Fact: Each search engine has its own algorithm
Don't believe me? Type a bunch of search terms into Google, and try the same thing in Yahoo. Search engines are optimized to different classes of users and terms. Some users swear that searches in Yahoo are more accurate, but Google has more data on what people click on in response to a search engine – the power of the people.
Fiction: You can pay to have your website achieve a certain placement in the search engines.
While there is a list of widely accepted actions that can help improve your "placement", your ranking in response to any specific search term will vary. Search engine algorithms are complicated and change all the time. It was widely reported that in 2010, Google made over 500 algorithm changes - almost 1.5 per day. The changes to what comes up and in what order are all part of the search engine "arms race". Everyone wants to improve their ranking (especially when money is involved) and new tricks are tried all the time. But search engines just want to be accurate. When tricks and new techniques begin to bias the results, the algorithms are changed to accommodate the evolving landscape.
Fact: Search Engines Care about Popularity
All those people can't be (that) wrong… While the (mathematically determined) match between your search term(s) and all the content on "the internet" is a big component of what ends up being returned to you as search results, the more "popular" matches are favored. Popularity includes what people clicked on when they typed in a specific search term, as well as how frequently particular websites are visited.
Fiction: It's all about the Meta-tags
Meta-tags are optional codes put onto web pages that contain descriptive information about the web page; they're not visible to users (unless they know how to "View Source"). While meta-tags used to be important, some sites abused them (because you could put anything in these tags you like), they ended up containing not-so-relevant content. As a result, search engines now tend to discount meta-tags. That being said, you should pay attention to some meta-tags, as they will still display on search engines – in particular, the meta-description used for a snippet about your website.
Fact: You might just be unpopular.
It's hard to accept, I know. But you might not be the best match to what people are looking for. The best way to understand this is to look at what people are actually looking for. Google's webmaster tools allow you to see what search terms people are using. AdSense provides access to commonly used synonyms and suggests good words to incorporate into your content. There are other paid services that perform similar functions, such as WordTracker.
Fiction: If your site gets blacklisted by Google, you can fix it easily.
If your site gets infected, your traffic will be warned away. Not only is it hard to get rid of malicious scripting / malware, but you are put at Google's mercy. There's really no one to call. To add insult to injury, chances are you'll have to pay someone to clean things up. What can you do to protect yourself? You might want to consider contracting for a website security audit.
Fact: Search Engines care about what's important
What is important on your website? Well, your content is pretty important! If you have content that reflects your organization and someone is looking for what you do, that's the best way to be found. Search engines also care about what cannot be "faked": hidden text can be faked, but you wouldn't change your domain name or page titles. There are many indicators, some big (like content) and some small (content farther down a page is assumed to be less important than what is on top). If other legitimate websites (and the search engines are pretty good at knowing who is legitimate and who is not) are pointing to you, this is important information, too. Being pointed to from a big traffic site will give you even greater "reflected glory".
So, what can you do? Google has done a very nice job of trying to help you help yourself in increasing your internet presence. Check out Google's SEO Starter Guide (PDF) or Maile Ohye's ten minute video on the Google Developer's Blog – SEO Essentials in 10 minutes.
Or come learn more by tuning in to our webinar on July 17th, "Increasing Your Organization's Internet Presence". We'll talk about techniques tailored for organizations that want to be found when individuals are simply "surfing" the web, when individuals are at related websites, and/or when individuals are looking to get involved – for example, through donations of time or money. We'll cover:
- Search engines: How they work, how to raise your website's visibility on the major search engines in use
- Meta-Tags and other website Info: What information should be "behind" your website to ensure that it is found
- Linkages: Why links from other sites are important, and how to find good places that will link to your site
- Pitfalls: Things to make sure you don't do if you want your website found
Lisa Rau is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Confluence, a technology consulting firm focused on nonprofits. A leader in the technology-for-nonprofits movement nationally, she is a frequent invited presenter on a variety of subjects. For over eleven years, Confluence has worked with 500 some nonprofits across the country in a wide variety of technology areas, from strategic technology consulting to the design and implementation of websites and customization of CRM systems. Confluence is an expert in the customization, maintenance and support of open source systems, including Content Management Systems (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress) and CiviCRM, and is a certified Salesforce partner.