What is SEO? An explanation for beginners

Do you have a website? And do you want more traffic to your site? If the answer is yes, then there’s no doubt about it: SEO should be part of your marketing efforts. SEO is a great way to get and keep people on your site. But what does it actually entail? In this post, we’ll explain what SEO is and how you can get started!

What is SEO?

SEO stands for ‘Search Engine Optimization’. It’s the practice of optimizing your web pages to make them reach a high position in the search results of Google and other search engines. In other words: People will be more likely to see your website when they search online. SEO focuses on improving the rankings in the organic (aka non-paid) search results.

Google's search results for the term neptune planet
Google’s search result page for the term ‘neptune planet’

In the image above, we see the first few results when someone searches for the keyphrase ‘Neptune planet’. In this case, Wikipedia is the first result. This means their page on Neptune ranks number 1 on this search term. The idea behind SEO is that when you optimize your page to become the best result, you can climb those rankings and become one of the first results that people see. Which will get you more clicks and traffic to your site!

Although this example only shows us organic results, ads or rich results can also be at the top. There might even be Google Images, or a few products by Google Shopping. There are a lot of different possibilities. What Google shows can also depend on what it knows about the searcher (the country they live in, for example).

Why is SEO important?

You’ve created a website because you want people to buy your product, subscribe to your service, or read your content. Whatever your goal, you want people to visit your website. If you own a donut shop in Amsterdam, for example, you want your website to be number 1 when people Google: “donuts Amsterdam”. Because the chances of people clicking on your website are much higher when it’s the top result!

But how do you make this happen? One word: Search Engine Optimization! SEO is a great way to get people to your website for free. Which is especially useful if you’re a small business owner who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising.

What determines how high you rank?

How high each result ranks is determined by Google’s algorithm. And although parts of Google’s algorithm remain secret, years of experience in SEO have given us insight into the most important ranking factors. These ranking factors can be divided into two categories:

On-page SEO factors

The ranking of your pages is partly determined by on-page factors. On-page factors are all the things on your site that you have a direct influence on. These factors include:

These are all crucial on-page SEO factors that you can work on.

Off-page SEO factors

In addition to on-page SEO factors, your rankings are also determined by a few off-page SEO factors. These factors include:

  • links from other websites. Especially the number and quality of links pointing towards your site is important. The more quality, relevant sites that link to your website, the higher your position in Google will be.
  • social media attention.
  • your competition in the niche of your particular business. In some niches, it’s much harder to rank than in others. The competitiveness of your market therefore also has a major influence on your chances of ranking.
  • other marketing activities that happen off of your own website.

Although not impossible, these off-page SEO factors can be more difficult to influence.

Holistic SEO: A long-term strategy

At Yoast, we practice ‘holistic SEO‘. With holistic SEO, your primary goal is to build and maintain the best possible website. You don’t try to fool Google. Instead, you invest your time and effort in a sustainable long-term strategy. Because if you work on improving your pages and running a high-quality website, then your chances of ranking will improve too. After all, Google wants to offer its users the best results to their search query. And the best results often have great content, and are user-friendly, fast, and easily accessible.

A holistic SEO approach isn’t just better for your rankings — it also helps users find what they need more quickly. And that’s better for environmental sustainability too!

How can we help you get started?

At Yoast, our mission is to make SEO accessible for everyone. That’s why we’ve created a few plugins to help you, like our popular Yoast SEO plugin. We have a free and premium version of this plugin, but both versions help you create high-ranking content. The highlight of our free plugin is the SEO and readability analysis. It gives you detailed suggestions to create copy that both humans and search engines enjoy!

The premium version of our plugin will help you get to that next level and optimize your content for synonyms and related keywords. Plus, it will help you boost your site structure with our internal linking suggestions. You’ll also get access to our AI title and meta description generator, and all of our SEO courses, where you can learn vital SEO skills that you’ll be able to apply immediately!

Go Premium and get access to all our features!

Premium comes with lots of features and free access to our SEO courses!

Get Yoast SEO Premium Only $99 USD / year (ex VAT)


SEO is the practice of optimizing websites to make them reach a high position in Google’s – or another search engine’s – search results. At Yoast, we believe that holistic SEO is the best way to rank your pages because you focus on optimizing every aspect of your site.

Don’t use any black-hat tricks, because this will eventually have negative consequences for your rankings. Instead, practice sustainable SEO with your user in mind, and you will benefit in the long run. Read more on how to rank high in Google or if you use WordPress, make sure to check out our ultimate guide on SEO in WordPress:

Read more: The ultimate guide to WordPress SEO »

Coming up next!