Understanding How Search Engines Rank Websites

This article expands on some of the basics of search engine optimization and ranking; answering the question many new clients ask:

What does SERP, SEM, SEP mean & how do they affect a website?

Search engine ranking has many related acronyms (SEO, SEM, SERP, SEP) all website managers must pay attention to maximize free traffic from search engines like Google or Bing.

Whether referencing a new or well-established site, search engine ranking is important to online success; it should be paid attention to regularly.

Associated SEO Acronyms

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is fundamentally basic at its core, and is nothing more than:

the activities undertaken to generate free-qualified traffic from search engines naturally.

However, the many terms and acronyms that surround and relate to SEO can be confusing to many site managers, and those just learning how to best market a website.

The following are a couple of the basic terms associated with SEO:

SERP - Search Engine Results Page (or Rank Position)
SERP simply refers to the ranked position, or result page, that a site appears on for a certain keyword or key phrase search. SERP for a website will vary depending on the keyword or phrased being searched.
SEP - Search Engine Positioning
SEP isn't used as often anymore, but refers to the position within search results that a site is found for a particular keyword or phrase. It is sometimes used synonymously with SEO or SERP.

The following are a couple other basic terms associated with SEO, but are usually paid rather than free:

PPC - Pay Per Click

PPC refers to paid advertisements that appear above natural results for a particular keyword or phrase search, (such as Google Ads - sometimes appearing above, beneath, or to the right of organic results).

[Google Ads get ranked against other ads just like websites get ranked in search results against other sites].

SEM - Search Engine Marketing
SEM includes any and all activities used to promote something; such as a product, service or event. This can include free-natural promotions, or paid promotions such as PPC.

The Basics on Ranking

Google and Bing are two of the more well known search engines. These search engines have basic algorithms used in order to provide users with the most pertinent, relevant data, and results; such as:

  • In order to provide the most relevant information, a search engine must have an "index" of all the content contained within a website.
  • Indexing is the process of reading all the information contained within a website; then categorizing this information based on the topics (keywords and related phrases) found within the content.
  • Search engines send out automated programs called spiders, or robots, to index websites.
  • When a search engine spider comes across a site, the robot indexes all included pages and content.
  • Indexing the content of a website is important as the end goal of any search engine is to provide the most relevant information on the topic its user is searching.
  • Once a website is indexed, a search engine runs this information through its algorithms to determine which sites best match the user's "search term" criteria.
  • The search engine then returns results based on relevancy with the 1st place result being most relevant, 2nd, 3rd and so on down the list.

Determining a website's relevancy and ranking (order of appearance in search results: 1, 2, 3, etc) in a list of search results depends upon a number of factors.

Factors Affecting Ranking

Each search engine uses their own algorithms to rank sites and decide which site should come first in a list of search results.

Despite differences between individual search engines and their indexing practices, there are many standard and agreed upon indexing factors all search engines analyze when ranking websites:

Website Content

Is the website an encyclopedia on the industry?

The readable text of the website is a big factor in determining ranking. The more a site appears as an "encyclopedia" on a topic or industry, the better ranking the site will have compared to other sites with less related content on the search topic.

Mobile-Friendly & Responsive

Does the website use responsive design so the content automatically resizes to make it easier to read on smaller screens?

As of April 2015, Google began enforcing mobile-friendly as a ranking factor. This was in an effort to make all websites responsive to resize based on device screen size.

This effort was reinforced with Google's requirements that went into effect January 2018; whereby they're requiring websites be fully responsive, not just mobile-friendly.

Google wants all sites, whether mobile or desktop, to have identical content, hence: a responsive website framework is best for covering these requirements with one site.

Link Popularity

Is the website popular for external sites to link for information & resources in the industry?

Websites that are popular and linked to by other 3rd party websites often get a higher ranking in search engines.

The theory goes, "if a website has a lot of 3rd party websites linking to it, then this website must be an authority on a topic with relevant information on 'Topic A'."

Hence, search engines such as Google, will give that site a higher ranking in searches for "Topic A".

Browser & Platform Compatibility

Will the website work on any computer platform or browser?

When indexing websites, search engine bots (spiders) pay attention to the back-end website code used to program and make the site run.

If the code is excessive, dirty, or not compatible with various browsers (e.g. Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc) or platforms (e.g. laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc) then that site will most likely rank lower than similar sites with code that works on any system or browser.

Black-Hat Tricks

Does the website use deceptive tricks to gain search traffic?

Search engines today program their spiders to recognize deceptive website practices used to gain better ranking in search engines.

Some of the more well-known tricks are, door-way pages, keyword spamming, link spamming, duplicate sites/content, as well as many other deceptive practices used to gain better ranking.

Search engines want to provide their customers with valid, concise information regarding a topic, and will often penalize or ban websites that use Black-Hat Tricks.

Therefore, sites that use "natural & organic optimization" and provide relevant, in-depth information, and content are going to receive better ranking in the long-run.

Summarizing the Basics

When all is said and done, understanding search engine ranking is relatively easy when all factors are considered:

  • Provide the best and most relevant content possible
  • Make the site available to everyone regardless of device, platform, browser, or screen size
  • Don't deceive or use tricks

Those are the basic keys to obtaining a successful website ranking.

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