Search engine optimization (SEO) and page rank

Summary — Googling something isn’t like looking up a number in the phone book; search results can vary widely from person to person based on a variety of factors, many of which are external to a website. Optimizing a site purely for search results is an artificial goal; somewhat counterintuitively, keeping our eye on the prize — making a site that best serves the needs of its visitors — results in a site that ranks well in search engines.

Preying on fear

I regularly hear from clients that they’ve gotten email advising them that their website has “dropped in Google’s rankings” and that they “need to take immediate action.” “Action” is code for “send money”. The urgency is artificial; the message a lie. Here’s what you do:

  1. Delete the message — it’s spam.
  2. Understand that search engine rankings are not simple — anyone saying otherwise is selling something.
  3. Understand that the web changes, so rankings change. For years, Tantramar Interactive Inc. ranked #1 for “tantramar” but, as a geographical place name, that wasn’t going to last. Many organizations use the word “Tantramar”, including unrelated businesses and the local high school. Besides, “tantramar” doesn’t mean “web design”, so of course its ranking changed. That’s fine; people still find this site.

How people think search engines work

Even before Google, the idea that there was a single, monolithic map of the internet had taken hold. People think it’s like a phone book:

  1. You need to know something.
  2. You look it up.
  3. You get the answer — the same as everyone else.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While older, strictly hierarchical directories like Yahoo! or the old DMOZ (Open Directory Project) site worked this way, search engines like Google or Bing are much more complex behind the scenes.

In cases where there is a single, specific, objectively correct answer, as with a phone number or an address, then determining a result is relatively simple.

If you’re looking for something general — a plumber, someplace to have dinner, or a place to buy a used car — then the correct result is far more subjective.

In either case, an algorithm (a set of rules) decides which results are best for you.

Naturally, Google doesn’t share details related to how its algorithm indexes, ranks, or suggests pages. The quality of their recommendations is a competitive advantage and is constantly fine-tuned. If it didn’t continuously evolve, it would soon be reverse-engineered, allowing competitors to copy it and publishers to game it.

The process of search-engine optimization (SEO) is intended to take advantage of what’s known about Google’s algorithm through various techniques. Some are referred-to as white hat, others as black hat. Happily, white hat techniques naturally align with what’s best for sites’ visitors. Black hat techniques boil down to dishonesty, and can get a site banned from Google’s index. Tantramar Interactive Inc. has never resorted to black hat techniques and Google placement of customer websites has never been an issue.

How search engine rankings work

We know that Google’s search algorithm — and its results — takes many factors into consideration.

  1. Factors related to the site: keyword prevalence in the domain name, page titles, page headings, links (both in- & out-bound), link text, and images’ alternative tags. These on-site, content-related factors are what people sometimes narrowly think of as SEO.
  2. Factors related to the user: to deliver the most value, Google ranks results based on what they think will be most relevant to the person doing the search. Failing to take these factors into consideration really sets you up for disappointment.
  3. Factors related to collective user behaviour: this is beyond the scope of this article, but Google monitors how many similar searches are satisfied by a site (e.g. a clicked search result doesn’t immediately lead to another, more refined search).
  4. Zeitgeist — what’s happening in the world at any given moment — what’s trending — can be a huge influence on what floats to the top of any particular search term’s results. Want to see this in action? Start typing the name of a recently deceased celebrity into Google and watch the predictive algorithm complete the name for you; it can take remarkably few letters. Again, this is beyond the scope of this article.

Factors related to the site

The website itself is where you have direct control. There are many factors — and how they’re weighted isn’t directly known outside of Google — but they include:

  • Content that’s relevant.
  • Content that’s regularly updated.
  • In-bound links — when others link to a site, that’s taken as a vote for it. The more highly ranked the site, the bigger the impact. This was the key insight that led to Google’s ascent in the late 1990s. Note: artificial link-farms backfire as a black hat tactic.
  • Speed — all other things being equal, a slow site is deemed less user-friendly and will rank lower. This could be network speed (sometimes half-jokingly called internet weather), large file sizes (think inadequately-compressed images or PDFs), too many dependencies on 3rd-party scripts (e.g. a site makes too many external calls to resources from Twitter, Facebook, ad-servers, etc., and has to wait for them), overloaded servers, etc.
  • Mobile-friendliness — as both an advertising platform and the publisher of the Android mobile operating system, Google has, since 2015, explicitly down-ranked sites that they consider mobile-hostile (See Think your site’s mobile-friendly? Does Google? for more on this), at least for people searching from their phones — and that’s most traffic these days.
  • Domain age — an older, established, and therefore more-credible domain is a signal of quality.

Factors related to the user

  • Account history (including search history) — based on what Google knows about someone, it can decide to show different results:
    • Google account activity informs search results. In the same way that you might see ads for golf resorts in Gmail alongside messages about an upcoming vacation to St. Andrews, search results can reflect anything Google knows about a person and their activities or interests. What have they watched, favourited, or shared on YouTube? Which Blogger-powerd websites have they visited? What sites using Google Analytics have been visited? (Services using Google accounts include YouTube; Gmail; Android devices using any Google services, Google Calendar, Google Contacts, Chrome on macOS, iOS, or Windows; Google Photos, Google Docs; Blogger; Google Drive; Hangouts; Google Maps; etc.)
    • Local browser cookies (data about past searches) can still identify past Google search activity or visits to websites running Google-powered ads — even if a person has never logged into a Google account.
    • Browser extensions, privacy settings, and the browser itself can all affect search results.
  • IP address and physical location — a device’s IP address can be used to merge data from multiple browsing sessions, helping them build a profile, even if users are not logged-in to any Google services. This IP address, which is assigned by internet providers, can also typically pinpoint geographical location, often as accurately as a postal code. Google can then use location to prioritize or filter results. A user in Oxford, Nova Scotia, searching for “pizza oxford” wouldn’t be shown results related to Oxford, England. This can also provide a detailed demographic profile, based on what they know about people who live nearby (will they recommend take-out or 5-star Italian restaurant?).
  • time of day & day of week — A search for hardware stores may prioritize stores that are open on the day or time-of-day the user is searching.
  • type of device — people searching from a mobile device may get different results than people searching on desktop or laptop computers. Phones may also provide detailed location data, which can reveal whether the user is stationary, walking, driving, or even riding a train — or may be heading to an appointment (with address) that’s listed in their Google Calendar — all of which can inform the algorithm as it decides what results to send.

You get the idea. Everyone can get different results.

Bottom line: how to get a higher Page Rank

There are no magic bullets:

  1. No one can guarantee rankings — even if they could, they wouldn’t last.
  2. Google’s position — a site that follows industry-standard code practices, accessibility guidelines (Google itself can be thought of as a user with common accessibility requirements), and is written to be useful to its human visitors will rank well.
  3. Review your data — to see what keywords people have used to find your site, but understand that they are open to interpretation — the data will confess to anything if you torture it long enough. Your data has a huge blind spot: you know nothing about keywords people searched for that didn’t bring them to your site. Those keywords might be crucial.
  4. Understand your customers, what they’re looking for, and the language they use; prioritize what matters to them.
  5. Thoughtfully-prepared content — written for real people, produced by someone who takes the time to format it properly and accessibly — is vital.

That’s how Tantramar Interactive Inc. produces websites.