The Secret but Essential Rule of SEO for Web Success

By Peter Kent

Here’s a simple rule to SEO success on the web: Make your site useful and then tell people about it. That’s not so complicated, really. Figure out how your site can be useful and then find as many ways as possible to let people know about it. You’ll use search engines, of course, but you should be using other methods, too.

Many successful companies have done little or nothing to promote themselves through search engines, yet they still turn up at the top when you search for their products or services. Why? Because their other promotions have helped push them higher in the search engines by creating thousands (even tens or hundreds of thousands) of links to them around the Internet.

The evolving, incorrect “secret”

Over the last couple of decades, a number of popular ideas about what makes a successful website have been bandied around, and all are wrong to some degree. Here are some of those dated secrets to successful websites:

  • Links: When the web began booming in 1994, it was all about links. You would hear in the press that the secret to a successful website was linking to other sites.

  • Cool: Then people started saying that the secret of success was to make your site cool. Cool sites were more entertaining and more likely to attract repeat visitors.

  • Community: Then people started talking about community; yeah, that’s the ticket! The secret to a successful website was creating a community where people could meet and chat with each other.

  • Content: Then around 2000, people discovered that the secret was content. By putting more stuff, particularly textual information, on your site, you could be more successful.

  • Blogging: At some point, it was decided that the real secret was having a blog on your site.

  • MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter: Later, the secret became having associated MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. (Remember MySpace!?)

Specific, one-size-fits-all secrets to success never make sense.

The most harmful of the preceding ideas was that your site had to be cool. This silly idea led to the expenditure of billions of dollars on useless but pretty websites, most of which (thankfully!) have since disappeared.

Uncovering the real secret

Ready to hear the real secret of site-creation success? Your website has to be useful. The problem with the previous secrets is that they’re too specific, leading people to build sites that were in many cases inappropriate.

Sure, outgoing links are important to directory sites, but they’re much less important to the vast majority of websites. If you own an entertainment site, you may want to make it cool and entertaining. Certainly, community can be an effective tool, but not every site has to have it. Content is very important, too — especially from a search engine perspective — but many successful websites don’t have much content.

As for MySpace, at one point it was common knowledge that “if you want to do business online you have to have a MySpace site.” You don’t hear that often today, and it was nonsense back then. Today, you hear a lot about Twitter and Facebook, and while they can be very important, not all websites can incorporate a successful Twitter and Facebook strategy.

Forget cool; think useful.

When you’re planning your website, think about what kinds of folks you want to attract to the site. Then try to come up with ideas about what features and information might be useful to them.

Your site may end up with a lot of link pages, providing a directory of sorts for people in your industry. Or, if you decide to use discussion groups and chat rooms as a way to build community and pull the crowds into your site. That’s okay, too. Maybe your target audience hangs out in MySpace; if so, perhaps you do need a MySpace page … and Facebook and Twitter accounts, too.

Maybe you do all these things. But the important first step is to think about what you can do to make your site more useful, and not be distracted by the hype.

Showing a bias for content

Content is a special case. Search engines are biased toward ranking content-heavy websites well for a couple of reasons:

  • Search engines were originally academic research tools designed to find text information. Search engines mostly index text — content.

  • Search engines need something to base their judgments on. When you type a term into a search engine, it looks for the words you provided. So a website built with few words is at a disadvantage right from the start.

Search engines do have other criteria for deciding if a website matches a particular search (most notably the number and type of links pointing to the site). But search engines still have a huge bias toward textual content.

Unfortunately, this bias is often a real problem. Here’s an example: Suppose your business rents very expensive, specialized photographic equipment. Your business has the best prices and the best service of any company renting this equipment. Your local customers love you, and few other companies match your prices, service, or product range. So you decide to build a website to reach customers elsewhere and ship rentals by UPS and FedEx.

Search engines base your rank partly on the number and type of keywords in your pages.

To rank well, a competitor has added a bunch of pages about photography and photographic equipment to its site. To compete, you have to do the same. Do your customers care? No, they just want to find a particular piece of equipment that fills their need, rent it, and move on quickly. All the additional information, the content that you’ve added, is irrelevant to them.

You can’t ignore the fact that search engines like content. However, you can compete in other ways. One of the most important ways is getting links from other sites.