Updated 4-20-2016

Each search engine has developed a formula for ranking web sites.   Every search engine uses a different formula, which is why the results will be different between Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask.com and other search engines. These formulas, known as algorithms, are constantly changing as the search engines strive to achieve improved results.

Anyone that owns a website wants to rank well in search engines. The process of improving your sites “rankability” is known as search engine optimization, search marketing or SEO for short.   Because search engines are constantly evolving, it is important to stay informed of these changes in order to modify your on site optimization and SEO strategy.   In order to understand how to optimize your website, you first must understand how a website gets ranked in search engines.


So How do Search Engines Rank Websites?

There are certain basic factors that all the search engines like Google use to help value a site and propel that site to the top of the rankings.

The perfectly optimized website will have the right blend of keyword usage with content that flows naturally.  The website will also have a lot of natural backlinks. These are links to your website from other websites.  The search engine uses this information to determine which sites get ranked the highest.  The key components to SEO are:

Building Quality Natural Backlinks to Your Website 

The most important aspect of search engine rankings is to get quality websites to link to your website.  This is also the most difficult and time consuming task of SEO.  Search engines believe that when good websites link to you, your website must provide valuable content, therefore it’s trustworthy and deserves a higher ranking.

In the past 7-8 years, it has become increasingly important that these backlinks are natural.  In other words, you earn the link.  For example, you create a great article about search engine ranking then another SEO website links to your article as a reference.  If its a high quality site like Moz.com then thats even better.

Using a cheap service that gives you thousands of backlinks from very low quality websites can actually hurt your search engine rankings.  Google developed the famous Penguin update in response to spam websites that ranked well by building massive quantities of links.  It’s a long complex topic, so to keep it simple remember one important concept:  A few high quality links is much better than thousands of low quality links.

Anchor Text in Backlinks

Many years ago strong anchor text backlinks worked well for targeted pages, but  search engines are smarter these days, so having too many targeted keywords in anchor text can be bad for your site.  Unnatural anchor text usage was also part of Google’s Penguin update.

Generally, a few links with strong anchor text are good but even basic links are good.   Backlinks that link to your website name like domain.com.  Also links to your brand name are helpful.  Even generic text links that say “click here” or “link” or “read more” are effective.  Search engines realized that sites were manipulating rankings by using keyword heavy anchor text, so this has become less of a factor in ranking for the specific keyword.

On Page Optimization

Obviously the content on the page will include a combination of visible text, images, video, music or other media.  An optimized website will also have basic metadata that to help determine how your site ranks.   The combination of keyword usage in your website and metadata will affect your ranking.

When search engine optimizers perform on page optimization, they are usually trying to help the site rank for 2-4 word keyword combinations.  These keywords are used in various places within the web page such as headings (H1, H2, etcs.), paragraphs, lists, image alt data and meta data.

Meta data includes the page title that is found in the <title> tag and the meta description found in the <meta name=”description”> tag.  The title is displayed in the browse tab and is the link listed in search engines.  The meta description  is a brief summary of the page you provide that is approximately 160 characters.  This description is normally found as part of the search listing, but google will often use a snippet of the web page as seen below.

search engine meta data

It is critical to analyze the targeted keywords and optimize keyword usage on each page.  However, like everything else in the search world, you don’t want to go overboard.  A high keyword density and your site gets penalized for keyword spam.  Too few keywords and your site won’t rank high for those searches.  A balance is needed but most search engine optimizers understand the optimal usage.

Search Engines in Summary

These main factors are just the tip of the iceberg.  You could write a book on each one of these aspects of search.   We also have to realize that search engines are complex, using many variables and they are constantly changing.  In order to learn how to rank well search engines, you will need to spend some time reading about current SEO best practices or hire a proven SEO expert.