A few weeks ago I found myself in the subway of New York City. Posters and billboards from a prominent bank promoted credit card decaled the underground landscape.
These well-crafted advertisements promised ten dollars back for every $100 spent on subway fares. It gave the current economic crisis and recession as the explanation for their incredible generosity and compassion.
Everybody around me seemed thoroughly impressed by this overwhelming gesture of selfless charity; many discussed in earnest how they were planning to sign up for this card to enjoy these charitable savings. It seemed I was the only one, the Christmas Grinch of the crowd, who perceived this advertisement strategy as more cunning and brilliant than selfless and generous. What an ideal time to hook people on yet another credit card, especially with the holiday season already upon us. Obviously the long-term interest this credit card company was anticipating far overshadowed their likely short-term promotional costs.
Indeed it was a cunning and brilliant strategy, much the same, I thought to myself, as Google's page rank system.
At first glance it seems a very wise, fair and indeed brilliant system for determining positioning within the search ranks. On closer inspection, however, it is even more brilliant and cunning than most are giving it credit.
In the past, creating good, unique and newsworthy content, coupled with intelligent onsite optimization strategies, was at least enough to get your website found. These days are now gone, regardless of what some naïve or misleading SEO experts might still tell you.
Page Rank has now become the single most important factor in having your site found in the organic search results of the leading search engines. Page Rank is determined by the quantity and quality of websites that are linking to yours. Each website link acts as a kind of vote for the site it links to, and passes some of its own page rank to this site. The higher the page rank, and the more relevant the content of the site, the more significant the affect will be.
Since search engine bots cannot view your site in the same way a human views it, this strategy allows user popularity to have a significant affect on the algorithm these search engines are using. The belief is, of course, that the more quality and relevant sites that are voting for yours, the higher the probability that your site is a good one, and therefore deserving of a higher position.
Of course, this system is not perfect, and for obvious reasons, but it is certainly superior to deciding the importance of a site purely on onsite content. The reality is, there are thousands if not million of webmasters who can write unique, quality content. There are even more who know how to optimize this content for the search engines. However, millions of sites cannot be number one for a single keyword or phrase. Page rank must decide the difference.
The problem, however, is that the top search engines have now leaned so far away from onsite optimization, in preference of offsite optimization (i.e. page rank), that you are likely to find all kinds of lousy content and add riddled sites at the top of your searches. Putting a greater importance on links, however, plays significantly in Google's favour. This is especially true today, as reciprocal and 3-way link exchanges have now been significantly devalued, along with paid links and link directories.
Google's intent is that links should be entirely organic, occurring naturally when other webmasters like your site enough to add a link to it. This way of achieving links however, can take a very, very long time, as most Internet users do not know that they are supposed to do this. Most Internet users add the sites they like to their favourites, they don't create a keyword rich link to it from their own highly relevant site. Nevertheless, this is just one of the many ways Google favours older more time-proven sites over newer, get rich quick sites. The fact is, unless the content of your website has just revealed something of tremendous news importance, it could take years before your quality site acquires enough natural, keyword rich links from relevant sites to significantly boost you to the top of the search engines.
The conundrum, however, is that nobody will find your great content, and thereby link to it, unless you are on page one or two for at least one keyword or phrase (one that gets searched for that is). So if you do want to acquire natural one-way links, you pretty much have only one choice. You will have to advertise.
Google now provides the best online advertising available. Not only is it inexpensive, it is targeted towards your keywords.
This means a much higher conversion rate. People will find your product or service when they are looking for it, not when they are looking for something else. And with around 80% of North American searches done on Google, it just wouldn't make sense to concentrate your efforts anywhere else (unless your loyalty lies elsewhere).
Knowing this, guess who will reap the largest rewards of this new lean towards offsite optimization? The reality is, if you want your internet site to one day make it to the top of Google (and Yahoo and MSN) for an important keyword or phrase, you will have to acquire a substantial number of natural links. Since this could take years, as most webmasters are selfish and don't link for nothing, and most Internet users don't know to do this, you are bound to spend a small fortune with Google before your site is able to stand on its own. Of course Google won't make as much of a profit from you once your site is on the top, but there will be millions of others who will still be vying for this position.
The bottom line is, you will need to spend money if you one day want to make money.
The only question is how much money can you afford to invest? Or should I say gamble, because no matter how much money you spend, there are no guarantees.
The results, of course, are purely organic, and Google's algorithm can change at any time. Besides, by the time you're actually on the top, your content and unique features will likely be outdated and not that impressive anymore.
Google insists that you cannot purchase or pay for the organic results located on the left side of the screen. If you are caught purchasing links that are intended to indirectly improve your search engine ranking position, you will either be significantly penalized, or removed from Google entirely. However, the only significant way to increase naturally is to pay for advertising on the right side, so people can actually find your great content and unique features, and provide you with these natural links.
Of course, there are some other ways to promote your site, such as blogging, posting on forums, and creating videos on Youtube, etc. The catch is, however, that if you're not careful, you will be penalized for spamming (excessively promoting your site where you are not supposed to). This is why most forums these days have the no follow meta tags added to their code. Otherwise, you will just have to get creative in achieving and maintaining high PR links that are relevant and keyword rich.
Unfortunately, if you do find a way to attain these links in any way that Google considers unnatural, it will eventually update its algorithm and ensure you are penalized for your imaginative endeavours.
Personally, I've never seen so many people work so hard at what is considered cheating. Couldn't we at least give them part marks for creativity? After all, you won't even let them see the marking rubric.