Why I am on top

They tweak, we fiddle, they tinker, we noodle -- search engine and Web site circling each other warily: not so much a dance as a knife-fight

Isn't it lovely to ego-surf your name and see it pop up nice and high in Google's search results? If it appears buried on the tenth page, what can you do to make it move up the rankings? Welcome to the peculiar world of search engine optimisation.

I bought the domain name michaelparsons.co.uk some years ago, because I couldn't buy the domain name michaelparsons.com. You'll see that the .com belongs to someone called, well, Michael Parsons, who is based in Toronto and says he is "One of Canada's leading residential realtors." If you go to his site you can explore the benefits of what he calls "The Michael Parsons Advantage", something I've been trying to discover all these years, with precious little success.

I set up my humble .co.uk domain, and for years I would obsessively Google my own name in the vain hope of finding adoring Japanese teen-girl fan sites breathlessly discussing my many virtues, but would instead end up in the world of Canadian real estate. Then one day it changed: suddenly Canada's leading residential realtors were playing second fiddle to me, pushed down the rankings into the disgusting ignominy of second place (at least on Google.co.uk, which now that I live in the UK is the search engine I care about the most).

My rationalisation for caring about this is that someone who owes me an incredible amount of money may one day come into a vast inheritance. He or she will be sitting in front of his or her Web browser thinking, "Good old Michael. Time to bung him a few million -- only how can I get hold of him?" He or she will type in my name, see my crude splash Web page, and work out how to get hold of me. I will end up living in Switzerland, for tax reasons, but will never lose the deep-held affection I feel for the fatherland. I agree, this isn't entirely rational, and ego may have more to do with it than money, but in the strange world of search results, this is a not unfamiliar combination.

The reality is that your address on Google isn't like your co-ordinates on other kinds of map. Imagine if you got out your London street map one day and half the West End had disappeared. Perhaps you want to get to the Odeon Leicester Square, but the pages are blank, or instead helpfully contain detailed information on a small provincial town in Belgium. Whenever Google changes its underlying search algorithms and displays different results, this is exactly what happens to the landscape of search. It's not unusual for businesses to get 70 per cent of their online traffic via Google. What happens when that traffic vanishes? And what can you do to get it back?

One thing to try (I mastered these during The Canadian Period) is cursing, impotent fury and poorly directed spleen. The black art of trying to improve your Google rankings is called 'search-engine optimisation' and if you Google SEO you'll find a whole bunch of blogs and sites in which the casual victims of the search gods bemoan their plight. This is one of those invisible issues that journalism is structurally unable to tackle: like the drug problems of newspaper editors, or a real political debate about the salaries earned by MPs, no one has much of an incentive to discuss it honestly.

If your rankings in Google improve, you ascribe it to the great and improving value of your audience, not the gnomes of Google. Clearly if people are more interested in me than my Canadian sidekick, it's because of my immense charm and global importance. If your traffic plummets, on the other hand, you don't want to have a public debate about your sudden unpopularity. And it can't be because Toronto real estate is important, can it?

Once the cursing is done, what you can do is learn about SEO yourself online, or pay an SEO consultant. The consultant can audit michaelparsons.co.uk and make sure my content is laid out in a way that is attractive to the search engines. You want to make sure you have valuable, clearly laid out content, you're not using images for navigation (they can't be read by the search engines), you have lots of in-bound links, you're brushing your teeth after every meal, and so on.

The trouble is, you can do all this -- and judging by his picture online, Michael Parsons in Toronto clearly flosses regularly -- and the search gods, who operate in mysterious ways, can still calculate that pictures of my family on holiday are marginally less significant to UK consumers than a flourishing Canadian realty business.

Another good trick is to make sure that other important online franchises, such as say CNET.co.uk, create a lot of valuable links to michaelparsons.co.uk -- this effectively raises the value of the Web site as percieved by Google. You can see there's plenty of scope for manipulation here -- people creating content purely to boost their rankings. To prevent this, Google has whole teams of people who work on spotting the techniques of those trying to game their search engine. They tweak, we fiddle, they tinker, we noodle -- search engine and Web site circling each other warily: not so much a dance as a knife-fight.

It also enshrines a principle of creative destruction which I think is at the very heart of Google's values. You may be on top of the Google rankings today, but what has your content done for me lately? This isn't like old media, where a brand gets a lock on, say, newstand distribution and advertising, and stays on top, like The New York Times, forever. If a crazy kid with a dream and a Flickr account is doing a better job than you, down you go -- and down goes your Canadian real-estate dream and the Michael Parsons Advantage. Until next week. That's the fashionable new dance that Google has given us -- 'a brand-new dance full of tension and fear'.

 

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