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Appeasing the Search Engine Gods
Does your site need to be listed as number 1? Should you even care?

By Marc Gordon

On January 19, the web site for Performance Diesel Injection went live. A new business located in Markham, Performance Diesel services a very specific segment of the automotive industry. With over 20 years of personal experience in the industry, owner Giles Gallie felt that having a web site was essential.

"There are a lot of competitors out there." says Giles. "I felt it was important to be ranked at least on the first page of a Google search. I would say that our site is a big part of our marketing efforts."
This view is common among many business of all sizes and industries. Even individuals who want to be known for their books, accomplishments, or personal ideas believe that their ultimate success lies in the results of search engines.

This fixation with search engine rankings has lead to an entire industry of companies, self proclaimed gurus, and consultants eager to show anyone willing to pay their fees how to not only be listed as number one, but perhaps even one through ten.

To fully understand where this obsession started, let's rewind a few years. In the mid 1990's, html pages started pouring into the what was then called the world wide web. Search engines such as Yahoo, AltaVista and Lycos scoured the web with crawlers, mini programs that gathered data and sent it back to the search engines for indexing. Yahoo, in addition to using web crawlers, also manually indexed data which many users felt provided more relevant search results. (Yahoo ceased manual indexing in 2002, choosing instead to work with Google's automated indexing methods.)

These crawlers looked for specific items such as links, photos, text and meta tags. Entering certain words in a search engine would bring up a list of sites that the engines felt most closely matched the search criteria.
By 1997 web developers had begun to realize the importance of search rankings. While pay-per-click advertising was still years away, getting high rankings was seen as a key element to the success of a site solely from a marketing perspective. At the time, it was hard enough to convince many businesses to invest in a web site, less so if no one would actually see it.

The use of meta tags quickly developed into the tool of choice. As more search engines developed algorithms to sort and process site by relevance, the key words contained within the meta tags began to play a more influential role. Developers had the power to strongly influence how their sites would be listed in search results.

Key words that were not reflective of the actual content often resulted in skewed search results. Deceptive meta tags resulted in sites that quickly became a thorn in the side of every search engine who relied on effective results to attract visitors.

In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google, a search engine that relied on a new set of algorithms. The result was listings that mathematically rated sites by relevance rather than solely on developer's code.
During this time, developers discovered that sites with links generally ranked higher than sites without. This resulted in the next "tool" to increase rankings. The creation of link farms provided an opportunity to have sites linked to dozens of other "sites".

Companies would sell links to bogus or virtual sites and have other sites link back to you. Like the key words that were so effective in the past, the search engines got fooled again.

But search engines never rest. With their survival dependent on reliable, relevant and accurate results, their highly secretive algorithms were, and continue to be, modified and updated.

So that brings us to today. A population of web developers, users, and marketers hungrier than ever to reach that status of number one in search results. And with that a new set of tools and companies that promise to do it.

The question is, are these legitimate tools that truly add to the effectiveness of search engines, or just another set of tricks for the purpose of creating Google food?

A growing trend in achieving higher rankings is through the use of social networking sites, commonly referred to as Web 2.0. Sites such as You Tube, Facebook and LinkedIn receive millions of combined visitors per day. Many of them are filled with rich content such as video, links, contact information, and personal and corporate profiles, all appealing to web crawlers.

Tricia Ryan of The Marketing Chefs, a marketing strategy company located in Mississauga, strongly believes that her contributions to social networking sites as been a big factor to her online success.
"Each day I spend some time posting material to a different networking site." says Tricia. "My ranking has improved substantially from this."

Tricia combines social network postings with search engine registrations, blogs, key words and links. She also does a great deal of offline advertising directing people to her site where she sells training materials and courses.

This is a very different business model from Performance Diesel Injection. As mentioned earlier, it caters to a very specific market and sells nothing online. For its owner Giles, drawing traffic has been done through industry forums rather than general interest social sites.

"I regularly contribute to all the automotive performance forums. People find me through those." says Giles. "I also refer new clients to the site when they call. It's a nice selling tool that answers a lot of their questions while freeing up my time here at the shop."

While from two different industries, both Marketing Chefs and Performance Diesel use a form of web networking to draw traffic with fair success.

So is social networking on the web really the "honest" approach or just another trick soon to be made obsolete by updated algorithms?

Michael Koenigs the CEO of trafficgeyser.com says posting to social network sites for the purpose of driving visitors to your site is like playing a game the search engines wrote the rules for.
"We’re ahead of the game." says Michael. "The search engines know that half the traffic is video based, so they are keen to focus their efforts on it. We simply make it easier for site owners to take advantage of this new and exciting format."

Trafficgeyser.com is an online service that will submit your video, podcasts and blogs to over 35 social networking, blog, bookmarking services and video sharing sites with the click of a mouse. According to Michael, the concept is simple and effective: Posting blogs and videos, with key words, links and descriptions attached, to as many social networking sites as possible will result in higher search rankings.

