It was George Burns who's attributed with saying 'Sincerity, if you can fake that you've got it made'. Perhaps it's always been this way but somehow I think it's been stimulated by the number of ways to fake it, and it's certainly true that thanks to Google, website owners a plenty spend every waking hour thinking about how to fake it.
You see in web land, there's a thing called a link. It's at the very heart of the web and it was the desire to be able to seamlessly link to information, with the simple click of a mouse, that drove Tim Berners-Lee to create it. Sir Tim wanted, whilst reading an academic paper, to be able to retrieve and read other related papers without leaving his PC.
A few years later two geeky looking PhD students decided that if one web document linked to another it was in some way endorsing it or voting for it, from this the link based method of evaluating quality was born. The students were, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the company they founded, to exploit their idea, was Google.
In its simplest form Google's automated way of evaluating quality goes something like this. Say 100 pages on the web have content related to salmon fishing, it's likely to be more but bear with me, before the link based quality idea was introduced it was virtually impossible for a computer to decide which was the best or most relevant page. This meant building a fully automated search engine was very very hard. Introducing the idea that if one of the 100 pages had links to it from other related pages it could be thought of as better changed everything.
Suddenly it was possible to program computers to measure the number of links from other pages a page had and by doing so attribute to the page a quality score. It's actually a little more involved than this but in essence that's what Google does. For the academically minded here's a detailed explanation of PageRank as it became known, named after Larry Page.
What all this means is, for a page to rise to the top of a search result it needs to be relevant to the search and be popular, with popularity being measured by the number and quality of links it has. I mention quality because a link from another popular page, a page that itself has links, has a greater effect than a link from a less popular page. It's like a virtuous circle.
In theory if you search using the term web design, the top 10 pages returned are the pages that Google believes to be the most relevant and popular pages on this subject. As this search is carried out by a lot of people, any page that appears near the top of the first page of search results is likely to get clicked a lot, and these clicks are likely to be commercially valuable assuming the intent of the searchers was to commission a new website!
In theory all a business owner needs to do to secure valuable web traffic to his or her website is to build a great website with helpful pages, and then see their pages appear in search results as people find them and link to them. Anyone see a problem with this?
For those that haven't I'll spell it out.
Say website owner A builds a great website containing really helpful content and website owner B, who's in the same line of business, builds an OK website with OK content. All things being equal website owner A should see her website appear above website owner B in a search result, after all, her website is better. As things stand that might happen.
Now lets say website owner B spends time building links to his website. He buys links, he blags links, he seeds links and he uses all manner of underhand techniques to get others to link to his site. Because Google's software uses links to ascertain quality, website B now ranks above website A in search results. Website B has faked his authority.
In a perfect world, all website owner A has to do is make others aware of her website, and because it's a better more helpful site it will retake pole position in the search results. But getting links is hard work and time consuming and it favours the brave, people who are prepared to risk the wrath of Google. Website owner A doesn't want to use any technique that might be deemed underhand. In other words website owner A doesn't want to fake popularity, she offers a better product than website owner B, why should she have to prove that to a search engine!
The problem is, faking popularity is now the name of the game and simply building a great site isn't likely to bring results. It's also a simple if inconvenient truth that ordinary people seldom link to web pages on other people's websites. Most don't know how to, in fact most wouldn't have any reason to. Sure people link to YouTube etc from their facebook page but that's about as far as it goes. If you sell gaskets how many folk are likely, in the normal run of things, to link to your website? Roughly none. But what if your competitor embarks on a link building campaign? He rises in the search results and makes sales while you stand and watch.
In part two of this post I'll be outlining how to out fake the fakers without adopting their underhand tactics. I'll post Part II on here but I'll be sending to people who subscribe to our SEO Tips newsletter first so if you are keen to know more it might be worth subscribing using the box at the top right of this page.