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Exploiting LSI to rank higher

Friday, April 27th, 2007

So your site is up and running and it’s the best thing since the invention of the VCR pause button, you’ve got SEO friendly site architecture, great content and some features your competition hasn’t. The only elusive element is that high-traffic phrase you’ve been trying to rank for. You’ve got loads of links with your keyword anchor text and it’s plastered on your site, so what the hell gives? Sound familiar?

Going a bit deeper into Google
I want to briefly go over something called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), which although it sounds like an incredibly boring and somewhat silly acronym, is actually really important. “Semantic” is the study of “language meaning”, so what LSI really stands for is “examining the potential meanings and connections of a load of different words, then putting them into a giant interconnected hierarchy and ranking system that wouldn’t fit on even a really big bit of paper”, which is why I shall refer to it as LSI again from now on.

The bottom line here is that Google spiders billions of blogs, news sites, documents and web pages, then crunches all of this textual data and tries to work out which words are related to each other, which words are related to a certain subject and have a stab at trying to work out the context in which words are being used.

“I don’t believe you, Google’s not that clever”
Here’s a neat trick. Try doing a search for a keyword in your niche and put a tilde (~) in front of the keyword. This will scratch the surface of what the LSI part of Google’s algorithm is doing.

Lets try a search for holidays

You can see Google has bolded the words Holidays and Flights. Google has worked out that the word “holidays” is related to the word “flights” (round of applause). You can continue going down this path, with a search for ~flights which will show you Google knows that the word “flights” is related to “fares” and so on.

You can imagine on the scale that Google retrieves data and the billions upon billions of pages it reads, it has quite enough data to make some fairly accurate calculations about the connections between words and specifically what other words it should be looking for when spidering a site on a specific subject.

Although it’s a hell of a lot more advanced than this, you can look at the co-occurrence of words, by seeing how many pages there are with keyword A, how many pages with keyword B and how many pages with both keyword A and B on.

So we can calculate the co-occurrence of the words “car” and “insurance” by doing: C / ((A+B)-C) [I'll let you do that]

What you’ll see is that the words “car” and “insurance” go together like carrots and peas, whereas;

“car” and “spoon” are not quite so happily married. If you interested in the real dirty maths behind co-occurrence I’d have a look at this.

How does knowing this boring stuff help me?
If you’re still pummelling links and optimising for your trophy term, Google is going to have your site for breakfast and you’ll be pooped out near the bottom of the SERPs. It is always worth bearing in mind that Google’s mission is to “deliver quality, relevant results” and this is one way they are trying to fish out people with bad link profiles and shaky content and it’s your job to stay one step ahead!

It is always best to build your rankings from “bottom up”, meaning you target all of the niche terms around your main trophy phrase, before you go charging in. Take the example that you’re building a travel advice website and you want to rank well for “travel advice”. Google knows what is related to travel such as hotels, resorts, tourism and culture content – step into the Googlebot’s shoes for a moment if you will:

Which site is more likely to hold more relevant information on the broad phrase “travel advice”

Site A: This site has 15,000 incoming links – 12,000 of which have the anchor text “travel advice”. They have a lot of mentions of the words “advice” and “travel”, with some mention of hotels and resorts – but not many links to verify this other content.

Site B: I already rank this site well for “best hotels in Europe” and “best travel insurance deals for Europe”, these pages have over 8000 incoming links, all with different travel related terms, so I can verify this is good content. This good content is related to the “travel advice” search, and the link profile looks more natural and they 7,000 incoming links for “travel advice”

Larger traffic keyterms tend to be a lot more generic in nature, so Google really has to kick in some AI and try and work out what the user is searching for – it does this by using data from the billions pages it has indexed. If you can get your head around how LSI is working, you can really lay a nice trap for Google and make it come to you, rather than you chasing it with hundreds of spammy links.

The sites I’ve had the best SEO success with are when I’ve started by aiming low, getting ranked for all the long tail terms I can pick up, then move onto the big boys after you’ve proved yourself to Google. You’ll find that grabbing these long-tail terms will also provide you with a higher quality of traffic, which some people tend to overlook when dashing after the big phrases.

So here’s a checklist:

  • Have a think about your niche and try some keyword research tools to get variations
  • Look at your competitors that are ranking well. What content do they have? What do they rank for?
  • Have a play in Google using the tilde (~) to see where the big connections are and follow these breadcrumbs
  • Try buying a few key phrases with AdWords and seeing how well they convert and accurately measuring what traffic they bring
  • Vary your link building to specific pages so Google can get a grip of your content.
  • Check for common mispellings (e.g. Google knows that “smileys” are the same as “smilies”)
  • Blow the dust off the thesaurus!

