What is the real route to better Google rankings?
Many new Internet marketers obsess over Google pagerank believing it to be the route to rising in the search results, where in fact pagerank is just one of many factors involved in your search engine ranking and, most misleading, what you see in the Google Toolbar is very inaccurate anyway.
People look at Wikipedia and think they rank so highly and so often because of pagerank, or perhaps because they have a gajillion links, but there is another powerful element we can overlook if we are not careful.
Once relevance, links and keywords are taken into account, the true engines of search engine success are now believed to be “Trust” and “Authority”. But what do those phrases mean in this context, and how do you get more of the good stuff?
Authority Leads to Google Authority
You know I am all about promoting authority in your blogging. Authority in general means that people trust you to supply expert insight. The good news is that authorities trusted by human beings are also trusted by Google.
“If a site is an authority in your industry, you can bet that it will be for Google as well. So if you’re a web designer, a link from Smashing Magazine or A List Apart helps, as a lot of other web design sites will be linking to those sites, thus causing those sites to be ‘hubs’ in the web design space.”
— Joost De Valk, Yoast
Authority in a search context takes into account all the elements of a site then determines a grading on the spectrum from completely authoritative through to no authority at all. The more authoritative and trusted your site, the better you will rank.
In fact, being an authority in Google’s eyes is a game-changer. The rules are quite different for authorities and authorities can get away with much more gray and risky behavior than other sites.
There are many factors that directly influence your Google authority including the domain (a .gov is going to be more trusted than a much easier to gain .info), quantity and quality of links, plus traffic elements.
Dear Google … Who Do You Trust?
Perhaps the most important element is this factor of who is linking to you. It is believed that Google has a whitelist of trusted websites. While it is unlikely you will get onto this hallowed category yourself, inbound links from the websites that are already on the white list will give you a certain boost in the search engine rankings.
“Trust is the reason some websites can rank highly for competitive search terms purely by publishing a page targeted to that search term. Sites like Wikipedia and the BBC don’t need to worry about building links to pages because Google has so much trust in the domain that they rank in the top few results, seemingly without having to work for it.”
— Patrick Altoft, BlogStorm
The problem is all of this is very unscientific, based on observation and guesswork, and the only people that really know what is going on work for Google, and unsurprisingly they are not talking.
I should also point out that, while we often use “Authority” and “Trust” almost interchangeably, Google almost certainly sees the two factors as separate. We have way more influence over our authority than we do our “TrustRank“, in fact as far as trust is concerned the best we can do is improve our “degrees of separation” from those we suspect are on the search engine’s white list.
That all said we can still take some educated guesses as to which elements of your site and content will drive up the authority factor and in turn help you gain those all-important search results. Plus the more authority we accrue, the more likely we are to get linked to by the trusted few.
Let’s take a look at some of those now, starting with the negatives, then leading to the positives:
Negative Trust Influences
What can you do to your own site, or could a competitor do to you, that will nuke your trust and therefore rankings?
“I always think that links have a positive or negative value. Let’s say the BBC gives you a +10,000 and a spammy blogspot link gives you a -100, you still have a positive 9,900 score. The problems occur when the BBC get hit with a link selling penalty, if your backlinks have fallen into negative equity things go south quickly.
Get caught selling links and your link value could shift from a positive value to a negative value, so I re-visit my clients links monthly and check out what’s happening to the sites that link to them”
— David Naylor, Bronco
- Buy and Sell Links – First is if you are obvious in your link buying, don’t expect to last long in the search engines. Mr Cutts is very keen on tracking down and destroying sold links. There are even some sites that are so “dirty” in Google’s eyes that a purchase in the right place and right time can nuke you over night. Don’t believe me? Ask the right people at the right conferences to show you the evidence. That’s all I am saying
- Bad Neighbors – If your links are not paid but still associate you with the seedier parts of the interwebs, don’t be surprised if you are seen as guilty by association.
- Comment Spam – Leave the spam up, get it indexed, and watch your results rocket to the bottom. It’s the “broken windows” theory of SEO.
- Unnatural Growth Patterns – Google will look carefully at your link growth for any signs of unnatural acquisition. This isn’t to say that if you get on the front page of Digg and garner 20k visitors and as a result, 100 fresh links that you will be penalized. What is likely though is they will take a closer look if your brand new domain arrives out of the gate with one page of content and 10,000 links overnight.
- Lack of Link Diversity – Are your links coming from friends and your own sites or are they arriving naturally because your content is awesome?
- Thin or Spammy Content – Duplicate, scraped or feed content, or spammy gibberish is likely to get marked down. As you would expect, Google is aiming to promote the highest quality. They will use human checks, algorithms and watch the behaviour of their customers to see if what they are delivering meets expectations.
So the first element to emphasize is make your site evolve as naturally as possible!
