Search engine ranking algorithms are a mysterious thing. Very few people on earth have access to their exact blueprint, for those of us who think we have cracked it, it all seems relatively simple. Put enough of the right things in place in the right combination and presto you are in, right, simple huh? In reality of course, hardly.
Work at the coalface dictates that the safes combination gets harder to crack as more people try to open it for their target terms. It just doesn’t do anymore to think of ones documents in simple structure word count and number terms. As the document numbers increase, some keywords can take on an almost esoteric level of attainment. The access parameters are ratcheted up to a point of ‘hey if you want to score here, you gotta be doing real good‘. So, whats a man to do then?
Techno crackhead SEO’s on observation acid
SEO minded people who think about this sort of stuff might well share some of my musings, specifically in terms of thinking like a search engine algorithm. The theory being of course that any successful understanding of anything makes it a whole lot easier to apply what we have learned and therefore, apply in attacking it – hardly rocket science there.
Too many people I think, tend to approach SEO from a rigid bits and bytes approach. They forget that at their very core, search algos are built by ordinary thinking human beings, subject to similar influences as us all. They are people who visit the same kinds of conferences, interact with the same kinds of people via forums and blogs and pubs and restaurants. The only difference between them and us, and lets not make no mistake about it, it is very much them and us is that they hold the keys and are in a state of continual defence and counter offence.
Observation observation observation
If you look at most sites that perform well consistently today, then amongst the more competitive of SERPs, there are a number of observable constants.
It seems almost obvious to say, but I’ll say it nonetheless that most good sites with good competitive rankings are relatively well balanced and have the right combinations of the required signals to rank.
Really Rob? No shit sherlock, well yeah but it doesn’t hurt to say them out loud now does it.
Content content content
On the content side its pretty safe to say that a site has to have the right level of keywords, spread about in the right kind of way. In the overwhelming majority of cases pages that rank for keywords have them on the page.
Trust me baby and I’m popular too
On the trust side a site needs the right level of authority in its field, with the right kinds of people linking in, in the right kinds of way.
On the social side its not a bad thing to to hope that the site is discussed often enough in the right web social circles.
Do people hang at your party?
From the visitor perspective, we know that search engines can deduce a hell of a lot from the actions of people who are either logged in or have a toolbar installed. Toolbar data being a great way of obtaining that vital user behaviour data useful for indicating the right positive or neagitive feedback signals.
If you can objectively measure how people behave ‘on site’ then overtime, with sufficient data, some excellent assumptions can be made.
If questions like, ‘Once on a site how long do visitors stick around‘ can be answered or ‘Are they off in a heartbeat flicking back to the SERP for a better result‘ then asking the questions of ‘Is this a common phenomena‘ and ‘How many different people in different parts of the planet engage in such behaviour patterns‘ really do help to make assumptions and say that these would be the kinds of signals that should be folded in and added to a sites overall ability to rank.
We don’t like SEO’s we don’t want or need their sphere of influence
For the Search engines, an SEO’s ability to influence the latter aspects mentioned is next to zero. As a result, this information should outweigh many of the other established or accepted signals that many assume to be weightier.
For me, this should be the holy grail of a search engineers work, creating an algo that is next to unmanipulable, at least by the direct actions of search engine marketers.
Other contributions of course are things like ‘user personalisation’, often talked about as the next big SEO challenge, with algos tailored towards surf history, age and user behaviour; almost dictating that the day of the universal SERP are on their way out.
SEO on its deathbed?
Absolutely not! Good SEO’s who appreciate the ever shifting sands already have an excellent take on all of the factors required to rank. Even with the private data mining capabilities mentioned, the search engines still require good, well structured sites made and promoted by people with a good understanding for what creates and sustains buzz and interest in this Internet world – that demand isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
Its no surprise that the big search players all make a big play on the benefits of membership to their little cookie clubs and whatnot, and maybe a day will come even, where they are arrogant enough to make you play their game or go off and find something else to search with, who knows.
They can hardly be blamed mind, cos after all, it all helps in the quest for the perfect algo right?
Brad wrote an interesting piece today which got me thinking about the topic of linking out, authority scores, pagerank leakage and all those old chestnuts.
Lots of papers out there on PageRank and theories and counter theories on how linking out can effect your PR adversely/positively and all that, so I’m not going to rehash any of those arguments.