Posted in Google, Research & Analytics, Search Engine Optimisation, White Hat | 14 Comments »

Google bombing and on page factors

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Google Bombs have interested me for a while now, since Google has tried to snub them out algorithmically. For those of you who have not heard of a “Google Bomb” before (where have you been?), Wikipedia defines a Google Bomb as:

(also referred to as a ‘link bomb’) is Internet slang for a certain kind of attempt to influence the ranking of a given page in results returned by the Google search engine, often with humorous or political intentions. Because of the way that Google’s algorithm works, a page will be ranked higher if the sites that link to that page use consistent anchor text.

So basically, get a bunch of people to link to a specific page, with specific anchor text and it will rank for that term. Google doesn’t particularly like this and is quoted saying:

We don’t condone the practice of Google bombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results, but we’re also reluctant to alter our results by hand in order to prevent such items from showing up. Pranks like this may be distracting to some, but they don’t affect the overall quality of our search service, whose objectivity, as always, remains the core of our mission.

Back at the start of this year, Matt Cutts (Google Chief Anti-Spam Warrior) announced they will be algorithmically reducing the impact of Google Bombing. This spiked my interest and I had several discussions (heated) with some SEO friends as to how Google could reliably pick out a Google Bomb. Successful Google Bombs are normally organised, generally by bloggers who will group together and it has a kind of “chain mail” effect of each blogger telling people in their sphere to play ball and link. As you can imagine, the effect on the links is approaching exponential as 1 blogger tells 10 friends, then those 10 people tell their 10 friends and so on.

So the hallmarks of a Google Bomb:

  • Rapid link growth (almost exponential)
  • All links pointing to one specific page
  • All links share exact same anchor text

However, there are several problems. What happens if:

  • Having your site on Digg/Reddit etc can result in massive link growth?
  • You release a great bit of content so everyone is linking to a specific page?
  • You release a product that automatically links back (such as Acrobat or MyBlogLog Widget) with specific link text?

Or any other of hundreds of different variables that could make your site appear to have been Google Bombed?

I started studying various Google Bombed sites and I came over a factor which had been previously overlooked: Because of the nature of Google Bombs and their intent (joke/political/abusive) the anchor text used to link to the site, rarely has any relevance to the content.

Example time! Probably the most famous example of a Google Bomb is when the search term “miserable failure” (or just “failure” for that matter) brought up the official George Bush biography on the Whitehouse site. After Google had made their algorithm adjustments, this killed the ranking for this iconic term. Searching for “miserable failure” would no longer bring up the Whitehouse site.

About one month later, I saw a few comments on blogs that the Google Bomb was actually working again. When I checked it out, my friend pointed out that although it was still the biography ranking, it was a different page than before. When you examine the new page, I found something that confirmed my suspicion. The new page that was ranked for “failure” actually had the word “failure” in the page content a couple of times. This proved to me that one of the main elements in deciding if something is acting like a Google Bomb is comparing the external anchor text links to the on-page content.

Google quickly patched over this and the site no longer ranks again. I’m left somewhat suspicious now, because any search you do for “George Bush Biography”, if you add the word “failure” in there, it won’t show the real biography anywhere near the first page. This would leave me to believe one of two things, either:

A) One a Google Bomb and it’s anchor text has been identified, any links pointing to the page with that anchor-text will either stop passing weight, or perhaps carry negative weight.


B) Google, to save face have manually adjusted the results for the Whitehouse site. (Although they claim they would never do such a thing).

So what has this got to do with your sites?
One of the most common SEO mistakes I see is when people try to get their root domain (index page) ranking for a whole set of unrelated keyterms. Lets say you had a skateboarding website that sells skateboards, skateboard trucks, skateboard wheels and skateboard decks. A lot of people will now think, “brilliant, these are my sectors, so I’ll build links to my website” and they will go on their merry way and try and get people to link to their site with “skateboard wheels”, “skateboard trucks” and all other variations of keyterms.

This will confuse the poor Googlebot…

What happens if you build all your links to root page

Poor old Googlebot can read your page content, but then gets confused when other websites are essentially telling it the content is actually somewhere else. The result will be, your index page will rank poorly for most keyterms and your internal pages will have no PageRank and will drop into the supplemental results.

