Updated February 1st, 2024 — version 336

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

 Chapter Four
The Relative Importance of Ranking Signals

In Chapter One you learned the importance of keywords to top ranking pages in the early days of search engines. And today, keywords are still an essential ranking signalbut they are no longer the only essential ranking signal.

Today's search engines (think Google) factor so many other ranking signals into the algorithms that keywords found on a website are treated as on-page relevance indicators that are subordinated to a slew of off-site relevance indicators.

The thinking is that:

off-site relevance factors are difficult-to-impossible for a website owner to manipulate.

Picture the search engine algorithm as a mechanism with internal relevance dials. Each dial controls a ranking signal of the overall mechanism, aka, the algorithm.

search engine algorithm dials

One dial controls the maximum importance placed on keywords found on a webpage. Another dial controls the maximum importance placed on keywords found in links pointing to a webpage (aka, anchor text). Another dial might control the maximum importance of having the keyword in the domain name. And another dial controls the maximum importance placed on the trust and authority of the sites that link to a webpage.

Now, as you will see later, this is a major oversimplification of Google's actual algorithm. It does include these factors but there are many more that are entered into the actual mix. But, for example purposes, let's continue to see how this might work.

keyword algorithm dials Dial One – Keywords. Since Google knows that anybody can put an unlimited number of keywords into any webpage that they control, then keywords found on a webpage might be dialed up to only two maximum on a ten-point relevance dial. They are given weight, but not so much that people can stuff a bunch of keywords into their webpage and score a top listing. In fact, Google may even penalize a page if its algorithm detects an artificial abundance of keywords or a disconnected relationship between the keywords and the rest of the page's body content. So, keywords on a webpage, if detected within a 'normal' range, might only be weighted as high as a two, at best, on the ten-point relevance dial.

In other words, no matter how efficient you are at placing keywords on your page in an optimized format, that element carries only limited weight in relation to other factors that make up the overall ranking algorithm. keyword negative dial And, if Google detects an abnormality (like proportionately too many repeating keywords), that same dial might assign a negative number such as -3 on the ten-point relevance dial. This would have an adverse effect on the page's ranking ability. In search engine optimization (SEO) jargon, we call this a penalty.

anchor text algorithm dials Dial Two — off-site anchor text are the keywords used in links pointing to your webpage. This is theoretically harder to manipulate because you don't typically have control of the link-text that another webpage uses to link to you.

Of course, it could be done by arrangement, secret or not. But assuming that the link is "natural" (meaning it was done solely on the volition of the linking website and without any payment, arrangement or enticement), then Google views that link with a higher degree of trust. So, the relevance dial might be set to a higher maximum level, maybe a six on the ten-point dial.

anchor text negative algorithm dial However, if Google learns that your anchor text link(s) are contrived — i.e., purchased, negotiated, exchanged, or "unnatural" in any way — then you're in violation of their "best practices and guidelines." And, if so, then you can expect that dial to work against you in a big way. Maybe a -6 on the ten-point dial.

domain name algorithm dial Dial Three — keywords in your domain name, were long considered to be set to 2 or 3 on the ten-point relevance dial. However today you shouldn't expect keywords in the domain name to provide any boost in ranking unless that keyword is a well known brand name — like GEICO or NIKE. In such cases the dial might register some significance which illustrates one way in which there can be dials within dials baked into the search algorithms. Otherwise, keywords in domain names are no longer a ranking factor unless they correspond to a brand name.

trust authority algorithm dial Dial Four — Google loves trust and authority. There are certain websites on the Internet that are viewed as trustworthy. In essence, these sites are basically whitelisted. They can do no wrong. They have an impeccable reputation — which really means that Google trusts them not to spam their index.

One such site is Wikipedia. Google knows that Wikipedia does not spam Google. Nor does Wikipedia assist others in spamming Google. They diligently patrol their own site with an eye toward eradicating manipulative content and links.

Therefore, Google sees Wikipedia as both trustworthy AND authoritative. If your site has a link from Wikipedia, that's a great link. Why? ...because Google's trust and authority dial is likely to be maximized at around 9 or even 10 on the ten-point relevance dial.

Google views a link from Wikipedia as highly trustworthy (because they are hard to get and keep) and from an authoritative site because Wikipedia is a brand-name known for its content integrity. It's a whitelisted site which Google thinks can do no wrong in regards to search engine relevance factoring.

