I was recently struck by the fact that the top-ranking web pages on Google are consistently much better written than the vast majority of what one reads on the web.
Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise, considering how often officials at Google proclaim the importance of good content. Yet traditional SEO wisdom has little to say about good writing.
Does Google, the world's wealthiest media company, really ignore traditional standards of quality in the publishing world? Does Google, like so many website owners, really get so caught up in the process of the algorithm that it misses the whole point?
Most Common On-the-Page Website Content Success Features
Whatever the technical mechanism, Google is doing a pretty good job of identifying websites with good content and rewarding them with high rankings.
I looked at Google's top five pages for the five most searched-on keywords, as identified by WordTracker on June 27, 2005. Typically, the top five pages receive an overwhelming majority of the traffic delivered by Google.
The web pages that contained written content (a small but significant portion were image galleries) all shared the following features:
* Updating: frequent updating of content, at least once every few weeks, and more often, once a week or more.
* Spelling and grammar: few or no errors. No page had more than three misspelled words or four grammatical errors. Note: spelling and grammar errors were identified by using Microsoft Word's check feature, and then ruling out words marked as misspellings that are either proper names or new words that are simply not in the dictionary. Does Google use SpellCheck? I can already hear the scoffing on the other side of this computer screen. Before you dismiss the idea completely, keep in mind that no one really does know what the 100 factors in Google's algorithm are. But whether the mechanism is SpellCheck or a better shot at link popularity thanks to great credibility, or something else entirely, the results remain the same.
* Paragraphs: primarily brief (1-4 sentences). Few or no long blocks of text.
* Lists: both bulleted and numbered, form a large part of the text.
* Sentence length: mostly brief (10 words or fewer). Medium-length and long sentences are sprinkled throughout the text rather than clumped together.
* Contextual relevance: text contains numerous terms related to the keyword, as well as stem variations of the keyword.
SEO Bugbears and Sacred Cows
A hard look at the results shows that, practically speaking, a number of SEO bugbears and sacred cows may matter less to ranking than good content.
* PageRank. The median PageRank was 4. One page had a PageRank of 0. Of course, this might simply be yet another demonstration that the little PageRank number you get in your browser window is not what Google's algo is using. But if you're one of those people who attaches an overriding value to that little number, this is food for thought.
* Frames. The top two web pages listed for the most searched-on keyword employ frames. Frames may still be a bad web design idea from a usability standpoint, and they may ruin your search engine rankings if your site's linking system depends on them. But there are worse ways you could shoot yourself in the foot.
* Links: Most of the web pages contained ten or more links; many contain over 30, in defiance of the SEO bugbears about "link popularity bleeding." Moreover, nearly all the pages contained a significant number of non-relevant links. On many pages, non-relevant links outnumbered relevant ones. Of course, it's not clear what benefit the website owners hope to get from placing irrelevant links on pages. It has been a proven way of lowering conversion rates and losing visitors. But Google doesn't seem to care if your website makes money.
* Originality: a significant number of pages contained content copied from other websites. In all cases, the content was professionally written content apparently distributed on a free-reprint basis. Note: the reprint content did not consist of content feeds. However, no website consisted solely of free-reprint content. There was always at least a significant portion of original content, usually the majority of the page.
* Make sure a professional writer, or at least someone who can tell good writing from bad, is creating your site's content, particularly in the case of a search-engine optimization campaign. If you are an SEO, make sure you get a pro to do the content. A shocking number of SEOs write incredibly badly. I've even had clients whose websites got fewer conversions or page views after their SEOs got through with them, even when they got a sharp uptick in unique visitors. Most visitors simply hit the "back" button when confronted with the unpalatable text, so the increased traffic is just wasted bandwidth.
* If you write your own content, make sure that it passes through the hands of a skilled copyeditor or writer before going online.
* Update your content often. It's important both to add new pages and update existing pages. If you can't afford original content, use free-reprint content.
* Distribute your content to other websites on a free-reprint basis. This will help your website get links in exchange for the right to publish the content. It will also help spread your message and enhance your visibility. Fears of a "duplicate content penalty" for free-reprint content (as opposed to duplication of content within a single website) are unjustified.
In short, if you have a mature website that is already indexed and getting traffic, you should consider making sure the bulk of your investment in your website is devoted to its content, rather than graphic design, old-school search-engine optimization, or linking campaigns.