I have to confess, there was a time when I was kinda obsessed with the whole SEO PR leakage thing too, worring about ‘bleeding’ precious PR and all that jazz, however I do think the ‘game’ has moved on a little, in terms of the SE algo’s have matured to a more considered examination of what is and what is not a good or a bad page worth ranking. Why do I think this? Well just go and look at a few well ranking sites and see how they link out. One immediate one that springs to mind is Wikipedia, although their recent decision to stick a nofollow tag on their outbounds may come back and bite them ( I hope) 😉.
I love the recent Y! acquisition, mybloglog. Its like a myspace with bells on. Ive encountered some really nice and interesting people too. In case you haven’t seen or used it before its a social media platform. You can join communities, add contacts, upload photos and if you install a piece of code you can get stats and display photos of visitors from their network on your site as they arrive.
On the user front I think its kinda cool. IMO I think It adds an extra dimension to ones website by way of showing an extra human dimension. You can see the latest faces of people who have visited and if you so feel inclined, go and check them out to see what they are all about; at least thats what Ive found myself doing!
Their stats page is cool too. Gives you a non fussy overview of where your readers came from, what they viewed and what they clicked. It even tells you what ads they clicked on too.
Web Pro News have put together some really good videos together over at their site.
This link here entitled the do’s and dont’s of Digg is a great discussion on doing well in Digg as well as things to avoid. Its also a good general discussion around social media, tips for choosing an SEO, PPC and arbitrage, the future of search, trends in the industry and a few other related topics.
If you are interested in search and blogging and site monetisation and social media and all the other stuff that makes up this thing called the internet such an interesting space to play in, then go check them out, they are definitely worth a look!
Good stuff, well done Mike,Neil and Todd . 🙂
Warning: Make sure you have some time on your hand as I spent like um…2 hours watching all sorts of interesting stuff over there!
I was just over at tech crunch reading some of the broohah about some deal that fell through regarding performancing and payperpost and was kinda surpised at the level of snorting and derision being applied there. There is this guy named Ted, who like most people trying to get things off of the floor in life has managed to obtain $3 million dollars in funding for an idea, which he feels might just fly. So far he has managed to stir up a bit of controversy, with various high profile people like Matt Cutts coming out against the idea in general.
So ok, I can see why a search engine might have an issue with squillions of bloggers being paid to promote and talk about things using keyword rich anchor text to distort the search landscape but thats just tough I guess, they’ll find a way to deal with it, or mightn’t bother even, hardly the end of the world for
mfa sites adsense now is it. Besides what with all this talk about mature algos and whatnot, I doubt it’ll make a huge difference anyways, a storm in a teacup even? Perhaps, or maybe some might see it as the thin end of a wedge. The lines get a little blurred when you think ahead and envisage a SERP full of results containing blogs that have been written on the basis of some monetary consideration. In those scenarios, where would the distinction between paid ads and paid ads masquerading as free serps be drawn? Should the search engine be held accountable for its editorial decisions?
Easy come easy go…
It’s no news to say that the days of easy rankings with easy commissions are long gone. With some search engines, it just no longer works. Anyone, and lots are, can whack up a DB or add a feed from some central source. It’s child play, and from a search engine viewpoint its just not welcome. They’d be happy to kick yo ass as soon as look at ya, and who could reasonably blame them? You can have the most well linked, beautifully constructed site in the world full of some mythical kw density perfection, css’ed to the nth with elements positioned to the max, but if you aren’t saying anything new, then the chances are that things could get pretty serious pretty quickly. Search engine death could well become you. Sure, you’ll get spidered, but expect to go supplemental pretty quickly, and if that don’t happen then you might get extra lucky and get lumbered with a nice fat -31 ranking penalty.
Fat or thin?
Over the years, there’s been quite a bit of discussion on what constitutes a thin or a fat affiliate. Lets look at travel. Fat boys like tripadvisor for example, are flying with lots of top spots on a range of travel related kw’s whereas others are floundering.
