This piece was originally published in my journal/weblog on Monday, 9 August 2004, and has also been republished by Simian Systems.

« home « Long article index

Boosting your search engine ranking: it's no trick

by Derek K. Miller

Donate with PayPalIf you find this article useful, feel free to consider making a donation (any amount, credit cards accepted), which helps pay for hosting this website. Thanks!

In early August 2004, someone I've done some work for asked me for help getting better search results for his company. He was concerned that typing in the name of his company to Google brought the firm up only on page two, somewhat behind links from newspapers to his site, and links from other sites talking about his site.

He wanted to get a page 1 (or #1) result for his website for that search, and also asked if I could help getting a page 1 result for a more generic phrase that forms part of his company's name. Among my other ramblings about web design and search results, I've already written about why search engine optimization isn't too useful on the modern Web, but my longer response here might be helpful too, so I'm posting an edited version.

I won't name the company in question, since that wouldn't be polite, so I'll call it "Great Plains Logistics" as a pseudonym, and pretend that you, my reader, are the one contacting me. My response:

Search engine optimization

I'm not in the business of search engine optimization, and don't have much expertise in it. The reason is that, on the modern Internet, well-built and well-maintained websites do not require search engine optimization.

There's no trick to it: make a good website, and your search rankings will improve. Any site that is built logically, with valid, well-structured code and good content is already as easy as possible for search engines to index, and for other sites to link to. It's quite possible to get a page 1 (or #1) result for "Great Plains Logistics," especially if you're already on page two with Google. But I doubt you'll ever get that high a result for "Great Plains" alone, as I'll explain.

Google background

Google is pretty smart, and hard to fool; it's very difficult and usually pointless to try to use any tricks to improve search ranks. That's why people like it so much—it gives them good search results.

The good side of that is, as you add more material to your site and more other sites link to it, your search result ranking will rise. The bad side is that there is very little you can do to speed that process up—because in order for your search ranking to rise, other sites on the Web have to notice and link to you first.

The reason other sites might return higher ranks than you are is that they are very popular, and if you have just redesigned your site, it contains much new information that hasn't yet propagated everywhere. In essence, Google is a reputation machine—the rank of a site is determined by how many others link to it, and by how many link to those sites, and so on. When information about you appears on the sites of major newspapers or well-known webloggers, for example, their pages may outrank you until those news items get old, and it's possible that may always be the case.

The way to get higher search rankings more generally, though, is to produce a website that other people on the Web find useful, so that they link to it, and to update it fairly frequently, which is why blogs (including mine) so often rank well, both for relevant search terms and for those that might not make much sense for a given site. Once Google figures out that you update frequently, its search spider programs will visit your site more frequently too.

If search engine ranking is important to you, the key is that you should update your site not only often, but also with information that is useful to people who might be looking for you. You, as the website operator, are best able to determine who they might be, and what information they might want.

Page results

Google lets the people who build websites and link to others decide what's important. It is impossible to engineer it so that the two words "Great Plains" (without the word "Logistics") yield a page 1 result for your site, because "Great Plains" is such a common term for the actual region of the world, and in addition to all the web pages (geographic, scientific, governmental, etc.) about the Great Plains themselves, there are many other companies that use the two words in their names.

Google has no way to know whether someone searching for "Great Plains" is looking for you, or for information about the North American prairies. On balance, they're more likely to be searching for information about the region, not your particular company. Therefore, your site would have to become very popular and widely linked indeed to leap past those sites already at the top of the list:

Other search sites

For now, check out how you show up in Yahoo!'s search engine, on MSN Search, and in other search sites:

UPDATE: By July 2005, this site had slipped in those results, so I added "Great Plains Logistics" to the page title (in the top bar of your browser window)—we'll see what that does.

You should also submit your site to Yahoo!'s categorized directory and to the Open Directory (, which is used by AOL, AltaVista, HotBot, Google's Directory, Lycos, Netscape, and others.

However, those submissions take awhile to process, because that's done by human beings and takes a few weeks. Once they have been entered into the Yahoo! and Open Directory indexes, that will also improve your Google ranking results.

Reader feedback

After I posted this piece to my journal, it became quite popular, mostly thanks to Dave Shea. One person disagreed strongly with me in my comments, and I thought that disagreement worth addressing. The commenter wrote:

You are so wrong. Sorry.

It's easy to say you don't need seo for a company name or a blog title, but if you're trying to sell sunglasses or shoes there's so much competition that all the tweaking and linking makes a big difference.

Well, sure, but what I'm saying is that a well-built site shouldn't need much tweaking, and links should come from real sources, not link exchanges.

Put another way: I'd bet you could do better than paying some SEO firm by instead building a well-structured site, and then regularly posting useful articles about sunglasses and shoes. How do I find sunglasses or shoes that fit? What are the current trends in style? What if I have wide feet, or glasses keep falling down my nose? And how about super-detailed product specifications, with honest field-tested evaluations ("these 'hiking shoes' are fine for looking rugged in the city, but the soles are too slippery for real rock faces; try these other ones")?

The thing is, attracting people to your site is less than half the battle. You need to keep them around and get them to do stuff (buy things, for example)—and if you've used subterfuge to bring them in, they'll figure it out and leave, or at least realize that there are 300 other, essentially interchangeable sites that also sell sunglasses or shoes and have done basic link-exchange SEO.

On the other hand, if your site is unique because it actually helps people with useful information that only an expert can provide (as I wrote about before), I think they'd be more likely to buy from you. Even if you charge more than your less-useful competitors.

More information

Here's some more more information on the topic. The first two links are from my personal site; if I add new links over time, they'll go at the bottom:

The Google ads that appear on this page (near the top) probably almost all link you to SEO companies. If you're interested in what they can do for you, take my advice here seriously, and ask them some questions about what they'll achieve for your money. If they suggest a bunch of nefarious tricks, they're not really helping you. But if they suggest ways to make your site better and more useful, as well as ways they can help promote it, they could be worth hiring.

Incidentally, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the search for Great Plains Logistics on Google turns up this entry at the top of the list within a few days, since that exact phrase currently doesn't yield any Google results at all.

UPDATE: Actually, it didn't originally, but was up there if you searched with quotes. By the fall of 2004, it was indeed the #1 result as I had expected. Then it slipped in 2005 after Microsoft's Great Plains accounting division announced some logistics products, so I added "Great Plains Logistics" to the title bar at the top of the browser window. We'll see what happens. See how the SEO game never ends?

Donate with PayPalIf you find this article useful, feel free to consider making a donation (any amount, credit cards accepted), which helps pay for hosting this website. Thanks!

« home « Long article index

Page BBEdited on 27-Jul-05 (originally published on 28-Aug-04)

© 2004–2005 Derek K. Miller. Some rights reserved. You may use content from this site non-commercially if you give me credit, under the terms of my Creative Commons license.
Valid XHTML 1.0!