When Google ranks your site, it looks for two things - authority and relevancy (relevance for our UK readers). What does this mean? You’re about to find out.
As humans, we instinctively appreciate that if we read something on the CNN or BBC websites, it’s more likely to be true than if we read it in some random blog. The reason is because these are authoritative sites and we have trust in their veracity. In fact, you could visit any site on the web and get a feel for how reliable it is. You’d look for brands you recognized and you'd look at the feel of the site and quality of the content.
Google knows this and also knows it matters. If you search for something, Google’s business depends on being able to return a correct and reliable answer. If you searched “when is Justin Bieber’s birthday”, you’d need the answer to be correct, otherwise you’d miss that festive day. (1st March, 1994, to save you the trouble). So over the years, Google has had to codify something that humans can generally do instinctively.
Google do this by assuming that people link to sites they trust, find interesting or offer them something.Thinking about your own web usage, you’ll probably see that this is true.
Google takes all these links and assigns the site a number between 1 and 10, where 1 is the least authoritative and 10 is the most. This system is called PageRank after the founder, Larry Page. (A note of caution, this is an oversimplification - there are some more factors used to calculate PageRank, but the general truth still holds. The more links a site has, the higher its PageRank will be). PageRank is a key ranking factor, so website owners are always looking to get more people linking to their site. We call this 'link building' and at Wordtracker, we talk about it a lot.
One more thing to say about PageRank. It’s an exponential scale, so going from 1 to 2 is easier than going from 3 to 4, which in turn is easier than going from 5 to 6 and so on up to 10. There are just 11 sites which have a PageRank of 10 (or PR10).
To find out what your PageRank is by the way, just go to PR Checker or search for a relevant extension for Chrome or Firefox.
So, to improve your PageRank, you need more links. But not all links are equal. While every link will help you improve your PageRank, not every link will help you rank for a relevant term. Starbucks, for example, is an authoritative site if you’re looking for information on Starbucks, or indeed coffee, but less so if you’re researching shoes. This is evident for a human, but less so for a search engine.
What Google, and others do, is look at the links that the sites attract to help deduce what it’s all about. When people link to Starbucks for example, they probably use words like Starbucks, coffee or Starbucks coffee. The words people use in links by the way, the ones that show up in blue like these ones, are called anchor text:
Imagine an election. Every candidate wants as many votes with his or her name on it. But equally, the more votes that are cast for all candidates, the stronger the mandate of the eventual winner. So, everyone benefits from votes being cast generally, but individual candidates benefit most when you put a cross next to their name. Likewise, every link will benefit your site generally, but to rank for specific terms you need those terms reflected in the anchor text of the links coming to your site.
Oh yeah, and the sites those links come from matter too. Google knows that authoritative sites don’t link to non-authoritative sites. It’s a lot like dating, actually. Quality, hot, sexy sites link to other sites in their league. Ugly sites might also link to the hot sites, but the hotties rarely return the favor. Just like in the real world there are exceptions (although in SEO, we don’t call them Hugh Hefner) but generally the pattern holds.
What this means is that the more links you can get from quality sites, the more ‘quality’ your site becomes. You become hot by association, just like in high school. (And just like in high school, start hanging out with the losers, and you’ll lose your hotness. Links from low quality sites won’t do you many favors, and links from bad sites may actually harm you.)
What’s a bad site? Basically, sites with content that would match the spam folder in your email. Viagra and dodgy pharmaceuticals generally or porn, that kind of thing. If you couldn’t show a site to a co-worker (without blushing), you probably don’t want links from that site. And in fact, you don’t want links from sites who get their links from these sites. (We call this a 'bad link neighborhood'.) You want these sites as far removed from yours as possible.
Of course, you can’t control which sites link to you, so you need to make sure that your site’s 'link profile' (ie, the set of all websites that link to you) is strong. The more links you get from 'bad neighborhoods', the more links you need to get from good ones. So it’s just more work, and nobody likes that.
(Learn more about how to get quality links by attending one of our free link building webinars
There's a bit more to authority
That’s authority in a nutshell, but there are other factors involved too. If your site has lots of social interaction - if it’s shared a lot on Facebook or Twitter for example - that also helps. (The reasons why you share something are almost identical to the reasons you link to something.) Similarly, domain age, and how well known your brand is also plays a big part.
Ok, that’s authority: now, relevance
Relevance is easier to understand. When someone searches for something, Google needs to return a result that’s relevant for that search. You therefore need to make sure Google can understand what your site is about, otherwise you won’t get ranked. Because Google isn’t a human being, it can’t understand that, say, automobile and car are the same thing, so it’s important that all your content is written in the language your searchers are using.
Discovering the language your customers use is called keyword research It’s something we spend a huge amount of time on at Wordtracker, because it’s so important for effective SEO. This may change (there is something called Latent Semantic Indexing, which really means ‘Google gets synonyms’) but until someone tells you otherwise, do thorough keyword research and create great content. Google will see you’re relevant, and you’ll rank.
Let’s say you sell shoes and you want to rank for as many ‘shoe’ terms as possible, but of course not all of them. If someone searches boots made for walking, they’re probably looking for a song by Nancy Sinatra, rather than a nice new pair of walking boots. Keyword tools can help you get a sense of the terms people are using, and the ones that are relevant to your business. Pick the ones you want, then build (or modify) your site accordingly.
Stick to a logical structure, with clear keyword-based navigation. So your home page might talk about shoes, but then you could have a category page for men’s shoes, with subsections for men's trainers, men's boots, men's office shoes and so on. Building your site this way, helps Google understand your content, and so is more likely to pass traffic your way. The more (quality) content you have, the more keywords you’ll rank for so the more traffic you’ll get. If your site is as great as it can be, you’ll be amazed the long tail traffic you’ll pick up.
Those really are the basics, but explore the site more and you’ll learn how you can get more links and improve your authority. You'll discover how Wordtracker's Link Builder tool helps you do this, and there's a 7 day Link Builder trial for you to experiment with.
You'll also learn how to write better content (and structure it correctly) to improve your relevance, and monitor how you’re going to see how you’re doing. And tune into our webinars), to get an in-depth explanation of what’s really going on. Enjoy!
Read more in this series
Why SEO? What are the benefits for your site and your pocket?
So what actually is SEO? What is it and why would you want to do it?
SEO for Beginners How do you go about SEO'ing your site?
SEO checklist - 10 things to check right now The very first 10 things to check to see if your site is search engine-friendly.