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Dave Hamel is the Product Manager for Web Analytics, SEO, and the Google Search Engine here at CBC/Radio Canada, and he has been working on the Web for over fifteen years. He has worked on sites for clients such as Citibank, Rolex, and Thankyou Network. Dave is an avid cyclist and a member of the Lapdogs cycling club.

There was a time when, if you wanted to look something up, you needed to go to a library or resort to a dusty collection of encyclopaedias to check a fact. The Internet changed that by literally placing information at our fingertips. The Internet had a problem though: with such vast amounts of information available, how could it make that information searchable? In the early days, there were directories such as Yahoo, Excite, and DMOZ, similar to the yellow pages in the phonebook, where websites would be analysed and categorised, but marketers soon learned to these directories for more traffic, which caused the value and relevancy of these tools to decline.

Then along came Google and everything changed. Having performed over 65% of English language searches (Source: comScore qSearch, February 2011), rather than relying on websites to tell the search engine where they belonged, Google changed the game by telling the websites where they belonged instead. This process became known as or search. This changed the way in which information was collected and left many people to ask such questions as:

How does Google decide which site is number one?

Why is my website not showing up?

How do I improve my position in the search results?

Luckily, Google itself provides the answer, and it is a process called Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the practice of changing a website to improve its position on the search results page. This is not strictly an IT practice either; it could involve coding, but it might consist of changing the copy or title, improving the user experience by changing the hierarchy, or improving the website marketing and PR. If you touch a website at all, SEO is your concern and it boils down to one simple thing: The best SEO is to make your content worth sharing.

How do you know what the best restaurant in town is? Why did you take your car to be fixed at that garage? Why did you go see that Indie film instead of the Hollywood one? Chances are that your decision was made partly because someone told you about it. SEO can be thought of as for the Internet and it matters because there are over 270 million unique websites, over two billion people on the Internet, and Google alone performs over a billion searches a day! As such, you have to ask yourself how anyone is going to find your site.

SEO also matters because top search results receive 40% of the clicks from users, second search results receive 10%, third search results receive only 8.5%, and the percentage of clicks declines quickly from that point onward, which means that, if you are not on the first page of results, chances are that no one is finding you. However, search has a massive long tail. Over 70% of searches are for words searched five times or less per month. This means that you do not need to be number one for generic searches to be successful. For example, you might not be able to get to the top spot for but you might manage to get the top spot for lima beans

The question then becomes, does it work?

Google sends out a spider, or a which crawls the Internet and collects information. This information is then indexed and an algorithm is applied to determine the importance of the page. The algorithm takes a number of things into account when assigning a pagerank (named after Google founder Larry Page). Pagerank is the numeric representation of the perceived value of a Web page in relation to the Internet, and it is made up of a number of different elements.

Link popularity is simply how many links are there to a specific page. Think about it this way, each link is a vote for a webpage, the more links, the more votes. This is combined with the anchor text of these links. government doesn know if smart meters are working is pretty descriptive link text. You can tell what the content will be if you click on this link. Something like here is not descriptive at all and could be a link to anything. As a result, Google will apply more weight to the first link.

If you have a variety of links that all have similar text, then Google assigns more credibility to that landing page. It does this by following the link to its destination and reading the content of the page.

Specifically, it looks at the title tag, which is used as the text in bookmarks, the tab information in your browser, and the link text for Google itself. It also looks for an h1 or header tag, like a story headline and the actual body of content itself.

This leads us to the next aspect of page rank, which is keyword density or on page keyword usage. The spider has already picked up the keywords from the link; in our example, these include meter and It will then read the copy on the page to ensure that these words are used again and that the page is indeed about what the link copy said it should be about.

If the link went to a page about monkeys instead of smart meters, Google would discount the link. If there were enough of them, it would start to penalise the page, since it would assume someone was trying to scam the system. The algorithm also takes readability into account. In other words, you cannot pepper the page endlessly with the words meter You need to write the copy with the end user in mind.

Registration and hosting data work as part of SEO as well. Google places more weight on a domain than on a country specific domain such as Furthermore, since has been around longer, there is a good chance that, if you have a one word domain with you have had it for a long period of time, which also increases the pagerank. The algorithm takes into account how long your site has been at its current domain, how many other sites belong to that domain, and what other domains are associated with your company.

URLs play a small role in SEO as well. Since the URL itself contains information on what the content is likely to be, Google will reward this effort.

Traffic and click through rate are Google criteria when it comes to checking its own results to influence what users are seeking. For example, if you searched for meters and two links came up with comparable pagerank but more people clicked on the second link, Google would eventually promote that link to number one, recognising that it had a higher response rate and was probably the more relevant result.

Lastly, with the advent of new social media technologies such as Facebook and Twitter, not all links are on websites per se or surrounded by large bodies of copy. However, these links are important since social media can reach a large number of people. As a result, the Google algorithm includes a social media aspect, although its importance is not that great just yet.

The weight or importance of each of these values changes as Google constantly tweaks its algorithm, so no one really knows with certainty how many Twitter links are equal to a website link, but we do know that those from respected sites or sites with a high pagerank count more than those from sites with low pagerank. Some people attempt to use, techniques such as link farms or gateway pages to influence Google in their favour. Techniques that may have worked in the past no longer work today and may be penalised tomorrow. As such, trying to trick Google will only hurt your efforts in the long run.

Now that we know what Google considers important, what can you do to improve your search ranking?

Rule 1 Start with the basics: Avoid worrying about viral marketing or link building partnerships until you have ensured that you have accessible, unique, quality content with specific, targeted keywords. Otherwise, you are just attempting to build upon a poor foundation. Remember that searching is actually about people and not about websites. Therefore, try to think of your end users first when working on your website.

Rule 2 Quality content only: If you create content, make sure it is relevant and user facing. Only create content that solves problems, answers questions, and provides information. You can look at the current metrics to see what words people are using to find your content. For example, if your customers are searching for shoes to find you, don label your content use the words shoes and reinforce those keywords.

Rule 5 Write a smart title tag: It is the text for the link in Google search results, the title bar on the Web browser, and the text in the bookmark, so its importance cannot be understated. For example, if your page is about Peruvian lima beans, you might have a title like lima beans, the nutritious Incan food from South America the idea being you could catch traffic for the terms and America

Rule 6 Write an informative meta description: These are used by Google as the description for the link and are essentially your elevator pitch to get someone to visit your site. Tell users what they will find if they click on the link.
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