What happens when you build links correctly

When Googlebot can see your content and it is backed up by relevant links, you’ll get more pages in the index, less keyword cannibalization and your site will be stronger positioned to rank well for a variety of keyterms.

I found the parallel between these problems of link building and Google Bombing interesting and to me it highlights the importance of being specific and trying to make things as easy for the bots (and at the end of the day – the user!) as possible

Posted in Google, Research & Analytics, Search Engine Optimisation, White Hat | 6 Comments »

Dominating SERPs with better link velocity

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

Today, I want to have a chat about link velocity. In a nutshell, the term “link velocity” means, “the rate at which you gain new links to your website”. If you read SEO forums and blogs, it’s not a topic that you’ll regularly come across. People will harp on about PageRank, relevance of link and my personal favourite “just build better content than everyone else”. Now, I’m sure that last comment will annoy some people, but lets be honest here. People say “just build quality content” as if it’s as easy as knocking your tea on your keyboard. I’m not arguing that having quality content is an advantage, but quality content can take months, if not years to build and there’s nothing stopping other bigger websites just stealing your ideas!

This is what it boils down to: Google can’t tell the difference between average content and great content. It relys on people thinking your content is good and linking to you.

Link velocity is a great measure of popularity. It’s important. Very important.

Lets give an example:

Last year I set up a website for a for a niche with about 5-10 medium sized players in it and 1 super large player. These guys, quite rightfully had total domination of the SERPs, aside from SEO, they do PR releases, sponsorship, an affiliate scheme and they buy advertising on sites like MySpace.

Taking a closer look at their website:

“Super Large Player” Website Profile:
PageRank: 7
Indexed Pages: 15,771
Links to URL: 5,200
Links to domain: 610,000
Domain Age: 6 years

So by all accounts, pretty well established site with a large marketing budget. I set my own budget of £4.22 (for tea and some sherbet flying saucers) and decided it was time to take them down a peg or two.

Without getting caught up in the details of the web build, I uploaded a fairly basic, flat HTML website with about 50 pages of content, following all the basic SEO rules (page titles, h1s, anchor text usage..etc) that you can find on 1,000 other SEO blogs. The important thing is this; I noticed my super large player friend wasn’t gaining links very quickly – a chink in their armour we could exploit.

So how do we get 100 new links per day?
The niche I was in was providing web graphics. Now my competitor offered a download which installed the graphics onto your computer, for use in your blog, forum, e-mail or whatever. I opted for a “hosted” option, so you can hotlink my images off my server onto your site/blog/forum whatever.

To do this, when somebody clicked on an image, I was generated a little BBcode or HTML so they could paste it into anything they wanted. Fairly standard procedure. To get your head around the idea, my friend has built and launched a similar site – Free Icons. Have a look around the site, when you click on one of the icons, it will generate the code for you to display the icon. The code also generates an alt tag for the image, which can be the keyword/phrase you are trying to rank for.

No bombshells here, it’s a pretty standard technique. Sure enough though, after 7-8 months:

“Super Large Player” Website Profile:
PageRank: 7
Indexed Pages: 15,771
Links to URL: 5,200
Links to domain: 610,000
Domain Age: 6 years
Ranking for main terms: ~3rd

“My Home Made Website” Website Profile:
PageRank: 4
Indexed Pages: 27
Links to URL: 6,720
Links to domain: 11,500
Domain Age: 1 year
Ranking for main terms: 1st across the board

I was outranking them for every single one of their terms, result! The site’s success wasn’t on this one thing alone, but their site is stronger than mine in almost every way, the only thing I’ve got going for me is that I get a regular healthy dose of fresh incoming links every day. Google seems to deem this enough that my site should rank better.

All these extra links will boost your site’s authority. Since Google will have trouble identifying the content of the link, your on-page SEO will have to be spot on and the “regular” links you gain will have to have some well tuned anchor text. These bonus links can really give your rankings a shot in the arm.

Review your own position, you have have those dozen PR7 links pointing to your site and you’re ranking okay, but what mechanisms do you use to constantly garner new links? There’s a million and one ways you can use this technique. SEOmoz (who also briefly mentioned link velocity) offer “I love SEOmoz” badges that you can stick on your site, and guess what – they link back to SEOmoz.

For any site I do now, I always try and think of a mechanism to keep gaining links in the future, then integrate this into the design, whether it’s a tool, an image or document links. With these kinds of techniques, you can sit back and relax while other SEOs desperately scramble around the net looking for directory links and you are free to move onto your next project!

Posted in Google, Grey Hat, Search Engine Optimisation, White Hat | 28 Comments »