I recently came across an article in the New York Times relating the curious success story of an online eyewear dealer. This dealer was routinely accused of selling bootleg merchandise, even of threatening and intimidating customers, yet his business was thriving. Disgruntled customers quoted in the article had one explanation for this puzzle: Google search results. This maligned business was one of the top results returned by Google in searches for high-end name brand eyewear. From the quotes in the article it was clear that users trusted that Google search results would include only the best dealers, with no shady or controversial merchants among the top results.
You might think a search that located the most popular, well-known eyewear dealers would naturally give you the all-around best dealers. After all how could a dubious dealer be popular? It seemed, however, the very volume of complaints about the dealer that existed online that drove his high ranking in search results. The dealer himself is quoted in the article saying, “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”
The Google Paradox
This got me thinking about my own relationship with Google. Resorting to Google has become all but hardwired into how I use the World Wide Web, and I know I am not alone in this. I have caught myself going to the Google home page and typing ‘youtube’ into the search field, when I could have simply typed the YouTube site URL into the browser’s location bar. I constantly hear people using Google as a verb, and have seen others write it as ‘google’ in that context. In my workplace I hear things like “I don’t know but I bet Google does” in response to questions, and worse, have seen the dreaded email reply of http://lmgtfy.com/. I have yet to unthinkingly type ‘google’ into the Google search field but fear that day may not be far away.
With such trust and reliance on Google, it’s disconcerting to think search results may feature a bad business simply because there is a lot of chatter online (complaints, in fact) about that business. That such an outcome is possible made me curious about how web search engines work today. This quickly led me to the topic of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a practice informed by both web design and marketing that is dedicated to improving a web site’s ranking in the results returned by appropriate searches.
SEO – Working the Paradox
SEO consists of a set of analytic practices that look at how the top search engines determine which results they return in what order. SEO is focused not on the paid ads on a search engine results page (SERP), but the algorithmically returned and ranked results. These results are sometimes, and somewhat amusingly to me, termed the natural or organic results. I get what those terms mean in this context; it just scares me a little when anything about the Internet is deemed natural. Users tend to trust these natural results, and focus more attention on these than paid results. I know that I sometimes overlook paid results – often to my loss.
The exact practices that the top search engines employ to return and rank results are proprietary, but SEO employs the insights into that process that are known to make a web site accessible and logical in the way it appears to search engines. The ultimate goal of SEO is to make pages from a web site return high in the rankings for relevant searches. For example if your web site sells a line of ice scrapers, you want someone who is in the market for an ice scraper and using Google, Bing, Yahoo search or a different search engine to find “the ultimate ice scraper” to find your web site.
There are right and wrong ways of going about romancing the search engines. The system is readily gamed, which can yield a short term conquest of search result rankings, only to ultimately result in being purged from search engine indices. Such an ouster was the fate that ultimately befell the eyewear merchant noted earlier, by the way – so much for ‘negative advertisement’. If you really want to benefit long term, you’ve got to go about things the right way.
Good SEO fuels a host of best practices
Really thinking about how to be search engine friendly is likely to drive you to build a site that is well organized and user friendly. And ultimately even with great visibility to your site via the search engines, your site still has to have something to offer to users. SEO should be a means of promoting what your site has to offer, while removing obstacles to the visibility of your site in search engine results.
Your website’s pages are indexed by automated routines known as spiders, in a process rather attractively dubbed crawling. SEO should ensure the pages are all “spider friendly” so that they are crawled and thus indexed properly, and that the pages are rich with relevant content. The search engines then conduct document analysis on the pages their spiders crawl.
To improve visibility in search results, consider:
- cleaning up redundant pages on your website;
- improving page titles;
- using keywords on each web page;
- and updating page elements most users wouldn’t consider, such as the URL and alt text for images.
External links to pages on your web site are of considerable importance to a search engine’s evaluation of your pages. The prestige, popularity and relevance to the search terms of the site that link to you all are weighed when the search engines rank your page among results to return for an end user’s search query. The eyewear merchant from the NY Times article received a short-term benefit when their business name and links to their web site appeared on many reputable websites. The automated ‘machine intelligence’ nature of site crawling missed that these mentions were in the context of complaints. The seemingly innocuous ‘anchor text’ that appears in links to your site actually matters for search ranking. Anchor text like “Read this great discussion of Search Engine Optimization” has some value while “click here” has none.
In addition to an analysis of external links to your site, search engines will perform various other analysis on your website pages to allow them to determine the relevance of the pages to search terms, including:
- semantic connectivity;
- the relative age of your site;
and other factors like internal and external links, how long your domain name is registered, etc….
A clean up of your website to make it well organized and spider accessible should be well within your immediate control. The same goes for making sure each page has a good relevant titles and showcases relevant keywords, and auditing audit of the links structure of your site. But working to change some other factors critical to your visibility in searches – for example, who links to your website, and in what context – will take some time. Certainly your website will have to bring something to the table to both win those links, and drive repeat visits to your site.
Does it work?
Reading about SEO has certainly influenced how I am thinking about two web site projects I am working on now. I can see the importance of organizing each site logically and cleanly from the start, and making their pages spider friendly. I know that fresh and compelling content will be critical to each site, but that connecting each site with its intended audience is likewise of paramount importance. I can see that promoting each site the right way – networking, in a sense – will be critical.
If like me, you’re just getting started with SEO, here are some other resources you might find useful: