Note: Updated October 16, 2014
Ranking on the first page of Google is important. If your Web site is ranked highly on Google for search queries that contain keywords and phrases related to your business and services you can almost always count on getting targeted traffic. If you convert that traffic into money you’re in business.
The problem up until now has been that anyone who knew how to manipulate the Google search ranking algorithm through the use of ethical and sometimes unethical search engine optimization (SEO) techniques could often outrank legitimate businesses with quality products and services. The process of ranking Web sites was cold, machine driven, and open to manipulation by anyone who could spot the ranking factors early in the process and take advantage of them.
If you’re a legitimate business with excellent products and services and exceptional customer service, you’ll be happy to know that the days of manipulating and exploiting the Google search ranking algorithm are almost over. You now have a chance to become a winner online.
The explosion of social networking combined with recent advances in artificial intelligence and deep learning now allows Google to recognize patterns and relationships that occur within the massive amounts of Web, social network and associated behavioral data it collects, enabling it to make intelligent inferences with regards to search queries. Facebook is playing catch up and trying to do the same thing. (See: Facebook Launches Advanced AI Effort to Find Meaning in Your Posts.)
Basically, Google now has the ability to learn and it’s hungry for knowledge. Your job is to feed it.
To understand how Google got to this point, below follows a brief high-level historical overview of SEO followed by a checklist of what to do to rank your Web site and your business on the first page of Google well into the future.
A Brief Historical Overview of SEO
In the early years, ranking on the first page of Google was basically about keywords, TITLE tags, META tags and content with varying degrees of keyword density. The inbound link craze followed a few years later when both quantity and quality of inbound links to a Web site were found to have an influence on the Google search ranking algorithm.
Links from authority sites, .EDU and .GOV sites had a more powerful influence on the Google ranking algorithm and were highly sought after, but for many years, Web site owners were falsely goaded into buying and building inbound links of any kind, regardless of the linking site’s quality. Elaborate link networks were set up for the sole purpose of gaming Google’s search algorithm in an effort to rank a Web site higher in the search results.
Because much of the ranking algorithm was based on bots and machine calculations, sites could rank higher just by developing an elaborate set of inbound links. Building inbound links was both time consuming and expensive. Unless you had spectacular original content that people linked to without asking; that was also properly optimized for Google; you had to build links in order to rank on the first page of Google search for your best keywords and keyword phrases.
Many legitimate sites with quality content simply couldn’t compete for rankings with those spending thousands of dollars and sometimes much more on developing links. I looked at this in 2002 and thought it was only a matter of time before Google would implement changes that would help legitimate sites rank higher.
I came across an article about the overall quality of a Web site’s link network described as a “network neighborhood”, and wondered if Google might also be looking at the same thing in its search algorithm with regards to both inbound and outbound links. As an experiment, I started developing quality content and developing outbound links to niche-related authority sites from that content, while also finding a small number of inbound links to the articles. It worked!
The content and the site in general started to rank higher on Google, and while most sites continued to develop inbound links at any cost, I began to develop solid original content that had quality inbound and outbound links. There was no question the Google algorithm was moving in the direction of measuring the overall quality of a Web site’s network neighborhood, rather than just inbound links. The quality of a site’s network neighborhood as an influencing factor on Google’s algorithm would go unnoticed for many years. It is even more powerful today than it was in the past, in a different way.
Before that discussion however, I should mention that there was a brief period of a few years when a site could “own” the first page of Google for certain keyword phrases, by setting up numerous keyword-coded profiles on emerging social networks. This didn’t fool Google for long, and the algorithm began to change again in the direction of quality. It’s my guess, that even back in 2002, Google was trying to figure out how to find and rank original quality content higher.
Sites that were creating good original content in high quality network neighborhoods successfully began to climb up in the rankings on Google, but linking schemes still allowed poor quality and scraped content to sneak into the rankings to a lesser extent. At the same time Facebook was starting to steal the thunder from Google.
While Google was never going to lose (and never will in our lifetime) their position as the top search engine on the planet, it felt it had to do something in response to Facebook’s emerging social dominance and its attempts at social search.
Google was already measuring social signals and experimenting with them as ranking factors in their search algorithm long before Facebook’s dramatic growth, and in 2011 they launched what many thought was their version of a social network, Google+. In reality, Google+ was never going to be a social network along the same lines of Facebook. Yes, it allowed people to socialize and share online, but there was something much more important going on behind the scenes.
Google had started ranking people. And not just inside the confines of Google+, which grew to become the second largest “social network” on the Web with over 359 million active users.
Along with the 200 plus traditional ranking factors that Google used to rank Web pages, including the basic social network data and signals it already had in place, and the data gained from people already using numerous Google services, Google was also now able to crunch and mix in massive amounts of social data based on the activity of its Google+ members. Search was learning from social and Google had finally found a search engine ranking factor that could not be gamed – real people.
