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VOL. 39 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 14, 2015

Deciphering Google’s algorithms no easy task

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Much can ride on a Google search. People use the search engine to find information on every aspect of their lives, from finding a plumber who works on Sunday to digging up information on a blind date.

And if you are that plumber – or that blind date – you want the best information about you to rise to the top when someone Googles you.

So how does the world’s most popular search engine rank websites and decide what comes up when you enter a term? It’s still a mystery.

Actually, experts say it’s partly a mystery.

“Google has so many rules it’s kind of like an IRS tax code where they don’t tell you everything,” says Ross Jones, a Nashville-based search engine optimization (SEO) expert who started working in the field in 1997 – before Google.com even existed.

Jones’ company, 2 the Top Web Design & Marketing, helps generate business leads for clients by creating websites that have the best chance of appearing when people search online for a particular good or service. Sites that appear on the first page of search results have the best chance of being clicked on.

Google designs its search algorithm to not be gamed. And the algorithm is ever-changing. Google rules prohibit web developers and content providers from trying specifically to manipulate Google results – what are known as “black hat” tactics.

More SEO information

Do you want to make your existing blog or website more search engine friendly, improving its visibility in search results? Do you need to create more positive content to try and push something else down in the search rankings?

Whether you’re looking to promote a business online, change what people see when they Google your name or learn digital marketing skills, a good start is to attend a meeting of the Nashville SEO Meetup Group.

The group meets monthly to discuss relevant issues and to network and learn from each other. It’s headed by Ross Jones, an SEO specialist for nearly 20 years and principal of 2 the Top Web Design & Marketing.

At this month’s meeting, Jones will teach the essentials of SEO and show attendees how to optimize a website from start to finish.
It will be held Tuesday, Aug. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at Emma Bistro (9 Lea Avenue in the Trolley Barn complex on Rolling Mill Hill) and is free to attend (an encore presentation will be given on Friday, Aug. 28 for $20, which includes pizza.)

For more information on the group, go to Google.com and search for “Nashville SEO Meetup.” You can also watch video presentations from previous meetups at imarketingclass.com.

“There’s a right way to do this stuff and there’s a wrong way to do this stuff,” Jones says.

The “wrong way” is typically offered by companies that promise to remove bad search results – like a negative review – or move up website rankings for a relatively small fee.

“There’s a lot of snake oil-selling, fly-by-night entities in this area of Internet marketing that say they can get you a No. 1 ranking for $99,” Jones says. “Don’t you think if that was true everyone would have done that already?”

Realistically, Internet marketing is more of a marathon than a sprint, and involves a sustained campaign of creating websites that are structured well, contain content that is relevant to what people are searching for and are authoritative, which is typically measured by the number and quality of links to and from other sites.

Credible news sites like the New York Times and major social media sites like Facebook carry high levels of authority and appear high in search rankings. Thus, a mention in the Times or a business page created on Facebook will typically rank high in search results and push other links down the list of results.

“Yelp ranks very highly with Google. Wikipedia ranks very highly, and CNN.com,” says JJ Rosen, whose Nashville company Atiba provides search engine optimization and other technology solutions for companies. “It is hard to outrank very authoritative sites.”

Quality of content is extremely important to where a website will appear in search rankings. For example, when one searches for the term “electric chair,” Google returns approximately 12,600,000 results.

One of the top results is a blog post written in June 2014 by Jones’ client, Nashville defense attorney David Raybin.

In it, Raybin recounts his experience defending the last man to be electrocuted in Tennessee, including a chilling description of the execution itself. The post consistently appears near the top of Google results no matter where the user is located, giving tremendous visibility to Raybin’s firm’s website, www.HollinsLegal.com.

“Why does that rank on the first page? Because it deserves to,” Jones explains. “You want to talk about a tremendous piece of content? That is it.”

State-sanctioned electrocutions have existed for 125 years. Over that time, there have been millions of articles, theses, opinion pieces and other blog posts on the subject. So why does a Nashville lawyer’s recent piece rank so highly?

Ross Jones of 2 The Top speaks at a Nashville SEO Meetup group, which are held monthly.

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The piece is both relevant and authoritative – Raybin wrote Tennessee’s death penalty statute. Jones has also optimized the web page so search engines can easily associate it with terms such as “electric chair,” “electrocution,” “death penalty” and “execution.”

Raybin is renowned for his legal writing. But so are many other attorneys and judges. How does Google “know” that Raybin’s writing is so outstanding that it currently outranks nearly every other piece written on the issue? Does the company have a panel of legal scholars poring over every legal brief, court case and opinion in America’s vast judicial system to rank the best?

Yes – sort of.

“It’s not being manually done, but Google is absolutely creating algorithms that understand the quality of content,” Jones adds.

“They really employ rocket scientists. They employ PhDs in linguistics, in statistics, in artificial intelligence, in all kinds of things.

“They’re not perfect. They screw it up sometimes. But what you’re wondering about? The answer is yes. They understand that that’s a quality piece of content.”

As Google evolves into a more sophisticated search engine, it is becoming “smarter” at determining user intent – or what people are really looking for when they enter a vague term like “Italian food.”

Google will factor in things like past searches and the user’s location to decide whether the user is looking for Italian food recipes or an Italian restaurant near him. That also means two people may not get the same results when they enter the same search term.

“Google will tweak your results based on your location, your IP address and whether you’re logged into Chrome (Google’s web browser),” Rosen says.

“Based on what you’ve looked for in the past, they will try and optimize the search results based on what they know about you.”

And Google is always trying to learn more. The company is constantly changing its algorithms to determine user intent and serve up the best match of information on the web.

That means Google is always one step ahead of the SEO game, and even the best practices at cracking Google can be a best guess.

“With SEO, there’s no guarantee,” Rosen says. “If you could do that, everyone would do it, and that’s defeating the purpose of Google.”

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