The ABC’s of SEO

Michelle Stone - July 8, 2008

How do the search engines know how to find what it is that you are looking for? When you enter a query, or a series of words or a phrase into Google, MSN or Yahoo, how do they go about giving you sites that relate to your search?

Let’s try to answer this in a straightforward and somewhat simplified way. When it comes to search engine optimization, or SEO, there is usually mention of complex algorithms and predictive analytics. Let’s see if we can boil things down to a basic, real-world example.

Say you have a website, Typically, you would like for Internet users to find your site and to read more about your products or services. You have your content, titles, descriptions, and keywords, you’ve tackled your in-site linking and inbound linking, and you may even have a social media marketing plan in place. But how does it all come together on the back end? If you are doing everything right in terms of SEO best practices, why and how do your search engine rankings change?

At the present moment there are well over a billion pages of index-able content on the Internet. The search engines act as a way in which we can sort through all of that information, and, in turn, use that information to answer a question. The search engines collect and categorize information so they can help to answer the most basic question, that of relevance. This is how your query, the search term we mentioned earlier, relates to the information contained in the search engines’ massive databases. The question is really a matter of determining which web pages are most relevant to the terms A, B, and C.

Having over a billion pages to work through, the search engines have to manage that information in a way which ensures that less relevant information doesn’t appear at the forefront of the search engine result pages (SERPs). This isn’t part of some conspiracy — it’s a matter of trying to make the results as useful as possible, hence the focus on high relevance versus low relevance.

But how do the search engines determine what’s relevant? For this SEO blog post we’ll define “relevant” as being those web pages that have the terms which most closely match the words (keywords) the web searcher typed into the search engine.

This relevance is determined by the search engines roughly assigning a score (as in the case of Google it is PageRank), which is also how websites are listed in the SERPs. Obviously, with the vast number of websites and web pages, there is a wide variety of ways in which to measure and score relevance, some or all of which may be employed by the search engines. As these algorithms are proprietary to Google, MSN, and Yahoo, we don’t know exactly what is being used or in which way, but we do have first-hand experience, sound anecdotal evidence, as well as a wealth of research and observation to come to one conclusion when it comes to search engine relevance.

Content is king and the text is the thing. What can be considered as being the text on your website? It’s what appears in the title tags, URLs, anchor text, image alternate text, the comments (if you have a blog), the description meta tag and keywords meta tag, and in the formatted (or unformatted) visible text areas of a page. You can cultivate the relevance of pages on your site through in-site linking. The text as found on one page can be supplemented by information that is somehow associated with that page (as in a link) as well as related pages which link to that page.

Why is text so important to determining relevance? Much like a human visitor to your website uses the text on the page to figure out what the site is about and where to navigate to next, the search engines do the same. The placement of the visible text, as well as how it is emphasized and used, help the search engines understand what the pages on your site are about. Building keyword density and using keywords with prominence can help to assert the page’s relevance.

Changing the text in the pages changes the relevance. This is why there are changes to rankings and positioning on the SERPs. Even changing the links, images, or even something off site, such as directory descriptions, can tell the search engines that they should re-evaluate your site to ensure that it is still relevant to the previously associated terms or perhaps has greater relevance to a new set or words of phrases.

The thought to keep in mind is that you aren’t the only one changing or optimizing text — your competitors are doing the very same with their web content. Changes made by other websites within your industry or space can indirectly influence your relevance. This is because the search engines collect and compile all that they know about all the websites and web pages they find as they crawl the Internet, and relay this information back to a search engine user based on how all of this information relates to his or her query. So as you optimize, and are likely performing similar activities. Refining and targeting your content by using unique and relevant keywords, as well as keeping a level of freshness for your content and cultivating trusted and relevant inbound links to your site are just some of the ways in which you can help your website to keep its relevance in the search engine algorithms. Content remains king and relevance and usefulness are the underlying forces which ensure content will remain supremely important. Understanding how important it is to the search engines will help both your SEO efforts and your site to grow.

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