While listening in on a teleconference
about search engine optimization, the speaker, Peter Kent (author of Search Engine Optimization
for Dummies
)
, relayed a story that graphically
illustrates how much impact inbound links and link text have on search engine
results.

Whether it’s a prank or a political
statement, a group of Web-savvy individuals set out to make George W. Bush’s
biography on the White House Web site
come up in response to a Google
search for the term “miserable failure.” They succeeded; it’s been in
the top position (or close to it) consistently since last fall.

What’s interesting is how the
miserable failure project managed to achieve this stunt, as well as the
implications it has for your site’s search engine ranking.

Deconstructing the “miserable failure” success

According to conventional wisdom, a
search term should appear prominently in the page title, keyword and
description metatags, headings, or page text in order for the page to achieve a
high ranking for that term. However, the term “miserable failure”
doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bush biography.

The miserable failure project didn’t
hack into the White House Web site and alter the target page in any way.
Instead, developers working on the miserable failure project created links on
other Web sites that point to the Bush biography. The links appear on a wide
variety of Web sites (though mostly blogs). These inbound links give the page
its high ranking for the search term. As the number of links pointing to the
Bush biography grew, the search engines ranked it as a popular page. Because
the link text of all those links is “miserable failure,” the target
page gets a high ranking for that search term even though the term doesn’t
appear anywhere on the page.

One of the surprising things about
this phenomenon is that the miserable failure project achieved its initial
success with relatively few links to the Bush biography (reportedly less than
150). As the project gained momentum and notoriety, the number of links grew
large enough to stave off counterinitiatives.

This was possible, in part, because “miserable
failure” is not a common search term. It would probably take significantly
more links to skew the page ranking for a more common term that appears on many
Web pages and in many links.

The other factor contributing to the
success of miserable failure is that many of the links are from blogs, which
are heavily cross-linked to each other. When the search engine finds lots of
links to a page, it considers that page popular and increases its ranking. In
turn, links from a popular page to another page carry extra weight in ranking
the destination page. In other words, the search engine considers blogs to be
popular sites because of their numerous inbound links, and outbound links from
those popular pages have added clout in determining the page ranking of the
pages they link to.

Lessons learned

Regardless of your opinion about the
political statement being made here, there are lessons to learn about how
search engines work and how to achieve higher rankings on those search engines.
These lessons include the following:

  • Incorporating keywords into
    your page text may help page rankings some, but other factors may be even
    more important. A Web page doesn’t have to contain a keyword in order to
    be ranked highly for that search term.
  • Selecting a keyword or
    phrase for your search engine optimization is critically important.
    Achieving a high ranking for a common term may take many thousands of
    hits, but you can get a top ranking for a less-common term with relatively
    few links and other references.
  • Inbound links to a page
    have a huge impact on page ranking (well, at least they do on Google and similar
    search engines).
  • The link text of hyperlinks
    is highly significant. So, don’t use a generic phrase, such as “click
    here” as your link text. Instead, use a word or phrase that describes
    the target page.
  • The popularity of the page
    where a hyperlink appears adds weight to the link in determining the
    ranking of the target page. Therefore, soliciting links from popular Web
    pages should be an effective search engine optimization technique.
  • Guerrilla marketing
    techniques, such as creating a buzz among other Web authors (particularly
    bloggers), can be an effective way to manipulate search engine rankings.

Another important lesson is that you
cannot always control how search engines will rank your pages. Outside factors,
such as inbound links from pages you don’t control, can, and sometimes do,
overwhelm your best efforts at optimizing your page’s search engine placement.