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Walt Thiessen Getting Listed And Ranking High On Search Engines

by Walt Thiessen
March 5, 2004
(last updated July 6, 2005)

Many of our customers ask us about search engine placement and about how to get their website ranked high on the search engines. This article is my take on the current state of search engines and what you can/should do for your website. It also discusses how Free Website Design can help you with your search engine placement at the end of the article.

Free Search Engines

Actually, this is a misnomer. Back in the early days of the Internet, all search engines really were free, and all you had to do to get listed in them was to submit your URL to them. Sooner or later you'd get listed with a respectable placement. However, those days are long gone. Now, even the so-called "free" search engines require a great deal of time and/or money to make placement in them high enough to drive traffic to your website.

As competition for placement has increased, so has the number of strategies used to gain better placement. Most of the older strategies either no longer work or actually work against you. As a result, it's more important than ever to use a strategy that works best with the modern requirements of the leading "free" search engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL Search, AltaVista, Lycos, and Netscape.

The Google Revolution

Google revolutionized the search engine industry a few years ago by introducing the concept of PageRank. As Google explains, "PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves 'important' weigh more heavily and help to make other pages 'important.'"

Recently, with the so-called "Florida" update in December 2004 to their ranking system, Google has begun placing increasing emphasis on "topic sensitivity." As Dan Thies of SEO Research Labs writes, "Topic-Sensitive PageRank addresses the problems with the basic PageRank system by adding a 'bias' to the random searcher's random walk. This new random searcher has a clear intent, and is more interested in following relevant links from relevant pages, related to a specific topic."

I can see many of you with your eyes glazing over, wondering what the heck Dan is talking about. In short, he's saying that Google is now ranking searches based in part on new technologies that allow Google to guess better than before what it is that a web surfer is looking for in their search. Let me give you an example to illustrate what we're saying here.

Suppose you go to Google and decide to search on  the term, "long distance." Are you looking for long distance phone service? Are you looking for a long distance relationship? Are you looking for a way to measure long distances? Actually, any of these possibilities could be the truth. So what results should Google return to you?

Google's solution involves tracking what "random surfers" might be looking for, based on actual search histories and patterns, to determine the exact nature of the topic of the search. How Google does this is way beyond the scope of this article. What's important to us is how to cope with this new fact of search engine life.

Google is currently #1 in the search engine world, and their approach to doing searches has greatly influenced all the other "free" search engines. They're all now doing similar things with their own technologies. Yahoo!, for instance, used to use Google as the basis for its results. Recently, they purchased the Inktomi search engine, which is the basis for MSN, Hotbot, Lycos and others. Using the technology they acquired, they've created their own, new approach to providing search results.

So what's a poor website owner to do? Should he simply join a link farm? Has it finally gotten to the point where you need a professional to handle your search engine placement for you? The answer to this is no...and yes. There's still a lot you can do on your own. It takes a lot of time, and it can also cost you money (which is why I've been putting the word "free" in quotation marks in this article).  On the other hand, if you don't have the time, and you're willing to pay for the help, that's a service we can offer to you.

Submitting Your Website

Submitting your site is actually pretty easy. In fact, we do it for free for our website hosting customers. We submit our customers' sites to the Google and Yahoo! search databases for free. By being listed in these databases, you can be sure that all of the major search engines will find and crawl your site at some point over the following months.

You probably understand by now that simply submitting isn't enough. Your website has to be "relevant" and "topical." How do you do that? That's what we'll explore next.

Your Website's Content

No search engine is going to rank you well if your website doesn't have relevant content. Content is what experts in search engine optimization concentrate on first. The content is the text that your website contains. For instance, one of the (many) reasons I wrote this article and posted it on my website is that it adds to my website's content. It makes my website more relevant, and (hopefully) more attractive to the search engines.

What makes this web page (and my website) relevant? There are many factors, including the fact that I host and design websites. Obviously, helping my customers to get their websites to rank well is relevant to my web hosting and design activities.

My customers are all responsible for writing their own website content. This is mainly because they know what their website is about a whole lot better than I do. It also helps keep their costs down, because obviously if I don't have to do their writing for them, I can spend more time on the actual design and (hopefully) stay within the five hour design-time limit for free website designs. Of course, if you're my customer and you need help with writing your website, I can offer that service to you at my normal hourly rate of $20 an hour.

