You finally started that website and now you’re trying to figure out what’s next. Chances are, you’ve encountered friends, articles, and ads all alike telling you that what’s next is organic SEO.

If you’re fairly new to the web though, you might be wondering what SEO is and how it works.

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What Is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. It describes the actions you can take to increase the chances of your website showing up in major search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo when people search for what you do. 

SEO is a complex industry. The big search engines keep a lid on most of the details of how their search engine algorithms work. That leaves SEO experts using a mix of long-term observation, trial and error, and research studies to figure out how best to optimize a website to land better search results. 

While organic SEO is complicated and some of the details of how it all works are hazy, nonetheless a number of best practices for improving your website’s search results are well known. This post will dive into much of the most important information that we do know about what SEO is and how it works.

The 2 Types of SEO

One of the most important things every website owner needs to know about SEO techniques is that while doing it well can be a boon for  your business, doing it badly will hurt you more than not doing it at all. 

Of the many companies providing SEO services, there have always been a category of practitioners that try to find shortcuts to getting search engine results. The major of search engines prioritize delivering the best, most useful results to people. When low-quality websites make their way into the results because of people trying to game the system, they take note and make changes to the algorithm. And those changes don’t only serve to correct the problem, in many cases, they also actively work to punish the websites that gained rankings through sketchy SEO techniques and practices.

As a result, any business that decides to invest in SEO must learn the basic differences between white-hat SEO (the good, legitimate tactics) and black-hat SEO (the spammy tactics the search engines hate). 

White Hat SEO

White-hat SEO is any approach to search engine optimization that falls within Google’s guidelines and aims to gain rankings through legitimate means. The best way to figure out if an SEO tactic is white hat is to ask yourself: how will this affect the experience for everyday visitors to the website?

If it will provide a positive or neutral effect for human visitors, then there’s a good chance it’s a legitimate tactic worth pursuing. If it will make the visitor’s experience worse or more confusing, then it’s definitely a black-hat tactic. 

All the tactics explored in the How SEO Works section below count as white-hat tactics, so if you want to get started on the right foot, stick with those or seek out another form that only uses  legitimate SEO practices. 

Black Hat SEO

Black-hat SEO describes all the scammy tactics that people have used to try to game the system. Many of them are now well known to have negative effects on a website’s SEO. But because they worked—even if briefly—at some point in the past, some SEO providers still use them. 

Many well intentioned small businesses have inadvertently hired an SEO consultant that used black-hat tactics and suffered the consequences. Don’t fall into this trap!

Here are some common SEO mistakes to steer clear of.

Keyword stuffing 

Using keywords in your content is an important and legitimate part of doing SEO effectively. But if you overdo it, it goes from being a smart part of your SEO strategy to a spammy tactic that can get you penalized. 

Don’t awkwardly fill your content with keywords, whether they make sense or not. Only use keywords in a way that makes sense naturally in the text. Always ask, would this sound good to a human reader, or is it sloppily shoehorned in?  

Link buying

Link building is arguably the hardest part of SEO, so it’s tempting to look for easy shortcuts for getting links. Many companies offer to sell lots of backlinks for your website, sometimes for cheap. But Google explicitly frowns on this practice and the algorithm has ways to recognize low-quality links that have been paid for. 

If you buy a lot of low-quality links for cheap, your website will be penalized in search and you’ll have to go through the work of disavowing them later. 

Duplicate content

You need a lot of content for SEO that utilizes the specific keywords you want to rank for. When you have many keywords that are similar, it can be tempting to reuse the content you’ve already created with slight variations. 

For example, a divorce lawyer that serves a number of different neighborhoods might create five copies of the same page with the term “neighborhood A divorce lawyer” subbed with “neighborhood B divorce lawyer,” “neighborhood C divorce lawyer,” etc. 

That may seem like a clever way to cover your bases and target more keywords with less work, but the search engines don’t like duplicate content and it’s another way to get your website penalized. For each keyword you target, you need to create entirely unique content.   

Spam comments

Many blog comment sections allow commenters to include a link with their comment. As such, some black hat SEO practitioners try to use blog comment sections as a way to build new links to their website. This may have been a worthwhile tactic at some point, but now it’s mostly a waste of time. 

Most websites have anti-spam filters on their comments section, which means most spammy link building comments won’t make it through to begin with. And on top of that, on most sites that accept comments, the links included are nofollow (meaning they don’t deliver any SEO authority). 

spam comments

For the rare times that you can get a link in a blog comment that’s dofollow, Google’s algorithm doesn’t count it for much anyways. 


Cloaking is a shady practice that involves designing your website so it appears to be about one thing to Google’s algorithm, while visitors will encounter something entirely different. Any website trying this tactic risks being blacklisted. 

And it’s ultimately shortsighted anyways. Why would you want to rank for keywords unrelated to what visitors will find on the page? You’ll get irrelevant organic traffic that’s looking for something else. 

Invisible or tiny text

A similar tactic to cloaking, and equally shady, is including text that’s in the same color as the background or tiny enough to be overlooked by humans. The thinking behind this one is that you can cram a few more keywords in that the algorithm will see, without it negatively influencing the user experience. This is yet another sleazy tactic the search engines have caught onto and will penalize when they catch it.

