Currently there are three main factors for smaller sites to get decent rankings for decent keywords (words that users type into the search engines). They are links, usage data and on-page factors.
When people link to you that counts as a vote of confidence in your site. It’s a bit more complicated than that but not much. The more links the better, though you don’t want links from dodgy sites.
Links are now like money – no one wants to link to anyone else because it makes the other person ‘richer’. And as with money there are many scammy ways of getting you to part with your links.
At the unsubtle end are ‘reciprocal’ links – you link to them and in return they link to you, only one year later you check their site and find that their links are now all ‘nofollow’ed meaning that they have little value. At the subtler end some nice boy or girl will flatter you as a local expert in some subject and ask you to write an article for their website, knowing that you will then point it out to your friends who will link to it. Watch out also for comment spam – read comments carefully before approving them. They often go along the lines of, ‘Your blog is brilliant, I’ve learnt so much from you’ but the website address they leave points to some commercial site. In the WordPress Admin area in Settings / Discussion make sure that ‘Before a comment appears an administrator must always approve the comment’ is checked.
How do you get links?
The more low-brow your site and the more it fits in with the world views of a large number of people the more links it will get. Politics and gossip always do well, though you’ll be competing against a vast number of other websites doing the same thing. But if you’ve got something genuinely unique to say or you’re too far ahead of the curve then you won’t get many links because it’s a popularity contest out there. Uniqueness is meant to be good but it’s rarely popular. It’s far better to say the same old crap as everyone else but add a unique twist to it.
The days of the small Mom and Pop websites holding their own against large businesses are long gone. Every website is competing for attention against all-comers and more established websites have more eyeballs and usually more money for advertising and the creation of popular content. As a newcomer you probably won’t have much money and your only resource will be time. Unique and fresh content is MEANT to help you rank highly but if you do create genuinely great content it’ll be copied, rewritten and posted on a more popular site than your own which will then rank higher than yours – therefore any content that you create, rather than being unique, has to be uniquely YOU because YOU, and the relationships that YOU create are difficult to copy.
Google doesn’t want you to do well at SEO – it wants you to buy its adverts (which can be found at the top of the search results pages). You’ll therefore always be competing against Google. It has all sorts of tricks up its sleeves e.g. always putting Wikipedia at the top (to push other results further down the page), making the adverts at the top of the page large (again pushing results down), cramming its own properties into the results (e.g. YouTube), favouring brands (which have money to buy those adverts) over non-brands (which don’t), muscling in on niche sites where it thinks it might one day make money (e.g. currency conversion) etc.
There are tons and tons of ways that the search engines (okay, Google) check how users interact with your website. Google Chrome
phones home, Google Analytics gives tons of data about your site to Google, and personalised search, Google Checkout, the Google toolbar, Adwords and Adsense give Google yet more data. Google will learn what search terms are typed in to Google, what search results are clicked on and how visitors engage with your site. This data will then be used against you in Adwords (suggested keywords) or in any other way that Google sees fit.
Bottom line – you need Google, Google doesn’t need you, make your site interesting to visitors and they’ll automatically communicate that they find it interesting by sticking around, coming back and leaving comments. This is why it’s vital to have logging software (I recommend Advance Logger) to see what your visitors get up to. Check it each day and if necessary change things around. Use a related posts plugin, try formatting your posts in different ways (lists, headlines, colors, paragraph length), try creating videos (time-consuming), try different ‘voices’ for your content (cynicism, humour, enthusiasm), try adding regular new content so that users come back (depressing if no one reads it and very time-consuming to create).
Ultimately YOU are probably going to be the only unique content on your site and that means revealing YOU, which might be a cost too high because once it’s out there it’s out there for good and who’s to say that the YOU that’s revealed is going to be popular?
You can help yourself with simple and descriptive navigation links, links from your pages to important pages on your own site, well-chosen title tags and meta descriptions (try the ‘WordPress SEO by Yoast‘ plugin), content that sticks to its subject and uses a wide variety of words related to that subject (synonmys), links to expert sites (it shows that you’re connected to the rest of the internet and value the experts in your field) and unique content (don’t allow your archives to be indexed, for example, as the search engines then have two identical posts – the original post and the archived post).
Don’t have too many adverts at the top of the page, make sure pages load quickly, give your images descriptive ‘alt’ tags, give your posts meaningful urls (e.g. mysite.com/look-please-rank-me), DON’T stuff your content with identical keywords (as a ranking signal it’s debatable if that EVER worked) and structure your content (which is a posh way of saying to have the important stuff with h1 headlines and the less important stuff with h2 or h3 headlines).
A few other factors (there are actually loads): the age of your website, the history of the domain it’s on (was it previously owned by a spammer?), whether or not you’re a Big Brand (big brands give out signals such as being searched for by name, being mentioned in social media, advertising on websites and on T.V etc.), social signals (Google +1, Facebook ‘likes’ , Tweets etc.), exact-match domains, rate of link growth (if you suddenly get a ton of links that’s usually dodgy) and Query Deserves Freshness (some search queries will get fresh content returned rather than older content).
Welcome to the world of SEO. 🙂
If you’ve got to the end of this simple but effective introduction to SEO I hope you haven’t found it too cynical. I could have fed you unicorns and fairy dust but by the time you figured out what was really going on you’d probably have got disheartened and given up. At least you now know what you’re getting into. 🙂