Links—The Secret To High Ranking

In our earlier discussion of PageRank, we also mentioned links. Links are a big way you can improve your rankings with Google and other search engines. Ranking isn't just a question of how good your content is. It's also a question of what the rest of the web thinks of your website's content. So, if a highly-ranked web page points a link (known in the industry as a "backlink") to one of your web pages, the search engines look more favorably on your website, giving it a higher overall rank within the topics addressed by that highly-ranked web page. Most (not all) websites that rank highly in searches do so because they have more quality links (known as "backlinks") pointing to their website than their competitors do.

Quality Links

What's a Quality Link? As you might suspect, where topic sensitivity and PageRank are concerned, it matters where your links are coming from. If your website is about your nurse's association and you get a link from an online casino, it's going to be considered a low quality link. But if you get a link from the American Medical Association's website to your own, it's going to be considered a much higher quality link. Of course, those are two extremes, but the point is clear enough. In reality, you'll probably have an impossible task trying to get the AMA to link to you. That doesn't mean there aren't lower profile links that you can get that would still be considered quality links. Just be sure you don't depend on  the online casinos to provide your links!

There are two ways to get quality links. One is to hope that a quality website that is relevant to your website decides to link to you. Unfortunately, you could wait until hell freezes over, and even then it still might not happen.

The other way is to simply ask for the link. Why would they want to consider your request? Simple. It's because you'll offer to return the favor and link to their website from your website. It's a win-win scenario. The key is getting only quality links, and that can only be done with lots of time, care, and research. 

As you might imagine, very often you'll get turned down. However, surprisingly enough, there are many times your request will be accepted.

How High Can You Rank?

The answer to this question depends on the search terms with which you're hoping to do well. Consider this website. Chances are you found us in a search engine. How did you do it? Well, if you simple searched on "websites" or "web design," chances are you didn't find us. I searched Google on March 5, 2004, and it showed 6,870,000 web pages found related to "web design." That's a lot of competition, and every one of those pages represent people who want to be listed in the Top 10. I looked more closely at the #1 listing. They had 18,400 web pages linking to them from various quality sources. 18.400! I've been slowly building my link count, and today it stands at 66 after a lot of hard work. Over time, I expect to keep improving that number. But clearly I can't compete with 18,400 links.

So what's a poor website owner to do? Simple. I don't worry about the shorter search terms. Instead, I'm more interested in the terms that are three words or more, such as "free website design" and "free web design." Those are obviously even more relevant to my business than just "websites" or "web design." On March 5, 2004, a search for "free website design" shows my website ranked #5 on Google.  That's an improvement over last month, when my website didn't even rank in the top 100 for that term. How did I do it? Very slowly, over the past four months, I built up my quality links until I had 66 links. All of a sudden, the search engines (Google in this case) started to sit up and take notice. 

Interestingly enough, my new, high Google ranking for "free website design" has also been mirrored on a number of other search engines for this same term, including Yahoo! and AOL Search. That's typical of how it works. Once you get listed well in one engine, the others pick you up.

What's extraordinary, however, is my link numbers compared to the sites that ranked both higher and lower than mine. The number one site had 1,150 links pointing to it. The number two site had 350 links pointing to it. The number four site had 459 links pointing to it. And the #6 site, one below mine, had 956 links pointing to it. So how on earth did I do so well with only 66 links? Simple. The other sites weren't directly about free website design, like mine is. This is the Topical side of the new Google. The other sites were about finding website templates and graphics. Only one of them actually offered anything close to website designs, and even then it wasn't by a real human being, and it wasn't free (only the graphics were free). This means that Google found my website because it considered it to be highly topical to the search term, despite the fact that I only have 66 links. As my link count grows, I hope to approach the #1 position for this search term.

Clearly, this shows what happens when your website is most specifically about what the searcher is looking for. All those incoming links are helpful, and in fact it's very, very hard to do well without incoming links, but the content of the site is clearly important too.

