You may say a search engine optimization strategy is not direct marketing. I humbly disagree. In fact, working with Google and other search engines (but mostly Google) can help you with your warm lead generation, helping you get your direct marketing program started for free as I’ve advocated in the past. In addition, by knowing what a warm lead same to you for and about, you can customize your approach to that person in interesting ways.
So, how does the Google algorithm work? It’s been through approximately a googol different versions throughout the years (there’s a good basic list here), but some of the underlying thinking behind it has been largely unchanged.
It’s instructive to think about search engines pre-Google. There were two different models: directories that were maintained by hand, by either a company (e.g., Yahoo) or by a community (dmoz) and search engines that used textual analysis to determine how applicable a page was to your search (e.g., Altavista, Lycos). The first model has obvious problems with the scale of the Web. The second has problems with determining quality. People who would spam every possible keyword for a page at the bottom of the page or create 100,000 pages each focused on optimizing for its own set of terms performed well in these engines, but probably should not.
The fundamental question was how do you have a computer determine reputation?
The basic insight that the Google founders had was from the world of academia, where a research paper’s quality can be estimated by how many papers cite it. They realized that when someone links to a page, they are voting for that page’s quality. Looking at the initial linking pattern, you can get a basic view of what important sites are. Then, you can factor in the quality of the linking sites to alter the quality rankings. After all, getting one link from, for example, the White House is more important that 100 different links from Jim Bob’s Big House of Internet.
This is the core of the original Google algorithm called PageRank (named after Larry Page, not Web pages, oddly enough).
The changes over the years since have made this influence important, but not the sole criterion as it used to be. Other factors now include:
- Machine learning based on what people actually click on (a different type of “voting”)
- Weighting toward mobile-friendly sites
- Personalization of search engine listings
- De-spamming algorithms
- Devaluation of ads above the fold
- Incorporation of social signals
- Situational reputation (e.g., if my blog linked to you, it would help you more for direct marketing terms than with your hummingbird mating pattern blog)
And it’s constantly evolving. So there are a few implications to this:
The easiest way to get good search engine listings isn’t to optimize for Google; it’s to create quality content. I know. This is a bummer. Or not, if you have quality content. The goal of Google and other search engines is to evolve to make searching a true meritocracy. In the beginning, you had a chance of gaming the system. You don’t have that chance now.
That does include things like not having ad-based content, making it mobile friendly, and prompting social media interactions.
There’s an important corollary to this, which is that anyone who tells you that they have a special sauce either is lying or won’t have their tactics last out the year. That said, there are a few that you can do that will help both your content quality and your search engine listings.
Make sure you have the terms you want to be found for in your articles. Not even Google will find the best possible page for “is James Bond a Time Lord?” (hint: it’s this one) if it doesn’t have the words James Bond and Time Lord on it. Ideally, these will be prominently placed (e.g., in the title or header tags) and frequent (but not spammy frequent).
Check your bounce rates. With machine learning incorporated into the algorithm, you want to make sure people are getting what they came for when they come to your page. This makes continual testing and improvement of your content will pay dividends.
Create content for the searches you want to dominate. Let’s say you are (or want to be) the premier early childhood education nonprofit in Missoula, Montana. You find through your keyword research that people don’t necessarily look for “early childhood education”; they look for conditions (e.g., “autism services”, “Down’s Syndrome”) or symptoms (e.g., “child not speaking”, “when starting crawling”, “development milestones”). Look the volume of search terms, which you can do with Google’s free keyword suggest tool once you have your AdWords account and Google Grant.
You do have a Google Grant, don’t you? If not, get one ASAP here.
So, let’s say you want to focus on autism to start — you should be creating content that helps parents in your area learn about autism, what it is, and how you can serve them. Lather, rinse, and repeat with your other areas of content. Not only will this help with the Google algorithm (in terms of keyword density and in terms of more people linking to quality content), but it will also help with conversions (as people get content that fills an established need) and in knowledge past conversion (if someone comes in on an autism search term to autism content, you can market to them differently than someone looking for Down’s Syndrome content).
Finally, ask your partners to link to your specific content. This isn’t link spamming, but rather you linking to people who have good content for your constituents and vice versa. This will help lift both of your boats.
I’m sorry that there are no magic beans to sell you here from the algorithm. But hopefully this will help you avoid buying someone else’s.
With Facebook, however, there are a few more lessons for organic content that we will cover tomorrow.