I am fascinated with how search engines work. While describing their process to clients, I usually start off with:
"Search Engine Optimization is like a mix of science fiction and leaving cookies for Santa Clause"
Here is how a search engine like Google works. Google has a piece of software they wrote called the GoogleBot. Wikipedia defines this as:
"Googlebot is the search bot software used by Google, which collects documents from the web to build a searchable index for the Google search engine."
GoogleBot is a restless piece of software that continuously crawls the internet following links, finding trillions of web pages, and indexing their content. Its goal is to find out what your website is about and report it back to the "Mother Ship" that is Google's database. From there, depending on an ever changing number of factors, Google will categorize your site and do its best to be relevant and accurate even though no human ever verifies the results.
Leaving Cookies for Santa
So far, we understand that GoogleBot is a software automated robot that collects info and organizes it. Knowing that, we can leave 'treats" for it in our web code that it will eventually come to discover. These treats are in the form of the use of keywords throughout your sites content, image descriptions, the titles of your pages, etc. Like with Santa, the better the treats you leave, the better the presents.
In some cases, this may be enough to have your site ranking the way you need it to. In industries that are more competitive, we may have to take it a step further.
Search Engine Marketing Campaign
Remember when I said the GoogleBot crawls trillions of web pages? Well a Search Engine Marketing Campaign takes advantage of that by attempting to grow the number of websites in the world that link back to yours. These are called back links, and there are numerous strategies to obtain them.
The reason why back linking is so effective is because it is the only thing you can not fake in terms of building your online credibility. Since we can't control content on someone else's website, being featured must be a conscious decision made by the sites webmaster/editor. In the eyes of Google, if you are good enough to be mentioned in a dozen blogs, featured in numerous online publications, and written about and linked to by industry directories, then you must be what people are searching for, and therefore improve your ranking.
Why is it so Involved?
Chances are, the leads you get from search results are the most highly qualified type of lead to find you. Why? Because they voluntarily searched for you. You didn't interrupt there favorite song with a radio ad, you didn't interrupt the nightly news with your TV commercial, you were found when they already knew they needed you. That is more than half way to converting them into your customer.