Rules of the search game

by ian on June 13, 2010

Before you dive down into keyword research and the like, it pays to know the general rules:

Rule 1: Search engines are about satisfaction

Search engines are publications, much like an online newspaper. They make most of their money from PPC ads – those ads that show up on the right-hand side and top of most search results.

PPC ads

PPC ads in a Google result: For Google, this is where the money is.

When someone clicks one of these ads, the advertiser pays the search engine money. They sell those ads based on the number of searches and clicks they can generate. More searchers = more inventory = more money.

People continue to use a search engine if they find what they need. That is, they’ll keep using Google, or Yahoo!, or Bing, if they believe that they are getting the most satisfying results.

Not the ‘best’.

Not the ‘most relevant’.

The most satisfying. If my search for ‘grapes’ gets me three vineyards that are 45 minutes from my house, when all I want is the produce department at a local grocery store, I don’t care how technically relevant the results were. For me, they suck.

So, a search engine’s primary purpose in life is to deliver the most satisfying results to consumers. Period. That gets them more searches, more clicks and more $$$. If you can’t help them do that, you can’t rank.

To determine what’s “satisfying” for a particular user in a particular situation, search engines use algorithms. Those algorithms have hundreds of factors, and I won’t go into them all here.

Rule 2: Search engines are structured thinkers

But, in general, search engines are hierarchical beasts. They see the internet as a series of structures, and while we can’t say exactly what those structures are, there’s a well-known method to the madness. The typical search engine algorithm looks first at the entire internet, then at your site, and then at each page on your site:

Links & Chatter: The Whole Internet

You’ve probably heard lots about linking. It’s true, more links are better. That’s because search engines are measuring your relative importance and relevance using links.

The more links you have from relevant sites, the more important you are. Search engines build a humungous pyramid/cube/sphere-shaped amoeba thingy based on all of those links.

Think of them as votes. More important pages have more votes.

Search engines determine relevance based on link text (the text that’s ‘live’, like this) and the overall relevance of the linking page and site to the topic searched. So, if you have links from 500 sites that deal exclusively with the Toyota Prius, then you’ll appear more relevant for that topic.

Of course, the reality is far more complicated. But keep these basic rules in mind and you can understand how links and chatter influence rankings:

  • More links from relevant sites = More leverage
  • Relevant link text = More relevance
  • Crappy links = relevance to crap
  • Link position on the page matters
  • Chatter – how many people are discussing your brand and site on social media – appears to matter too.

There’s a whole section in this training about link building and what I call Offsite SEO. It goes over all of this stuff.

Site Structure: Page by Page

The next hierarchy a search engine examines is the structure of your site, and where pages reside within that structure. Pages fewer clicks from the home page are considered more important. Pages further away move down the pyramid:

Onsite structure matters

How onsite structure affects search engines

Once again, link text matters. If one page on your site has 40 inward links from other pages, and the text of that link contains ‘Toyota Prius’, then search engines will judge that page more relevant.

And, once again, there’s more to this rule. Keep the basics in mind:

  • Closer to your home page (fewer clicks to get from the home page to another page) = More important = More leverage
  • More links with relevant link text = More relevance to that phrase

Page Structure: Semantics

Finally, the search engines look at each page of your site, weighing that page’s relevance, quality and overall importance relative to your site and the internet as a whole. The engines look for a structure within each page:

Title tags are really, really important. Heading tags are, too. But what’s really important is that you assign the right structural markup to each element. Headings should be within a heading element, like this: <H1>.

Make sure paragraphs are within paragraph elements, tables are only used to present data, etc.. I won’t try to teach you proper semantic markup here. Digital Web Magazine does it far better in this article.

There’s a lot of argument in the SEO community about whether semantic markup matters. I think it does. But in the end, I also don’t care. Semantic markup makes your site a lot easier to maintain, edit, display in the widest array of devices and format. So you should do it anyway. The real question isn’t whether you should use semantic markup. The real question is why wouldn’t you?

Page-level structure is about doing what makes sense: The title should describe the page. The headings should describe the paragraphs below them. Each paragraph should discuss an idea. And so on. Stick to that, and you’ll do fine.

Rule 3: Search engines don’t like to look dumb

Know what search engines hate? Looking dumb. You can try to fool them by ‘gaming’ the system. For example, you can go out and buy 2000 links, thereby making your site look more important.

This is a valid strategy. I’m not going to debate the ethics, and search engines don’t make the law, so you wouldn’t break any laws.

But if/when they catch on, they’ll apply a whole host of filters and penalties to keep you from artificially inflating your results. Like I said, they don’t like to look stupid. And they have a lot of really smart people working 24/7 to avoid looking stupid. If you think you can fool them all for the long-term, go for it. Otherwise, I suggest playing by their rules.


But it all boils down to satisfaction. If you do give up on SEO right now – if you decide it’s far too complicated, it’s a waste of time, you need a refund for this training, whatever – then just focus on one rule: Create a site that will satisfy your ideal customers/visitors/voters/clients. Make it easy for a search engine to match you up with the folks who need you most.

That won’t get you an avalanche of traffic, but it’ll position you as fundamentally sound from an SEO standpoint.

Related/other modules in this section:

  1. Measuring SEO opportunity gap: Know what you’re missing
  2. Mythbusting
  3. Crawling your site: Tools and techniques
  4. SEO tools for onsite SEO
  5. The onsite SEO workflow

Previous post:

Next post: