SEO Learning: The Philosophy of Ranking

There are basics anyone can learn about SEO, but to really dig into how ranking works we need to understand what search engines are really trying to do.

For Google and Bing the search engines the primary “customer” is the user trying to find information. (Unless we’re talking about Adwords, which we’re not.)

In order for any search engine to capture a significant market share, that is, the percent of total users searching for information that decide to use their service to do it, they need to provide meaningful results. After all, if you consistently struggled to find good answers to your questions you’d be frustrated, right? You’d probably switch to a different search engine with better results.

Therefore, the name of the game for these search engines is to be as effective as possible at determining who are authorities on various topics.

I explain this so that the next part is clearer.

Two Main Philosophies of SEO

There are two main philosophies in SEO, generally what get classed as either “white hat” or “black hat”. In a nutshell, here’s the goal of each approach:

  • Take known ranking factors and exploit them to dominate rankings
  • Learn what Google is looking for and deliver it to the best of your ability

They seem similar, but there are some key differences.

In the exploitative approach, you’re constantly staying up on the latest algorithm changes search engines use, learning the things that go into determining what pages rank, and then designing your site/content solely around those things. But since this approach usually forgoes quality content that is actually useful, the rankings don’t last because eventually search engines realize how the technique was exploited and that the content isn’t actually beneficial for users. (More on this in another article.)

So this approach works (from a ranking standpoint), but it’s a constant struggle to stay ahead of Google’s algorithm changes.

The other approach is more like saying, “So what can I do that is legitimately useful for users AND is what Google deems is useful, which are usually the same?” It’s not exploiting anything; it’s structuring a site to fall within search engine standards and making sure the information is clear and helpful. It can take longer to get results this way (not always), but the results last because there’s generally no reason for search engines to change their minds about the page. Other than, of course, other websites demonstrating they’re a bigger authority than you.

What Establishes Authority?

This is a very complex answer that we’ll cover further in other articles, but we’ll outline it a bit here:

  • How much overall content does the site have? One that substantially covers various topics will likely have a leg up over a similar site that only briefly discusses topics. Overall content means not only how much is on each page, but how many total pages are there that center on a topic.
  • How specific is the content? For instance, a blog with 500 articles that all talk about different things would not necessarily be an authority on any one of those topics, even though the total amount of content on the site is substantial. It’s different when you’re talking about a site with only 50 pages of content, but pages that are entirely about one industry or subject.
  • Do other sites link to your site? This comes down to both how many other sites link to your content, but also how authoritative those other sites are. One backlink from CNN, for instance, would carry more weight than 5 links from small sites with very few readers. Generally speaking, though, the more quality sites that link to you the more authority you’ll have.
  • How often is your content shared? Social shares are now a ranking cue, for good reason. Search engines figure if a lot of people are sharing and talking about your content, it’s probably trustworthy and helpful. There are caveats here, but generally speaking the more frequently your content is shared on social media the better.
  • What kind of readership does the site have? Traffic isn’t a huge factor, but it matters. All things being the same, a site with very little traffic will seem less trustworthy than a similar site with a big reader base.
  • How long has the site been around? Brand new domains have no established track record of creating useful content, of being shared, or even that they’re going to continue being around for years to come. Consequently brand new domains fight an uphill battle competing with established sites, and you’ll often find after your site has been around 6 months or more it’s far easier to rank than it was at launch.

Once you understand what contributes to becoming an authority on a topic online, it becomes far easier to put in the work needed to make it happen.

We’ll cover specific on-page optimization techniques in further posts — basics that anyone can learn and experience results with when used properly and consistently.


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