How SEO Works Step by Step

Search engine optimization (SEO) is optimizing your website to improve it’s usability, trustworthiness, and relevance so that your site will rank higher in the search results in search engines, such as Google and Microsoft Bing. Increasing your site’s ranking can earn your school more traffic.

Did you find this blog post by searching for how SEO works? If so, you’re in the right place. Keep reading to learn more about how SEO works for school websites.

What SEO Is and How It Works

SEO is a digital marketing strategy that focuses on improving the performance of your website to increase the number of people visiting your website.

Search engine algorithms use hundreds of factors to determine how to rank your content. SEO works by optimizing your site for certain keywords. This helps attract high-quality traffic to your site. High-quality traffic means prospective parents who are a good fit for your school.

In general, SEO is the link between a person who enters a question into a browser search bar and a website. Once you understand how SEO works, you can use SEO tactics – like keyword research, content creation, on-page SEO, etc. to increase your visibility (or how high you rank) in search results.

The foundation of SEO is the people who are asking questions in search bars, called search intent. When you understand what your target audience is searching for, the answers they are seeking, the words they are using and the type of content they wish to view or read, you can determine how best to optimize your site to connect to them.

When you understand your audience’s search intent, you can deliver it in a way search engine crawlers can find it and prioritize it over other websites.

In their essence, search engines are answer machines. They search through and analyze billions of bytes of information to determine which content is most likely the best answer to the query submitted. Search engines do this through a process called crawling and indexing.

Step #1. How SEO Works: Understand Why SEO Is Important

Most online traffic is driven by search engines. There are exceptions, such as paid advertising, social media and other online platforms. Still, organic (meaning not paid for) search results are the lion’s share of links and they appear more credible to online searchers. Unsurprisingly, they receive more clicks than paid ads.

This means SEO has about 20 times more traffic than pay-per-click ads on both desktop and mobile devices.

SEO is well worth the investment because it builds in value over time. Quality content attracts people to your website. The higher your content ranks in search engines, the more people will visit. Over time, this cycle will build momentum, bringing value to your school.

Search engines are getting smarter over time, especially with machine learning technology, but they still need our help. Optimizing your website will help search engines properly index and display links to your content on search engine results pages.

Step #2. How SEO Works: Recognize the Difference Between White Hat and Black Hat SEO

“White hat” refers to SEO practices that abide by the rules. These rules support the goal of providing value to as many people as possible.

“Black hat” refers to SEO practices that try to trick the search engines. Black hat tactics are not worth the risk of being penalized or “blacklisted” by the search engines. (When a site is blacklisted, it is removed from search engines.)

There isn’t a reason to try to trick or fool the search engines, because they want web owners to be successful. The best way to approach SEO is to focus on providing visitors to your website with the best possible online experience. To do that, focus on fulfilling user intent and follow search engine guidelines.

To learn more about how to meet Google’s white hat SEO requirements, go to the Google Search Central Help Community.

Step #3. How SEO Works: Understand How Search Engines Crawl, Index, and Rank Your Website

There are three primary functions search engines use to perform their purpose: crawling, indexing, and ranking.

  • Search engine crawling

Search engines send out little web programs, called web bots, spiders, or crawlers. These web crawlers use links to find new and updated content. The crawler “jumps” from content to new content via links. Once it finds new content, it will add it to its index. (Google’s index is named Caffeine.)

  • Search engine indexing

Search engines index the content contained in their database so they can find the information they think a searcher is looking for.

  • Search engine ranking

When someone submits a query to a search engine, the search engine looks through its index and ranks the content according to relevance and other criteria. The higher content is ranked, the more relevant the search engine thinks the content matches the search query.

If you want your content found and indexed by the web bots, you have to make it findable and indexable to the crawlers. Otherwise, it’s essentially invisible.

Wondering how to check to make sure your website pages are being indexed by Google? One way to check is by typing “” into the search bar. This will give you an approximate number of pages on your website that Google sees.

A more accurate way to check your website is to use Google Search Console (GSC). With GSC, you can learn valuable information about your website, including how Google sees your site.

Step #4. How SEO Works: Keyword Research

Keyword research is all about understanding what your audience is searching for, and the words or phrases they are typing in to seek out that information.

Ideally, the first step in keyword research is to ask a lot of questions. This is where some schools may want to cut corners because it takes time to go through this part of the process. But if you wan to make sure you are ranking for the right keywords that will attract prospective families interested in learning more about your school.

Focusing on your prospective parents and then using keyword data to refine those insights will give you more success with your SEO.