The Future of Google Search
It will take years for Google to develop the perfect search algorithm based on people, their social connections and behavior, but they now have enough data to crunch, measure and make inferences from: who and what people interact with; what they talk about; who they share with and where they do it; who they influence and who they are influenced by; where they live; what they like to do; what restaurants they prefer; what products they purchase, use and recommend to their networks; and most importantly the legitimacy, quality and influence of their overall personal social networks and all networks associated with those networks. Again, the network neighborhood concept, but this time with people.
The addition of real people to the Google search algorithm and the ability of the algorithm to learn what people really like, and want, will result in the best companies, products and services rising to the top in both search rankings and business. Competitors with poor products and services will fade way regardless of size. This is not something that can be fixed by throwing money at it.
Additionally, a company that can establish, maintain and grow a powerful social network of satisfied customers, can become almost indestructible with regards to search rankings and future business, not to mention creating an incredibly high barrier to entry for would be competitors.
If you’re just getting started, the checklist below will assist you in ranking higher on Google well into the future. Based on personal experience, and on that of other forward-thinking individuals such as Gary Vaynerchuk, the process of becoming social, winning business and ranking higher on Google can take as long as three years depending on the current level of competition for your products and services, the social presence of your competitors, and where your business is at in the social process right now.
The alternative to completing the checklist below, is to continue doing what you are doing until one day you wake up to realize that your socially savvy competitor has taken away all your business.
How to Prepare Your Business and Your Web Site to Rank on the First Page of Google in the Future – General Guidelines
- Provide excellent products and/or services.
- Provide exceptional customer service.
- Develop good original content in all formats including text, video, audio, images etc. around all your products and services.
- Enhance your Web site to provide a quality user experience across all browsers and devices and make sure it is correctly structured and optimized for Google using basic SEO techniques. Install Google Analytics. Add your best content to your Web site or blog.
- Establish a presence on as many applicable Google properties as possible including Google+, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail etc.
- Link to your Google+ page using rel=publisher or rel=author. Thanks to Mark Traphagen. (Update: There has been much discussion in 2014 about whether this still has value. My opinion is that it does, but you have to use it wisely. Ask yourself, “What would Google do with this information and why?” You’ll find the right answer.) And read this interesting Google Authorship post from Mark Traphagen, with Neil Feree.
- Figure out where your customers/business partners/vendors etc. are socializing online (they’re all socializing and searching online somewhere) and establish a social presence on those properties.
- Listen to what your customers are saying on the social networks. Look for opportunities to fix problems, create new products, answer questions, create content, socialize and make customers feel important and appreciated.
- Place different forms of your content and links strategically and politely on the appropriate social networks to create awareness and stimulate conversation. Do not spam. Do not sell. Do inform and be helpful. Always give first.
- Look for customers who are already advocates and evangelists for your brand. Give them special recognition. Help them with whatever they need. Provide them with something (an experience, a product, a service, content) they want to share with their friends and networks. Turn your customers into heroes. Write about them, invite them to do guest articles and testimonials if they seem so inclined. Do whatever it takes to make them feel special.
- Develop your networks carefully and strategically. It’s not the number of fans or friends you have in your networks, but rather the quality. While you can’t necessarily choose your fans/friends on your social business pages, you must avoid spamming for followers and solicitations to buy followers, both of which generally result in poor quality connections. With regards to your personal online social networks, a manual approach works best to develop a high quality network. Always think “network neighborhood” and remember that Google is watching as you build, connect and interact within your networks. (An excellent resource for learning more about developing your social media properties and networks properly is SocialMediaExaminer.com.)
- Watch as your customers spread the word for you on both their offline and online social networks, and as the people in their networks spread the word through their networks and so on. This is a self-propagating social cycle that Google is watching, learning from and measuring right now. And they will be tweaking their search algorithm accordingly to give people only the best of the best in the future.
You may have heard of the term Google Semantic Search, which also happens to be an excellent book written by David Amerland. While too complicated to fully explain here, a form of Google Semantic Search is already in place. And while many still think that Google+ was created to compete with Facebook as a social network, I’m of the opinion that Google+ was created to help gather the data it needed to learn from, in an effort to produce the perfect answer to your search query. An answer you might not even know you want.
Basically, Google is now combining its traditional search algorithm factors with all available user and behavioral data from Google+ and its other properties and networks, as well as with that of any other social networks it has access to, in an effort to predict exactly what you want from your search query, and provide you with the perfect answer.
These answers are already being personalized for you, partially formed from your own social behavior and network activity, as well as from that of the people in your networks and the people in their networks etc. The future of search is people. It’s personal. And it’s social.
Feed the brain.
Update Sept. 26, 2013: Google reveals Hummingbird, major search algorithm update. A further move towards what we talked about above
This article includes many of the reasons why I bought the domain name SocialMarketingAgency.com six years ago. I had a feeling that people (social), their social networks, and their activities within those networks, would become the number one ranking factor in the future of search. That future is now here. Domain development and partnership enquiries welcome. More included SEO, Agency, and Social Media Marketing Domain names here.