What do you really need to get great SEO results? What does Google really use to rank sites? I wish I had a definitive answer. Like most SEOs, an educated guess is the best I can come up with, and I have a pretty good theory about what’s really working and what isn’t.
I still think the basics matter. Content rules, and reputation and authority are key factors. But how Google determines this is still a mystery. There are still some things that all high ranking sites have in common:
Backlinks (of course)
Good and original content.
Good formatting / clean code
Naturally occurring keywords and links.
Good Social Media Presence.
These factors haven’t changed much over the years. You can have good rankings without these factors, but it’s pretty rare. But how these factors are determined is changing. You can have a W3C validated site with the perfect amount of keywords, good semantics, great design and UI, and pay people to write content and link to you. You could create social media profiles, add thousands of “friends” and post things every day. You could just invest some money and time and create a site that beats out everyone for top rankings and sit back and collect the checks, right?
The truth is, your site needs a much more personal feel to it, and it needs to be actually accepted by the people. You can argue that money does buy rankings, but it’s not the way you might think. The “big sites” getting all the top rankings spend money on SEO, but it’s not the top factor, and it’s not the only reason they’re at the top. They start with a foundation that’s more important to SEO than many people realize.
They have an audience.
What you need now.
In 2010, you can can still “get lucky” and nail some pretty good SERPs with enough work. But if you want real SEO success, you need a “tribe”. You need a following to your site, and you need people to talk about you. It needs to be “natural”.
So how do people’s silly blogs or Squidoo pages get top ranks for competitive terms? Simply put, people are going there. It’s the common problem people find when building online forums (myself included). You need critical mass. People need to go to your site, and people won’t go there unless there are other people there. When starting an online community there is nobody there, so nobody signs up. When you get enough people signed up, others join because they see people there. It’s the same theory.
All the major websites who have tons of top search positions have a following of loyal dedicated readers.
This is a simple fact that’s hard to get around. If you aren’t creating original, interesting content and getting it in front of people, no amount of backlinks will save you anymore. People need to be reading your site, using it and talking about it.
Your site now needs:
Content that’s interesting, and written by passionate, real people.
A following on social sites, with people talking about your site (without links).
To be mentioned by other “authority” sites in your field.
Mentions of your site in blogs, forums and in articles.
I firmly believe Google is measuring signals with humans more than ever. They’re taking the top SERPs and checking out the sites. They are measuring how many people are talking about you, even without a link. They are measuring “buzz” in a more human way than ever before.
What to think about.
The next time you sit down and evaluate your SEO strategy, stop counting backlinks and measuring keywords. Start thinking about “buzz”. Think of new creative ways to get people talking. You can use Guerrilla Marketing just as effectively now as you could 10 years ago. With the right creative ideas, you can get people talking. Get them interested, build a “tribe” (sorry Seth Godin, I love this term). Get a group of loyal followers and get them talking about you. This will get you miles ahead of paid links on the side of some blog or directory.