Search engine optimization has an air of mystery about it—a website goes online and it might or might not appear on the first page of Google search results. It’s easy to wonder if there is any rhyme or reason as to why Joe’s Plumbing is listed first when I search for “residential plumber” and Smith’s Plumbing is on page 10, particularly if you own Smith’s Plumbing and understandably want the most exposure possible for your business. While it may seem random, there is in fact a very specific formula at work.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e can understand a lot about how search engines operate, what they reward and what they punish, without a PhD in mathematics or computer science. It’s important to first understand that Google’s mission is to organize information and make it both accessible and useful. Google search results are derived from a very complex algorithm that takes over two hundred factors into account. The algorithm is equal parts smart, sophisticated, and ever-evolving. To use an often quoted phrase: knowledge is power. By knowing a few key pieces of how search engines work and why, businesses can have a powerful advantage in getting more exposure as people search for the solutions that those businesses provide. Here is a peak behind the curtain of search engines, no calculus required:
[quote float=”right”]This doesn’t mean a web page has to be redundant—Google is now sophisticated enough to recognize synonyms. The search engine now understands that patio umbrellas are also called deck umbrellas or outdoor umbrellas; they fall into the category of outdoor furniture and are an alternative to an awning or retractable outdoor shade. [/quote]It can read. Google is “reading” everything on the web—a company’s website, social media conversations about the company or product, review sites, media coverage, and even map listings. The search engine’s ability to comprehend language has grown rapidly. In its early days, Google was simply looking for specific words or phrases on web pages to match with what was typed into the search bar. Say you want to buy a patio umbrella. Now, we’ve all gotten those search results where the page is called ‘Patio Umbrellas,’ and those two words appear several times in bold or linked text, but the page is actually not about patio umbrellas or anything at all. It’s as if the words “patio umbrella” have been dropped into an essay on nutrition—it simply doesn’t make sense. That web page is not valuable to someone who wants to buy a patio umbrella at all. Google now recognizes this and penalizes pages that engage in this practice. It’s great for us as searchers—we get results that have clearer and stronger connections to what we are searching for. As businesses, it means we have to be specific and consistent in what we put on the web. Google is essentially depending on us to tell it what our company, product, or service is. This doesn’t mean a web page has to be redundant—Google is now sophisticated enough to recognize synonyms. The search engine now understands that patio umbrellas are also called deck umbrellas or outdoor umbrellas; they fall into the category of outdoor furniture and are an alternative to an awning or retractable outdoor shade. Suddenly website content about patio umbrellas can be specific, consistent, and interesting.
It knows what we like, what we need, where we are, and what our plans are. Google does not read minds, but it does track where we go and what we do on the web. If you have Gmail, they are also reading your mail. It’s no coincidence that ads for travel sites and beachwear appear in the sidebar of your Gmail account after you email a friend about your upcoming vacation plans. If you’re already on vacation and searching for a restaurant, the results Google provides will be specific to where you are, including a handy map of restaurants near the hotel you are sitting in as you type your query. In the big picture, this is useful for businesses because their ads are being shown to people who are talking about what they are selling. The search query data that Google tracks is very useful in finding out how people think and talk about a product or service. For example, on average 5,400 people search “outdoor umbrella” each month, with another 4,400 looking for “offset umbrella.” As many people search for a black patio umbrella as search for a striped one. If you’re in the business of selling patio umbrellas, this is incredibly powerful information.
Google’s Keyword Planner is essentially acting as a customer focus group 24-hours a day, seven days a week. This information is free and available to anyone interested in finding it. This data is also what is behind the suggestions that appear in the Google search bar when you begin to type. Google provides options based on what other people have searched in an effort to help us find what we need. From a marketing perspective it is a very easy way to find out what phrases, questions, or specifics are searched. More and more searches are specific questions about a product like: “What is the best patio umbrella fabric?” and “What material is the best for patio umbrellas?” This provides great insight into what specific product features potential customers care about and how they are looking for information to make their buying decision.
So I’ve mentioned some of the current ways Google uses artificial intelligence to produce search results tailored to the individual searcher. At this point though, the search engine is still evolving. It does not yet “understand” language in the way that a human being can. It cannot completely know the context of a search, or the true intent of the person entering a query. It cannot yet anticipate your needs. This means that in order to be effective, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies must take the limitations of Google into account.
It only knows what we tell it. Google can’t come up with the answers to questions about patio umbrella fabric unless someone somewhere writes about it. Search engines are completely dependent on what businesses, bloggers, and media write and put on the web. That means that businesses have the responsibility of putting written content on the Internet that clearly connects with what people are searching for. Earlier, I asked why does the website for Joe’s Plumbing show up first in a search for “residential plumber” while Smith’s Plumbing is on page 10. Well, if the website for Smith’s Plumbing talks about their commitment to quality, fast service, and that they specialize in clogged sinks, but doesn’t say they are a residential plumber, then Google doesn’t know that their website is about “residential plumber” and it does not send people searching for that phrase to Smith’s. In contrast, if the other company describes themselves as a residential plumber, includes “residential” in their services description, and perhaps uses the phrase in the title of their pages, then Google will know that they unclog sinks for homeowners as well as restaurateurs. For services or products where location is important (I don’t want information on a plumber in Atlanta, Georgia, if my sink is clogged in Hendersonville, North Carolina) then Google will take the business’ location into account as well. If Smith’s website doesn’t mention Asheville and their address says Arden, they aren’t likely to come up very high when someone searches for “residential plumber” from a computer, tablet, or smartphone in Asheville. We know that a plumber in Arden is perfectly capable and available to unclog a sink in Asheville but Google does not (at least not yet).
[quote float=”right”]At the end of the day, search engine optimization is a data driven process that can be explained, understood, and approached by those with less than a doctorate in advanced mathematics. [/quote]It relies on what other people think. Google considers how other people have interacted with a website in the past in its evaluation of web pages. When past visitors have not found the site to be valuable and have left after viewing only the first page they came to (called “bouncing”) or spent very little time viewing the site, Google assumes the site is not serving the needs of people searching for that term. In the future, the site is less likely to be recommended by Google for that keyword phrase. To be fair, it takes a lot of people clicking away for a site that is doing well to drop in the search rankings, but this can be a factor in why a site can’t move up in search engine rankings. Sites that are difficult for mobile users to navigate can be particularly vulnerable to this factor. Mobile search is on the rise, and with more people using those small screens as their primary tool to access the web, serving those visitors well is an important strategy to support a site’s overall search engine rankings. On the other side of the coin, a site that visitors tend to spend time on and view multiple pages of is likely to get more traffic from people searching the same phrase.
At the end of the day, search engine optimization is a data driven process that can be explained, understood, and approached by those with less than a doctorate in advanced mathematics. Google is likely to remain the number one search engine in the world (and they own #2 YouTube, but that’s a topic for another day). What matters to Google has to matter to businesses who want to be found online. The engineers and statisticians in Palo Alto do change their minds and their algorithm an estimated 500 to 600 times a year. You can expect that Google will continue to evolve in the future, but the overall trend has been and is expected to remain on content. Your SEO strategies must evolve right along with Google.
Adrianne Gordon counseled and trained business owners for over 10 years before joining JB Media Group as Director of Marketing and Operations. She doesn’t speak code but does have an MBA from Western Carolina University.