SEO For The Big 3: Tying It Together
This article is part four of a four part series on optimizing your website for the three major search engines.
Part one, titled “SEO For MSN” covered optimizing your website to rank highly on MSN, while part two, titled “SEO For Yahoo!” covered optimizing your website to rank on Yahoo! and part three, titled “SEO For Google” covered how to rank highly on Google. In this article we will cover how to tie your optimization strategies together to attain the highest rankings possible on all three engines simultaneously.
The Major Factors:
There are some constants in search engine optimization; some factors that, by necessity, must be considered by all the major engines. Fortunately for us, these factors are generally the most important. Unfortunately, each of the engines uses them in different ways. Let’s begin by listing these factors:
- Keyword density
- How it fares in the results
- Site structure
Many of you will already be familiar with the aging delay that is commonly referred to as “the sandbox”. For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, the sandbox is a penalty that is applied to new sites and new links under the assumption that they cannot play nicely with others. It is only after time that the penalty is lightened and eventually disappears and the site is left to play in the park with the rest of the “nice sites”.
This penalty is applied most strongly by Google and to a lesser degree Yahoo! On Google a new website cannot expect to rank for any competitive phrases for between 6 and 8 months. Even then, the links that are being built to this site still have to age so for most new sites competing for high-competition phrases you’re looking at a good year-or-so to see top results though you’ll likely see good results for many of your secondary phrases well before then. The penalty is also applied by Yahoo! but to a far lesser degree. The penalty on Yahoo is both shorter and lighter than that applied by Google. MSN does not apply such a penalty at the time of this writing.
This is obviously a key feature across all the engines but again Yahoo! and Google take the lead in penalizing sites that do not have a lot of content related to a similar theme. Recently we have seen this act as mixed blessing, at least on Google, with some major sites getting overlooked due to a large amount of information on a wide variety of topics in exchange for sites focused on a single topic, however with their recent tweaks they seem to be balancing the overall content focus with other factors to create a solid set of rankings that are relevant, will provide results that are more likely to produce the desired information, and don’t neglect sites that may contain wide information on a wide variety of topics yet provide a good deal of valuable content on the searches subject. Yahoo doesn’t seem to be catching up in this area with some holes in their results. That said, as they are not “gamed” as much as Google they haven’t had to put on such strong filters and their results remain solid despite this.
It should be noted that the content does not necessarily have to contain the same keywords to be considered related. The engines are getting far better at determining themes of sites and knowing which words are related to each other. For example, Google will view the word “personal” and “personalized” as related by theme. You may not rank the same for both words in a search however they are tied together and the use of one will help the overall optimization for the other.
Keyword density is the overall percentage of your page content that is made up of the targeted keywords. An additional factor in keyword density is the percentage of your keyword content that uses special formatting such as bold, italic, anchor text, etc. While keyword density is not the end-all-be-all of SEO (there is no single factor that is) it is a factor and one of the more difficult to optimize properly. While hitting specific densities for both overall content and special formats is easy enough, it becomes more difficult when you consider an area even more important than optimization: your real-for-real human visitor!
One should try to attain near optimal keyword densities using a tool such as Total Optimizer Pro (see below), GRKDA, or other similar software, however one much always be aware of how the optimized content reads to your visitors. It’s important to keep your visitors in mind, your sales message clear, and also remember that if you have to sacrifice a bit in one area (like keyword density) it can be made up through stronger efforts in others (such as link building).
Keyword density holds the most weight on MSN, followed by Yahoo! with Google coming in last. This does not mean it should not be considered for reasons that will follow below.
How A Site Fares In The Results
One factor that is not often discussed among SEO’s and which is not known to many outside the community is that how your site fares in the results is a factor. This factor is a fairly recent addition but is sure top become a stronger and stronger part of the overall algorithm as it matures. Google pioneered this technology however Yahoo! appears to be following suit and MSN is sure to do so as well considering that this is information that is very easy for any engine to track and truly adds to the “democracy” of the results in that it becomes the users “vote” that helps secure or topple a high ranking site.
This factor breaks down as such; the search engine knows when you have clicked on a result. They also know when you have returned to the results to try another site. If a site shows up for a specific search query often yet visitors tend to return to the results quickly after visiting the site the engine can thus assume that the searcher did not find what they were looking for on the site and thus the site can be deemed not relevant for that phrase. This factor alone has far-reaching effects on a number of traditionally non-SEO related factors and pulls them into the SEO-realm. Content now has to be more captivating, navigation has to be clear and easily accessed and the visitor has to be able to find the information that they’re looking for quickly and easily. If the searcher returns to the search results quickly you will lose a point. If this happens often enough you will lose positioning.
The way your site is structured determines how easily a search engine spider can get through it, the priority is gives specific content, and how much code the spider has to weed through to get to your content. Essentially, having a structure that allows the spider to easily get through your website, places the content areas as high up in the HTML code as possible, and which minimizes the use of formatting code such as the font tag, will increase the overall weight of the content and insure that the content you want the spiders to focus on is what they “see” early on.
