Understanding How Search Engines Rank Websites

Search Engine Ranking Basics

Understanding How Search Engines Rank Websites

Revised October 26, 2016
Originally Published June 13, 2008

This article expands on some of the basics of search engine optimization and ranking; answering the question many new clients ask:

What are SERP, SEM, SEP, etc, & how do these affect my website?

Search engine ranking is an area with many acronyms (SEO, SEM, SERP, SEP) that all website owners must pay attention if they want to receive free traffic from sites like Google.

Whether a new, or well-established website, search engine ranking is important to online success, and should be paid attention to regularly.

Associated SEO Acronyms

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is fundamentally easy at its core, and is nothing more than the activities undertaken to generate free-qualified traffic from search engines naturally.

However, the many terms and acronyms that have come about with SEO can be confusing to many business owners and those just learning about how to best market their new or existing website.

The following are a few of the basic terms associated with SEO:

  • SEM - Search Engine Marketing: SEM includes any and all activities used to promote something, such as a product, service or event. This can include free-natural promotions, or paid promotions such as PPC.

  • SERP - Search Engine Results Page (or Rank Position): SERP simply refers to the ranked position, or result page, that a website appears for a certain keyword or key phrase search. SERP for a website will vary depending on the keyword or phrased being searched.

  • PPC - Pay Per Click: PPC refers to paid advertisements that appear above natural results for a particular keyword or phrase, (sometimes to the right of organic results).

  • SEP - Search Engine Positioning: SEP isn't used as often anymore, but simply refers to the position a site is found for a particular keyword or phrase search. It is sometimes used synonymously with SEO or SERP.

The Basics on Ranking

Google, Bing, and Yahoo are three of the more well known search engines. These search engines have a basic protocol to follow in order to provide their users with the most pertinent, relevant data and results such as:

  • In order to provide the most relevant information, a search engine must have an "index" of all the content contained within a website.

  • Indexing is the process of reading all the information contained within a website, then categorizing this information based on the topics (keywords and related phrases) found within the content.

  • Search engines send out automated programs called spiders to index websites.

  • When a search engine spider comes across a website, the robot indexes that website, all included pages, and content.

  • Indexing the content of a website is important since the end goal of search engines is to provide the most relevant information on a particular search topic to the search user.

  • Once a website is indexed, a search engine will use this information to determine which websites best match a user's search term.

  • The search engine will then return results based on relevancy with the 1st result being most relevant, 2nd, 3rd and so on down the list.

Determining a website's relevancy and ranking (order of appearance in search results: 1, 2, 3, etc) in a list of search results depends upon a number of factors.

Factors Affecting Ranking

Each search engine uses its own formula for ranking sites and deciding which website should come first in a list of search results.

However, despite differences between individual search engines and their indexing practices, there are many standard and agreed upon indexing factors that all search engines analyze when ranking websites:

  1. Website Content
    Is the website an encyclopedia on the industry?

    The text that is actually contained within the website is a big factor in determining website ranking. Obviously, the more a website appears to be an "encyclopedia" on a topic or industry, the better ranking the site will have when compared to other sites with only a couple pages or a few paragraphs on the topic in question.

  2. Link Popularity
    Is the website popular to link to for information & resources in the industry?

    Websites that are popular to link to by other 3rd party websites often get a higher ranking in search engines.

    The theory goes, "if a website has a lot of 3rd party websites linking to it, then this website must be an authority on a topic with relevant information on 'Topic A'." Hence, search engines like Google, will give such a website a higher ranking in searches for "Topic A".

  3. Browser & Platform Compatibility
    Will the website work on any computer platform or browser?

    When indexing websites, search engine robots pay attention to the back-end website code used to program and build the site.

    If the code is excessive, dirty, or not compatible with various browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc) or platforms (e.g. laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc) then a website will more than likely be ranked lower than another similar site with code that works on any system or browser.

  4. Black-Hat Tricks
    Does the website use deceptive tricks to gain search traffic?

    Search engines today program their spider robots to recognize deceptive website practices used to gain better ranking in search engines.

    Some of the more well-known practices are, door-way pages, keyword spamming, link spamming, duplicate sites/content, as well as many other deceptive practices used to gain better ranking.

    Search engines want to provide their customers with valid, concise information regarding a topic, and will often penalize or ban websites that do use Black-hat Tricks.

    Therefore, sites that use "natural & organic optimization" and simply provide lots of in-depth information and content, are going to get the better ranking in the long-run.

  5. Mobile-Friendly
    Does the website use responsive design so the content automatically resizes to make it easier to read on smaller screens?

    As of April 2015, Google now uses mobile-friendly as a ranking factor. This is in an effort to make all websites responsive to resize based on screen size. This effort was reinforced May 2016 when Google released another update forcing the issue.

Summarizing the Basics

When all is said and done, understanding search engine ranking is relatively easy when all factors are considered:

  • Provide the best and most useful website content possible
  • Make it available to everyone, regardless of platform or screen size
  • Don't deceive

Those are the basic keys to obtaining a successful website ranking.

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