Thursday, June 13, 2013

People Are Smart, Webmasters Are Devious

Wired WorldIf you have a Web site, you naturally want it to appear at the top of Google. Or, to be more accurate, you want it at the top when your ideal client searches Google, searching for an answer (that you can provide) to their problem. This has been the goal ever since Google became the world's biggest search engine, and it's still the case today.

You'll do much better on Google if you understand one simple rule - and it's a rule that Google has never changed.

To understand that rule, it helps to understand a bit about Google's history ...

When the Web was young ...

In the mid-1990s, in the early days of the World Wide Web - when I first started using it - if you wanted to find something, you could search Yahoo. Or AltaVista. Or Lycos. Or HotBot. Or DogPile. Or a handful of other search engines. They were all reasonably popular, without any of them being a stand-out choice over any other.

Then, in 1998, a little upstart company called Google entered the market, and it changed everything. It was a runaway success, and quickly grabbed the vast majority of market share - a privileged position it still holds today.

But what made Google so popular? It didn't have first-mover advantage (far from it!). It didn't have more powerful hardware than its competitors. And it didn't have big bucks behind it to promote it prominently to Internet users.

No, Google succeeded because it worked better. In other words, when somebody searched for something in Google, they saw better (that is, more relevant) results than when they used something else.

And the reason is simple: Google used a different system than everybody else for ranking its search results. It was based on a complicated mathematical formula. But in a nutshell, I can summarise it like this (These are my words, not Google's, by the way!): People are smart, Webmasters are devious

I'll explain ...

Other search engines ranked Web pages by looking at the words on the page and trying to analyse them to understand what the page was about. They looked at the length of the page, how often certain words appeared, what words appeared in titles and sub-titles, what words appeared in "META tags", and so on.

That was all well and good, except it was easy to trick those search engines. Smart Webmasters figured out ways to "game the system", by using the key words more frequently on a page, by using them in titles and sub-titles, by stuffing the META tags full of these key words, by stuffing the page full of text in a white font (so they wouldn't be visible to the reader), and so on.

It was a constant battle between the search engines, who were trying to deliver the most relevant results, and the Webmasters, who were trying to get their clients' sites to the top of the rankings.

Google did something different.

Rather than looking at the words on the page - which Webmasters could control - Google decided to base its rankings on what other people thought about a page. It did this by checking how many other Web pages were linking to that page. After all, if many other Webmasters were linking to a page, Google reasoned that page must be worthwhile. If those links came from reputable Web sites (which themselves had many links to them), that boosted its ranking even further.

In other words, Google was relying on people, rather than technology, to assess a page. People are a lot smarter than technology, and they do a much better of job of deciding when a page is relevant.

The proof came in Google's success. It rapidly rose to be the number one search engine, and continues to hold that place.

That was 1998, but what about now?

It's true that a lot has changed since then. That was before the time of iPhones, social media, Facebook, fast broadband, and many, many other changes in technology. And Google has changed its formula many times (in fact, it changes daily!). But that fundamental rule - people are smart, Webmasters are devious - is still the basis of everything it does.

For example, Google likes it whenever somebody:

  • links to one of your blog posts
  • "likes" one of your YouTube videos
  • comments on a Google+ post you write
  • visits your Web site (from Google) and doesn't immediately click the Back button
  • forwards your e-mail newsletter (from Gmail)
  • embeds one of your YouTube videos in their blog

So keep creating high-quality content!

That's why you should be wary of Internet consultants who tell you they can wave a magic wand and "optimize your site" for Google. Sure, that helps, but only a little bit. The real secret is to create stuff that other people genuinely value, because Google is relying on other people (they're smart, remember?). So keep producing high-quality content that genuinely helps people. That's why content marketing is so important.

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