Okay, so a lot of customers tell me they want to be Number 1 in Google but they don't really give much thought about what this means. It's just a buzz word to them and they want me to do some magic trick that will put their website at the top of every search results page in the world, completely ignoring the hundreds of millions of other websites out there. I always have to explain that it's all related to what the user actually searches for and how many other pages out there are relevant to that search, so I've decided to try and explain it in the simplest form possible and see what happens.
Imagine that you are doing the job of Google
First, imagine Google wasn't this giant automated computer system, imagine you yourself were Mr Google and you had to return that list of results for every search that anyone in the world did, how would you go about it. Let's imagine for a second that instead of billions of searches being done each day, you just have to worry about one search phrase for now, let's say "Tango Dance Lessons in Belfast", that's a reasonable phrase that someone might type into Google.
As Mr Google, you first need to create your own copy, or "cache" of every single page on the internet. That's right, this is the first misconception, that Google just deals with websites as whole entities. Well in fact it deals with each and every single page on each website. So your first job is to go out there and get a copy of every page on the internet, including it's title, all the text on it, all the images and what website it appears on. Google does this by using a giant army of automated computers that trawl the internet and follow links to find as many pages as possible and it stores these in a big database .... for now, you're going to write each one down on a post-it note and imagine you have a, fairly large, table in front of you with every page on the internet. Yes, I understand this is quite a big table.
Sorting Your Pages so You Know What Is On Each Page
Next step is to "index" all of these pages. This means going through the text on each one and in your case, taking a highlighter pen and mark each significant keyword on the page. You can ignore common words like "this", "that", "and", "the" and stuff like that, but you highlight all the words that have some meaning. This should throw up one of the first issues with some websites, if your website doesn't have much text, then it won't do well in this indexing process, especially if you use lots of images instead of text, Google can't read the text within the images, so it just ignores them (unless you've been clever and added text to the Alt tag in your HTML). So now you have all the pages and you know what key words each of them contains.
The User Performs Their Search
Now the visitor comes along to your door and asks "Please can you give me the most relevant pages for the search phrase 'tango dance lessons in Belfast'" and you say, sure no problem. As a human being, you might have some knowledge of this already, but you can't assume that if you're Mr Google, so you must decide out of all the hundreds of millions of post-it notes on your table, which 10 will you give to the man at the door first. So the first step is easy, you look through and find all the pages that contain the words "tango", "dance", "lessons", and "belfast" and also the variations so you might match "dancing" and "classes" aswell or maybe even "northern ireland" instead of Belfast if you're feeling generous. That will mean you can throw away the vast majority of your post-it notes but you'll still be left with a fair few, definitely more than 10. It's your job now to decide which of these matching pages is most important and which one you think is the one your visitor is actually looking for. Of course you could hand him 10 random pages but you might be way off the mark, so how do you decide what one is what they need.
How To Decide Which Search Results To Return
You start by looking at which ones contains the words "tango dance lessons in belfast" all together as a phrase. Which ones contain these words in the page title, or the H1 html tag and which pages repeat these words several times throughout the content, rather than just a one-off instance. You're already starting to narrow down the list and it should show you straight away that if a page doesn't have the kewyords you are looking for, your page (and your website) won't even get a look-in.
So now we're down to a few hundred pages maybe, the ones that we can see are definitely about "tango lessons in Belfast", how do we decide which one is best. For this, Google has developed a series of rules that measure things like, How many other sites link to this page, how long has the domain name existed (giving some but not a lot of precedence to well established pages), how quick does the page load up (yes, this is now an important factor), how many times has the page been liked on facebook, how many other related pages are on the same website and over a hundred other such checks. At this point, we are really refining down our table of post-it notes and deciding which ones are definitely about the subject the person has searched for and which ones we think have the most reputation. This becomes important when there are several competing websites and the smallest factors can make a difference.
Returning the Results To The User
So now we've narrowed it right down and we can hand back our 10 post-it notes to the visitor and we can proudly say that these are the pages we think you should look at and find the information you are looking for. Our visitor will say thank you very much and head off to browse his websites, hopefully finding what he needs in the top page or at least in the top 5. And remember, we haven't sent him to website homepages, some of the links we gave him might be specific pages on a particular website, something like "tango-lessons-belfast.html" because this is where he wanted to go, he didn't want to go to the homepage and then have to find the tango page himself.
Hopefully this (quite long) explanation will give a little insight to the workings of Google in the most simple way possible. Obviously what they do has so many other factors and they are constantly updating their post-it notes every day and they can do the search in milliseconds, but that's why they are one of the biggest companies in the world and it's why we turn to them to help us find what we need amongst the millions of pages out there. Think about that next time you do a search and they manage to give you the exact page you wanted, out of 100,000,000 possibilities !!!
Also, this article is mainly about the importance of the text content on your pages. This is what we call on-site SEO, but there are lots of other factors that determine the page rankings and Google keeps us guessing as to what those are. At present, some are well known but very few people know them all, otherwise we could all just implement the rules and we would appear top of the list which isn't going to happen. Google strives to provide relevant, quality search results, so it's not going to tell us how to get there. It simply states that if we should be at the top based on our website content and other factors ... then we will be.