Multiple times, I’ve asked this question to people not involved in SEO: “How does Google determine which results are the most relevant?” Multiple times, I’ve been given the same answer: “Um… they look at the name.”
At that, I simply smile. Yes, it’s oversimplified, but hey – if they mean the domain name, yes, that’s a ranking factor. If they mean the page title, yes, that’s also a ranking factor. I see a career in SEO for them already.
But if search engines stopped there, we’d A.) be out of a job and B.) See a lot more spam ranking well in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).Â Google must continually fight for more relevant search results, as search engine manipulation becomes more and more prevalent.
In the Past – and I mean way back when Google was just starting out – Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed PageRank and started Google around 1998. At that point in time, the important ranking factors included on-page content (Titles, emphasized or header text, and normal text) and links (hence the PageRank patent). Life was simple. Keywords in content meant ranking. More links meant ranking higher.
Currently – Google has grown more and more complicated. Google now (quietly) updates their algorithm at least once a day, according to Matt Cutts. Links and content are still the main ranking factors. But as the web evolves, and our interaction with it changes, search engines become more sophisticated. The concepts of domain authority and page relevance have been around for a while, but social media as a ranking factor is new. Now, even your friends’ interactions and opinions can influence your search results.
As more and more people depend on the internet for product information, reviews and shopping, the ability to manipulate these results becomes increasingly valuable to companies. Some of these companies’ pages will be less relevant than others, and the search engines are attempting to come up with ways of compensating for this manipulation.
In the Future – Search engine results manipulators will have increasingly large budgets, and competitors with smaller budgets will be at a major disadvantage. In order to continue to provide the most relevant results, Google, Bing , and the other search engines will have one of two options.
1.Â Â Â Â Â Continue to add more and more “negative ranking factors”, to eliminate more and more spam sites and compensate for increasing manipulation , or
2.Â Â Â Â Â Change their main positive ranking factors to ones that are extremely difficult to manipulate, and ignore easily manipulated factors altogether.
Option number 1 often seems like it’s a losing race – a never-ending cycle of manipulators using new tactics, search engines compensating for them, and manipulators creating new tactics. This has been what the major search engines have been doing.
Option number 2 is great in theory, but is it even possible? As of February 17, 2011, some would suggest that is. There is some evidence appearing that Google, in some rare cases, is ignoring some of the most basic and widely known indicators, like the Title tag (the ranking factor most SEO professionals probably learned about first). Do note that this evidence only directly means that Google may ignore key elements in the results display, and doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ignoring it as a ranking factor. Yet. But they definitely have the ability to.
Now Google is not going to ignore keywords in the title tag until they’re sure that they have a sufficient number of other quality ranking factors to keep their results as relevant as they were previously. SEOs should, however, plan their long-term strategies around ranking factors that are unlikely to be less needed. As an SEO, focus on these things –
- Quality content (instead of a few relevant key elements on the page),
- Quality, relevant, and natural inbound links, and
- A loyal and active social media community
If you focus on these things, you won’t wake up one morning with your all your clients’ rankings on page three and a termination notice in your inbox.