Getting Noticed by Google
For most sites, especially when they’re getting started, Google and other search engines are the #1 source of traffic, especially for new visitors who might become regulars. It helps to know a little bit about how search engines work and how to make your site “search engine-friendly” so you an make sure your site is easy for your fans, clients, and potential readers to find. Since Google is by far the most important search engine at the moment, I’m going to talk mainly about Google, though most of this will apply to other search engines as well.
Nobody outside of Google knows exactly how Google ranks it’s search results. It’s a closely-guarded trade secret. But the general outlines are pretty well-known, if not the exact algorithm. Google has thousands of computers running programs called “‘bots” (short for “robots”) or “spiders” that pick a known page, index it, follow all the links on the page, index the pages linked to, follow links on those pages, index the new set of pages, and so on.
As Google’s ‘bots “crawl” the web, they assign each page a PageRank, Google’s estimation of the importance of the page. This figure is arrived at by looking at the keywords on the page, the number of times and the placement of the keywords (which help determine what the main topics covered by the page are), the relation between those keywords, and the relation of the page to other pages on the web. The last part is calculated according to the number of other sites that link to a page, and their PageRank.
Let’s say you write books about fishing. On a page about your book, “Trout Fishing in Kansas”, the words “trout”, “fishing”, and “Kansas” are going to be important keywords — you’ll have used them a lot, they’ll be in the page’s title, headings, and sub-headings, and there may be links to other pages on the web about trout, fishing, and Kansas.
If a lot of other sites that Google has already determined are about trout, fishing, or Kansas link to your site, Google assumes that you must know a thing or two about those topics — if the Kansas Trout Fishing Commission thinks your page is worth linking to, Google figures, you must be an expert. And therefore people searching for information on Kansas trout fishing would probably want to find your site — as opposed, say, to a Kansas City, MO, bookstore that sells Trout Fishing in America.
Knowing that, it’s pretty clear what you have to do to assure a strong showing for your site in Google search results:
- Write good content: As they say on the web, content is king. Writing strong content about your chosen topics will give Google lots of keywords to work with, and encourage other sites to link to you.
- Write good headings and sub-heads: Google assumes that anything marked as a header (with header tags like “h2” and “h3”) are more likely to be keywords, and rates them more highly. Choose descriptive titles for your posts rather than obscure ones’.
- Better – The Difficulties of Trout Fishing on the Missouri River
- Worse –Them Buggers Ain’t Biting!
- Write descriptive link text: Google gives more weight to keywords it finds in links, so when linking to other sites, describe the other site’s content well. Don’t write “click here”, write “visit Fishing World to buy Acme Fishing Line”.
- Get linked to: The more relevant links Google finds to your site, the higher your site will appear in search results, so make sure your content is worth linking to and make sure you promote it so other web writers in your niche see it.
- Put keywords in your page’s title: Every page has a title that appears at the very top of your web browser when you visit it. Most blog software will put the site’s title and the post’s title into the page title, like this “Getting Noticed by Google – Writer’s Technology Companion”. Keep that in mind when naming your site — pick something like “Mary Ann Whiting, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer” rather than “Mary’s Site”.
- Update regularly: The more often Google indexes your site, the better. Google looks at the update frequency to determine hw often it needs to revisit the site. If you update daily, it’s going to come back more often than if you update every couple of months when you feel like it. Try to update at least once every week or so, to keep Google coming back often.
There are a lot of companies out there that offer “SEO”, “Search Engine Optimization”, services. While some of these do a pretty good job (mostly by doing the kind of stuff I talk about above), they’re really intended for corporate sites (and charge accordingly!). Beware of sites that offer cheap SEO services to end users — most of them a) don’t work, and b) use questionable tactics that not only won’t work but could get your site delisted from Google entirely.
Here are some tactics that don’t work and could actually hurt your search ranking with Google:
- Getting links from unrelated sites: It pays to be selective about who you try to get to link to you. If the site isn’t well-established for your particular keywords, it’s not going to give you much of a boost. Likewise if a page is just a bunch of links.
- Link farms: Some services offer to get your site tons of links, for a fee. They build “link farms”, interlinked sets of pages with only links to sites that have bought links. Google looks unkindly on this and you’ll get dinged for it.
- Link-swapping or buying links: There are a number of link-swapping services (“you link to me, I’ll link to you”); Google tends to ignore links on sites in link-swapping groups (including non-swapped links) and may actively punish sites hosting swapped links (which means you). Same for ad networks that allow you to buy text links on other sites — which is especially galling since Google’s AdWords program is essentially a service that allows you to buy text links on other sites! But Google is the boss, here, so save your money and focus on content.
- Loading your page with invisible keywords: In olden days, people would put in hundreds of keywords at the bottom of their page, setting the text color to be the same as the background color. Search engines don’t see text color, the thinking went, so they’d see (and index) the text but nobody else would. All the search engines are wise to this, and will ding you for it.
There are tricks that will work — for a little while, until Google and the other search engines get wise to it and change how they rank pages. It’s far better to focus on writing good stuff for your human visitors and let your site grow organically than to waste time, effort, and money trying to write for the computers at Google. It might take a little longer, but if you have a strong site with well-defined keywords and people find your site useful enough to link to, you’ll gradually move up the search rankings to the top.