Reaching For, But Not Quite Getting, SEO’s Brass Ring
Search engine optimization, engineering your site so search engines can efficiently crawl it and searchers can find it, is a critical strategy in any site developer’s toolkit. Yet, despite a well-documented laundry list of tactics publishers can follow to optimize their sites, rankings in Google or Yahoo can fluctuate wildly. Whether it’s competing sites that siphon off your ranking value or the search engines themselves tweaking their algorithms, maintaining highly visible rankings is a difficult task.
Search Is a Black Box
"I think the root cause of all this is that the search engines are a black box," says Scott Karp, the influential blogger at Publishing 2.0. "And they have to be, otherwise they would be gamed to death. If it were so easy for anybody;legitimate publishers or spammers;to just follow a rulebook and get guaranteed results, anyone could manipulate the system."
Karp’s comments typify the confusion many feel over how content is indexed and ranked by search engines. Kate Bobbitt, online marketing analyst at Inc.com, is having a difficult time determining why her site is ranking lower than she’d like. Inc.com gets about 500,000 unique visitors per month and about 4.5 million page views. Bobbitt’s goal is to increase organic search-engine referrals;users who are directed to Inc.com through a search that doesn’t involve paid keywords;which is currently about 30 percent of overall traffic.
After overseeing several changes recommended by her SEO vendor, optimizing keywords on main navigation pages, optimizing title tags, optimizing keywords on template pages that affect 30,000 archived articles, Bobbitt is less than enthusiastic over the results. At presstime, a Google search on the phrase "small business” doesn’t yield an Inc.com listing until the fourth page;and it points to the home page. Rival Entrepreneur.com is ranked fourth on the first page of results. "I know these are very competitive keywords but they’re the biggest ones for us," says Bobbitt. "We have them in all of our title tags, we have them in every single page. We started off on the second [results] page halfway down and sometimes we would be on the first page, but as of today, we come up on the fourth page."
After changing title tags again to include "small business" twice, the rankings remained static. "It seems like a lot of trial-and-error and constant monitoring," says Bobbitt.
One way search engines stay ahead of keyword spammers is to change the algorithms used to determine how sites and content are ranked. Typically, this sends a ripple effect through the search landscape. A site that’s held a position on the first page of results based on certain keywords may suddenly find itself four pages deep after an algorithm has been changed. One notable event occurred in late 2003 when Google changed the algorithm it uses to rank search results. "They called [the event] ‘Florida’ because it was like a hurricane swept through the whole search ecosystem," says Karp. "Businesses that were getting thousands of visitors a day from Google suddenly fell off the radar. This has happened multiple times and will continue to happen."
But not as much as content providers might think. "That obviously comes into play, but I don’t think they change their algorithms as much as people like to think they do," says Chris Knoch, principal consultant, best practices team, at SEO firm Omniture.
Instead, says Knoch, as more sites publish similar categories of content, the search pool becomes diluted. A publisher may post a story on a particular topic that draws instant traffic and high rankings, but as other high-value sites in the same market begin to publish their own content on the subject, traffic and rankings begin to be sucked away. "For example, if I’m a daily newspaper for a small Midwest town and The New York Times does a story on the same subject matter as me, they have more links pointing to them so they’ll show up higher in the results," says Knoch. "It’s almost like a popularity contest." Compounding that, if the popular blogs in your market start pointing to someone else’s story, that page’s ranking will likely overtake yours.
Backlinks, links that other sites are using to link back to your site, have become a critical SEO component. So much so, that a cottage industry targeting link exchanges has sprung up to harvest backlinks for Web sites. Bobbitt’s SEO vendor provides her with a report that details what sites are backlinking to Inc.com, as well as what sites backlink to her competitors.
"I put SEO into two buckets," says Karp. "One is getting links to your site and two is everything else. It’s impossible to know exact weightings, but my gut tells me that bucket one is 80 to 90 percent of the game."