For example, you might want to ask these types of questions:

  • What type of educational programs are prospective parents searching for?
  • What education-related topics are they interested in?
  • What education-related questions do they have?
  • Are your prospective parents looking for a specific instructional strategy or methodology?
  • Are your prospective parents looking for a focus on core subjects? Competency-based education? Critical thinking? Character development? Extra focus on a specific subject (i.e. reading, foreign language immersion, STEM, gifted and talented, art, music, theater, athletics, etc.)
  • Who are your prospective parents and what defines them?
  • How are parents searching for private schools in your area?
  • What words do they use?
  • What questions do they ask?
  • Are they searching more on mobile devices or a desktop?
  • Why are they interested in a private school?
  • What expectations do they have for a private school for their child?
  • Where are potential families located?
  • Where are they in the school search process?
  • What content can you provide to cultivate a community and answer the questions and needs prospective parents have?

Your answers to these questions will help you generate a list of seed words to get you started with your keyword research.

Once you have your seed keywords, you can start the process of determining which topics or keywords are best based on your audience and your research.

  • Start by searching for more keywords based on your seed keywords

Enter your seed keywords into a research tool like SEO Coach, Moz Keyword Explorer and Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest. These tools will give you additional keyword suggestions. I suggest you start a spreadsheet where you can track all your keywords. Be sure to track monthly volume, SEO difficulty, cost per click (if you run pay-per-click (PPC) ads) and look at volumetric trends over time. Google Trends is very helpful to gather this data.

Continue gathering possible keywords and tracking them on your spreadsheet until you have a significant amount of keywords to work with. You are looking for highly relevant keywords, with both high and low competition. Learning more about keyword search volume can help you choose the best keywords for your website.

  • Determining search volume

Once you have found a list of keywords you want to work with, you will want to prioritize them. One of the most important indicators of determining the best keywords is keyword difficulty. In general, the higher the search volume of a keyword, the more difficult it will be to rank on the first page of the search engine results page (SERP). Other factors are also important, such as whether a blog post is shown as a featured snippet, ranks in Google’s Knowledge Graph or is shown in the video carousels. Learn more about Google’s SERP: What is SEO in School Marketing?

Just because a keyword has a high search volume doesn’t mean it’s the best keyword to rank for. If you go too high, the keyword will have too much competition and will take a lot of effort to get you high in Google’s results.

Adversely, if you choose keywords with too low of a search volume, you might not attract many visitors with it. In many cases, it makes the most sense to use low competition words that are extremely specific. These keywords are called “long-tail keywords”.

  • Consider using long-tail keywords

A long tail keyword is a longer, specific phrase used instead of a short, high volume keyword (or couple of words). For example, a high-volume keyword might be “private school” but a long-tail version could be “how much does private school cost near me” or “private school cost per year” or “public vs private school cost per student”. These phrases are much more specific but will be more likely to land your content on the first page of the SERP for the keyword.

  • Other keyword factors to consider

There are other keyword strategies to consider when prioritizing your keywords, such as ones your competitors are ranking for. On one hand, you can look for keywords your competitors are not ranking for to determine missed opportunities. On the other hand, look at keywords your competitors are ranking for and try to compete (you know these keywords will draw traffic).

Other factors include seasonal trends and your geographic location. For seasonal trends, use Google Trends and for regional trends use “interest by sub-region” in Google Trends or use Google Keyword Planner.

Want more help with keyword planning? Consider enrolling in SEO Coach, an easy-to-use software program designed to help private schools achieve top ranking in Google’s SERP.

SEO Coach will help you find the right keywords, discover content topics, analyze your competition, improve your content and offer you a local SEO strategy. It includes SEO Academy, to help you learn SEO best practices. Check it out here: SEO Coach.

Step #5. How SEO Works: On-Page SEO

Once you have a handle on the best keywords for your website, it’s time to think about on-page SEO. The basic concept behind on-page SEO is to create web pages (and blog posts) that answer your visitor’s questions. On-page SEO has many facets and includes some technical SEO tactics, such as schema and meta tags.

Once you have your keywords selected, it’s time to start developing content for your site. Before you get started, there are a couple of mistakes to avoid. Make sure you don’t duplicate your content (meaning you write more than one article on the same topic), upload content that is too short (should be at least 500 words in length), upload content that lacks authority or expertise (such as poor grammar, multiple spelling errors or contains inaccuracies), doesn’t address the topic or headline, has too many ads or the purpose of the content is not identifiable (text doesn’t make much sense).

Other obvious errors include links that are considered “malicious”, links to pages that no longer exist (use a link checker to check for broken links), cloaking (hiding content from crawler bots) and keyword stuffing (intentionally including way too many repetitions of the focus keyword.