“You can manufacture authority with a very intelligent link building campaign but more often than not it’s the natural growth of the site and links with other sites in the same industry that gives Google reason to trust the site.”
— Patrick Altoft, BlogStorm
We have looked at negatives, but what could be positive trust signals?
Let’s get the most controversial potential factor out of the way right now.
Traffic might be a quality signal. It seems a fairly obvious one as a human being, but what about to Googlebot?
“My #1 SEO lesson is simple: get the technical details right, and then start making sure you get as much traffic from other sources than Google as you can, and your Google search traffic will rise along with it.”
— Joost De Valk, Yoast
We know that Google track click-throughs from some search results pages, but could Google also be using Analytics, FeedBurner and toolbar data to get a sense of traffic also?
- Quantity – Are many people visiting the site?
- Growth – Is your traffic growing organically?
- Consistency – Does your traffic go from zero to thousands then back again with no discernible reason?
Google of course knows what is going on with their own search engine, so if they place undeserved trust in a site for a certain search result they will get good feedback from user behavior. Another hint might be Brand Search – If lots of people are looking for your brand then that is likely a good sign. It makes sense that if people are searching for BMW then the official BMW site should appear.
“People who only think about search marketing often forget the branding aspects of blogging, it’s really important to get a decent design and logo, people will remember you and thus search for you more, and link to you more.”
— Joost De Valk, Yoast
I feel on much safer ground suggesting links as a trust influencer.
- Directories (like Yahoo! and Dmoz) - Some directories are trusted, others are not. Key is if they are editorially controlled or free-for-all. It’s the one type of paid link that Google likes.
- Authorities – Here is that whitelist mentioned earlier, but we can only guess who is on it:
- Old Media (Newspapers, TV, Radio)
- New Media (Wikipedia, Google Knol, Social)
- Social Voting & News
- Social Networking
- Answer Sites
- Yahoo Answers
- Yahoo Portal
- MSN Portal
- Authority Blogs
- Library Blogs
- Search Engine Journal
- About.com Blogs
- USAToday Blogs
- TLD – Links from easy to acquire domain endings are not going to be as trusted as those where you have to jump through hoops. Domains TLDs like .Edu, .Gov and Ltd.uk
- Other Link Factors
- Theme – Is the subject of the domain on topic or irrelevant?
- Strength – Is the linking site strong or untrusted?
- Diversity – Is there a large variety and diversity of domains, or a few home grown reciprocals?
- Age - Are the linking domains as old as the internet or brand new registrations?
- Location – You want a variety of links but sidebar or footer links are unlikely to be as trusted as relevant in-content and in-context links.
- Anchor Text - Google will want variety in anchor text, and for the anchor text to be on topic. Balance relevance against looking unnatural again.
“I’d rather have four moderately successful pieces than one single very successful one. It’s going to get you a more natural link profile from different sites over time to different parts of of your site as opposed to one tidal wave focused on one page. ”
— Michael Gray, Wolf-Howl
As you have seen above, the domain itself can send some signals that influence trust, and we are not just talking about spammy-keywords-separated-by-hyphens either! Google does look at domain registrations.
- Age – Older domains earn trust by just being online longer, especially with a single owner and consistent content.
- TLD – As above, the harder to get domains, especially if you have to prove your identity, will be given a higher trust.
- Registration Period – Has your domain been registered for the long haul or could it be offline any moment?
- Registration Details – Real registration details versus proxy or fake details?
You want your site to be able to not only “pass” a hand review should Matt Cutts come visiting, but also give anyone who looks all the positive vibes possible.
- Content – Is it meaty, original, high quality? Could your information be found anywhere?
- Usability and Accessibility – Can the average visitor navigate your site with few issues? What about someone with a visual or physical accessibility need?
“The more competitive or dirty the market you play in, the more you need to up your authority game and reassure your visitors and search engines alike that you are legitimate and here to stay. I am sure the bar is much higher for our credit cards site, than say, Dog Guide.”
— Ryan Caldwell, College-Startup.
Look at your stats:
- Load Time – Does your site take an age to render in a web browser? People like fast loading sites.
- Time on Site – How long do people spend on your site? Do they look at one page then go away or do they browse around. The longer and more in depth the average visit, the better your experience is going to be and therefore the higher trust level. Think about it the other way, if your site was so bad it looked toxic, what would the average visit behavior look like?
The big question that Google wants to answer …
- Does Your Site Add Value to Web?
If you look over the above list you will see the main things your site needs to convey is:
- Natural, organic growth based on sound promotion behavior
- Valuable and unique content tailored towards people rather than search
- A solid foundation and human-centered design
As a handy reference, check out and keep this Google Authority MindMap …
Take a long look at your site and ask yourself if you are sending good or bad trust signals in all areas.
Anything I have missed or called wrong? Please add your thoughts in the comments …