization: in the SEO field, optimizing means making the work of robots as easy as possible, providing them with easily accessible content and making it easier for the software to understand the topic covered by the document.
  • Positioning: consists in improving the position of a site / web page in the ranking of search engines in relation to certain keywords. Positioning (or its improvement) is the natural consequence of optimization.

How a search engine “reasons”

To practice any SEO activity it is first of all necessary to understand how a search engine works. A search engine operates mainly (in summary) in the following ways and in the following order:

  1. analysis of the field of action (crawling) through the use of robots;
  2. indexing of the material obtained;
  3. ordering (ranking);
  4. response to user requests (SERP).

The SEO activity in detail

The seo activity includes several phases of both an analytical / strategic and operational type. Operationally, many different factors need to be taken into account to optimize a site.

An original approach to describe the main among these factors was developed by Search Engine Land, a well-known and authoritative American magazine in the sector.

Search Engine Land has created a periodic table of ranking factors (which it periodically updates as Google updates its algorithm).

The following are the main phases of the activity:

The SEO strategy phase: the choice of keywords

This phase is essential, any SEO activity turns out to be meaningless if an accurate analysis of the keywords to choose for your campaign is not carried out first.

The search for the “best” keywords can be carried out with specific software tools, user interviews, competition analysis (competitive benchmarking) and using the same search engine.

For the success of an SEO campaign it is advisable to select keywords that are not too generic, since it would be very difficult or even impossible to achieve good results in good time, but not too specific, since, if they are not searched for, they consequently generate little or no traffic at all. site.

In the choice of keywords, C. Anderson’s theory of “Long Tail” is applicable, according to which niche products will have much more chance of profit.

To apply this theory from a seo perspective, it is therefore preferable to choose many specific keywords (with less competition and higher conversion rate) rather than a few generic ones (with a lot of competition and low conversion rate).

To learn more, you can read this article on long tail and search engine rankings.


To make sure that the keywords chosen are actually searched by users – and to get new ideas for choosing keywords – it is advisable to use the Google AdWords keyword tool.

This tool offers statistical data on the number of monthly, global or single country searches, which are carried out by users with a specific search key.

The tool also suggests several similar keywords, which we may not have considered, to be included in the strategy. To choose keywords correctly, it is therefore necessary to find the right balance between niche words and the number of monthly searches. Usually, in fact, the more specific the word, the fewer monthly searches it generates.

On-page SEO

SEO is defined as “on-page” (or “on-site”) as the set of optimization activities within the pages of a site. This is only a part of the SEO activity, the other side of the coin is consequently defined as “off-page” (or “off-site”) and is the set of inbound link management activities (inbound links or backlinks) to a site, which are an important signal for search engines when judging the authority of a site.

The on-page optimization in turn can be divided into two distinct areas: the optimization of the HTML code and the structure of a site; and the optimization of textual content and images of a site.

I add that a good positioning of your website can also depend on high elements, such as server-side factors, such as the reliability and speed of hosting, and on other factors such as the age of the domain (some experts claim that domains with more than 5 years are considered more reliable by Google) and the behavior of users on the site (time spent, number of pages visited), but the best results are obtained through these two activities.

SEO optimization of the HTML code

Each website is made up of an HTML source code that is read by the browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.) and presents the site in the way we see it. The optimization of the code is therefore the activity of optimizing the parts “invisible” to the user, but which affect the ranking of the site.

Of particular importance are some tags that form the code, such as the title tag – which can be visible at the top of the browser when we open a web page, and in the SERP linked to our page – which serves to specify the title of a particular page. .


For it to be optimal, this tag must make both users and robots clearly understand the topic on the page, and must therefore include the keywords we are targeting (the ones we think users type to find us). It is also advisable to provide different titles for each page of the site, in order to optimize each page for a single specific topic.

For example, if we sell office chairs and tables, we will have to make two different pages with respectively “office chairs” and “office tables” as the title, instead of creating a single page.

Another element to be considered programmatically is the description meta tag (which appears as a “preview” of the page in the SERP).

Although the Meta tag description does not directly affect search engine rankings, it is extremely important to obtain click through rates (the ratio between the number of views and the number of clicks) from search engine results pages (and therefore indirectly can influence the ranking). It must therefore contain a clear message, consistent with the content and captivating, to entice users to click on your link rather than on those of the competition.

It is advisable to use a length of less than 155 characters to ensure that Google does not cut the sentence in half, risking to lose the meaning.

A sitemap (or site map) helps spiders navigate the site, so it should be present to allow indexing of all pages. Here you can find more information about the sitemap.

The Heading tags (h1, h2, h3 …) are used to delimit the text in paragraphs with titles and sub-titles, they are also useful for making the subject of the document understood by both users and engines. It is therefore advisable to use H1 for the main title of the page, including in it the keyword in correspondence with the tile tag (note that they are two distinct things: the h1 appears in the document as a title and is visible to users, the title is visible in the browser tab and appears linked in the SERP).

