About Search Engines

Search Engine Optimization

“I want my site to be at the top of the Google search results.”

That is how the conversation usually begins. The request is understandable, but the problem is that every business or organization wants their site to be at the top of the results, and the truth is not everyone gets to be there. To understand this better, let’s look at what search engines do.

Simply stated, when a web user enters a word or phrase into a search engine, it returns a rank-ordered list the search engine company believes to be the most relevant to the user. Those results are compiled using a complex formula or “algorithm.” That formula is a tightly-held secret by each search engine operator in order to prevent unethical manipulation of search engine results. With that basic understanding, when someone tells you that they can somehow manipulate your site to come up at the top of the list, it is simply not true (other than paid listings which are addressed in the column to the rightbelow). If there were some type of switch your web developer could flip to place your site at the top of the search results, everyone would do exactly that. As a result, web developers try to employ ‘best practices’ to ensure the search engines have the best chance to see their site, and the search engines guard their changing formula, creating a high-tech game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ that is constantly evolving.

While the exact algorithm used by the search engines is never disclosed, developers have a general understanding of the factors driving good performance in search engines. Here are a few factors:

  • Domain Names - For understandable reasons, domain names are usually selected based on a company’s name or corporate branding. Consider a small tool retailer who sells a unique type of left-handed hammer. If his domain name is www.BobsTools.com, he will rank poorly if a user searches for “left handed hammer.” On the other hand, the same search would most certainly give high ranking to a site called www.Left-Handed-Hammers.com. Remember, search engines give great weight to domain names. Your site can have more than one domain name and they are very inexpensive.
  • Page Titles - Every page should have a title which you can find in the colored bar at the top of your screen. Including your most important “key words” in that page title is helpful, but make sure the page content supports those words.
  • Mobile-Responsive Design - With an ever-increasing share of web traffic originating from tablets and smart phones, Google has recently changed their algorithm to give more favorable ranking to mobile-friendly sites when the search is conducted from a mobile device. This will be of greater importance to some site owners than others, but if your intention is to get noticed, it is important that your site responds well across all devices and browsers.
  • Page Descriptions - Your developer can program a description for each page that is seen by the search engines but does not appear on the page. Occasionally, you will see this text near the link in a list of search engine results. A page description should be a single, comprehensive sentence describing what that page contains that is useful to the viewer. As always, be thoughtful to select your words based on the phrases people are likely to enter into their search requests. Page descriptions are considered fairly high-level content when being viewed by search engines.
  • Key Words - Your developer can code a number of key words into your pages. These words are not seen by the user, but are very important to the search engines. Key words can - and should - be different for each page, with the words being supported by the content appearing on the page. It is common for developers to use individual key words in an effort to reach the lowest common search denominator, however it is better to identify the word strings on which you think users will search when looking for your type of product or service. Using the example above, words like bob, tools, hammer, left, handed will only cause you to be considered with thousands of other sites around the world selling tools or hammers. If your key words include the phrase “left handed hammer,” you are far more likely to place highly in the search results. Carefully selected phrases of three to five words may be quite helpful in reaching your desired audience.
  • Page/paragraph Headings - Because of how pages are coded, search engines are able to distinguish between regular text and the headings preceding that text. On this page, for example, a search engine would recognize the heading of the content to be “About Search Engines” and will give those words greater weight when assessing the site content.Components of search engine results. Accordingly, when preparing your site content, you should select content headings that support your key words and phrases.
  • Picture Descriptions - Search engines cannot see pictures and will not consider their content, no matter how relevant to the search. Developers should enter descriptive comments about each picture into the page coding. This allows search engines to include these descriptions in their index, as well as assisting visually impaired web users to better understand your site with the use of automated web readers. To get an idea, place your cursor over the search engine photo above.
  • Your Content - It should go without saying, but your site will perform best in the rankings if its content is relevant to the words upon which people are searching. Liberal reference to your products or services, your service jurisdiction, and any unique aspects of your service are critical. Most people looking for a plumber in Boston are going to search on Boston plumber. You should bring those terms together as much as practical in your content. Keeping your content fresh and including informative newsletters or current events for your business will also help the search engines see your site as current and relevant.
  • Sitemap / Robot files - Your developer can prepare special data files that reside on your web server. You never see them, but they assist search engines in identifying all your web pages and knowing what to include in the index. I include the preparation of those files in all sites I develop.

While you and your developer can control most of the above referenced design factors, there are additional factors over which you will have less control. Among them:

  • Traffic to your site - As more people click through to visit your site, the search engines will recognize it as being more relevant. If you just opened a new bookstore, you will not be able to knock Amazon.com lower in the rankings no matter how clever your site may be. The search engines believe ‘bigger is better’ except in the case of very unique search phrases.
  • Links to your site - As more sites link to yours, the search engines will see your site as having greater relevance. Consider asking businesses with whom you may have a strategic alliance to link to your site. It is diplomatic to agree to a “link exchange,” where you also link to their site. This is particularly helpful with non-competitors related to your business, such as suppliers or those providing after-market services related to your field.
  • Time on the web - It seems that sites new to the web tend to rate lower than content that has been online longer. For that reason, it is critically important when starting a new business, you consider your site just one component of your marketing program and don’t expect it to be the sole source of lead generation. You will need to market your business using conventional methods (advertising, word-of-mouth, personal contact, etc.) and have your site support those efforts. Even if you generate few cold leads from your site, modern consumers look at your online presence as essential to your credibility as a business, and are very likely to spend considerable time on your site before making their decision to buy your product or solicit your service.

Sponsored Listings

Search engines offer site-owners the opportunity to get top-of-the-page results for a fee. These are called “sponsored listings” and often appear in a colored box at the top of the search results list. If you elect to subscribe to this type of advertising, your site will be return as a sponsored listing when users search on words relevant to your site. You pay a small fee each time your listing comes up, but unlike many forms of advertising you are only paying to reach those already interested in your type of business or service. The companies generally have arrangements where you can specify a maximum number of returns in order to limit your advertising costs to a pre-arranged amount. After that time, your site will no longer show up in the sponsored listings.

While there are aspects of paid listings that are appealing, research shows that over 70% of web users never click on sponsored listings, no matter how relevant they may actually be. They reject those listing as paid advertisements; opting instead to select from the “organic” listings which are earned instead of being purchased. Before considering purchasing this form of advertising, consider your own web experience and what your habits have been with respect to clicking on sponsored listings.