Ever since there have been search engines, there have been people who have used tricks to manipulate rankings. In the beginning, these tricks were fairly simple, such as stuffing hidden tags with keywords or using invisible text on pages. As the search engines caught on to these tactics, the techniques used to manipulate rankings evolved into more sophisticated methodologies. Current examples include using computer programs to design hundreds of different optimized pages (commonly called "doorway pages"), and feeding search engines a different page than what the average visitor sees (called "cloaking"). Most practitioners of such techniques attempt to justify their use by claiming that search engines use "unrealistic" criteria for ranking, and that making the necessary adjustments to a website to match that criteria would somehow undermine the visitor experience.

What is ignored is the fact that the search engines have established ranking criteria based upon extensive study of their users. In most (but not all) cases, the sites that do not rank highly on search engines are not giving the visitor what the search engine, through its exhaustive research of the searching publicís preferences, has deemed important. Unless they have the time and resources to perform a full-fledged study of their own on what search engine users want, how could an average web designer, search engine consultant, or business owner expect to know better?

It turns out that web searchers want informational content that addresses a question or need. They also want the title and description they see on a search engine to exactly match the contents of the page they visit. In addition, they find that pages that are deemed important by others are generally more useful (this is called link popularity, in which a search engine gives a ranking boost to sites that have incoming links from quality, related sites). Why should these criteria be considered unrealistic? Moreover, why should search engines be blamed for the ranking deficiencies of an existing site that doesnít match their criteria?

If a person in charge of a website five years ago began concentrating on the elements listed above, the site would still rank well today (and probably would have seen rankings improve over time, as search engines removed sites that were using questionable methodology). If this same person continually concentrated on the newest way to circumvent the search engine criteria, they would have had to start from scratch several times as the search engines repeatedly caught on to their tactics and penalized or removed the site. The beauty of the content-driven approach is that there is no risk, and that what works well today will almost certainly work well in the future. On the other hand, many of the current techniques employed to manipulate rank are likely to become just as obsolete as hidden text is today. Doorway pages are already being banished from most engines, and some engines (most notably Google) have openly stated that they will ban sites that use cloaking. Why embrace a methodology that is doomed to eventually fail?

In short, put informative content on your pages. Name each individual page according to its contents. Look for quality sites related to yours and ask them to exchange links. Search engine marketing isnít about taking an existing site and changing it as little as possible for the sole purpose of getting better rankings- itís about making whatever modifications are necessary to directly address the interests of your visitors. In the search engine optimization industry, there is a saying that "Content is King". This is true in many ways, but really only tells half the story. The Visitor is King. Keep that in mind when working on your website, and the search engines are sure to reward you.
March 11, 2003

Scott Buresh is the CEO of Medium Blue, which was recently named the number one search engine optimization company in the world by PromotionWorld. Scott has contributed content to many publications including Building Your Business with Google For Dummies (Wiley, 2004), MarketingProfs, ZDNet, WebProNews, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, ISEDB, and Search Engine Guide. Medium Blue serves local and national clients, including Boston Scientific, DS Waters, and Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Visit MediumBlue.com to request a custom SEO guarantee based on your goals and your data.

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