The Rules of the Web: How search engines set the standard for online visibility

March 10, 2015

As everyday search engines users, we are well aware of the value they provide in delivering information. For many businesses, the expectations of search engines are far more substantial. Search engines influence commerce. This holds true whether you have a business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) model.

Ignoring search engines can cost businesses a lot of potential traffic and revenue. Businesses that understand the online ecosystem understand that search engines provide a valuable platform for growth in terms of lead generation, sales, ad revenue, data aggregation and other means of hitting the "bottom-line." Having a solid brand and business website are the first steps, but it's not enough. Sites must be prepared to compete in search engines.

Being a top competitor in search engines means knowing the ever-evolving rules and what's needed to win visibility.

What Are 'The Rules of the Web?' 

The rules of the web are standards created by search engines that can help increase the visibility of digital assets in the search results. These standards are broad in scope and touch on every facet of a website. From small businesses that only serve their local community to global conglomerates, everyone has to play by select group of rules. Although the measure of each may vary, these rules can be categorized into the following three areas:

Rule #1: Technical Elements – Behind the scene items and elements programmed onto a site that influence how search engines deliver content in the results.

Rule #2: On-Site Elements – Page theming conventions and activity signals that help search engines determine topics, categories and site activity.

Rule #3: Connection Elements – The way different sites are interconnected on the web, including mentions on other highly reputable sites.

The first two categories above are the fundamentals of increasing online visibility, and most sites are missing them. If your website is not easily accessible and classified by search engines (technical and on-site elements), then the site may be at a heavy disadvantage.

The curveball is that search engines are constantly updating the rules. As a result, it can be easy to unknowingly miss many of the fundamentals. Although no website is perfect, following these rules can certainly help your site's performance compared to a website that forgoes them. Just as a baseball player needs a bat to hit a homerun, websites need to be properly equipped to have a fighting chance at success in the search results.

Who Do 'The Rules of the Web' Apply To?

Think your website is already primed for competing in the search results? If your site falls into one of the categories below, chances are your site may need to reviewed by an SEO professional to ensure it's accessible by search engines:

  • Sites That Have Just Been Rebranded – Rebrands are great, however, it's important to have someone who understands SEO help carry over any SEO value from the old site to the new one. For example, if a site is getting traffic from a select group of keywords, then make sure those keywords are applied to the new site on pages with similar or better content.
  • New Websites – These websites usually start with a clean slate, meaning there is no SEO value to preserve, only value to add. New websites can get the upper hand by customizing a site-wide SEO strategy that involves content architecture based on target keywords, built-in SEO elements like breadcrumbs and launching some of the best technical optimization elements right out of the gate so content gets properly registered by Google. 
  • Existing Sites That Need Updating – If a site has been around for a while, applying the latest best practices is usually a good idea. Applying technical and on-site optimization strategies will at the vary least help improve the site's performance, especially if these items were incomplete or never applied in the first place. 
  • Sites That Don't Show Up in the Results – In other words, websites that do not show on the first page of search engines for their own brand name. This typically occurs when a site is missing the fundamental building blocks for improving organic visibility. 

Ways Your Site May Be Breaking the Rules of the Web?

How Do I Know If My Site is Playing by these Rules?

Measuring your performance is a good way to gauge whether your site is missing the rules of the web. To begin understanding how your site is performing in the search results you'll need to:

Once you get this data back (we'll use Google only for now), the following areas are a good place to begin assessing whether your site is accessible to search engines or not:

1. Allowing Search Engines to Find Your Site – The important thing to look for, especially with rebrands or relaunches, is whether search engines can even crawl your site in the first place. Sometimes developers forget to update the robots.txt file after launching a new site, which can result in no data being collected in Google Analytics, decreases in traffic, loss in organic rankings for a period of time or a site not being shown in Google at all. You can check this within Google Webmaster Tools by going to 'Crawl -> robots.txt Tester' to see if your site is allowing the Googlebot to scan the site. 

2. Server Side Errors and Load Times – Making sure your site is delivered up at a good speed every time it's requested will not only keep visitors coming back, it will also please search engines. Search engines serve the best results to its users, and to be considered the best a site needs to be fast and reliable. Inside Google Webmaster Tools under 'Crawl -> Crawl Errors' look at the 'Server error' tab and see if there are any reported errors. 

3. Mobile-Friendly Factors – More than half of consumers are now using mobile devices to search the web instead of desktop computers. The search engines realize this, and Google has made updates to the rules to reflect these changes. As of April 21, 2015, websites that are optimized for mobile devices will get better visibility in the search results. They'll effectively be given preference over standard sites that don't use a responsive design or aren't formatted for mobile devices. To see how mobile-friendly your web pages are use the Google Mobile-Friendly Test.

Have an app? Then you'll want to make sure it's indexed by Google. The search engine is now serving up content from mobile apps to people who have them installed and are signed in.

4. Pages That Are Not Found by Search Engines – Pages that cannot be found by search engines are called 404 error pages. These are pages that once lived on your website, but for whatever reason they can no longer be located. This happens most often during rebrands or site relaunches when the names of URLs change or pages get moved to different sections of a website. To circumvent the problem old pages should be redirected to a relevant live page on the site using a 301 redirect.

5. Security Issues With Your Site – If a site has critical security issues, Google may limit the site's visibility or not show the website at all. Inside of Google Webmaster Tools, there is a section labeled 'Security Issues'. This is where you can find any issues that indicate your site may be unsafe for Google's users.

6. Missing Important Page Titles and Descriptions – Every page on a website needs its own theme so that search engines can easily determine the most appropriate time to show that page in the search results. There are a number of ways you can help search engines determine the theme of a page. One of the most widely used strategies is creating unique meta titles and descriptions for each page. When these meta tags incorporate the page theme they also improve the user experience and can increase click-through rates from search result pages. Under 'Search Appearance -> HTML Improvements' inside Google Webmaster Tools, check for any duplicate meta titles and descriptions. Correct the errors by either locating the pages and changing their text manually or by speaking with your programmer about the possibility of codes that may be duplicating these items inside the website.

What Should Website Owners Do Next?

If your site hasn't had SEO success or recently dropped in the rankings, it's time to analyze what's making Google (or Bing) bypass your website. Every day that passes is another opportunity lost, and it can take some time to see the results of your SEO efforts in the search results and in Google Analytics.

Beyond the items noted above, there are many other technical and on-site elements that need to be addressed to help your website fully 'Play by the Rules of the Web'. These SEO elements have huge implications on the performance of your website as well as your business both online and off-line.

Search engines influence commerce - are you playing to win?


By Michael Ramirez
SearchRPM Founder