This is the first posting in a 2 part series to act as a Search Engine Optimization Primer.  I have received a number of questions recently about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and how it relates and can be applied to SharePoint externally facing websites. As a colleague of mine astutely noted, "SEO Optimization is about 10% technology and about 90% consulting." This statement could not be more true. The technical skills needed to perform SEO are not complex, but it is the application of those skills and a good understanding of SEO techniques that make this area so lucrative for those that can do it and do it well. This blog posting is intended to provide a bit of background on search with the next posting focusing on some SEO tips and tricks to get started.

So aren’t we really talking about Google?

Well, Yes and No. You will notice that I try to use the term "search engine" generically, but really we are talking about managing to Google’s expectations. As a Microsoft consultant, I admittedly acknowledge the irony in that statement. Do not misunderstand me.  This in no way indicates a dislike towards Microsoft or its search engine "Bing". To the contrary, I personally believe that Bing is superior to Google in many respects including the interactive nature of the home splash screen and also in the popup nature of the search results. It is only that I humbly recognize that Google currently commands about 70% of the search engine result market and any responsible SEO consultant would consider their requirements and concerns with proper weight. In addition, since Google knows that they have a strong control of the search market, they have put in place a set of rules that webmasters are forced to follow so that they rank well within Google’s Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs). These rules are invariably stricter than the other major search engines in the marketplace (i.e., Bing and Yahoo!). So, the general sentiment is if you follow Google’s strict rules and rank highly there, then chances are you’ll rank highly for the other engines as well. There are other considerations for the other search engines, but that is a discussion for another day.

Google – a brief history

So if we’re going to talk about and manage to Google’s expectations, we need to understand a little bit about the evolution of Google as a search engine.

Not too long ago, you may recall that Yahoo! was the major search result provider in the marketplace. I remember working in Silicon Valley at the time and it was Yahoo! that everyone wanted to work for while it is of course Google today that commands a lot of the top talent. When Google came on the scene as a serious competitor, they did receive a lot of buzz around their simple look and feel and but took a little bit of a beating with the quality of their search results. Now, we’re not going to go into great detail on the algorithms of search used before and today in this post, but just know that webmasters are quite adaptable and learned very quickly how to manipulate their position within search results (which primarily looked at keywords in the content body) by using certain tactics of questionable morals. Such tactics included: overusing keywords in content (keyword stuffing), using keywords that are the same color as the background so that they are not visible to the user (keyword cloaking), and other such tactics. These types of unscrupulous actions are commonly referred to as "black hat" in the webmaster communities since they are not perceived as good behavior. Because of the prevalence of these black hat techniques, the SERPs were filled with non-relevant and downright spam-like results making them utterly unusable. Knowing that this could result in the death of Google as a viable search engine, they recognized they had to fix this problem.

PageRank is born

To address this problem, one of Google’s co-founders and algorithmic geniuses, Larry Page came up with a new ranking algorithm. Although the algorithmic details are some of the best kept secrets in Silicon Valley, we do know some of the broad strokes. PageRank (named after its inventor) is one of the critical pieces that make up the overall ranking algorithm.

It works something like this:

In addition to keyword-rich quality content which is always the king of search engine ranking, there had to be another dimension to ranking to prevent the methods described above from being effective. Larry Page thought of this dimension and he came to the conclusion that quality content is great. Quality content that is linked by others is even better. Further, quality content that is linked by others that is linked by others is really high quality and deserves higher ranking, all else equal. So, basically, a link back to another website or page is considered to be a vote for that page in the community. Using this theory, the PageRank algorithm was born.

PageRank is a weighted value from 0/NR(non-rank) to 10 that tells Google how important your site is in the community (tally of votes). PageRank uses backlinks as the most important factor in its computation. A backlink is simply a link back to your page or site from another site. The more backlinks you get, the higher the PageRank. Also, like I mentioned above, the links are weighted. So, if you receive a backlink from a site with a PageRank of 0, although better than not receiving a backlink at all, would have minimal impact. But, if your site receives a backlink from a site with a PageRank of 5, then that is a high vote of confidence and will greatly improve your chances of getting a higher PageRank yourself at Google’s next calculation cycle.

The introduction of PageRank to Google’s ranking algorithm resulted in highly relevant results and directly contributed to Google’s command of the search marketplace today.

I could spend an entire blog series discussing the ins and outs of PageRank as I understand them (since Google holds that secret tight to their chest), but my brief discussion here  should at least give you a basic understanding of the importance of quality backlinks and their impact on PageRank. I would just caution you to keep in mind that PageRank is only one piece to the overall puzzle. Quality content is king! Remember that.

For a more in-depth discussion on PageRank, please visit this Wikipedia Article.

Stay tuned

In my next post, I will cover more of the pieces to the puzzle and some tactical actions you can take immediately to help the SERP rankings for your site.