UPDATE 4/10/2004 I checked my Google rankings again today. My link count is up to 143, a huge jump over last month! My PageRank for my home page has increased from a 5 to a 6, which means that Google now feels that the content of my home page is worth more than it was last month. That's primarily because of the increased quality link count, although I also think that Google has increased its scores for how it is ranking some of the websites that are linked to me. This makes their links to me "higher quality" and in some case result in the links actually being counted in a Google search.  (If you're not sure what I mean by that, don't worry. I'm just saying that what benefits my link partners is also benefiting me.) Also, I've moved up from the #5 position for the search term "free website design" to the #3 position! I now show up on the first page in searches on AltaVista, Hotbot, AOL Search, Excite, Jayde, Lycos, MSN, and WiseNut. This shows clearly  what increasing my quality link count has done for my site's position in the search engines for the term "free website design." For your reference, this website was launched brand new just six months ago this month.

UPDATE 5/29/2004 I should also mention that our in-house link experts tell me that, besides quality links, the other factor that really makes a difference is the number of different domains you receive backlinks from. Thus, it's always better in the long run to have 100 backlinks from 100 different website than it is to have 100 backlinks from one website.

UPDATE 7/6/2005 I'm ranked #2 for the search term "free website design" with 256 backlinks showing in Google.

Pay-Per-Click Search Engines

In September 1997, a gentleman named Bill Gross, founder of IdeaLab, announced a new kind of search engine. It was launched in June 1998 under the name It's was changed to Overture at the turn of the millenium. Today, it's known as Yahoo Search Marketing. What made Yahoo Search Marketing so different was that website owners would pay money every time someone clicked on their link in an Yahoo Search Marketing search. Their rankings would be based on how much they bid for each click compared to their competitors.

Yahoo Search Marketing is still the clear leader in pay-per-click searches. You'll notice that they are included in Yahoo! search results as "sponsor results" in the light blue background rectangles at the top and bottom of each search result page. If you're serious about marketing your website on the web, your marketing strategy should include pay-per-click, in addition to free search engines. Yahoo Search Marketing has gotten pretty pricey because of the heavy bidding there for positioning at the top, and most website owners find it's not affordable. Their minimum bid for newcomers is currently 10 cents per click, and I've seen some search terms bid as high as $10 a click or more! But that doesn't mean you can't do well further down in the listings at a lower bid. I have some listings in Overture that rank very low, often on page 2 of a search result set, yet I still manage to get click-thrus from them. Also, there are lots of other, smaller pay-per-click engines where you can get listed for as little as 1 cent per click. The people who dig deeper into the pay-per-click search engines are often more astute buyers, so I'm glad to have them visit my site.

The really nice thing about Pay-Per-Click is that it's very easy to control how much you're going to spend on the campaign. You can start small, measure your results, and then decide if you want to bid up to higher levels. As you measure your results, one of the things you most want to check is how many click-thrus it takes to generate a sale (if your website is trying to sell a product or service).

If your website isn't a commercial one, then pay-per-click may not be appropriate for you. 

Offline Marketing

One of the most important aspects of your marketing campaign to drive traffic to your website happens offline. Most people forget this part. Chances are your website represents a business or organization that reaches the public outside of the Internet. Do you have a business card? Put your website URL on it.  URL means Uniform Resource Locator. It's just a fancy name for your website address. My URL is

  1. Do you place ads in newspapers or magazines? Include your URL there too.

  2. Do you ever advertise on TV or radio? Better include your URL in your message!

  3. Do you have a brochure or flyer for the public to take? Your URL belongs there as well.

  4. How about a sign or bumper sticker on your car? Put the URL on it.

  5. Did you manage to get your organization or business written up for free by your local newspaper? I hope you remembered to ask them to include your URL in the article!

  6. Do you do regular mailings to customers or members? Your URL should go to them as well.

  7. Do you put out a newsletter related to your business or organization? You'd be foolish not to include your URL here too. 

In fact, anywhere your organization appears in print or on the air, you should make sure that your URL is included.

Getting Help Marketing Your Website

Of course, you may not have the time to promote your website. That's where we can help. Send an email to us, and tell us what you want us to help you with. We'll be glad to offer you affordable assistance within whatever budget you have to work with, no matter how small it might be. If you want to order online, you can click here for low-cost links or click here for the more expensive High PR links. Our links building team is standing by, waiting for your order.

There's a lot you can do on your own to market your website and get higher search engine placements. There's also professional help you can get from us. All you have to do is decide what your marketing plan is going to be, then stick to it and grow it over time. That's the formula for success that has existed a lot longer than the Internet has existed.

©2004 Walt Thiessen,, LLC, All Rights Reserved.