How SEO Helps People Find You

In the previous article, we looked at how search engines find information. Here, we look at web search from the opposite perspective, and discuss the things you can do if you are looking to be found. The use of these techniques are collectively known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

When you use a search service such as Google, Yahoo or Bing (Microsoft), it scans its database and displays a list of web pages that its algorithm determines will best match what you are looking for. That decision is based on many factors, but the most significant are relevance to your search terms, and the quality of the page and its website.

Influencing your position in the search results

While the quality calculation for your page and your website is fixed at any moment in time, relevance is dependent on the relationship between your content and the user’s search term(s). As a result, there is no such thing as ‘ranking high’ in the abstract; your page can only rank high in relation to specific search terms. It is up to you to ensure that the search terms that you optimize for will actually help you achieve your business goals.

Relevance to the user’s search terms

The best way to establish relevance to the search terms (and subjects) you consider important is to establish a theme for each page, built around a particular business goal. Everything on a page should support this theme, and the site navigation should group pages with related themes into logical sections.

Generally, each page should be optimized for a reasonable number of related search terms (say 3 to 6) that are relevant to its theme. To select these terms, SEO practitioners consult a variety of tools that show the frequency with which users enter specific phrases during a search, which can provide them with important guidance.

Once the list of search terms has been developed, it is the job of the SEO professional to ensure that the search engine will correctly index the page based on the targeted terms. Search algorithms incorporate a large number of factors such as word usage in the page title, headlines and subheads, body text, link text, and the ‘alt’ terms associated with images (hover over an image to view these).

The search algorithm will consider where terms appear on the page (for example, words that only appear near the bottom of the page may be viewed as less important), and how often they appear (appearing more often may indicate that the term is central to the meaning of the page, but too many appearances may suggest that you are trying to game the system). It will also consider links to the page from other pages on the website and from other websites, along with the subject matter of the referring pages and the link text used.

Links and page rank

Since thousands of pages may meet the relevance test, the search engine algorithms attempt to determine the ‘quality’ of both the page and the website that contains it, and consider this in determining the ranking of the web page in the search results listing.

One of the great innovations that Google initially offered was the idea of ‘Page rank’ as a means of judging the quality of a web page. Rather than allowing site publishers to vote for their own pages (by the choice of content and keywords they place within the page document), Google would rely on the vote of others (by considering links, or ‘citations’, to the page from other sites). Of course, unscrupulous site publishers immediately took to gaming the new system by establishing ‘link farms’, containing worthless links in an effort to boost search rankings.

While Google and other search vendors look more skeptically at some links than they once did, it is nearly impossible to achieve any reasonable position in the search results without numerous, high quality links to the pages of your site. Of course, links can come from pages on your site as well as from external sites, but the external links are more important than internal ones.  Quality external links are difficult to obtain, since they require that someone else alters the content on their website to include links to yours.

The introduction of site rank

Since then, Google and other search vendors have been continually trying to stay one step ahead of ‘black hat’ search practitioners by considering additional factors that provide a better indication of quality. In February, 2011, Google first announced its ‘Panda’ update. Panda introduced a new concept, Site rank, which used a machine learning algorithm to rate entire sites (rather than just pages) based on similarities to the way that human testers rated them. With the introduction of Site ranking, the importance of older measures, including Page rank, has been reduced.

Google’s Penguin update, made in April, 2012, goes further in decreasing the ranking of sites that violate their webmaster guidelines, publish duplicate content (that appears elsewhere), contain link farms and reflect other practices that it considers ‘black hat’ search optimization.

Content is now becoming king

In November, 2011, Google announced a ‘Freshness’ update, which prioritizes recent and timely content in determining Site rank.

The concept of ‘freshness’ is complex, and changing content for the sake of change may sometimes do more harm than good. Search engines will look at the type of content (today’s sports scores vs. an article on early English history, for example) to decide whether change is appropriate. A well aged document that describes a historical event may actually be considered more authoritative than something new. They will also look at where in the document change occurs, and changes near the bottom of the document or in ads, menus or footers may be ignored completely.

Document Freshness applies to the addition of new documents as well as changes and additions to existing ones. For this reason, adding pages with fresh articles and publishing new blog entries may help increase the ranking of the whole site, and therefore affect all of its pages.