Google takes literally thousands of statistics into consideration in its search algorithm.  Decoding and reverse engineering this algorithm is the goal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts worldwide.  True experts spend hours testing with test sites and tweaking them to see how Google responds.  They also spend hours analyzing sites that are ranked high and sites that are ranked low to look for clues and insight into the inner working of Google’s algorithm.

As you can imagine, better understanding of the Google search algorithm can lead to better rankings through manipulation.  There are many definitions of “SEO”, but in truth, the best definition of SEO would be “utilizing knowledge of ranking algorithms to skillfully manipulate search results”.  It is an art, and one that takes a long time to learn and become skillful at.  Unfortunately there are many who read a book overnight and the next day setup a site declaring themselves experts.  This has provided a black eye for the SEO industry.

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The important thing to remember about SEO is that manipulation can be good or bad.  The terms “white hat” and “black hat” originally appeared in the world of hackers.  There were some hackers who hack for good purposes – like testing security systems to improve them.  These are referred to as white hat hackers.  Black hat hackers are the opposite.  They hack to steal information or exploit systems.  The world of hackers is often a large battleground of white hat hackers vs. black hat hackers.

Likewise the terms have been applied to the SEO industry.  White hat SEO basically means doing hard work, using ethical methods and generally doing what you should do to get good rankings.  Black hat SEO is just another word for cheating and usually involves questionable methods.

Black hat typically involves trying to manipulate rankings by trying to trick Google using practices against their terms and conditions.  This could include buying fake reviews, purchasing or exchanging backlinks with other sites, creating shadow domains and re-directs that trick the search engines to think a site is about one thing when in fact a human visitor sees something completely different.

White hat involves taking the time to write unique, original, well written content.  It’s about taking the time to ensure the site loads quickly and works great on different devices. White hat SEO is about taking the time to claim and verify your local listings and taking a moment to respond to a negative review.  White hat SEO is about doing the right thing that many people are too lazy to do (or they hire the wrong “SEO expert” to help them).

Overall, it can be said that most of the analytics involved in ranking boil down to about 200 major factors.  Those major factors can be summarized by the following – how relevant are the results Google returns vs. the search query.

Some SEO experts might argue the items on the list below, but it is an attempt to capture the major factors that contribute to relevance and rankings.

  • On-Site
    • Keyword Research – are your keywords relevant? If your site is about dentistry, does the content match and talk about dentistry?
    • Content – Is your content unique and well written? Google actually checks spelling and grammar!  It also flags plagiarized content.
    • Coding – Is your site coded properly? This is referred to as search engine friendly development and crawlability.  In other words, if your HTML code has errors in it, it can be difficult for Google’s “crawlers” to crawl through the code properly on your site.
    • Load Speed and Usability – does your site load quickly? Does it look and work good on various devices?  Did you take the time to make it relevant to all potential users (including handicapped)?
  • Off-Site
    • Backlinks and Link Building – Google considers the number of websites that link back to your website. It analyzes where the links come from, what type of link they are, the quality of the site linking to you.
    • Authority, Trust and Citation – links from quality, relevant (dentistry or local to your market) sites increase your authority and trust more than links from other sites (for instance, porn / pharma / gambling – these can actually penalize your rankings).
  • Local listings and Citations – This involves claiming and verifying local listings (like Yelp, Yahoo Local, YellowPages, etc). You also receive a backlink from these sites when you fill out your business information.  A complete profile shows you have taken the time to care.  The citations and reviews from these sites are extremely important.
  • Social Media Signals – Have you setup social media accounts on the most important networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc). Are they coupled to your web site?  Do you use them?  Do people talk about you on social media?  Does your brand or name get mentioned?  Do they share your posts?
  • Update frequency – Everything above should be routinely updated. Your on-site content should be updated, a good backlink velocity should exist, new citations should appear monthly, your social media accounts should be utilized.  Again, Google is about relevance.  If you do not have anything new to say, how relevant are you?
  • Integration with Google services – This is not new but increasingly important. Sites are increasingly being awarded higher rankings when Google+, YouTube, Webmaster Central, Google Analytics and other Google services are put into place.

All of the items above help Google determine relevance.  The higher it determines your relevance to be, the higher your site will rank.

As stated, it’s really about doing what you should do.  For instance, “site optimization” really means checking your code for errors, testing it thoroughly for the best experience, making it as usable as possible, targeting your content to your audience and topic, etc.  It’s not something magic (though over time there are many advanced techniques that can help).

Off-site SEO is similar.  If you create remarkable, relevant content, other sites will want to link to or cite your work.  People will also share your work or discuss it on social media.  There’s no need to pay for links or pay people to socially share your work.  Keeping your content up to date and remarkable keeps your audience engaged and increases interactions.

On the other hand, black hat tactics are usually more intricate, sound odd, involve questionable methods, etc.  Black hat methods are often shortcuts someone tries to exploit to manipulate a specific part of a ranking algorithm.  The problem is, black hat methods can get your site banned or even your business delisted and not allowed on Google anymore!  Some companies have actually had to change their name, domain, and branding to recover from mistakes made by “SEO experts”.

Overall SEO is nothing magical or mystical.  It really is about taking the time to do what is right.  Remember Google’s motto – “Do no harm”.  That said, there is a lot to do and it takes an array of skilled resources to make SEO work.  You need a marketing expert to correctly define your target audience.  You need a real coder who can code your site right.  You need a copyrighter to make great text content.  You also need a great artist to make graphics or videos.  You need a stream of remarkable content.  You need to have someone savvy to post all of your content where appropriate.  You then need an expert at analytics to dissect your results and show what is working and what is not.  Many businesses do not have all of this talent in-house.

Though SEO is not a magic process, it is one that can potentially be tough, especially in a competitive market where other web sites are SEO savvy.  It is okay to get help, if you really want to increase your web visibility, consider a true SEO expert.  Ensure their techniques are 100% white hat and check their credentials – it will save you a lot of time, money and heartache in the end.