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August 8, 2006

Can You Please Them All?

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Quick! What to do you do: Your site is ranked well in Yahoo and Google, but is nowhere to be found in MSN or Ask.com. Or maybe it’s Ask.com that realizes the true power of your site, but Google and Yahoo are still in the dark. How should you plan your attack? Update with fresh content? Tweak your pages and risk losing rankings in the other engines? Optimize for Google and forget the rest? What’s the best plan of attack?

SEO Book’s Aaron Wall starts off the Advanced Organic session "Can You Please Them All" session by stating something you probably already knew: There is no such thing as a perfect algorithm. Yeah. Thanks, Aaron.

The algorithms for the four big dogs of search (Google, Yahoo!, MSN and Ask.com) are in constant evolution. Google’s will never match Yahoo’s, and Google’s algorithm today may not even resemble what it will look like two months from now. Accept that and move on.

To get things going, Aaron gives attendees a brief overview of each of the engines and what they’re looking for:

  • Yahoo: Though the most recent Yahoo update hoped to change this, Yahoo’s algorithm seems focused on being a "literal" search engine. Yahoo simply takes a user’s query string and tries to match the query as closely as possible.
  • Google: Google places a heavy bias on "informational resources". As a result, .edu and .gov sites tend to rank higher than others. Google is considered the best at determining true link quality and places a lot of weight on domain trust levels. They have aggressive duplicate content filters and tend to look more linguistic patterns than the other engines.
  • MSN.com – Similar to Yahoo, MSN is also considered a "literal" search engine. MSN is the easiest search engine to rank well in because they place a lot (read: too much) weight on the "on the page" factors, making it easy to manipulate.
  • Ask.com: Focuses more on topical communities. Aaron says due to their limited market share Ask.com isn’t studied as closely as the other engines.

Who thinks we need to change that? Anyone? Just me? Okay. Moving on.

Even though the engines seem to give different weight to different factors, if you design your site properly and abide by some basic best practices, it is possible to rank well among all engines.

Dave Davies breaks down several of the main factors that will aide ranking:

  • Site Architecture/ URL – Certain spots on your page are given higher priority by the engines. It is very important that your content appears "above the fold" or high on the page. This helps the search engines see the "important stuff" (also known as your content) first.
  • Code to content ratio – "The amount of code on your web page that it takes to build the actual page is considered a "sizable factor", says Dave.
  • Table Structures – Use tableless design in CSS to determine what portions of your page appear where. Again, this helps the engines to see your content first.
  • Search engine-friendly URLs — You know what these are. Use them.
  • Link Building – Before agreeing or deciding to link to a site, ask yourself: Will my visitors be interested in this web site? If the answer is yes, link to them. If not, skip it. Don’t let others pressure you into linking to their sites when you feel it’s not appropriate. Chances are it’s not, and though you may not get penalized today, at some point it may come back to bite you.

Is it possible to adjust your site to target specific engines without losing rankings across the board? Yes, but keep your expectations realistic.

First, ask yourself if balancing your rankings among the four engines is in your best interest. How do your visitors find you? You may find it is better to be on page three of Google, than number one on MSN or Ask.com. Specific engines produce different results. It may not make sense to hinder your Yahoo! rankings to rank better on the smaller engines. At the same time, putting all your eggs in Google basket may alienate your visitors who rely on Yahoo or MSN to find you. Take a look at your path analysis to see where you visitors are coming from so you know who to target.

If you do find it necessary to target all four engines, don’t expect to "jump in" and immediately have high rankings among all four engines. It’s going to take both time and patience to win this balancing game. If you touch one area that ranks well in MSN and drop it down to address something in Google, make sure you’re balancing it out by increasing another MSN-valued factor.

Michael Murray suggests making slow, deliberate changes so you don’t "rock the boat". You don’t need a giant increasing in rankings right away, a slow and steady rise up the SERP is better. Start small and work your way up. Trying to do too much at one time may actually hinder your site in the long term.

Another thing to keep in mind if you want to rank well across all engines is you’re going to need multiple pages to do it. It may be necessary to create certain pages that target Google, others that target Yahoo, etc. It is virtually impossible to achieve equal rankings with just one optimized page. Trying to do so with dilute all your efforts.

MSN is easy to impress, Yahoo is fickle and Google is that needy girlfriend, but it is possible to please them all… to a degree. Don’t go chasing algorithms. Make an honest effort when designing your site and chances are the search engines will reward you.

But if not, forget what Neil Sedaka told you: Breaking up really isn’t that hard to do. If you find that one of the smaller engines isn’t worth your time or isn’t judging your site properly, drop it and focus your efforts elsewhere. That engine just never got you the way we did.

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