Search engines are an incredible feature of the modern world. We can think of any topic, and without even forming a complete sentence, find out everything we need to know within seconds. Not only do search engines give us a seemingly endless list of results, they even sort our results so that the most relevant Web sites appear first. Rarely do we need to go to the second or third page of links to find exactly what we were looking for. It’s like walking into a library, stating what you need, and letting the librarian use her knowledge and experience to find you the best resources. It’s easy to forget, however, that these instantaneous results are not at all a matter of knowledge and experience as with the librarian. Instead, the search results are a product of finely tuned mathematical algorithms.
The Secret to Search Engines
The exact criteria used to sort pages based on relevance are a well-kept secret in the search engine industry. The criteria even change regularly in case someone does happen to figure them out. If these parameters became public information, the credibility of the most relevant pages would go out the window as people altered their sites to push them to the top of the results list. While the detailed factors that determine page ranking are kept relatively secret, there are some things that all search engines must take into consideration to provide relevant information to their users.
Search engines use crawlers to investigate the relevance of web pages in a search. Crawlers, or spiders, are automated bots and do not actually read the information on the page, but instead evaluate pertinent data. Most search engines evaluate the frequency and location of keywords. If the searched word appears in the title of a page, then that page is likely very relevant. Additionally, keywords towards the beginning of a page are most relevant as they are likely the main topic of the site. Once a web page has been deemed relevant, it is displayed in the results and the search engine then monitors the click-through rate.
The click-through rate is the number of clicks the page gets once it is displayed as a result of a specific search. If a page has a low click-through rate, it will not be ranked as high next time the same topic is searched. Search engines also use backlinks, or links from other sites, to determine the relevance of a page. They consider a link a “vote” from the link’s host, indicating that the linked page is valid and relevant. Some votes weigh more than others if they are coming from a page with a high ranking. If a credible site references another site, it is likely just as credible.
The Current Top Five Search Engine Ranked Pages
Web pages that appear first in the list of search results are those deemed most relevant by the search engine based on all criteria. Sites that consistently appear first in searches are known to have a high search engine ranking. When looking at five popular pages with some of the highest search engine rankings, it’s easy to see what makes them more relevant than other search results.
#1 – CNN
CNN.com has a high search engine ranking, and will likely come up first when any current news headline is searched. CNN.com is the site for the Cable News Network, owned by Turner Broadcasting System Inc. It is among the world’s leaders in news and information delivery, both online and off. Many factors contribute to CNN’s higher-than-average search engine ranking. First, the news site actually has in-house SEO experts who are constantly analyzing trends such as keywords being searched on Twitter and Facebook, which allows them to phrase their headlines exactly as people will type them. SEO coordinator Topher Kohan explained that when it comes to breaking news, keywords are vital. “Is it Michael Jackson dead, or Michael Jackson Died or King of Pop so you have to make kind of educated guess. You can monitor everything with Twitter trends and Google trends all those things but if you are good at your job then you are making a gut check,” explained Kohan. CNN’s click-through rate is also very high, as people trust the network. It is a reliable site with excellent name recognition. Many stories from CNN are shared across the Web, so backlinks are bountiful. Finally, the most important keyword is right in the title of the site, as it’s the Cable “News” Network.
#2 – Adobe Reader Download Site
The Adobe Reader Download site is another high-ranking page for search engines. Adobe Reader software is free and allows users to view and interact with all types of PDF files. Backlinks are a clear and obvious explanation for this high ranking, as any time someone without the latest version of Adobe tries to read a PDF from a Web site, they will be prompted to download the reader in order to view the document. Adobe is also the only site where the reader can be downloaded, so when people are using search engines to find and make the download, the click-through rate is through the roof. Since the site location is “get.adobe.com/reader”, it’s likely that people are literally searching for the URL when they intuitively type, “get adobe reader” into a search engine.
#3 – Adobe Flash Player Download Site
Much like Adobe Reader, the site for downloading Adobe Flash Player is also one of the highest ranked. Adobe Flash Player is a browser-based application that allows users to view content and videos right on a Web page. Again, the URL is “get.adobe.com/flashplayer”, so the search is intuitive and click-throughs are common. While the amount of backlinks leading to a site has a lot to do with a page’s ranking, the credibility of the sites hosting those backlinks is equally important. When trying to watch a video on CNN.com, the user is first prompted to download Adobe Flash Player. Since CNN is another highly-ranked site, its links are most definitely credible, which in turn gives Adobe Flash Player’s site a high ranking as well.
#4 – AddThis.com
AddThis.com is the world’s largest content sharing platform and is the youngest site on the top five list. It is a free social bookmaking and sharing button widget that allows users to add a button to their own websites to make it easier for visitors to share information. For example, a news site might use AddThis to include a “Tweet This” button. When a visitor clicks the button, the story is automatically tweeted through the visitor’s own Twitter account. Essentially, it eliminates the extra step of logging into Twitter and then copying and pasting the link of the news story. This makes AddThis.com a top ranking search engine site because every time a website uses a button from the AddThis widget collection, they are inserting branded code into their own site. That code contains a link back to AddThis.com, which means they get a backlink from every single user, big and small. Not only does AddThis.com have over 260,000 backlinks, but these backlinks also come from some of the top ranked pages in the world.
#5 – Twitter
When a politician Tweets about their latest thoughts on the situation in Syria, reputable news sites will likely quote it, and therefore provide a link back to the original post on Twitter. This regular backlinking puts Twitter.com on the list of the five highest-ranking sites. Twitter is a social media site that allows users to share small bursts of information in 140 characters or less. Because so many Tweets are shared all over the Internet—whether it’s from celebrities, political figures or best friends—Twitter.com has a higher search engine rank than both Google and Facebook. While Google and Facebook might have more daily traffic than Twitter, it is undeniable that people all around the world are talking about Twitter day and night, which makes it one of the most credible sites out there.
How Do They Do It?
Site owners cannot fake high page rankings. All search engines use secret methods to determine ranking, and the public may never know what these methods involve. If websites try too hard to trick search engines into putting their page at the top, it may backfire. While optimizing a site for search engines is not an inherently bad idea, it is important to make sure it does not become categorized as spam. Spamdexing is the process of manipulating search engine indexes using techniques like keyword stuffing, and could leads to the permanent deletion of the site from the search engine’s index. There are better, safer ways to optimize pages for search engines that will even enhance content value to visitors.
Luckily for the people using them, search engine rankings are unbiased and rely heavily on credibility, which in turn means good content rules. Search engines are specifically designed to make our searches quick and easy, and until the secret ranking formula is revealed, they will continue to succeed.