I recall a time when for like, 4 or 5 years a particular little travel network absolutely kicked arse on all of the big 3, Google, Msn and Yahoo. Be it ‘hotel in town‘ or ‘town hotels’ these guys had top spots usually in the top 5 positions. They were nothing other than a well constructed, well linked network of affiliate feeds that did little other than pump out content that their suppliers provided. It really was an education to look at what these people had done. Their strategy was for the time, basically fab. They hosted a variety of big sites across a variety of IP’s. They mixed pages up with a mishmash of approaches doing things like varying page element factors, curtailing product description content, differing kw and kp densities, different navigational placement, text types, god you name it they’d factored it in one way or another, and it paid them big dividends. I guess really it was a day when it was all about getting as many pages into the search engine db’s as you possibly could. Their duplicate content filters were so underdeveloped that provided you did enough variation in the places that mattered, ie page naming, title tags, H tags general kw peppering here and there in your content spread etc, then you’d be pretty ok. In fact you got massively rewarded and could do some great stuff with inward link creation too. You didn’t have to worry about going out and sourcing zillions of links from here there and everywhere, you’d just create your own and ensure that they were appropriately placed and hidden across a network of unidentifiables, albeit in the sense of what the spider saw and registered at least!
A different breed of engine
Today of course, these guys are nowhere to be seen, at least not in any recognisable guise. Their network was nuked and they don’t rank for jack no more. Things like the Google eval team have given people using that particular strategy a short sharp shock.
New generation networks, if they hope to have sustainable long term SERP viability have to be a whole lot smarter in 007. Content feeds and databases, particularly with regard to outputting their contents within a site needs special attention – noindex tags, robot exclusion protocols really are serious considerations, to not do so could really be a huge folly. Drastic?,Perhaps so, but what with duplication filters and all, the question is one of almost can you afford not to?
Sure, there will always be those who look to employ methods for circumvention, all that lovely content is just too good to pass up on after all, right? Not sure about you, but I’ve seen all manner of interesting adaptations; things like replacing keywords and phrases programmatically so that an aspect of a phrase like um…this hotel is decorated to a fine standard is changed to read… this fine placename hotel is adorned to a splendid configuration instead, or variations upon that theme. I’ve seen sites that rank well by using contractions of product descriptions, eg chopping the first 40 characters from the phrase and outputting the remainding 180 chars. Ive seen others that just hide them all together, via a document.write or iframe method. Some go as far as employing people to write phantom reviews, and some even write programs that write reviews on the fly! It really is incredible to see the ingenuity and nous that people have with this stuff, it really is the most elegant of elegant of spamination. I think its fair to say that people do this because they realise that things may well be tenuous, they know that unless you are whitelisted then you need to tread very carefully as your income stream is very precarious.
As simple as adding value then…
Perhaps its simple though, isn’t it all about thinking in terms of adding value, going above and beyond what your competitors are doing, seriously asking yourself will you be able to pass some random manual inspection, which lets face it, if you are ranking in a competitive earning space, you are likely to receive sooner or later. You’d be an idiot for thinking that just because you managed to outwit the bot via some clever use of string functions, or tag placement or link generation that a human wouldn’t pick up and notice something amiss.It isn’t unreasonable to assume they’d ask whether your site handles all the look up processes – Does it check for availability – Are the payments handled insite, or do they go off elsewhere?- They’d see through a hidden frame or include or some obfuscated url redirect, you just will not be able to get away with what you once did, and if you think you will then, i wish i could share your complacency, as any serious examination of what you do would look at exactly some of these things.
On the positive, some of the better providers and networks do offer more advanced solutions of course, this helps insulate both them and their partners and is basic good business sense, but lots don’t too and for those who are getting hit via various penalties resulting, its a bit of a shame at best and a damn tragic waste at worst.
Should these guys be helping their income generators in this way?
If you are a search rep then you’d prolly say no, it sucks and doesn’t help in the goal of delivering varied unique content, but OTOH why would any big supplier expose themselves to the vagueries of singular url streams of income that could be cut off at the whim of a policy shift. I know what I’d say of course, I go with the majority scatter and seed approach. Watch the darwinian process evolve and reward my best performers. I’d also help nurture and protect newcomers too, my future top performers. Give them tools to get their users interacting, enable the creation of communities, feedback tools, make it all that little bit different, employ advisors to help steer and encourage and generally add value all round, but I guess i’m me, and not some multi layered corp that moves real slow.
I’ve used travel as its any easy example to flesh out and one that I’m at least familiar with. I do wonder whether other sectors face similar challenges; I expect they do no doubt to both lesser and greater extents, especially in some of the mass product markets. It would be great to read some inputs, feel free to call me out!