The Very (Very) Basics of Search Engine Ranking

February 28, 2013

Our Very (Very) Basics series gives a high-level look at hot tech topics. We want these posts to be a way people who don’t normally work with the web, mobile, and marketing can understand the basics without having to deal with all the geeky stuff. If you’d like more information about any of these topics, try searching our blog to find more posts.

There are lots of ways to attract people to your company’s website. You might put it on your business cards. You might add the address to a TV or print ad. But many people will also find your site by searching on a search engine like Google.

Searching is used so often that there’s an entire industry focused on something called SEO, or search engine optimization. People who do SEO make sure that your company’s site has the best chance of appearing when someone searches either for your company’s name or for a word or phrase related to your business.

There are many things you can do to make sure you have the best chance to be one of the first results. (Remember, there are lots of pages on the web competing for those same top spots – there’s no way to guarantee you’ll be #1!) But to understand the basics of how search engines work, we’re going to look at two of the biggest factors: incoming links and keywords.

Incoming links

When you do a search for sites, it’s important that the sites that appear as results are trusted and relevant. Google determines this by the number of other websites that link to your company’s site – and how reputable the sites that link to you are (a huge calculation they call PageRank).

Let’s say for example that your company sells bicycles. One day, someone might take a picture of one of your bikes and post it on their own website. Every link to your site helps! Then the local news does a story about your bikes and links to you from the online story. Since the news is trusted by a lot of people, that helps your site even more. Finally, a national magazine for parents reviews one of your bikes and links to your site. That’s a huge boost to your credibility!

In other words, it’s great to have other sites link to your site. The more links to your site, the better – and if you can attract links from really reputable sites, that’ll help your site move to the top of search results.

(Of course, there are some less-than-reputable people who try to cheat the system by spamming web sites with links or doing other deceitful things. Google recognizes these and can penalize sites if they try to cheat!)

Keywords

How will people find your site? In some cases, they’ll search for your company’s name. There are other cases where finding your site isn’t as straightforward.

Imagine that you run a Mexican restaurant in central Maine. Someone around town has a craving for a meal from south of the border, but they’re new to the area and aren’t sure about their options. What will they do for a search?

It’s not easy to tell. Different people will do different searches to find what they want. In our example, they might search for…

  • Mexican restaurants in central Maine
  • Maine Mexican restaurants
  • Mexican food near Bangor
  • Mexican dining on the Penobscot River
  • best Mexican food in Maine
  • burritos in Bangor

Make sure the copy for the pages on your site includes the kinds of words people will use for a search. If someone searches for “Mexican dining” but the word “dining” isn’t on your site, Google might not rank it as highly as a competing restaurant that is an exact match for the search. Just make sure the text on your site sounds natural to your visitors; if you focus on keywords to the point of making your site sound robotic or artificial (something called keyword stuffing), Google may penalize you for trying to cheat.

If you’d like some help with your search engine marketing and optimization, it’s one of the services we offer at Sephone. We’d also be happy to talk more about some of the other things you can do to make Google and other search engines love your site!

Do you have a topic you’d like to see covered in our Very (Very) Basics series? Leave us a comment to let us know!

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Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.

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