Before I do any work on a website I try to get an idea of where it fits into the grand scheme of things on the World Wide Web. The easiest way to do this is to run searches for some of the competitive terms in the website’s niche. If you imagine the Internet as one giant city, you can picture domains as buildings.
The first step I take before working on a client’s website is figuring out in which neighborhood its building (domain) resides. This search result page is similar to seeing a map of the given Internet neighborhood. You usually can quickly identify the neighborhood anchors (due to their link popularity) and specialists in the top 10 (due to their relevancy). You can also start to get an idea of the maturity of the result based on the presence of spam or low-quality websites.
Notice the difference in the maturity (quality) of the search results. In the second set of results (Figure 2-2), you see some of the same big names again (Wikipedia, for example, appears in both searches) but this time they are mixed with some sites that appear spammier (iab.net, freewebdirectory.us).
During client meetings, when I look at the search engine result page for a competitive term like advertising, I am not looking for websites to visit but rather trying to get a general idea of the maturity of the Internet neighborhood. I am very vocal when I am doing this and have been known to question out loud, “How did that website get there?” A couple times, the client momentarily thought I was talking about his website and had a quick moment of panic. In reality, I am commenting on a spam site I see rising up the results.
To turn this off, append “&pws=0” to the end of the Google URL. Also, take note that regardless of whether or not you are logged into a Google account, the search engine will automatically customize your search results based on links you click most. This can be misleading because it will make your favorite websites rank higher for you than they do for the rest of the population.
Along with looking at the results themselves, I look at the other data present on the page. The amount of advertisements on the search result gives a rough idea of how competitive it is. For example, a search for buy viagra will return a full page height worth of ads, whereas a search for women that look like Drew Carey won’t likely return any. This is because more people are searching for the blue pill than are searching for large, bald women with nerd glasses.
In addition to the ads, I also look for signs of temporal algorithms. Temporal algorithms are ranking equations that take into account the element of time with regards to relevancy. These tend to manifest themselves as news results and blog posts.
Taking Advantage of Temporal Algorithms
You can use the temporal algorithms to your advantage. I accidentally did this once with great success. I wrote a blog post about Michael Jackson’s death and its effect on the search engines a day after he died. As a result of temporal algorithms my post ranked in the top 10 for the query “Michael Jackson” for a short period following his death. Because of this high ranking, tens of thousands of people read my article. I thought it was because I was so awesome, but after digging into my analytics I realized it was because of unplanned use of the temporal algorithms. If you are a blogger, this tactic of quickly writing about news events can be a great traffic booster.
After scanning search result pages for the given website’s niche, I generally get a sense for that neighborhood of the Internet. The important takeaway is to get an idea of the level of competition, not to figure out the ins and outs of how specific websites are ranking. That comes later…