Many sites are structured such that the actual content doesn’t appear until half-way down the page as far as the HTML code is concerned. Having a content area that starts at line 174 in the code is not a good start when it comes to SEO. While there is no specific answer as to what line the content area should start, using proper table structures or better yet, tableless design practices using CSS can greatly increase the weight your content is given. Using CSS again we can significantly reduce the need for formatting code, further reducing the amount of coding that the search engine has to go through to get to the content.
The higher up in your HTML the content lies the greater the weight it is given. Optimized site structure, especially in moderate to high competition industries, is one of the first steps one can take to secure a competitive advantage over one’s competition.
Ah backlinks. Once upon a time simply securing mass numbers of links to your site using whatever means available was enough to rocket sites to the top of the rankings. Fortunately for search engine users this is no longer the case. With backlinks, as with websites in general, it’s quality that counts. While there are numerous factors regarding the value of a link (many of which were discussed in the article, “SEO For Google”) the basics are:
- Age. The older the link the more weight it has. (Google and Yahoo!)
- Link location. Links higher up on the page hold more weight. (All three)
- Link location two. Links occurring within content hold more weight that a directory-style link. (Google and Yahoo! to a lesser degree)
- Anchor text and formatting. The anchor text and the use of special formats in the text affect a link’s weight. (All three)
- Relevancy. The relevancy of the site linking to you. (Google and Yahoo predominantly)
- Number of links. The more links there are on a single page, the less valuable the link to your site from that page is. (All three)
- Non-recip links. Non-reciprocal links hold more weight than reciprocal links. (Google and Yahoo! to a lesser degree)
- Authority sites. Links from authority sites (.gov, .edu and respected news and information related) hold more weight. (Google and Yahoo! predominantly and MSN to a lesser degree)
Tying It Together
Knowing all this one must assess the best course of action when launching into a new SEO campaign. For the purposes of this conclusion we will assume that the keywords we are targeting are in the moderate to high competition levels. In this event one must balance the various factors and timelines to produce the highest ROI in the short term with an eye on maximum benefit in the long term. What we mean by this is that with aging delays occurring on Google and to a lesser degree Yahoo! one should focus first on MSN. This means that when you are adjusting your keyword densities and tweaking the onsite factors early in the campaign you will want to focus on hitting optimal levels for MSN knowing that Google, regardless of what you do, is unlikely to rank you highly for your primary phrases for some time.
Your link building efforts will need to take into account the long-term objective of ranking highly on Google with an understanding that MSN is not going to penalize your newly created backlinks with aging delays. A balance of speed vs perfection will be required. All the links you build should be relevant (if your visitors wouldn’t be interested in going to the site then don’t link to it) however if you can’t always get inline links or your link will appear lower on the page you will still want to secure it.
After time (assuming that the right tactics have been used) you will notice your MSN rankings improve. This is a good benchmark for how your site will fare overall. Once you are ranking well on MSN it’s time to focus your attention on Yahoo! At this stage you will want to slowly shift the onsite optimization towards Yahoo! You may be asking, “Am I about to lose my MSN rankings?” Good question and the answer should be, “no” if you’re continuing on the right path. Non-optimal levels in one area can be offset by increased strength in another. While you are slowly shifting the onsite optimization away from MSN’s optimal levels you are continuing to develop more and more links further strengthening your site in this area to make up the difference.
After a couple months you will notice your Yahoo! rankings improving. A general timeline would be (assuming you are working diligently at it and are targeting fairly competitive phrases with a new site):
- 2 – 3 months: MSN rankings secured
- 4 – 6 months: Yahoo! rankings improving
- 6 – 8 months: Yahoo! rankings secured and Google improving. Many secondary phrases are attained on Google.
- 8 – 12 months: Google rankings secured.
The timelines will be quite different if you are working with an existing site (i.e. it has a solid history and a good PageRank already), are targeting less competitive phrases, and a variety of other considerations.
The path is not an easy one (or SEO’s would be out of their jobs) however with hard work and perhaps more importantly, constant work it can be done. Remember, there are currently 10 sites sitting on the first page. Match what they did, do 10% better and you will be there too.
Below are a few important resources to help you on your path to higher rankings:
Total Optimizer Pro – Total Optimizer Pro is the tool we use for onsite and offsite competition reporting including keyword density and backlink analysis.
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines – They’re put out by Google but apply to all the major engines. Add this one to your favorites and reference it often.
Search Engine Watch – Great source for news on the search engines in general. The also give great coverage of the Search Engine Strategies conferences when they’re being held.
Note: There are resources specific to each engine in the first three articles in this series noted above.
Dave Davies is the CEO of Beanstalk Search Engine Positioning, Inc. One of the few SEO firms to offer guaranteed optimization services. Visit their site for a free SEO & web design review and their blog to keep updated on the latest going on in the search engine world.