Being at the top of a search engine results page can mean the difference between business success and failure. So, what would you do to ensure a listing there?
Absolutely anything? If so, you could be walking into a minefield.
Search engine optimisation (known as SEO) involves actions intended to get your page listed higher on a search engine results page. In the past 15 years, SEO has evolved into a complex art, one that is now the foundation of many businesses.
The problem is that there are ways of trying to improve your standing that are considered legitimate by the search engine companies like Google, but there are also methods that can get you into trouble. Google (which receives 90% of the world's search engine traffic, according to StatCounter, and 65.4% of the US market, according to comScore) does not appreciate being gamed and will retaliate.
Just ask retailer JC Penney, which got caught using black hat (i.e. illegitimate) methods to boost its search results during the 2010 holiday shopping season. Penney was accused of taking part in a so-called link scheme, probably the most complicated black hat SEO technique.
"Our high [search engine result] rankings were pushed down," Darcie Brossart, Penney's vice president of communications, confirmed concerning the sanctions Google imposed. "We have terminated our relationship with our former natural SEO firm. We don't know how it happened. We did not authorise it, and we were not involved."
It's important to recognise if your SEO firm (or your in-house web expert) is venturing too close to the edge of the black hat cliff, because if Google or other search engines find there is some hanky panky happening, it's your site that will suffer.
"I'm not saying everyone is doing it, but it's not unusual," says Vanessa Fox, former Google Search employee and author of Marketing in the Age of Google. "A company might hire an SEO firm without knowing a lot about SEO, or they might think it's not risky," she adds. Google publishes advice for those considering hiring SEO firms.
A good grounding in what the major search engines do and don't consider acceptable can help companies avoid these issues. What follows are some of the techniques that are considered legitimate, and not so legitimate, and how you can tell the difference.
But first, let's take a quick look at how Google ranks sites.
Google's secret sauce
The foundation of Google's trademarked site ranking technique, called PageRank, is links, explains spokesman Jake Hubert. PageRank is based on the number of outside web pages that link to a page, the number of pages that link to those pages and so on.
But while links remain a major consideration in PageRank ratings, Google's techniques have evolved since the search engine was launched in 1997. The company now ranks pages with an algorithm that has about 200 factors, Hubert says. These factors are adjusted on a daily basis. He says he counted about 500 changes in the past year.
Further details about the algorithm are not made public, Hubert says. A public version of an individual page's PageRank rating is displayed by Google Toolbar. However, those ratings sometimes need to be taken with a grain of salt, as we'll see later in the story.
At Bing, a Microsoft spokesman would only say that the site uses upwards of a thousand signals when deciding search results ranking, and that the nature and weight of the signals are constantly being adjusted. Meanwhile, Yahoo Search has announced that it will use the Bing search engine.
Because the algorithms remain a closely guarded secret, many white hat SEO techniques focus on the known element, links, and are aimed at getting other sites with high PageRank ratings to link to lower ranked sites.
White hat SEO
There are a lot of experts willing to give advice about how to legitimately get your site higher in search engine rankings. When you boil it down, what they're all saying is that the most important thing to do is to build a good site.
"The goal is to be relevant to the user, and then think about search engine strategy," says Chris Koller, president of IdealGrowth, a digital advertising agency.
"Have a differentiator that makes your site compelling and unique," adds Maile Ohye, a Google developer advocate who liaises with webmasters. "Design it so that users can do what they need to do. Make it accessible to web crawlers, so they can follow links through the site. And then develop buzz about your site."
"You want to have the most compelling content so people will be inclined to link to you naturally," said Doug Pierce, marketing strategist at Blue Fountain Media. "Also, the URL structure of your site should make sense and have keywords in the page titles."
There are other strategies that can help. Rand Fishkin, CEO and co-founder of SEOmoz, suggests using an interlocking array of online marketing, public relations and brand building activities designed to find the right audience. These methods include producing data-rich blogs of genuine interest to the readers, real conversations on social sites, news bulletins and interesting tweets. The use of infographics, podcasts, webinars, white papers, videos, forums and referring links should not be overlooked, he adds.
A too optimistic outlook?
Critics complain that such approaches work mostly for topics that are of interest to bloggers, who link to the material. These are the kind of non-controversial links that boost PageRank ratings. But more obscure topics, while important in their own fields, develop no following from bloggers and so get no links.
There's no getting around the fact that, at least temporarily, black hat techniques can work, much to the disgust of more legitimate SEO advisors who are trying to get their sites higher in the search rankings. "Frustration among white hat SEOs about manipulative sites outranking them is total," says Fishkin. "By the time Google catches up with one site, there's a new one that outranks you."
Aaron Wall, founder of SEO Book, a website devoted to SEO training, says that conventional white hat methods (he calls them "vanilla methods") do work, but he admits that they work best for sites with little competition, or for large established sites with high relevancy.
Even then it may take several years and large sums of money to rise to the top, he warns. For sites in competitive fields, the backers must assess what portion of the desired traffic that site is attracting, and what portion can realistically be obtained, and gauge their SEO efforts accordingly. There is no simple answer, he says.
"You can succeed without spam. It will take longer and it will be more expensive, but the trade-off is that it should not all come crashing down," Wall says.