The Myth of "Guaranteed #1 Ranking" in Search Engine Marketing

Dale Goetsch
Search Innovation
June 3, 2003

You've seen the ads: Guaranteed #1 Ranking! There are no guarantees in search engine marketing and website promotion. If anyone tells you different, you should check quickly to make sure they don't have their hand in your wallet.

Suppose you sell widgets. You want to sell more widgets, and the way to do that is to make sure that more people know about widgets, and that you are the place to buy their widgets. You might decide to buy a half-page ad in a national magazine to tell your story. When you place that ad, you are "guaranteed" your position.

With a magazine advertisement, you know what the magazine's circulation is, who reads it, and which page will feature your ad. The magazine can guarantee all that, because they own the medium.

Search engine marketing is qualitatively different. When you work with a search engine marketing firm to promote your website, they cannot guarantee where your listing will appear. Certainly there are types of online ads where there are guarantees in place: banner ads priced at "cost per thousand impressions", pop-up ads, and so forth. These are like traditional media buys, where you are working directly with the owner of the medium where the ads appear, but this is not search engine marketing.

Even so-called pay-per-click search engines cannot guarantee your position. In Google AdWords, for example, it is not just the price you pay for a given keyword that determines where you will rank. They also bring in other factors, including how often your ad is clicked-on, to determine which ad will be listed first. Just throwing money at them will not necessarily get you into the #1 spot.

The bottom line is this: search engine marketing professionals do not own the search engines. They can tell you that you will achieve #1 ranking on a given search engine, or they can tell you that the moon is made of green cheese, but there is no way they can make either of those happen. When you tell Time magazine you want your ad to be on the back cover, and you pay them enough money, they will guarantee you the back cover. If you tell your search engine marketing people you want to be #1 in AllTheWeb, they cannot guarantee you that result. They can recommend changes to your site that will increase the likelihood of your ranking higher, but that is a long way from a guarantee. If you don't control the medium, you can't guarantee the result. Since your search engine consultant doesn't control the search engine, there is no way they can guarantee your position.

The ranking algorithms of the search engines are a closely-guarded secret. The search engine wants to give top ranking to the site that is the best match to an individual visitor's search query, not to the site that was able to "beat" the system. That is where the value of real search engine marketing comes in.

While the search engine marketing person cannot guarantee you a position, what they can do is to apply years of experience to tell you what has worked in the past, and to help you make it work today. In many ways, "organic" search engine optimization is really a matter of editing web pages or whole sites to make them the most search engine friendly they can be. Making sure that a given page has just the right combination of keywords, title, links, and so on, is really at its base simply a matter of making that page the best web page it can possibly be. The page that will rank the best in the search engines is also the page that will make the most sense to the human visitor. Rather than relying on tricks to try to make the page rank high, it is a matter of just making the page the most focused and on-message that it can be. The bad news is that this doesn't guarantee which position in the search engine rankings that page will occupy on a given day. The good news is that the page will always rank well.

The search engines change their algorithms from time to time. If today's rule, for example, is that just the right combination of text in the title tag will make or break a site, and you know this is true, then all you have to do is to tweak the title tag to fit within that rule, and you will automatically rank very high. Today.

Suppose that tomorrow, however, that rule is changed. Suppose that now the most important factor that the search engines use to rank a site is the content of the META Description tag. All the work you went to yesterday to fix the title is now useless. All of your attention is now focused on fixing that description tag.

Clearly, over time the focus of the search engines will vary. The best way to deal with this is to not deal with it! This means that rather than tweaking a site one way today and another way tomorrow, the best way to approach optimizing a page or a whole site is to not try to beat the system. Instead of trying to "psych-out" the search engines, why not add value to the site? A "common sense" approach to search engine optimization, looking for long term results, is the way to go. When you try to help a site rank better by making it the best it can be, everybody wins.

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Dale Goetsch is the Technical Consultant for Search Innovation Marketing, a Search Engine Optimization company serving small businesses. He has over fourteen years experience in software development. Along with programming in Perl, JavaScript, PHP, ASP and VB, he is adept at technical writing and editing.

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