After a somewhat (but not completely) off-topic diversion into recent news (NLI’s controversial view on incoming links), I would like to dedicate a post to an overview on Google Search and the basic principles of Search Engine Optimization.
How Google Search works
Google Search is essentially based on 3 main processes: crawling, indexing and serving.
In Google’s own words, “Crawling is the process by which Googlebot discovers new and updated pages to be added to the Google index.” Google’s spiders crawl the web by following links from one page to the other and update Google’s index when they find new pages or pages whose content has changed since their last visit.
Google processes and stores the information it finds on the pages it crawls (such as keywords in the text and their location in it, alt attributes, meta tags etc) and organizes this information in its index. In simple words we can say that Google “maps” the web so as to be able to determine what each page found is about and is relevant to.
When a user enters a query, Google’s machines search the index and return the pages that are identified as more relevant as results.
The information stored in the index is used to determine which of the indexed pages are more relevant to the query performed.
Again quoting from Google’s help center, “relevancy is determined by over 200 factors, one of which is the PageRank for a given page.”
PageRank is a Google proprietary formula to measure the importance of a given page based on the analysis of its incoming links from other pages.
A traditional way to put it is that Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote from page B to page A. This principle – also known as link popularity – was influenced by academic citation analysis. In simple terms, the more a given academic study is quoted by other studies, the more authoritative it is; the same idea was applied to web documents and links.
Both the quantity and the quality of the incoming links are important in determining the PageRank of a page: “not all links are equal: Google works hard to improve the user experience by identifying spam links and other practices that negatively impact search results. The best types of links are those that are given based on the quality of your content.”
Generally speaking, the more incoming links a webpage has, the better it is for its PageRank. However, what Google likes are spontaneous (or natural) links – those that effectively account as votes – and therefore works hard to distinguish these from “spam” links, created to artificially boost the PageRank of a given webpage.
If we compare SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to paid online advertising as a marketing initiative, it is important to note how usually SEO is to be considered as a long-term strategy. If a Google AdWords campaign can bring immediate results, it can take months to see the benefits of an SEO strategy. On the other hand, residual effects of an SEO campaign can be perceived even after your budget has stopped.
What influences the ranking of a webpage is a combination of on-page and off-page elements and a Search Engine Optimizer usually works on both aspects.
Google has made available a Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, which you can refer to for a more exhaustive overview on SEO basics.
Here I would like to just highlight some key aspects.
1. Keywords is the keyword (but in the right places and without excess)
Every SEO strategy should be based on a thorough keyword research.
It is important to identify the main sets of keywords related to the content of you site, which are likely to be used by users to search for your topic. You should take into consideration potential differences in your audience (e.g. more/less knowledgeable users etc) and give importance to long-tail keywords as well: these are longer, more specific keywords, not frequently performed by users individually, but which – in aggregate – normally constitute the largest chunk of search-driven traffic for a website.
There are many free services that can be used for keyword research. One of them is Google AdWords Keyword tool.
Some of the earliest decisions you take for your website have the biggest impact on your website ranking.
For example, having meaningful and relevant keywords in your domain name is extremely important as it helps users and search engine understand immediately what your site is about.
A good domain name should also be short (and digitalmarketingmeasurement.wordpress.com, I admit, is not the best example…), easy to remember and easy to spell.
If budget allows, top-level domains are generally better than domains on free hosts; also – even though for organizations a .org may make sense and for local businesses a regional domain may be preferable – in general .com domains are the best choice, as this is established as the “default” in people’s mind.
Relevant keywords should also be used in URLs. Organizing your site structure in descriptive categories and filenames helps the crawling process. Having meaningful and relevant keywords in the URLs (rather than, for instance, lengthy URLs with weird parameters) is good for both users and search engines.
Some other important elements where it’s important to place relevant keywords are:
– Title tags, which should be unique for each page, brief but descriptive.
– Description meta-tags, important because Google might use them as snippets. They should be, again, unique for each page and sum up the content of each specific page in one or two sentences or a short paragraph.
– Anchor text: it is good practice to use relevant keywords in the anchor text not only of your external links, but even more of your internal links.
– Image alt text attribute, which may also help for ranking in Google images.
– Heading tags, which shouldn’t be abused, but should appropriately represent the hierarchical structure of the content on your page.
2. Site structure and navigation
Having a clear and logical site structure – usually based on a natural flow hierarchy from general to specific – and an easy navigation is of vital importance, both for user usability/accessibility and for search engines.
Google SEO starter guide gives many good tips in relation to this; here I’ll just mention the importance of having a good site map page for users and of providing a Sitemap to Google (usually an XML Sitemap file, but for basic sitemaps also a simple text file listing one URL per line can do).
3. (High quality) content is king
Again, I refer you to the Starter Guide for more elaboration on this, but here are the key ideas:
Original, unique, compelling content that is valuable to users and stands out from other sites and competitors is essentially the best SEO technique of all. Outstanding content will naturally generate users interest, bring in organic backlinks and grow your ranking and reputation overtime.
In the last two years in particular, Google has focused a lot on improving its algorithms in order to differentiate between high quality and low quality content (Panda and Penguin updates). Here’s an article with some guidance on what Google consider high quality content.
4. Backlinks are queen, but can be a treacherous one…
I have mentioned how Google’s crawling process is based on spiders following links from page to page and how PageRank is based on the analysis of incoming links (aka backlinks) of a page. So links are obviously very important for a website search engine optimization.
As I have mentioned above though, what Google reputes as valuable are organic, spontaneous backlinks and therefore has measures in place to try and differentiate between these and “artificial” or “spam” links, essentially links which are intended to manipulate a webpage Page Rank and ranking in search results. Google help center provides insightful examples of types of unnatural links which can harm a website reputation.
An important thing to keep in mind is that Google has nothing against link trading (buying and selling links) provided that paid links don’t pass PageRank. PageRank flow can be easily prevented by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag.
It’s easier to be specific on what an “illegitimate” link building activity is than point out specific legitimate practices, but in general terms organic backlinks can be pro-actively attracted by building up and engaging your community of users and connections around your website and in your relevant niche.
Just in conclusion, lately Google has started putting a lot of emphasis on authorship through the use of the authorship markup tag rel=”author” and the SEO community has started suggesting its use as a very importance SEO factor.