The theory is that as the web crawlers scan the web for video content and blog submissions, they will continuously come upon your name and site. This will result in higher rankings as your information will be "calculated" as being more relevant. In one online demonstration for the service, a new site was listed as number one on a Google search within 10 minutes of going live.

So do the search engines view this process as just another form of link farming? Or is this a truly legitimate and effective way to bring traffic to your site and get higher search rankings?

When I put these questions to trafficgeyser.com's Michael, he answer was quick and to the point. "We follow the rules set out by the video and blog sites. Their own users decide if the content is poor. And that content is created by the site developer (our clients), not us. The search engines are just being fed content by us. They're looking for it. We just get caught up in the stream of providing them relevant and useful information."

Tricia from The Marketing Chef agrees. "While I have used some submission services, I still do a large number of blog and podcast submissions manually. I have found them to help draw traffic either by improving my search result rankings or through direct links to my site."

However not everyone agrees with the effectiveness of this new traffic producing technique. When I contacted Google directly about this new trend, they were scratching their heads.
"A web site receiving first place ranking within 10 minutes of being uploaded?" a spokesperson for Google asked. "I don’t see how that could be possible."

Google’s formal position on increasing web traffic is based on relevant content first and foremost, both on the site itself and any blogs, video postings and podcasts.

"Many owners of high quality sites can and do get their site listed well in Google's search results without any outside help. Most often, some basic, relatively simple tweaks go much farther than any secret 'tricks'; for instance, using a journalistic mindset to write page titles - concisely answering who, what, where - can be of great help to both users and search engines." says Google’s spokesperson.

"Understandably, some site owners prefer to have someone else check and optimize their site, and for these folks we've published some guidelines relating to evaluating SEO companies." explains Google's spokesperson.
"In order to deliver the best search results to users, Google frequently crawls the web in search of new content. Every time Google crawls the web, 10-20% of the internet is new. By submitting your website to Google, you help with the process of finding your site and adding it to the search index. However, we strongly encourage webmasters to pay very close attention to the 'Quality Guidelines', which outline some of the illicit practices that may lead to a site being removed entirely from the Google index or otherwise penalized."

Among Google’s guidelines: "Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings." and "Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank."

Since guidelines similar to Google's can be found on other search engine's sites, does this mean that posting to social networking sites is actually pointless or even harmful?

"I don’t think it's pointless." says Joseph Fung, CEO of Lewis Media, a web design firm in Waterloo whose clients include RIM and Scotiabank. "It's not a bad way to spend your time. Just maybe not the best way."
The fact is that while social networking and blog sites might attract the short term attention of the search engines, their content tends to be time sensitive. As new submissions are posted, previous ones will drop lower on the list, getting less page views, and eventually falling off the search engine's radar. All this can happen in a matter of days.

"Long term success means building a relationship with the search engines." says Joseph. Posting to established industry-based site will add legitimate credibility to you because the search engines hold those types of sites in higher regard for your field than generic social sites. Posting to sites that are recognized as relevant to your industry will give you the best return for your time. And keep you on the good side of the search engines."
So what is a site owner to do in order to drive traffic to their site? And should they even be that preoccupied with it?

For some, who's entire business model involves selling over the internet, such as Amazon and EBay, the answer is yes. And yet these companies have chosen to not get swept up in the trend of social marketing. Instead they have combine traditional and proven methods such as external links, banner ads and relevant content with strong offline advertising campaigns.

"In 2007 our online and offline advertising was split 50/50." says Joseph. "For 2008 we plan on allocating 80% to offline marketing. We've found that offline media reaches our audience in a way that allows us to convey certain messages more effectively."

Where is all this going you ask? What is the future of search engine optimization? The truth is that not even the search engines know.

"Search is still in its early days of development and it remains at the core of everything Google does." says Google's spokesperson. "We are aware of new trends and technology and are focused on leveraging it to provide relevant and useful results."

"Search engines will become smarter." says Joseph. "I believe we'll see higher levels of analysis, voice processing of video content, and drawing meaning out of content. I think the search engines are chasing two targets, the human element (understanding relevance) and the people coming up with the next set of tricks.

Most experts would argue that a web site is just one more spoke in the marketing wheel. And regardless of how many visitors you get, if your products and services are of poor quality, your business will not succeed.
"If you produce high quality products at fair prices, people will buy from you." says Fred Gleeck, an internet marketing consultant based in Las Vegas. "In many situations, offline marketing is more powerful than online marketing because people are bombarded with so many banner ads and spam messages. They don’t even notice them anymore. If you market yourself properly and give people quality, they will seek you out."

Its interesting to note that EBay, the world’s largest online auction site, came up as number 8 for a recent search for "online auctions" on Google. Amazon was listed as number 2 when "online bookstore" was entered in Google, just behind Chapters/Indigo, which paid for their listing.

About the Author:
Marc Gordon is a professional speaker and marketing consultant based in Toronto, Ontario. His firm, Fourword Marketing, specializes in helping businesses create a brand identity and developing effective marketing campaigns. Marc can be reached at (416) 238-7811 or visit www.marcgordon.ca
 
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