Success in natural search engine rankings depends heavily on where you start and where you want to go. There are a variety of factors that can affect a website’s ranking. Before quoting a prospective customer on recommended services,  a good SEM firm will conduct a website assessment. This assessment analyzes the three most important factors to natural search success: search engine friendly design, link popularity and depth of content.

Search Engine Friendly Design – The first step in assessing whether a site could rank well in natural search is looking at its basic design. If your site is built entirely in Flash, uses long strings of URL or has no sitemap, the chances of Google or other search engines correctly indexing it are very low. To find out if your site is being crawled properly and how many pages have been indexed by Google, go to Google and type site: in the search bar (any domain name will work). This test will show how many pages, PDFs and files have been indexed in the Google search engine (the same query works in Yahoo! and MSN) and will give insight into the needed improvements to qualify as search engine friendly.

Link Popularity – Link popularity refers to the number of sites linking to your site. Generally speaking, this means a link from Site A to Site B is like a vote from Site A for Site B. The more votes or links there are from other sites to yours, the higher your site will rank. In addition to quantity of links, the quality is important as well. Links from topically relevant, high quality sites are much more valuable than links from small, unknown sites. To test your sites link popularity, go to Yahoo and type link: in the search bar (any domain name will work). This link popularity test will show how many other sites provide links back to that domain.
Note – link popularity is the main driver of top search engine rankings in Google.

Depth of Content – Search engines live for content. Most sites fail to rank well in natural search because they are short on content or lack keyword density. If you want at least 100 different keywords to link a search engine to your site, then you need at least 100 different pages containing keyword-rich content. As a general rule, web pages should be about 200 words long with repetition of the target keywords and phrases to aid in search engine rank.

Once these three key variables have been analyzed and the starting point is deciphered, the next step is deciding where to go.

In choosing the correct keywords or keyword phrases to identify your site, it’s important to understand a little bit of SEM tactic. To target general, very competitive keyword phrases like “poker” (1 million searches per month), the odds of your site being number one or on the first page among so much competition would prove very difficult. On the other hand, if you choose less popular, but more targeted keyword phrases like “poker supply” (10,000 searches per month), then you have a much better chance of getting some traction in natural search.

To test out the competition for a keyword or phrase, my firm does a couple different tests. In the first test, we choose a popular, yet targeted keyword phrase like “free poker online” (100,000 searches per month) and then research the competition for this keyword phrase. For example, we would search for a keyword phrase in Google and identify the top five competitive sites that rank well for it. Then we look at the link popularity of those five competitors in Yahoo! and compare that information with our client’s. If the top five sites in Google have dramatically higher link popularity than our client’s site, then we generally choose less competitive, but still targeted, keyword phrases and build more links to our client’s site. The extra link building creates popularity where a targeted keyword search could not.

Note that most SEM firms do not provide link building services.

The second test we run involves searching Google for the number of pages that have a keyword phrase in the page title; the theory being that if a page includes the keyword phrase in the page title, then at least some effort has been made to optimize it that page. You can test this by running an “all in title” search. By entering allintitle: keyword phrase in the Google search bar, you can see how many pages include a certain keyword phrase in the page title. The more pages that target this keyword phrase, the more competition there will likely be.

Before you can decide on where you want to go in natural search, assess where you are now and where the competition stands. Rather than targeting numerous general keywords that will never help your rank, try using smaller, more localized and less popular keywords that will still give your website clout for its “call to action.” Building links and content are great beginning strategies to get your online business the extra boost for success.