More examples of highly authoritative and trusted sites are mainstream news sites (CNN.com, NYTimes.com, NationalGeographic.com, etc.) and big-name brands (Geico, Nike, Yelp, Budweiser, Amazon, Coke, etc.).

Next-best would be sites that are linked-to by these brand name, whitelisted sites. If your site gets a link from these sites, that link would also be viewed as trusted and authoritative. That's because Google considers these kinds of links difficult-to-impossible to manipulate.

Furthermore, Google parses authoritative sites into industry-specific categories. That means that if you're in the children's clothing industry, then the best sites to be associated with are vastly different than if you're in the restaurant industry. And, to get even more defined, if you're in the restaurant industry in Dallas your most authoritative (trusted) sites will be different than if you're in the restaurant industry in Chicago.


Robots, Crawlers, Spiders, and Bots

You might be wondering how Google finds and indexes sites. The answer is they have a variety of ways that we'll be explaining throughout this book.

But what you need to know right now is their primary method for finding websites is called crawling the web.

To do this they use robots, crawlers, spiders, and bots — four names for the same thing that we'll be using interchangeably throughout this book — to follow the links they find on webpages to find more webpages.

According to Wikipedia,

A Web crawler, sometimes called a spider or spiderbot and often shortened to crawler, is an Internet bot that systematically browses the World Wide Web and that is typically operated by search engines for the purpose of Web indexing.

Web search engines and some other websites use Web crawling or spidering software to update their web content or indices of other sites' web content. Web crawlers copy pages for processing by a search engine, which indexes the downloaded pages so that users can search more efficiently.

Crawlers consume resources on visited systems and often visit sites unprompted. Issues of schedule, load, and "politeness" come into play when large collections of pages are accessed. Mechanisms exist for public sites not wishing to be crawled to make this known to the crawling agent. For example, including a robots.txt file can request bots to index only parts of a website, or nothing at all.

So now you know. Whenever we refer to a robot, crawler, spider, or bot, you'll know exactly what we're talking about, right?

Moving on...

So far, this has been an oversimplification...

What you've read so far is an oversimplification of Google's actual algorithms. But regardless, you can see that it's complicated even in our simplified examples. Google says their formula is set to provide a "good user experience" which is indeed partially true (nice spin anyway). But as you will later see, their algorithm is primarily set to (maximize profits and) reward brands and sites that have the right social signals — all the while dissuading search engine marketers (SEMs) from trying to manipulate Google's search rankings.

Great website vs. Good website - Design Elements that Affect Rankings

Google likes to promote the impression that...

if you build a "great" website, everything will be wonderful. Google will rank you high, and people will visit and give you the money you deserve.

However, you must always remember that Google's concept of a "great" website is constantly evolving.

For instance, whatever the focus of your website, you probably believe you provide the best product, service, or facility as presented by your very "good" website.

However, if your site's webpages aren't mobile responsive, or your webpage load speed is "slow" or your site isn't HTTPS "secure" or you've linked out to a "bad" site or maybe exchanged links with "off-topic" websites — perhaps as a favor to a relative or friend (like your Real Estate Agent or your Webmaster), then Google may very well think your website is "good" but not "great" like those that outrank you.

This is especially true if you're competing with nationally known "trusted" brands for top rankings.

But just to be clear. Trusted in the eyes of Google doesn't necessarily mean trusted in the sense that you'd trust that a bank wouldn't ...

...as did Wells Fargo Bank who, in spite of the above multiple violations of (actual) trust over the past 10 years, is still trusted enough by Google to score a #3 position for the search term banking services in the organic search results in spite of the scandals.

Wells Fargo, Apparently Google's 3rd Most Trusted Banking Services site

So obviously, in Google's eyes, trusted means 'big brand' trusted. So, if you're in the financial sector and can get a link from, say, Wells Fargo (or from a site that Wells Fargo links to), then that would be a very good link in spite of the fact that maybe Wells Fargo can't actually be, you know, trusted in the traditional sense of actually trusting a company with your money or your life savings.

We know, confusing, right?

But don't worry, we'll help you make sense of it all in the coming chapters and steer you clear of all the manageable pitfalls. Just bear in mind that, while it's true (as Google says) great content is the most important element of high ranking pages, so is format and function (aka, the user experience) and whether or not you can get the right links from the right "trusted" sources. Or, better yet, become a "trusted" big brand like Wells Fargo.