It's all in who you know

Fitting in with the 'popular crowd' online can improve your search-engine rankings
By Scott Orth
July 22, 2008
COMMERCIAL, RETAIL, AUTO : BUSINESS, MARKETING

The key to understanding online link development is to think of it in terms of a social popularity contest. Think back to high school. You might have had 100 friends, but unless they were in the "popular crowd," neither were you. When it comes to popularity, it's all in who you know, and the same is true when building links on the Internet.

First, what is a link? As you browse through the Internet, you probably click on a dozen different links without even realizing it. Links simply connect one page on a Web site to another, or to a separate Web site altogether. Links may be part of a site's overall navigation, or they may take the form of text or images on a site.

A few years ago, search engines decided there was an inherent commonality between sites that other sites often linked to. These Web sites tended to be larger, updated often and truly important to whatever community of consumers, businesses, groups or affiliations the site focused on. As a result, search engines like Google added "link popularity" to their list of criteria for deciding where a site ranked in search results. As time went on, Webmasters began creating link farms-networks of sites that would all link to each other-to create counterfeit link popularity. So, the search engines modified their criteria once again.

Today, each search engine ranks link quality differently, but the hardest to satisfy is Google. This is where the popularity contest comes in. You may have 1,000 links to your site, but your competitor only has five and still ranks higher than you in search engine results. This is because Google has scored each of the five sites linking to your competitor as stronger, more popular sites within your industry.

So, which sites fit the "popular" category?
• .gov, government sites
• .edu, educational sites
• .org, sites for organizations such as churches, etc., although this is not always true as .org rules have changed in the last few years
• Large industry sites with strong link popularity of their own.

As search engines continue to perfect the link scoring system and Webmasters' ability to create counterfeit link popularity diminishes, one thing remains the same: the importance of quality, legitimate links. Establishing these links to your site is critical to ensuring it's at the top of the list in search-engine results.

Usability
Some argue Web site usability is more important than all other online marketing efforts. I won't go that far, but will say that you can drive all the traffic you want to your site but won't succeed if you don't have your usability ducks in a row.

Usability is, in its simplest form, making your Web site easy for customers to use. Make it easy to navigate, easy to find things, easy to make purchases and easy to contact you. Your site should answer customer questions and engage them in a way that makes them want to stay on your site and do business with your company. To make your site user-friendly, focus on a few key issues:
• Ease of navigation/search. Can they find what they need easily?
• Natural feel. Do the images, content and calls-to-action feel natural?
• Engagement. Does the site utilize tools, videos or games to engage users?
• Path. Is there a clear path for customers to follow when going from shopping mode to buying mode?

Seventy-seven percent of people surveyed say they are more likely to buy from an unknown brand with a high quality Web site, than from a well-known brand with a poor site. Yes, quality is in the eye of the beholder. But you can be sure customers will view a user-friendly, engaging Web site that makes their visiting experience easy, educational and fun as a high quality site.

The author is director of Internet Marketing Services at GTS, Portland, Ore. His team specializes in online business and marketing development, analysis and profit growth. Write him at scotto@gtsservices.com.