When you enter one or more terms into a search engine and perform a search (called a query), the search engine will use your terms to search its index for web pages that match. The search engine uses its own criteria to determine the relevance of potential matches.
The search engine then presents the results in a list, ranked by relevance. Search engine results pages (also known as SERPs) display links to relevant web pages, and also links to subsequent search engine result pages. The number of results depends on the type of query and the number of documents matching that query in the search index.
Where your pages appear in the search results is determined by numerous factors, and can vary depending on the search engine, as search engines each have proprietary algorithms (formulas) for determining where pages should rank in their results.
Tip # 1: Different search engines will deliver different search results for the same query due to differences in the algorithm (formula) used to determine relevance. So how do you optimize for one without hurting results in another? The trick is to study your log files or statistics (Web Hosting statistics or Merchant Solutions statistics depending on how you build your site) to determine which engine supplies most of your traffic and then optimize for that engine while making sure you don't drop too far in the results of the other big search engines (Yahoo!, Google, and MSN being the top three).
An Example Search and Results
For example, if you are building a dog apparel and costume store (www.K9GQ.com), and you have published your home page as well as other product and informational pages, your site will be submitted automatically to Yahoo! Search. Other search engines will also crawl your site pages found using links that appear on sites already in their search index. Even though you may have a section in your site for dog sweaters, entering the search terms "dog" and "sweaters" into Yahoo! Search is not guaranteed to return your site in the first few SERPs.
Tip # 2: Back links (other sites linking to your site) are critical to your site. They help search engines find your site and also factor into the ranking of your site in search results. When possible, determine noncompetitive sites with which you can exchange links. Do not, however, use link farms or other linking strategies that cause search engines to penalize your site. More on links.
The popularity of the search terms you enter (in other words, the number of web pages containing the words you enter), along with how well (according to the criteria of the search engine you use) your site compares with all other web pages that include those same words, will determine where your site appears in the search results.
In our example search of "dog" and "sweaters," Yahoo! Search returns over two million results (see figure 1). This means that over two million web pages containing one or both of the words "dog" and "sweaters" are found in the Yahoo! Search index.[sbizdiv_open005/]Figure 1: Excerpt of Yahoo! Search results page for search query "dog" and "sweaters." Note that the search results show over 2.3 million results for these search terms.[sbizdiv_close/]
If we refine our search query to the exact phrase "dog sweaters" (by enclosing the words in quotation marks), Yahoo! Search still returns almost half a million web pages (see figure 2). Obviously there are many sites with web pages that match our example search query. Who knew so many dogs needed sweaters in addition to their coats?[sbizdiv_open005/]Figure 2: Excerpt of Yahoo! Search results page for search query "dog sweaters." Note that the search results show over almost half a million results for these search terms.[sbizdiv_close/]
Tip # 3: Focus your effort on finding niches where there is less competition for specific keywords and key phrases and where you can deliver quality original content. Paid services like WordTracker can help you identify low-competition, high-performing keywords to use for your content. Once you have the keywords and phrases, create extensive, original, quality content featuring those keywords. Then seek out sites that will link to your new content. More on keywords.
How to Rise in the Rankings
Web sites that focus on delivering quality, original content on a frequent basis will almost certainly outperform sites using duplicate or outdated content, linking tricks, or other short-term strategies to artificially boost relevance.
Due to the complexity of the search engine ranking process, two entire kinds of businesses have been formed to help sites get search engine rankings or placement in those results pages: search engine optimization companies focused on improving your organic (non-paid) search results, and companies such as Yahoo! Search Marketing and Google AdWords that focus on paid search listings.
If you are serious about driving traffic to your site with search results, you may wish to consider pay-per-click advertising or a service that can optimize your site for higher search results based on keywords in your area of business.
For more promotion ideas — many no or low cost visit the Promote tab of your Web Hosting Control Panel, or see our complete promotion help.
More Search Engine Optimization Resources