Cheap, low-quality content

For a long time, the content and SEO industries were dominated by cheap content mills that paid writers a few bucks a piece to churn out high quantities of low-quality content. Because having lots of fresh content was a key part of getting higher search engine results, it made sense (or at least seemed to) to publish as much content containing your keywords as possible—whether or not it was providing useful information to readers. 

Many of those content mills went out of business as Google’s algorithm changed to increasingly penalize low-quality content and reward the sites that were providing more substantial, useful content. But some SEO companies still promote quantity over quality, to the detriment of their clients. 

How SEO Works

Now you know what not to do, these are the white-hat tactics that are worth spending your time and money on.

Keyword Research

One of the main benefits of SEO is that it delivers relevant traffic specifically. If you sell chocolates, you don’t need visitors that are looking for flights to Hawaii. And if you sell flights, you don’t need visitors looking for caramel truffles. With SEO marketing, you can help the people who are actively looking for what you offer find you more easily. 

That makes keyword research an important component in any SEO strategy. It shows you what terms your target audience is using when they’re looking for information about your products and industry, so you know what language and topics to craft your strategy around.

Keyword research involves a few main things:

  • Keyword tools – To identify the best keywords to target, you need data on what people are searching for. There are a mix of free keyword research tools, like Google’s Keyword Planner, and paid SEO tools, like Moz, you can use for this.
  • Website analytics – While Google has limited the amount of keyword data it provides in Google Analytics, it’s still useful to stay on top of which terms people are using to find your website now. Pay attention to the keyword data that is provided, and the data on which landing pages visitors are coming from, which can often lead you back to the keywords you’re ranking for. 
  • Long-tail keywords – A smart keyword strategy includes looking beyond the general, high-level keywords that tend to be especially competitive, like “chocolates,” and also targeting long-tail keywords that are more specific and less competitive, like “milk chocolate with pecans” or “best healthy chocolates for mother’s day.”  
  • SERP research – Another important role keywords play is that, once you know what term you’re targeting, you can do some research to find out what’s currently ranking for it. Figure out if there are any rich results on page one and what the top-ranking results look like, so you can design the content you create to beat them. 
using google search for keyword research, example of results for chocolate pie

On-Page Optimization

The next important component in SEO is on-page optimization. This is everything you do on your own website that makes it easier for search engine algorithms to understand what the pages on your site are about, and that ensures visitors have a good user experience (UX). This includes four main things:

  • Site speed Both Google and your visitors care about how fast your site loads. Take the steps needed to make sure it loads fast. 
  • Meta tags – On each page of your website, you should customize meta tags such as the title tag, heading tags, image alt tags, and meta descriptions to include your target keywords. 
  • Site architectureThe way you organize your site and, relatedly, structure your URLs is also important for SEO. 
  • Mobile friendliness – Google has been clear about the algorithm prioritizing websites that are mobile friendly, so make sure you build a responsive site that works as well on small screens as on desktops.

Content Creation

Regularly publishing fresh content provides two big SEO benefits:

  • It signals to the search engines that your website is up to date and consistently adding new, valuable information.
  • It gives you the opportunity to create new pages targeting a range of relevant keywords. 

Content creation is therefore a huge part of any good SEO strategy. Make sure you create a strategy for your content based on what your keyword research shows your target audience cares about, and what your website analytics show you they respond to. 

And as we discussed earlier in the post, prioritize providing valuable information to your readers over publishing a high quantity of content. While more content can add up to better SEO results, that’s only the case if the pieces you’re publishing are also good. 

Link Building

Our final difficult, but crucial, component of SEO is link building. One of the main factors Google considers when determining the authority of a website is the number of links on respected, relevant websites pointing back to it. Every time another site chooses to include a link to a page on your website, they’re telling Google that they consider what’s on the page to be valuable. As long as that website is considered reputable by the search engine algorithm, it gives you a boost in SEO authority.

Link building is hard to do well, but there are a number of legitimate link building strategies you can employ, whether you’re a blog, local business, or online store. A few common examples include:

  • Guest posting – When you write a guest post for a relevant website, you can usually include a link back to your own website, as long as you do so naturally. 
  • Broken link building – SEO tools can help you find places around the web where links using your preferred anchor text (the words that are hyperlinked) no longer work. These are opportunities to contact the website to suggest replacing the broken link with a working one to your content. 
  • Brand mention link building – Any mentions of your brand around the web are an opportunity for a link. SEO tools will help you find them, then you can contact the webmaster to ask them to add a link where your brand is mentioned. 

SEO Is Complicated, But Important

SEO isn’t easy and it can take a while to start seeing results, but it’s important for any website that cares about organic traffic and visibility. 

But you don’t have to learn everything about SEO from scratch entirely on your own. Now that you know the main things to look for and, just as importantly, the main things to avoid, you can find a good SEO provider to do the work for you.HostGator’s skilled SEO experts help clients with all the components of white-hat SEO marketing described here. And you don’t have to make a commitment until we’ve proven to you that we know what we’re doing with a free SEO review. Contact us now to learn how we can help your business rank better in the search results.

Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.