Google is looking for highly relevant content that is well-written and provides value for your target audience. The best way to rank high in SERP is to write content that is better than other pages Google is currently ranking high.

Step #6. How SEO Works: Technical SEO

Technical SEO refers to how your content optimized to be indexed by search engines. You don’t have to be a technical SEO expert to know how to perform technical SEO, you just need to understand how websites work, how search engines “read” websites and how users interact with websites.

Basically, web crawlers read the page HTML (what the page says, titles, text, etc.), CSS (how the page looks) and JavaScript (interactive, dynamic, etc.). All of these elements impact how well your page ranks in Google.

Another important element of web pages that SEO practitioners need to understand is schema. Schema refers to the way you organize your content to help web crawlers understand your content better. For example, categorizing your content into 5-6 main topic areas helps the web bots identify the purpose of your site and provides architectural structure to your content. Learn more about how schema works and how to ensure you are following Google’s structured data guidelines.

There are a few things about how to optimize a web page (or blog post) to ensure the web crawlers can understand and index it.

  • Provide a favorable experience for your users, including those viewing your site on a mobile device

Google expects your website to provide an excellent user experience (UX). This entails high-quality content of course, but also a responsive website designed to look good on a mobile device. Click here to check and see how your site performs on a mobile device according to Google.

  • Use AMP

Google expects websites to use Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). AMP delivers web pages at lightening speeds because it is delivering content from a cached version and uses a special version of JavaScript and HTML (code languages). Learn more about AMP here.

  • Ensure your web pages load quickly

Your web pages need to load very fast to ensure visitors don’t get bored and bounce off. Check the speed of your website and learn more about web performance.

One of the main reasons web pages load slowly is the size of the images. To help you with this, I have a blog post on How to Optimize Images for Better Web Design, Social Media and SEO.

Step #6. How SEO Works: Link Building

Link building is all about demonstrating your website offers authoritative and trustworthy content. The basic idea is that if another website “refers” to your website via a link, it is a vote of confidence in your site. Google has said that links and quality content are two of the most important SERP ranking factors.

There are two types of links – inbound links and internal links. Inbound links (also called external links or backlinks) are when other websites or social media links to your site, basically telling Google your site is reputable and worth mentioning.

Internal links are when you connect to another web page on your site, essentially signaling to Google that page contains high-quality content because it’s worth linking to.

Search engines evaluate links based on E-A-T. E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Learn more about E-A-T here: 7 Tips to Demonstrate E-A-T and Rank Higher in Google.

A couple of tips when it comes to links:

  • High quality, unique content earns quality links
  • Build community partnerships that will add value to prospective families by linking to your site
  • Don’t purchase links. Google penalizes sites with spammy links, so don’t do it!
  • Don’t participate in link exchanges with organizations you don’t have any affiliation with. It is perfectly fine to link to sites you work with, partner with, or have some affiliation with and they link back to you.
  • Don’t use manipulative link building tactics, like pay-for-placement web directories.

Read more: 12 Best Practices for Generating Backlinks to Your Website

Step #7. How SEO Works: Track Your SEO Performance

Measuring how well your SEO is working allows you to know how to make improvements and even change your priorities if needed.

  • Start by setting an overarching goal by considering the outcome you want from your search traffic (i.e. maintain or increase enrollments)
  • Next, consider the SEO-related metrics you will track
    • Engagement metrics (inquiry forms filled out and submitted, lead magnet/content upgrades downloaded, time spent on a page, pages per visit, bounce rate, traffic insights
    • Other types of metrics (domain authority, page authority, keyword rankings, backlinks)
  • Track your metrics using tools like SEO Coach, Google Analytics, Google Search Console, SEMrush and Ahrefs

Measuring your SEO performance is an essential aspect of the SEO process. Determining how well your efforts are working and where you need to make changes is crucial for success.

Having a working understanding of how SEO works and how well your website is utilizing best practices is critical. One way to determine how your site is performing is to conduct a SEO website audit. An audit will let you know your current position in search, how it’s performing, the quality of your content and how searchers are interacting with it. Click here for a FREE SEO Audit for Schools.

Do you use SEO for your school? How well is your SEO performing? Please share your experience with the rest of the school marketing community by leaving a comment below.

About the author 

Brendan Schneider

Hey, I’m Brendan, and this is my blog. After 28 years working in private, independent schools in mostly admissions, enrollment, marketing, communications, and fundraising roles, I decided to make SchneiderB Media my full-time job, where I help schools get more inquiries through my Fractional Digital Marketer program. I also started the MarCom Society, a membership created expressly to help, support, and train marketing and communications professionals at schools.


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