Alternate text (alt) is an attribute to add to images. Robots cannot read the text contained in images, so it is important to add this attribute to make search engines understand what the image represents.

Page URLs are optimal if they do not contain characters such as “?”, Which cannot be scanned by some robots and if they also contain an indication of the page content.

Content optimization (SEO Copywriting)

The contents are actually the most important part of SEO, in fact advanced search engines, such as Google, are able to read the textual contents of a document, “understanding its meaning” and assigning a quality and relevance score to the queries. The importance of creating quality content is exemplified by the well-known SEO mantra “Content is King”, content is King (phrase attributed to Bill Gates).

It is therefore advisable that a site really contains useful and interesting content that creates value for users in order to obtain a good ranking on search engines. A site with poor content will not be able to be well positioned, or at least it will be difficult to maintain the position in the long term.

A clear example is Wikipedia, which is among the first results for a large number of search terms. To ensure the presence of quality content on your site, it is also good to update it by adding new texts with a certain frequency. For this reason, opening a company blog integrated into your site is the best way to obtain a long-lasting good positioning.

It is of fundamental importance, in addition to having good content, to have unique content, therefore not copied from other sites. Google notices when content is not original and severely penalizes it in its results.

Of course, the content must include the keywords you want to be found with, but in a way that won’t be unnatural for the visitor. Google and other modern search engines use semantic text analysis systems that include synonymy and the correlation between terms.

Given this evolution, we can easily understand how excessive repetition of the targeted keyword (in jargon keyword stuffing) in a text – as SEOs did several years ago, when the algorithms were less advanced – does not produce any improvement in ranking ( on the contrary, there is a risk of devaluing the user experience and obtaining the opposite effect). Instead, it is appropriate to write in a natural way, with the aim of producing interesting content for users, not for robots.

The activity of writing SEO content is called SEO Copywriting, and it is the art of combining good writing with the elements of optimization.

Off-page SEO

While it is essential to have optimized pages, this is seldom enough to get the desired results. Off-page optimization (outside our pages) essentially concerns the management of links on other sites that point to ours.

In the 1990s, the two founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, based their success on the belief that the cited pages with the most links were the most important and deserving. This was the real great innovation of Google, which forever changed the internet search market. In the eyes of Google, a link to a page is essentially a “vote” for its content, in other words it expresses the will, on the part of the webmaster or owner of a site, to cite an important resource worthy of being visited by users. .

The logical consequence of this premise is that one of the main factors affecting Google’s ranking is the number of links pointing to a site. However, the importance of a site is not entirely calculated on the amount of links received. In fact, Google also considers the importance of the page of origin of the link. A link from a page on an authoritative site is worth more than one from a poor quality site. It is therefore theoretically possible to be positioned better than a competitor with fewer links, if these are of high enough quality.

Simplifying further, we can say that the higher the PageRank value of the pages that link to us and the amount of pages that link to us, the higher our PageRank will be accordingly. A high PageRank, although less important than in the past, is still a factor that Google takes into account when ranking pages in its rankings.

In addition to considering the quantity and quality of the links received, there are other factors related to the links that affect the organic ranking. In addition to being a quality “vote”, the link is in fact – for search engines – also thematic information. With this in mind, there are two factors that determine the value of each link pointing to our site: the theme of the page of origin and the anchor text of the link. For an incoming link (to our site) to have any real value for us, it must come from a page that deals with the same topic (or as relevant as possible) treated on our page.

For the same reason, the anchor text, which is the word or words that make up the link (hence the clickable ones) must be relevant to the topic we are dealing with. For example, if our goal is to position ourselves with the keyword “positioning on Google”, the maximum value for us is to receive links with the anchor text containing the words “positioning on Google”, which is our reference keyword. This way, the search engine will consider our page relevant with that query.

The “off-page” activity therefore mostly consists of managing link pupularity (link popularity), and is a very important part of the process. This part is often longer and more difficult than the “on-page” one, since we do not have direct control over the sites of others. To manage link popularity it is necessary, as we have said, to obtain links to your site from other sites that are relevant and relevant to the topic covered by the site, but how to do it?

The management of link popularity is built through actions more or less compliant with Google guidelines (see next paragraph “Black Hat and White Hat SEO”) and is the subject of numerous debates.

Link earning vs link building

Since the links are signals of interest, it is clear that obtaining links is a natural consequence of having quality content on your site. But on the other hand, the acquisition of spontaneously inserted links could be a slow process.

For this reason, many SEOs have come up with different tactics over the years to get links from other sites in a non-spontaneous way. The combination of these tactics is called link building.

These techniques, especially in some very competitive sectors, have been used excessively, becoming spam phenomena. There was a time when practices such as link exchange, spam links on blogs and forums, compulsive subscription to directories (link lists) of dubious quality were commonplace, and worked very well for SEO.

To stem these manipulative phenomena, Google is constantly updating its ranking algorithms, introducing new and increasingly sophisticated systems to identify unnatural links – the most famous of which is the algorithm called Penguin – or other spam techniques, and take measures to consequently, that is to penalize the sites that make use of these practices in its rankings.



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