The hard truth about SEO

A few years ago, I received an email inquiry about a website. The person said he had just completed a training course to do home inspections, and he was setting up a new business. He mentioned what he wanted in a site (a logo, testimonials, number of pages, etc.). The last requirement was that the site had to rank at the top of Google in searches for local home inspectors.

I mention this story because it highlights a recurring problem every web developer has faced: the demand that a client’s site rank highly in searches, right out of the gate. Here’s why that’s impossible:

How Google ranks sites

Most people have either no idea how search rankings are produced, or their ideas are way off the mark. Here are a few of the facts:

  1. How Google (and Bing and Yahoo) decide to rank sites is a secret. There are some general things people have figured about how they do it, but the exact details are anybody’s guess. Google does offer some general guidelines for improving a site’s rank; more on that later.
  2. Google is constantly changing how it calculates rankings. This is called an algorithm, a complex mathematical formula that factors in very many things. And, it’s a moving target. What worked a few years ago–or even last month–may not work now.
  3. Google has a lot at stake in providing useful search results. Back in the early days of the internet (before Google existed), there were search engines like AltaVista, HotBot, and many others. No matter what you searched for, the results contained a lot of garbage–ads to refinance your mortgage, buy prescription medications, or enlarge various body parts. People were able to do this because the search engines were easy to fool into matching an illegitimate site with nearly any search request. This made searches nearly useless. Google figured out how to exclude this stuff, making searches much better (and the essential tool they are today). Search is a major part of Google’s business model; they have a huge financial stake in keeping irrelevant results out, which means…
  4. You can’t fool Google. Over the years, people have come up with a bunch of unethical ways to trick search engines into ranking a site higher than it deserved to; these are called black hat techniques. They used to work, at least for a while, but Google is now very good at detecting these tricks. If you use them, Google will figure it out–and they will penalize your site’s ranking. They can even ban your site from appearing in any search results.
  5. Achieving a good search ranking takes time–a long time. Contrary to what many people think, Google doesn’t know everything. When you make a change to a site, Google probably won’t even see it for a few weeks. That’s because the way Google knows what’s in a site is by sending little computer programs called bots out through the web. These bots crawl through websites and take notes on what they find; it’s these notes that actually get searched. Given the huge number of websites that exist, it usually takes a Google bot a while to crawl your site. Figure that Google is checking your site about once every three weeks. This means that every time you make a change to improve your search ranking, you have to wait a few weeks to see if it made any difference.
  6. Keywords matter, but not in the way you think. Keywords are words or short phrases that people search for, such as dry cleaner Greensboro. There’s a piece of code in every site (called the meta keywords tag) where you can list keywords for the site, but don’t bother; search engines completely ignore it. That’s because people used to stuff it with deceptive keywords, such as sex, porn, and Britney Spears, hoping to rope in people searching for these things. Keywords are still useful, but they have to be worked into the site’s text in a way that sounds normal, not forced.
  7. There’s no silver bullet. There is no single element (or piece of code) that will get you to the top of rankings. Keep this in mind if someone tells you they have the “secret” to getting a top ranking.
  8. Traffic to your site doesn’t equal money. First of all, a lot of the so-called “visitors” to your site are spammers and software robots, so just because you’re getting 500 visits every week doesn’t mean 500 potential customers. More importantly, you don’t want site visitors — you want customers. You want your site to attract potential customers, not just anybody.

I’m not saying that SEO is completely useless; I’m saying that the way it’s usually done is mostly useless. There are a few things that can help, but they aren’t quick or easy. For example, good page titles matter (these are what show up in blue on Google). A well-written page title can get people to click on the link and go to your site. But the most important way to get people to your site — by far — is to have good content that people want to read and link to. Which means…

You’re the only one who can do it. Good content is useful, meaningful information that gives people some knowledge or information that is valuable to them. For example, if you have a catering business, your site should feature recipes or party tips, updated frequently. If you are a landscaper, give people useful gardening tips. You’re the expert; nobody knows more about your business than you do. People will only come to your site if you give them a good reason; that’s what will improve your search rankings. At the end of the day, you get the Google ranking you deserve.


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