Google’s own vice-president for core search was recently quoted as saying that it takes a very good engineer two years to understand search. This brief explanation therefore can only be the simplest possible overview of search algorithms.
There were many different attempts at crafting useful search engine results in the world before Google: rankings by visitors, traffic, and users; paid placement; human categorization, keyword analysis, authoritativeness, and many others. The primary revolution that Google brought to search was to treat the web as a social network.
Imagine for a moment that you want to hire a gardener to maintain the front yard of your home. For the sake of argument, you do not have an Internet connection or a phone book. How do you find a gardener that is reputable, reliable and affordable?
The obvious strategy is to start asking people: your neighbours and friends. Walking through your neighbourhood you might see a particularly fetching arrangement of flowers and a well-maintained lawn and ask the owners who their gardener is. Over time, one name will likely come up in conversation more than others. That’s likely to be the gardener you will first approach.
In other words, your social network creates its own recommendations through word-of-mouth. It is not perfect: there will be prejudices, information asymmetry, and biases. But for all its faults the system is useful, and very powerful.
People still talk about each other on the web, but the actual connection is supplied by a link – the
<a> tag, with its associated
href attribute value. At the simplest level, then, one can tell that a website is popular simply by counting the number of outside links directed to it. There is a way to determine this in Google, at a basic level: take the URL of a page, remove the opening
http:// and use it after
link: in a Google search. For example:
The results you see are not related to the CNN site itself, but of pages outside the site that link to
www.cnn.com. The more links, the more popular the site. This technique does not yield exhaustive results, but does start to provide answers to the question “why am I not ranked No.1 in Google?”
This method of search is successful because it works like a real social network – it is robust, redundant, and difficult to trick, since the links have to come in from outside sources, and it is difficult and expensive to pay people to hype your website on their own.
The context of the link is derived by understanding the content between the opening and closing
<a> tags. By looking at the words used, we can surmise what the link is about. For example, if the majority of links to this blog used the words “Dudley Storey”, “blog”, “web development” and “teacher” as content, we might be able to guess that
www.demosthenes.info was a blog written by Dudley Storey, a web developer teacher.
(Note that this word association technique can be used for nefarious purposes, too. From 2002 ~ 2006, typing the words “miserable failure” into Google would bring up www.whitehouse.gov as the first search result. This was achieved through a blogging campaign: any time George W Bush was mentioned in a blog post or comment, they would use the term “miserable failure” and link those words to the White House website. Over time, Google associated “miserable failure” with the Bush White House. This technique is known as “Google-bombing”, and the company now takes active steps to counter it. You will still see variations on this: blog comment spam is particular culprit. )
Note that Google cannot track every incoming link: content and links hidden behind paywalls and login pages are invisible to Google (for example, links that originate on Facebook pages).
Long-term, the ranking of your website in Google is not going to depend upon your use of meta tags, SEO techniques, or cleverness with content. Its rank is going to depend on incoming links and their associated words.
How then, do you get people to link to you? In the same way you get people to talk about you in the real world, at least in a positive sense – by being unique, being reliable, providing great content or great experiences (products, services, and customer care, if you are a company), and being gregarious, consciously creating a network of people and organizations that know, trust, and depend on you.
In the case of a company, this can be seen as horizontal and vertical marketing: forging relationships with the websites of companies, organizations and people that supply you; that you supply, and that provide goods or services that work with your own.
For example, let’s say that you craft wooden kayaks, like those at Guillemot Kayaks. Your most valuable incoming links (and those that are the furthest from your direct control) are reviews, testimonials and recommendations from your customers and the public, in blogs and sites related to kayaks. But let’s imagine that you also supply retailers like Mountain Equipment Co-op with your watercraft. You could ask those retailers to provide a “Learn More” or “Go to Manufacturer” link when your canoe is viewed on their site. It is a win-win proposal for them: customers learn more about the product, and can ask the manufacturer questions directly.
Of course you would also look at anyone else that you supply with your product: charities, sports clubs, provincial waterways. If there are photos of your work on the web, ask the site owner / author for a credit and a link to your site.
You also take in raw materials to make your kayaks: mahogany and other woods, epoxy and fiberglass. You probably have one or two lumberyards that you depend on for supplies: do they have Product Highlights sections on their websites in which uses of their lumber might be shown, together with a link to your site?
Finally, there are products and services that you do not provide but which you recommend to be used with your product: paddles, lifejackets, etc. If you have links to the suppliers of such, it is reasonable to ask for links in return.
As you can see, this process can be long, ongoing, and complex. Most SEO companies go for “quick fixes” – adding semantic markup, as well as a lot of content. Crafting long-term search value for links is much more difficult: it requires a deep understanding of the company and the commercial eco-system of which it is a part. This provides a particular opportunity for freelancers to maintain an ongoing relationship via a maintenance contract with the companies for which they build websites. Part of this relationship is a commitment to grow search results through the techniques we will discuss here. (The specifics of the web development contract itself will be discussed later).