In many ways, internet search engines seem fairly magical. Enter any combination of words you can think of, and within one second, your chosen search engine provider will have ranked numerous pages relating to that term in descending order of significance, and displayed them on your screen. Like an electronic librarian, they catalogue information in perceived order of usefulness, providing instant answers to important questions like ‘how old is Madonna’, and ‘why won’t my soufflé rise?’
In the engine room
It’s worth noting that not every website will be featured in search engine listings, because of the way Google, Bing, Yahoo and their smaller brethren operate. In essence, they are automated trawlers, endlessly scanning and noting the contents of website addresses, page titles and the actual contents contained therein. This information is then filtered through a complex algorithm to decide which pages are most relevant, thereby determining the order of search results.
However, because web trawlers (often referred to as spiders) don’t have the sentience to consider things like context, they tend to focus on how commonly key words are used, and compile an index based on these results. For instance, a car manufacturer’s website will be absolutely full of references to itself, its models, and its dealerships. These repeated terms will produce a very high ranking for searches relating to its name or its products, ensuring it stands out among less relevant sites.
Optimise your chances of success
This, in a nutshell, is the science behind search engine optimisation, and in the last ten years, it’s gone from being a subject reverently mentioned by marketing gurus to a topic you can study at colleges across the UK. The importance of SEO really can’t be overstated, since websites are increasingly becoming the public face of British businesses, and it’s seen as essential to be ranked ahead of competitors. It’s now possible to have a lucrative career as a dedicated SEO or internet marketing specialist, analysing search engine results and advising companies on how to improve their rankings.
SEO is the internet’s equivalent of window dressings in high street stores – attracting customers’ attention and pulling them in. Getting SEO right will mean a higher ranking on the early pages of a Google or Bing search result, but getting it wrong can mean obscurity, with potential customers simply not finding you. Businesses increasingly live or die by the amount of web traffic they receive, so a course in SEO can be invaluable for gaining a competitive edge over competitors.
Search and ye shall find
Search engines use all sorts of time-saving shortcuts to deliver their results as quickly as possible:
1. Searches have already taken place. Ever wondered why search engines offer suggested search terms as you start typing? That’s because these searches have already been conducted, and the results are being called up as you type. Results are pulled from an existing database, not from live analysis of the World Wide Web.
2. Titles and tags are more important than body text. Search engine optimisation courses will teach the value of getting keywords and phrases into the uppermost bits of a page – the descriptive parts.
3. Not every site will be displayed. Although the SEO spiders are always crawling over the World Wide Web, obscure or badly-worded sites won’t be recorded. There are hundreds of millions of websites out there, so only the most relevant ones will be listed.
4. Small words are ignored. You don’t need to search for words like ‘a’ or ‘the’, because they’re generally ignored by the spiders.
More than meets the eye
Another element of websites that spiders analyse is the number of links on each page, and where they go. This is one of many additional factors governing how high a website appears in search engine rankings – others include its popularity, how frequently it’s updated and even how old it is. However, SEO remains a cornerstone of the search engine ranking algorithms, which is why courses in search engine optimisation can be invaluable for small business owners, marketing professionals, website designers and students alike.
Getting the balance right
If a premium position in search engine results simply related to the number of times a word or phrase has been used throughout a website, SEO would be easy. However, a site crammed full of keywords is unlikely to be of any interest to humans, and the web crawler spiders are becoming very savvy at ignoring webpages filled with SEO gibberish. Striking a balance between using keywords frequently, while still retaining readability among potential customers is a fine art, and it’s one of the areas SEO courses will typically focus on.
What’s in a name?
Just as vacuuming has become known as hoovering, searching the internet is often referred to as Googling, after the undisputed industry leader. However, SEO courses that refer to Google in their summary text will be relevant for other search engines as well, from Yahoo and Bing to Ask and StartPage.
By Neil Cumins