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The Search Engine Ranking Puzzle

Chris Boggs

January 1, 2005

Some make the mistake of believing that SEO is all that is needed to improve rankings within search engines. SEO is important, but it is a part of a bigger puzzle.

So you have recently spent dozens of hours or thousands of dollars to optimize your site. It's been about two months, and you are not yet getting results. Frustrated? Probably so. The reason could be that you have omitted other important parts of what I call the "Ranking Puzzle." There are five major pieces to the ranking puzzle, and the largest is not SEO, as many would assume I may think.

The five puzzle pieces I propose to be of most importance in gaining rankings for relevant search terms include:

  • Usability
  • SEO
  • Linking
  • Advertising
  • Public Relations

The following article details how I define these puzzle segments, as well as how they can work together to create a form of search ranking synergy.


Usability is the biggest piece of the puzzle. My definition of usability includes multiple aspects: content, navigation, and accessibility being the most important. We will discuss how SEO is affected by usability later, choosing here to concentrate on other benefits of a well-designed site. It is very important to provide relevant and non-trivial content to your visitors. The content must be rich, and yet not overpowering. You should offer value to someone who reads the material on each page of the site. With the right content, your "average time spent per session" as well as your "pages viewed per session" will increase dramatically.

The navigation within your site must be simple as well. There should be a choice of ways for the visitor to reach more information on other pages or sites. Providing links within a navigation bar is not enough: you must now provide text links as well, especially as more and more Internet users are becoming aware of their presence. The surprisingly time consuming goal is to make it very easy to find the important content (such as descriptions of products and services or contact information).

Accessibility includes the aforementioned navigational aspect, but also refers to how helpful your web site is in providing answers to probable questions. A well-planned FAQ as well as a site map are two ways top provide more accessible content to your visitor. As a marketing specialist, I like to include calls to action within this subheading as well. The chances are that if someone is visiting your web site, they might like to be asked to call or email for more information. If you have an e-commerce system, never forget the ABC's of Marketing: "Always Be Closing!"

As Dr. Jakob Nielsen described in the fifth printing of his widely accepted Designing Web Usability, "only 26 percent of users were capable of accomplishing... a task which... was to find a job opening and apply for it (averaged across six representative corporate sites with job listings)." 1 If I had a dollar for every time I tried unsuccessfully to find contact information within a web site of a large corporation, I would be rich. Dr. Nielsen goes on to advise his readers that "site design must be aimed with simplicity above all else, with as few distractions as possible and with very clear information architecture and matching navigation tools."


The second biggest part of the rankings puzzle is Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. Chances are you have already heard of it, especially since you are reading this article. I went over the important factors of SEO in my article on the ABC's of Outsourcing SEO. SEO incorporates many of the subjects discussed in the previous section about usability. Content can be rich to help optimize the presence of keywords, and visa versa: the optimization process can help enrich the content. Navigation within a site can be a big part of the SEO process as well, especially if you have at least the recommended three levels of information to provide to your visitor about each popular service or product. Can the searcher easily find your home or contact pages from any other page on the site?

Lastly, accessibility issues are addressed within a good optimization process. Site maps are often described as being more for the search engine than the searcher. Nevertheless, I have never heard of anyone getting penalized for a too detailed site map. I personally enjoy seeing the site map at a large web site, since it more clearly defines the path of information to me. If you simulate Dr. Nielsen's test and ask someone to find a product price or a service description on your site, can they do it with ease? If not, chances are that the all-important spiders cannot either.


Speaking of spiders, linking comes to mind. Although many including I would lump linking in with SEO since it such an integral part of it, there are clearly defined important linking rules and definitions. Obviously, a web site should avoid placing its link within a known "link farm," which is unfortunately easier said than done. Some links farms will even populate its pages with your links as long as you do not tell them to remove them. Thus you must be proactive and request that links to your site be removed from such farms. I would recommend doing this on a monthly basis.

Linking is beneficial if it shows that your web site is in some way of value to the visitors of the other site. There are countless examples, but a link from a spa to a plastic surgeon would be of value while a link from that spa to a jeweler probably would not. A link from a life insurance provider to a wealth management company would be of value, yet a link from the same life insurance company to a travel agency would be useless. However, if it was a travel insurance provider, the opposite would apply! This is not simple arithmetic, and a lot of research is required to form an effective linking campaign.


Lester Wunderman wrote in his 1996 book Being Direct - Making Advertising Pay2, that a "leased store in a magazine still awaits an alert retailer and publisher to promote. Meanwhile, the Internet potentially offers even greater results." (2) He had described the efforts by a retailer named John Blye in 1950 to market his products within the pages of Esquire, and how it had offered an ROI of four dollars for every dollar spent. EBay alone proved Wunderman's point. But even he could not have predicted the kind of ROI achieved by Internet marketers today through the use of Pay-Per-Click (or Pay-Per-Performance) marketing, also known as Search Advertising or PPC.

One of the crucial factors in many search engine ranking algorithms is site popularity. The more traffic a site gets, the more relevant it must be in its industry. "Build it and they will come" only works in fantastic movies. Traffic must be driven to a site, and a very effective way to do so is to ensure that the site is visible within the top results for industry-specific searches. For those sites that have just undertaken SEO and linking initiatives, and are awaiting results, an instantaneous way to appear within those top listings is through the use of PPC through such channels as Google and Overture. Remember however that PPC costs are like death and taxes: they are inevitable. You must be prepared to continue to pay for leads on a cost-per-click basis.

Other more traditional methods of advertising must not be ignored. Banners can be very effective if placed on related web sites. Radio spots that repeat the site's URL will help those without immediate access to the Internet to remember the address. The same goes for all print and other Medias. If an organization has a web site, omitting the web site URL from ads is like forgetting to mention the name of the company. One currently important factor is the presence of a popular keyword within the URL. Many organizations have actually purchased extra URL's in order to attract listings for particular keywords. This has gone a little out of control, with many sites employing hyphens within their "home" URL. The better way to include keywords within a URL is to do so within the URLs of categorized sub pages, keeping the home URL free of hyphens and more likely to be remembered.

Public Relations

There are two important aspects related to using PR to benefit a site: how the site interacts with clients/customers and prospects; and how to use press releases and other forms of announcements to drive traffic to a site. Customer service can make or break any business. If someone orders a product from an e-commerce web site, they probably would like some form of response from the site indicating that the order is being processed. Another contact when the product is shipped goes even further. Simply processing the order and shipping it is not enough. An organization should take the extra step of communicating clearly and often with clients. This will greatly help to increase repeat sales to the same client, as well as referrals.

If a web site has just been redesigned or if it is offering new or increased value to visitors, these are great reasons to distribute a press release. Believe it or not, many search engines pick up press releases and assign extra value to them, especially if they offer relevant information to searchers. It is important to optimize these press releases to include popular keywords related to the industry. It is also beneficial to use press release distribution services such as PRWeb that specialize in disseminating information to accepted Internet news channels.

To recap, there are five major pieces to the puzzle of ranking well within search engines. Any of these five works somewhat well alone, however the synergy created through the use of all of them will far outweigh the individual efforts. SEO, Linking, and Search Advertising work extremely well hand-in-hand. Other forms of advertising and PR efforts also blend well. Usability will determine the effectiveness and therefore relevance of the site, ensuring that visitors will find what they came for. If the five pieces described mesh well, the performance of the site will undoubtedly improve.


  1. Nielsen, Jakob. Designing Web Usability. 2000 New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis, Indiana USA
  2. Wunderman, Lester. Being Direct-Making Advertising Pay.1996 Random House, New York, New York USA

Chris Boggs is the Search Engine Strategist


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