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SEO Simplified: How Search Engines Discover, Index, and Rank your Content

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Written by Lisa Toner, Senior Marketing Manager at HubSpot and a member at Iconic Offices

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is something that all marketers or professionals who are responsible for business growth need to be thinking about. However, for a marketer who wears many hats (like most of us) it can seem a complex topic to understand and near impossible to balance the required work of SEO with everything else you need to do.

That said, understanding the basics of SEO is pretty much mandatory for your success as a marketer, and actually not as difficult as you might think. In this article we’ll simplify SEO, and see how Google decides which webpages to rank high in the SERPs (Search engine results pages) so that you can build a more strategic content marketing plan and grow your organic traffic and leads at a much greater pace.

SEO Simplified - Get your content ranking in search engines

The key to getting your content to rank well in search is to have a clear understanding of how Google finds, analyses, and ranks your content.

Getting your content to rank highly in search results depends predominantly on two things: First, improving discovery and relevance by creating lots of high-quality content on the topics you want to be known for. Second, building authority by getting lots of high-quality backlinks to your website.

Discovery, relevance, and authority – those are the three stages that cover how search engines work in a nutshell. And each of these three stages correlates with an action the search engine takes: crawling, indexing, and ranking.

The Discovery Stage (discover) First is the Discovery stage. Search engine bots discover your web page by “crawling” it – which really just means it discovers your web page and takes note of all of the content within it.

The Relevance Stage (indexing) Next is the relevance stage. Once a search engine bot discovers your content, it decides how relevant it is to certain search queries by indexing it, based on signals like keywords within the content. Think of this as the search engine categorising your content based on what it can detect from the words on your website.

The Authority Stage (rank) Next is the authority stage. This is the stage where the search engines determine your site’s authority or credibility on the topics it has categorised you for in the indexing stage. To determine this authority it looks at the volume and credibility of the other sites that are linking back to your website. Authority directly impacts ranking strength. This means that proactive link building should be a part of your content marketing strategy.

The Library Metaphor I find the best way to explain how search engines rank content is using the library metaphor. After all, isn’t Google just a giant library? Let’s pretend for a moment that you work in a library. You have a ton of books in a pile in front of you, and you need to figure out where in the library these books need to be stored.

Your first step is to find all these books. This is crawling. If a book isn’t in the stack to begin with or you can’t see it, you won’t be able to put it on a shelf. That’s the discovery stage. In the sense of your website ask yourself, when someone searches for something related to your business, do you have a piece of content related to the search query and can the search engines access it?

Your second step is to categorise the books. This is indexing. This is where you assess the relevance of a book to a topic so you know which shelf to put it on. Search engine bots index content on a website in a similar way. They crawl the content and say, ‘What are the contents of this web page? What do they mean?’ Then, they bucket them into some sort of topic and start to create some semantic associations.

Your third step is figuring out which books to feature. What should go on your best-sellers shelf? Which books should you make easier to find than others? This is ranking. The way you determine which books are most easily discoverable for visitors to your library is mostly based on whether the book comes from credible sources.

In the case of books, you place authority on credible authors like Dan Brown and H.G. Wells. Those are authoritative sources – we know that because they’re talked about a lot, referred to a lot, and they’re cited in other works. Getting cited is like having backlinks to your website – things that are mentioned in the press and are linked to from other sites regularly. That’s what builds authority.

These three stages and actions are dependent on one another. If your content isn’t relevant, then it has little chance of ranking, no matter how authoritative it is. If your website isn’t authoritative, then it has little chance of ranking, no matter how relevant it is. And if your website can’t be discovered in the first place, it has no chance of ranking at all.

If you would like to learn more on how to build backlinks, checkout this free training resource HubSpot provide and discover how they use blogging to rank #1 on Google, check out this free training course on HubSpot Academy.

Written by Lisa Toner

Lisa Toner is a Senior Marketing Manager at HubSpot and owner of ETTCH, a subscription box for empowering children and teenagers. At HubSpot, she leads a global team of content and acquisition marketers responsible for driving new business for HubSpot. She’s a regular event speaker on topics such as content strategy, sales and marketing alignment, acquisition strategy, and sales process.


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