Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google with a vision – to organize the web in a truly democratic way, where the collective wisdom of the people determines which websites rise to the top.
In their view, online search results ought to be ordered based on a system of “link popularity,” similar to the way we elect our politicians – the more votes you receive, the higher the likelihood of winning. In the case of websites, “votes” are earned when other websites link to you – a system so intuitive that many webmasters don’t even realize they’re passing info on to Google. The sites with the highest link popularity – in terms of both quantity and quality – pop to the top of the first page of search results.
That is how Google’s algorithm functioned back in 1996 when Larry and Sergey wrote their original research paper at Stanford, creating Google. And that is how Google’s algorithm functions today.
I am always amazed at how “SEO experts” describe the process of Google optimization. Even I get confused when I watch some of the presentations out there. It seems as if there are simply too many factors to consider. Well, I’ve used SEO as the foundation for 5 successful businesses and – without tooting my own horn too much – gotten websites to the top of Google for the keywords “games,” “personal injury lawyer,” and “web design company,” and I can tell you, there really isn’t that much to it.
Here is how SEO works:
Google works kind of like middle school, where popularity is king. Instead of friends though, your website is seeking links from other websites. Like middle school, quantity of friends alone is not the biggest factor in popularity; it’s also how popular each of those friends is. If I have 10 friends, I’m decently popular, but I’m still way behind the guy with 5 friends who are the five most popular kids in school. It’s the same with Google: if your website has links coming from Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo, its “link popularity” is going to be sky high, way more so than a website with 100 links from small websites.
Link popularity is one of the most important metrics of your website. Tools like ahrefs.com help you determine how many links point to your site.
Now, link popularity is only one of two important factors in SEO. While it basically determines how likely Google is to place your site on the first page of the search results for a given search term, Google still needs to determine what those search terms are. In other words, what might somebody type into Google’s search box in order to find your site?
Google has several ways of determining this, but the only one that matters is your meta page title. Every page on your site has a meta page title. It is your way of broadcasting to Google what that page is about. It is also your opportunity to include search phrases that you’d like that web page to show up for.
For example, the meta page title of the home page of this blog is “socialmouths – Kick-ass social media advice for the real entrepreneur.” Francisco, the owner of this site, is essentially telling Google that his home page is about those words. Therefore, if you type in “social media advice for entrepreneurs,” SocialMouths.com shows up on the first page.
The meta page title is so important to Google that Google uses it as the title of its search result listing for that web page.
Of course, if socialmouths.com didn’t have good link popularity, it might show up on page 5 or page 10, where nobody would see it. It would still be in the running, but far behind.
Link popularity and meta page titles are, ultimately, the two factors that Google uses to order their search results. When someone types “example search phrase” into Google, having those three words in the meta page title of one of your site’s pages puts it in the running to show up as a result, and having a high link popularity is what pushes it to the front of the pack.
Now that you know how SEO works, I’ll summarize the only SEO strategy that works today, in 2012:
Create fantastic content as often as possible, share it with other website owners frequently, and try to get as many links as possible. Again, socialmouths is a great case study here. By putting out great content all the time, the site made its way to my friend Tom, who shared it on Facebook. I saw it there, clicked on it, and became a fan. When I reference the site in the future on my own blog, my link will count towards socialmouths’ link popularity. In essence, socialmouths has (without necessarily meaning to), executed the ideal SEO strategy: it has convinced people like me to link to it simply because we like it. At some point in the future, because of the site’s high link popularity, a Google search for “the only SEO strategy that works” will return this blog entry. This being only one of thousands of pages on the site, you can see how Google would become a top referrer of traffic to socialmouths, bringing fresh readers to the site daily.
There is more to learn, of course – namely, how to effectively ask for links from other websites, how to steer clear of Google penalties, and how to structure your meta page titles so they are friendly to both humans and search engines. But we’ll leave those to a future post. For now, I’ll be content if you feel like you understand SEO just a little bit better.