June 15, 2006 at 11:51 am 9 comments

Obviously, like most commercial institutions, improving the positioning of our website on google for a particular keyword is extremely important to us. So I've been looking at how to improve our ranking for the obvious keyword search "rare books". I've read tons of articles on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and many of them are so full of mumbo-jumbo that really, I don't think anyone *really* knows how to climb the search engine ladder.

Sure, there are plenty of obvious truths about getting a great google rating. To begin with, cross linking is critical if you want to improve your PageRank. And with a higher page rank you're going to be taken a little more seriously. Out of this conception came the notorious Google Bomb. What most SEO articles don't tell you is how much PageRank seems to have been toned down by Google precisely because of this famous hack. Here is a quick example. A search for 'rare books travel' renders a large number of results, here is a quick table of the results and their PageRank to illustrate my point:

Position URL PR
1 5
2 4
3 8
4 7
5 0
6 4
7 2
8 5
9 6
10 4

While PageRank does not seem to be everything, when it comes to search, it clearly does still matter. However, PageRank does not seem to work in the way you would expect it to. A perfect illustration of this is currently rated Number 6 by google for a search on 'rare books': A quick search for sites that Google knows are linking to this page reveals that there are only 8 links to this page. Yet, the page itself gets a PageRank of 6/10. That sort of contradicts what Google has to say about PageRank itself. Not very heartening to say the least. I'm not saying that the above example is not a relevant result, or anything along those lines, but merely that PageRank doesn't work like it says on the tin.

Most SEO articles will talk about keyword density as critical to appearing in relevant search queries. Indeed, even Google would have you believe that their search engine takes this into account. "The best way to ensure that your site returns for your preferred keywords is to include them on your pages. Our crawler analyzes the content of webpages in our index to determine the search queries for which they're most relevant". This seems somewhat obvious. Surely a web page that you are searching for should at least contain the term that you searched for. Not so! On a search for 'rare books', the following sites make it into the top 10 results returned. Here is a table showing how many times the keyword 'rare books' appears on their pages:

Position URL Phrase on page
1 0
2 0
3 0
4 0
5 3
6 0
7 0
8 0
9 0
10 1

Statistics provided by CoolSEOTool 15/06/2006

Wow! I find that amazing. The majority of the first 10 sites returned by Google do not even mention the words "rare books"! This does not mean that they are not relevant or that they are not sites about rare books. But rather that Google's own advice to improve your ranking for a particular keyword is entirely wrong. If you fill a page with mentions of "rare books" you just aren't going to make it into the first 10 results at Google.

But let's analyse those results a little further. Number 6 in that particular search query, turned up as That's Missouri Botanical Gardens' website. Cool! Hmmm, what does that have to do with rare books. I visited the website and at first glance I couldn't find any reference to Rare Books. Finally, clicking on the Research link, and then on a small text link that says 'library' somewhere on that page, I came to "". So the result that Google returned wasn't even relevant to my search. It should have returned the link above, which it does have in its own index. Instead, as somebody interested in Rare Books, I had to navigate through three clicks to find the relevant information. And even then, I'm not sure how relevant the rare books site at MOBOT would be to me. What this means, is that when SEO articles tell you that it is important that links to relevant content are on the front of your site, or are very easily accessible, its not entirely true. Google doesn't really seem to take this very seriously, either.

Other SEO tips include avoiding redirects on your website. Nonetheless, site number 8 in our listing no longer exists, and you are redirected to So Googlebot is quite happy with redirects, and somehow manages to still give you the old link as more relevant than the new one. Even though there is nothing to see there. Apparently, some SEO companies advise people to use CSS rather than tables when styling content. I personally agree with this view as it makes code look a lot neater and makes it easier to maintain. But when it comes to search engines, ignore the advice. ABE is a site laid out entirely with tables, as is Alibris. Avoid Flash content on your website, as google cannot read any of the text inside an SWF file. This is entirely true, but it doesn't stop Heritage from reaching the top 5 positions on Google. All of their news updates and latest stock items on their front page are flash based.

I would love to build on this article further, but time is limited. What I am trying to get at is that on a popular search phrase like "rare books" it is almost impossible to jump onto the first page of google results, no matter how much you follow SEO advise, or Google's own suggestions. At the end of the day, we've noticed our position jump around by up to twenty points within a couple of days. The inner workings of Google are nefarious and its ways are many and mysterious. No matter how somebody tries to sell you better Google ranking, you're probably better off spending your money on good old traditional marketing methods.


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