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May 16, 2007

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Google

Let’s be honest, the world would be a remarkably dull place without Google. It is at one and the same time a vehicle for making truckloads of profit and a rod for the backs of those desperate to win its favours. It is a great servant, but a very hard task-master.

One wonders whether Messrs Larry Page and Sergey Brin had any inkling of the kind of benign but uncompromising genie they were letting out of the bottle when they launched Google from a garage back in 1996? Probably not, yet their efforts have revolutionized the way we do business and the way we think about business. In the so doing, these two guys became multi-millionaires – and good luck to them, I say.

Google is not a connoisseur of art

As wonderful as all this may be, Google remains an idiot. Or, rather, its search algorithm is an idiot. It operates within certain strict parameters laid down for it by programmers, which means that its decisions are automatic rather than intelligent, blinkered rather than intuitive. And this is why some of the most beautifully constructed and aesthetically pleasing websites often never get so much as a sniff at the Google listings. It is also why some of the most hideous looking sites feature at Number One.

A lot of people can’t understand this. They spend thousands on the construction of a website, the design of which would give pause to Michelangelo, only to discover that Google doesn’t actually care. That’s right, it doesn’t care. Certainly, your potential customers may be impressed by the look of your website; and only a fool would suggest that good design effort is unnecessary. But if Google isn’t sending you any potential customers, your design masterpiece is going to remain unremarked and unvisited.

Google loves words

The truth is that Google robot is only interested in words. All right, it will take things like backlinks into account when it is making an evaluation of your site (and these are very important), but its primary concern is with the words you use. To start with, the robot looks at the words in your Home page HTML code between <head> and </head>. It looks at Title and Description and, to a lesser extent, those in your Keywords configuration. It then examines the words in the Home page body copy – i.e. the blurb that everyone sees. With no more ado, it turns itself inside out to find a correlation between the two. It looks for word repetition and phrase repetition between the <head> material and the body copy; and it looks for synonyms of those words and phrases. And when it does so, its heart leaps just as Wordsworth’s must have done when he saw all those daffs.

Thus, if your Title says to the effect: “Hand Made Italian Shoes”, then the body copy should also say: “We sell hand made Italian shoes.” And if your Title continues along the lines of: “Hand Made Shoes From Italy”, it follows that the body copy should continue with: “Our hand made shoes from Italy come to you at a great price.” The two sets of words reflect each other’s sentiments.

Too often, as I wander around the Net, I see that a website’s <head> material has no bearing on the body copy. The <head> says one thing and the copy – if there is any, which there often isn’t – says something else entirely. The Title says: “Cicero’s Hand Made Italian Shoes”, while the body copy kicks off with: “Cicero’s was founded in 1994 in a shed in our back yard.” There is no relationship for the Google robot to latch on to.

There is nothing difficult about producing the kind of writing that Google likes. It doesn’t have to be Thackeray, just jazz-standard English. To put it in words of one syllable, put it in words of one syllable. As I’ve implied, too, so many websites have no body copy on their Home pages whatsoever. The page is simply a beautiful PhotoShop montage, plus a navigation bar. This is a mistake. Google wants copy. It craves copy. Its whole reason for being is to unearth copy that tells it what the website is selling so that it can evaluate the website in relation to others and assign a listing.

Lack of knowledge is no defense

What I’d like to do now, if you’ll allow me, is prove my thesis with a real-life illustration. There can be few people in the world who know less about the technical side of website building than I do. Talk to me about perl, cgi, php, Flash and so on, and I shall look blank. Which I don’t find difficult. But, anyway, it came to pass a few months ago that a client asked me to optimize his website. Immediately, I saw that the Home page Title, Description and Keywords bore no relationship to the body copy. Likewise, the remaining pages. It was a right royal mess and a challenge that I couldn’t resist.

Re-writing took a day or so; and the site was posted to the major search engines. Nothing happened. Nothing, that is, except Google indexed and cached only the Home page. I therefore tweaked the copy a little and resubmitted. Again nothing, except that Google re-indexed just the Home page. Had I lost my touch? Were my previous successes just a fluke?

Fortunately, I work from time to time with a very bright young web designer and I asked him to take a look at the site in question. Within minutes, he came back with: “According to the Home page, there aren’t any other pages to this site! The reason for this is the links to the other pages are in Flash…not HTML…and Google can’t read it.” Consequently, we rebuilt the navigation bar in HTML and, within a week, the site jumped straight on to page two of Google for all our keyphrases.

Know your Google

So, as I say, Google is an idiot. But it is not so great an idiot as those of us who don’t take the trouble to figure out what it can do and what it can’t. I learned a big lesson from this and have since immersed myself in Google’s operating procedures a to z. If you are in any way serious about elevating your website onto page one of Google, you might be wise to do the same.

Websites that contain all the design bells and whistles are a glory to behold, but if they don’t play Google’s game they are, in commercial terms, a waste of space. Google can be a great friend if you learn to love it!
Author:  Pat Quinn is an award-winning UK copywriter who also operates a search engine optimisation service. Because it’s all in the writing! He can be found at: