Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to optimize for search engines to achieve #1 rankings. Many sites have pages which are not fully optimized (in the sense that no thought has been given to writing appropriate title tags for different pages, etc.) which still do very well in search engines. How can this be? Simple: they’re relevant.
Search engines like Google don’t care a whit whether a web site has hired a specialized consultant to goose pages’ rankings. Well actually, as best as they can, search engines like Google try to assign lower scores to sites which have been obviously tweaked to improve rankings. What they do instead is to attempt to measure the types of relevance factors which naturally occur.
Look at this page, for example. It’s not optimized, but because the creators were just trying to create a topical page, they “accidentally” stumbled into a #1 ranking on the phrase “nfl bye weeks 2002.” – a feat that NFL.com and Yahoo Sports were unable to match!
They didn’t do it with their page title, that’s for sure. That same overly-long title exists on every page of the site – which is considered an “SEO no-no.”
So what did they accidentally do right?
- The keyword-laden title of the page was posted using bold text in a large font. Not exactly how most of us would code it, but this is something that Google seems to take into account. Large and bold headings are watched closely, no matter what code is used to generate them.
- The site itself is pretty popular with grassroots fantasy football players, with over 350 links in.
- This specific page has only one link to it, according to Google – an internal link from the same site. But that internal link – and the keyword-laden anchor text of that link – are obviously making a big difference in the page’s rank. It’s on Google’s radar screen and from there, the keywords appearing in internal links are matching up well with my search phrase.
The moral of the story is: mean what you say, say what you mean, avoid unorthodox code, dynamic pages, and time-consuming graphics, and make your site’s navigation clear and factual, and your target audience will find your key pages near the top of search engines every day of the week. Basically, the more content the better, so long as it is well organized.
Internal site navigation seems to be paramount here. NFL.com, which is the definitive site in this category with 38,800 (!) inbound links, is nowhere to be found when you search for “NFL Bye Weeks 2002.” Why? Although the “schedules” page lists all bye weeks, it calls them “open dates.” If the actual words don’t appear in the navigation or on the page, then how can readers, or search engines, find them? In short, there is no quick way to find “bye weeks” from the NFL.com site’s main page, and those specific words don’t appear on the schedules page. Further, there apparently no site search capability. If visitors can’t find stuff when they get to your site, then a robot can’t be expected to do any better.
It looks like information architecture and the “black art of SEO” are going to become more intertwined in future. My colleague Jim Allison of webaliza.ch, a company that offers web site usability audits and info architecture consulting, has been talking about it to me and it makes a lot of sense. SEO Consultants will have to become information architecture experts, and the latter will have to understand the added marketing benefit (from search engine traffic) that will follow from doing their jobs well.
End users can only win when some attention is paid to a quality navigational experience. Commonly-searched items shouldn’t be unfindable. Arbitrary navigation needs to be rethought with your visitors’ most common informational needs in mind. Unfortunately you may never know those needs unless you pay attention to the whole gamut of customer contacts – in emails, phone calls, and in (possibly futile) internal site search queries. If you don’t even have a decent internal site search capability, or the ability to act on this data (as with Ask Jeeves Enterprise Solutions), then you’re behind the 8-ball.
Because Google was really the first to key in so much on the internal linking structure of a site, we have them to thank for initiating the long-term trend towards better-architected sites, and making cheap optimization tricks largely obsolete. It’s no easy matter for an outside consultant to come up with a quick fix for a poorly-architected corporate site which ranks poorly in search engines. Ideally, this process is integrated from the ground up, with search engine marketing and information architecture working in tandem.