To the business owner with a website, what happens in a Google search is a mystery. Why doesn’t your site show up when you do a search? What’s the magic formula for getting to the top of Google? It feels like there must be a simple secret that no one’s talking about? Right?
Breaking Your Site Down, by the Numbers
You bet it is! When trying to get your website noticed in Google, there is a formula, it’s a well kept secret, and there’s nothing simple about it.
Instead of the word “formula,” let’s say “algorithm.” An algorithm is a set of rules or a process followed in a problem solving operation. In this case, the algorithm belongs to Google, and the problem is how to evaluate websites and use them in answering online searches.
Of course the process is entirely automated, performed by computer programs that constantly evaluate and re-evaluate your website along with everyone else’s. It goes on all day long, every day. And the kind of things the Google algorithm looks for include your website’s age, the information it contains, and inbound links.
How Old is Your Domain Name?
Just as adults are given more respect than children, older domain names (www.mycompany.com) get points just for being old. They’ve been around the block. They haven’t gone out of business. If two websites are equal in every other way, but one is older, the “mature” website will get preference in a Google search.
How Informative is Your Website?
Many people don’t want a lot of words cluttering up their website. That’s all well and good, but then they shouldn’t expect great success in the world of online search. Searches are not popularity contests that go to the prettiest webpage.
From Google’s point of view, their search engine is answering someone’s question. Therefore if you are looking for a “Custom Home Builder in Pittsburgh,” for example, the site that presents only pretty pictures of custom homes takes a back seat to the one that is informative about the process of acquiring a custom home, and also happens to mention that they are in Pittsburgh.
How much content do you need? There is no set number of pages or words, but if you want to show up above your competition, you’d better check them out. If they have 15 pages of professionally written, informative content, averaging 200-300 words per page, and you have 2 pages, 50 words each, that you wrote yourself – well, you just lost that match.
Google favors well-produced content, and the algorithm reads through the content to find keywords, keyword phrases, and their synonyms. It considers whether the page is “keyword stuffed,” or if the language flows naturally and is informative on its subject.
As best we know, the algorithm analyzes whether the keywords are used in headlines, links, bullet points, key sentences, etc. Point by point, the Google algorithm breaks down your content by the numbers and compares it against all the sites competing against you.
By now you may be getting the idea that the only magic formula here is hard work and finding a good writer. But even content is only a part of what the algorithm is looking for.
SEO and Link Building Tells Google Who Your Friends and Neighbors Are?
If your website is shy, just hanging out there on its own, it may get about the same attention from Google as the wallflower at a High School dance. The Google algorithm counts every other website that links to yours.
Then it starts figuring out who your friends and neighbors are.
If a respected and authoritative site links to your website, that’s great! An example might be the New York Times with an online article about your business that provides a link to your website. There would be a lot of respect (and search value) given to your site for having such a link.
But if your website hangs out with the wrong crowd, where links were purchased by the hundreds from some fake business directories overseas just to make your site look important, then you’re going to be in trouble.
For most of us, the truth is somewhere in between. You should certainly have links coming to your site from your own social media pages, including the likes of Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and others, depending on what is appropriate in your line of work.
You may also have incoming links from your local Chamber of Commerce, trade association, municipal website, a local business directory, etc.
Over time, bloggers and other site owners will find your website and link to it just because they see it offers something useful to their audience. What they find of interest may be an article, case study, a specific product or service, or even some basic information of value to their audience.
Of course, if you want to affect Google’s opinion of your site by acquiring great links and cutting away possible bad ones, you’ll need some professional help. That process is generally called Link Building, and it can be as complex and time consuming as any good marketing effort.
When Websites Shut the Door, or Send Wrong Signals
When the Google bots come to your website and say “hey, nice to meet you, we’re here to help the algorithm learn about your website, can we come in?” does your website slam the door and say “Go away!”
If your website is hostile to the process, even great content and good links won’t help you. We’ve even seen sites engineered (not deliberately we suspect) to appear as a blank page to the Google bots and algorithm.
All websites are not born equal.
Some menu driven systems, coding styles, and basic web development technologies simply don’t work well with Google. They may result in a fine looking, compelling design that customers love, but fewer clients will find you if Google hits a brick wall when it tries to analyze your website.
Sending the wrong signals can be equally problematic. There are still many developers who attempt “black hat” ways of attracting search engine attention. These can include invisible text, keyword stuffing, duplicate websites, and much more. Every day, Google finds ways to shut out such practices, and if your website is caught trying to scheme its way to success, it could take a long time to recover its credibility, if ever!
It’s Not the Same Everywhere
Naturally, when you type something into Google and see a page of search results, you assume that everyone who typed in the same thing got the same list of results. Not so.
Your website is also evaluated for where and to whom it should appear. At a minimum, Google knows approximately where the person doing the search is located. If the searcher uses any of Google’s products, from Gmail to Google Docs, or Google+ to YouTube, then Google learns about the search patterns and online habits of the individual doing the search.
And it modifies its search results accordingly.
No, the results list is not drastically different for everyone at every computer, but the results do shift and the variances do make a difference. While your Yard Equipment website may show up #1 for “lawn mower parts” locally, it may have no national presence at all. Or if you use Google+, the search results may give preference to your website when you do a search, but no one else will see that spectacular result.
Obviously, what you see when you search is only part of the answer. But Google does provide some free and effective tools to give you a sense of how your website is doing online, overall. Have your webmaster sign up for and install Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools.
This is Not your Grandfather’s Google
Another common misconception about Google is that whatever the rules are, they are THE rules – kind of like the formula for Coke is the formula for Coke.
Not quite. The engineers at Google are always hard at work adjusting the algorithm, trying to improve search results overall.
Minor tweaks happen all the time, and major updates get cute names like Penguin and Panda (although perhaps they should be named after hurricanes instead). These changes can and do affect traffic to your site all the time.
Why the changes? Two primary reasons. The first is that Google would like to improve search results and make them more relevant and personally useful to everyone who uses a Google search. The second is to deal with websites that are built with black hat techniques (cheaters) and block them or devalue them in a search.
Unfortunately, no one can say exactly what effect any particular change will have. Google’s intentions are clear, but the system is far too complex for anyone, even Google, to know the full effects of an algorithm adjustment until it happens.
If adverse consequences happen to too many valid websites, Google may adjust their adjustment. If the results are beneficial, Google will look for ways to improve them even further.
The bottom line is that if your website was search optimized three years ago, even if the techniques used were completely valid then, they are at least partially out of date today. And what is being done today will need looked at again, sooner rather than later.
So now you know. Secret formulas called algorithms check out your website and make judgments about where it should show up in a search.
These algorithms look at and weigh hundreds of factors, but a few of the major ones are: the age of your domain, the content of your site, and the number and character of other sites linking to yours.
Over time, the algorithms change, sometimes to your benefit, sometimes not. Keeping up with it all has spawned entire industries, including Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Link Building.
These general concepts apply not only to Google, but to other search engines like Bing, Yahoo, Ask, and others. For each one, their algorithms represent proprietary formulas (somewhat like the differences between the formulas for Coke and Pepsi).
While we hope this article is instructive, you should keep in mind that it represents an over-simplification. Nevertheless, it should give you hope that you can take steps to make the Google algorithm look more kindly on your website. Certainly, your competitors are out there trying.
But as the complexity implied in even this simple article makes clear, no one can guarantee you the number one spot in a Google –at any price.