I met the founder of an SEO agency in India back in 2016. While we were discussing things he mentioned that they check for about 300 on-page SEO factors to do a webpage’s SEO audit. I thought it had an extra zero but really it’s debated how many ranking factors there actually are. This was when Google’s RankBrain was a hotly discussed topic. And in the middle of that 300 ranking factors and the mention of RankBrain we laughed out aloud “regardless of beating around the bush, the heart of ranking hasn’t changed.”
The fact is that despite all the innovation and machine learning, artificial intelligence; the core algorithm at the center of the ranking process hasn’t changed a bit. It remains the same, the jargon has changed over the years, there have been algorithm updates, ranks have gone up and tanked and much more happened. But all this shake-up was because certain factors weighed in more than others and sometimes a lot of sites were penalized. (Google’s 200 ranking factors.)
Here’s how it works (and it works exactly the way things work in your life):
Let’s say you are new in town. There’s no yellow pages. And let’s say you are looking for a physician for a consultation. How do you go about it?
You talk to the first person that you come across in the town (Mr. Vouch). You “Query” them in brief and talk about the kind of physician you are looking for and who they’d recommend. This person refers you to Dr. May(/Not)Be Nice.
There are 3 variables in this equation and it totally depends on these 3 factors how Dr. May(/Not)Be Nice turns out the right one for your purpose.
- Mr. Vouch
- Dr. May(/Not)Be Nice
The answer that you are looking for depends on what you ask. If the question is wrong, you’ll get an answer that doesn’t really answer your query or intent or purpose.
2. Mr. Vouch
Given that you’ve used the right query, Mr. Vouch will refer you to someone he knows, he thinks is the person that you are looking for. But it really depends a lot on Mr. Vouch as well. Is Mr. Vouch a drunkard? How well does he know the physician? In technical terms, can you rely on Mr. Vouch (relevancy)? If Mr. Vouch is an ex-patient of the physician, chances are he knows what he is talking about.
If Mr. Vouch is also a chemist and also stays close to the physician then Mr. Vouch must be an authority on making this type of a recommendation.
3. Dr. May(/Not)Be Nice
Welcome to the clinic of Dr. May(/Not)Be Nice. If you’ve asked the right questions to the right person who recommended this physician, and if the place looks like a clinic (the type you were looking for), the physician is definitely Dr. Nice.
But if everything went wrong, in the worst case, Dr. Nice still could be a nice physician except that he is not the one you were looking for.
Referrals via Links and Link Value
In the search world it’s all about referrals, recommendations and the authority and relevance of who makes those recommendations. Mr. Vouch is not a person but a link on some other website. You are looking for a hair fall specialist. Chances are that you may not even come across Mr. Vouch. You’ll come across Mr. Ogle. Mr. Ogle is keen about knowing everything and everyone. So you type your search query and send it to Mr. Ogle. Mr. Ogle knows (from Mr. Vouch) who is the most relevant one to address your search query and will direct you to Dr. Nice.
Anchor Text of the Links
The link like
https://www.example.com/physician-mr-nice has some other signals attached to it. If it is coded like
<a href="https://www.example.com/physician-mr-nice">worst friend</a> then Mr. Ogle tends to think that the reference is actually about a bad friend and not a physician. But if coded like
<a href="https://www.example.com/physician-mr-nice">best hair fall expert</a> then Mr. Ogle thinks it’s about a hair fall expert. Mr. Ogle doesn’t like plain links with no anchor text because it’s confusing and Mr. Ogle has to rely on other factors to understand what the link is about.
Mr. Ogle has a fair sense of language. So he understands that a hair-fall expert is the same as a dermatologist or a medical expert or a physician and all these are related. Mr. Ogle calls it LSI or Latent Semantic Indexing.
One thing that Mr. Ogle absolutely hates
While Mr. Ogle thinks he is smart, really it’s just a computer algorithm and doesn’t know better. And Mr. Ogle doesn’t like his bluff to be called.
Mr. Ogle doesn’t know if Dr. Nice has actually paid Mr. Vouch to recommend him. Oops. There’s no way to tell. But if Mr. Ogle gets suspicious he will just discount the recommendations of Mr. Vouch. Not only he will ban Dr. Nice, he will also stop directing people to him.
Also Mr. Ogle does everything in his right and might to not let out his bluff. There’s no way for him to know if someone has paid Mr. Vouch or if it’s an unpaid favor. So if Mr. Vouch is getting a lot of guest visits from Dr. Nice, then Mr. Ogle will get suspicious again. So clearly it’s developing into a paranoia now.
Mr. Ogle also reminds me of a search engine named Google. It doesn’t not like paid links, affiliate links and strongly recommends against links in guest posts. It also dictates how links should be built organically — by hard work, high-value work and good work.
So much for being the talk of town. There’s more to it than just that.
How nice is Dr. Nice?
Mr. Ogle also visits Dr. Nice to make sure that Dr. Nice is actually doing a nice and clean job. That’s where On-Page SEO comes in. Right keywords, content, internal links, content structure and organization determines how much Mr. Ogle is impressed with you. And since they are so secretive about it, much of what we can do is speculate Search Engine Ranking Factors — even though it’s from 2015, it’s totally relevant still today.
How Smart is Mr. Ogle
Google now plays around with your search profile. It observes what you search for, what results you click, how soon you come back from the page and refine your search query. If you are logged into Google you see a different set of results because Google now knows your search intention and behavior. It will also show you results based on your location. All this smartness doesn’t really change the underlying ranking algorithm.
Regardless of how complex and complicated it sounds or how much of a rocket-science they make it out to be, the biggest search engine — Google — still heavily relies on external incoming links to establish the trust, authority, relevance, value, merit of a page to the search query. Rest of it is not fluff but the search world revolves around this link referral based ranking algorithm be it RankBrain or anything else. And this hasn’t changed much for about over two decades of “innovation”.