Secret to top-ranking search results

Unfortunately there isn't one.

I get a fairly regularly stream of emails and web site contact messages from search engine optimisation (SEO) people promising to improve my search results in various magical ways, but a little thought shows why this is unlikely to have any good effect.

If your web site is a confused mess of poorly thought-out content hiding behind out-dated delivery technologies that conceal details from search engine, then yes, some sort of SEO review is probably a good thing. Frankly any worthwhile web site architect or content creator should be able to help.

Once you've reached threshold competence, there are no more special tricks. Let’s think about why...

Compare yourself to Google

Or Bing, Yahoo or any other search engine company.

Search engine companies have a primary value proposition based on delivering relevant search results. Anything that subverts the quality of their search results is a Bad Thing and reduces the value of their services.

The content scanning processes (spiders and robots) that assess your web site are regularly updated to reflect new technologies, but also to take account of different patterns of behaviour that might adversely affect the relevance of search results.

Even if the special SEO trick actually works for a while, it wont be long before the algorithms are changed to either ignore, or in some cases actively punish such tricks (see the examples below).

In short Google is:

  • more motivated
  • smarter
  • better resourced

There are no secrets on the internet (even if you’re a dog [1]) - if you're getting mass-marketing from SEO suppliers, so is everyone else, including the search engine companies.

Even if it works, what really happens

Assuming the magic trick works for a while, what do you get out if it?

If you're selling widgets, the only searches that matter are from people trying to buy widgets. Being highly ranked on searches for grommets (assuming your widgets aren't grommet-like) is not just of no advantage, it annoys the users, who can have long memories at inconvenient times.

Today:
Search query: where can I buy grommets?
Search result: (site that looks like it sells grommets, but actually only sells widgets)
User response: [click] @#$% I don't want grommets, I want widgets!

Next week:
Search query: where can I buy grommets?
Search result: (site that sells widgets)
User response: I remember those time-wasting idiots, I think I shall look elsewhere.

Some Examples

Keyword stuffing

In the beginning, keywords were what really counted. If you wanted to rank highly in searches for widgets, you had to mention widgets in your pages; and the more times you uses a keyword the better.

The secret SEO trick then was to repeat your favourite keywords everywhere your could; not just in the visible content but in the meta tags [2] and even in the alt tags [3] of any images. And while your about it, why not add some hidden text (white on white and/or tiny point size) filled with - guess what? - keywords!

Not surprisingly, this technique didn't last and now may be actively punished. Here's a quote from Google's quality guildlines:

"Filling pages with keywords or numbers results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site's ranking." [4]

Link farming

More recently, the number of inbound links to a page (other sites that link to your site) was used as an important measure of how relevant your site was. This lead to the practice of link farming or link exchanging - if you have a web site, you've probably received emails along the lines of "if you link to my site, I'll link to yours".

This used to matter, but now it doesn't and having irrelevant links (why would my widget site link to your travel site?) can harm your rankings [5].

A current trend is the analogous "Like farming" which attempts to manipulate social media presence by mutual, artificial linking. If it works at all, I expect it will be penalised soon.

Remember: Who has the resources and motivation to filter out the fakes? Not you.

What to do

Accept that not everyone can be top-ranked. Focus on having relevant content and a viable business model instead of trying to fool your customers.

Think about how much you are prepared to pay for someone to trick your search results. Instead of spending that on dodgy scam artists (an unfair generalisation, but there you go...) spend it on creating content that is worth finding.

Read the webmaster quality guidelines from various search engines ([6], [7], [8]) and put them into effect. A bit boring, a bit like hard work, but ultimately the way that works.

References

1 In case you're a dog

2 HTML meta data specification

3 HTML alt tag specification

4 Keyword stuffing is Bad

5 Link farming is Bad

6 Google SEO guide

7 Bing Webmaster guidelines

8 Yahoo7 content quality guidelines

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