Feature Article (Pub: January 07) The Intangibles by Paul Rudman

Yes we've had The Invincibles, we've even had The Commodores, so now I'm going to introduce the newest 'the' to the collection - The Intangibles.

Everybody with any experience in search engine optimisation knows that SEO is not an exact science. We do not have control over all the variables and factors that make up how a major search engine - such as Google or MSN - determines where one site should rank for various phrases. In addition, we don't know what specific part of the algorithm determines why another site, usually a competitor (gritted teeth), will rank higher than your site for a word or phrase you both want to be found for, get traffic from, and subsequently sell a product or service as a result of.

This issue does occur a lot and is still a puzzle to me today. After all, you'll find a site ranking in the top 5 in Google for what you'd consider to be a competitive phrase (I usually regard a phrase as being competitive if it returns over 250,000 results in Google), and yet after analysing all the factors that we know help rank a page high for a phrase, we are still stumped as to how it is there in the first place.

So, putting our Holmes' hats on, we'd look at these fascinating factors:

  • Keyword density and proximity (how many times is the phrase mentioned on the page? On the site? What's the proximity of mention of the phrase in the text? Are there any / many variations also on the page or the site?)
  • The usage of the phrase within the code, is it in an <h1> tag? How is it used in the <meta> data?
  • The usage of the phrase in internal site links, do many pages link to this one? Is this phrase used in the anchor text?
  • Analysis of the links that point into the site such as how many outbound links are on the same page. What anchor text was used? What is the page rank of the site? What is the theme of the site? was the link on the home page or not?
  • How old / established is the domain that the site is on? Was it the first website ever created, and hence has achieved god-like status for those interweb folks and search engines around long enough to remember when it took 10 hours to download a picture of Kathy Lloyd? (* Editors note - relevant to English people only).
  • How large is the site? How frequently is it updated? How many other pages of content are on the site based around the phrase the site ranks well for?

So you realise as an SEO that there really are plenty of factors that we do know help determine why one website will rank higher than another. Note: One point that hasn't been mentioned is the idea of Google trust rank, so if you are interested in knowing more about this semi-mythical notion then check out my trust rank article.

So if we analyse every single factor that we do know determines how well a website ranks and yet the site still seems to be disobeying the laws of search engine gravity, then what are we left with?

Overcoming the intangibles

"All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one" Occam's razor

The simplest solution in this instance is to create 'The Intangibles', a single or set of factors that help determine why a site ranks in a certain position in any given search engine far higher than the sum of its parts indicates its should.

I know it doesn't take much to name something you can't identify, after all, I could say that a long time ago there was a race of small people who lived in Tuscany called the Snattlemunchers and you'd not be able to prove me wrong if I said they were a shy race and avoided direct contact with humans. However, in this instance and having worked in SEO as long as I have, I am confident 'The Intangibles' do exist. To put it simply, I didn't have to ride a dinosaur to know they once roamed the earth.

The guys that work on the major search engine algorithms have made it perfectly clear that there are dozens if not hundreds of factors that determine why they favour one site or one page over another, and logically we're never going to understand to what degree even the factors we are aware of have an impact compared to each other, and the intangibles. We will never be in a position to control every factor necessary to create even the simplest of experiments to determine a ranking scale for these factors, the Internet is simply too interactive (which is what it was supposed to be I suppose).

So, the question you're probably asking (if you're still reading this article) is if these intangibles do exist, then how are we as SEO's going to get our clients sites ranking above it for the phrases that are relevant to their business? How do we combat a strategy and a philosophy that we cannot see, compute, or understand? I have found through expertise and experience that when faced with issues such as this that the sledgehammer approach is often successful.

"Do everything harder, better, and more often than everyone else" Paul Rudman, The Sledgehammer, 2007

It is a crude but often effective SEO technique: You can eventually overcome most obstacles, provided you focus long enough and hard enough on doing more of the factors we do know influence search engine positions than the competition. Logic does dictate that - unless the intangibles are the immovable object that does defy search engine gravity - then you can overcome this hurdle by making sure you have 5 times the links they do, 5 times the pages they do, 5 times the original content they do and so on.

So what happens if we cannot overcome the intangibles? In theory they shouldn't exist in the first place, as there is a degree of suggestion in their existence that the search engines are not as 100% neutral and honest in how they rank sites as they should be, that they do intervene to some level in making sure certain sites rank well for certain phrases. I believe this is the case but that's an article for another day.

Basically if we cannot overcome the intangibles, and we are not lucky enough to be blessed with any positive intangibles of our own (negative intangibles is again another article for another day!), or our clients aren't, then what are we to do? We can only spend so much money and resource trying to crack the seemingly impossible task of knocking a website riddled with intangibles off the top slot in Google. So when we get to that point, I think the best strategy is to give up the ghost gracefully, concede defeat, and focus on alternative variations of the phrase that the intangibles site hasn't got wrapped up. It may take longer, and it may take more phrases to focus on to deliver the same traffic as that killer phrase, but with enough work over time you'll achieve it, and maybe along the way you'll pick up some intangibles too.

Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at CommerceTuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.

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