I was inspired to write about this after seeing Michael Martinez raise this point in his blog on SEO theory a while back. He holds himself up as an example, having worked on both large web sites and small web sites, and successfully ranked with both. He insists that “Size doesn’t matter and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t have a clue about search engine optimization.”
At the risk of putting enough innuendo into this article to make at least one of my bosses (all male) twitch, size really does matter to some degree. Even Martinez admits to seeing the “so-called ‘large domain effect’ many times, where you add a new page or section about a new topic and you get almost instant rankings success.” Surely no one can deny the attraction of a large…web site. All that content, waiting to satisfy your every desire. Amazon never lacks for admirers, and neither does Wikipedia. Who can compete with that?
Still, to trot out another hoary cliché, it’s not your size, it’s what you do with it that matters. I’m going to give you an example. It’s admittedly obscure, but I’m sure you can think of versions that relate to your own field.
I’ve been to visit Disney World many times, and the park within it that I’ve visited more than any other is Epcot Center. Every time I go, I visit the World Showcase and hit the shops in Italy so I can drool over the Venetian masks. Being a crafty person, I wanted to learn how to make those masks myself, but I couldn’t afford to buy one and reverse engineer it. I could take pictures of course, but they frown on you handling them too much. What could I do?
What I needed was a book with instructions. Sadly, such a book was not to be found in Disney World. I figured Amazon had to have a book on Venetian mask-making, right? Wrong. Oh sure, the online retailer has plenty of books on Venice, and Venetian masks, and fictional works that reference Venetian masks, but the closest I got was a book on thirty Venetian artists (including glass makers and sculptors and such). Well, to make a long story short, I did eventually find a site with a book on the subject. I bookmarked it and will probably buy the book itself shortly.
Keep that lesson in mind, because I’m going to return to it. Right now, though, I’d like to cover the real reasons your site may perform well or poorly in search results. Martinez cites four, and acknowledges that they aren’t rocket science.
- You do something good (or bad) with your web site.
- Other site owners do something good (or bad) with their sites.
- The search engines do something good (or bad) with their data.
- Searchers look for something for which you’re highly relevant, or something else.
In many cases, it really is that simple. Let’s start with the first one. Doing something good with your web site means doing the things that make it easier for searchers and the search engines to find you. It means making your site easy to navigate, which helps users find what they’re looking for and search engines index it accurately. It means adding quality, original content to your site regularly so that it grows organically and you naturally build authority.
Likewise, you probably know what it means to do something bad with your site. If you don’t, all you need to do is look at Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, which tell you all the things that Google likes to see and, near the bottom, what they would like you to avoid. Most of it can be summed up in the idea of not pretending to be something other than what you are.
I’ll touch on the second bullet point very quickly, since it’s pretty obvious how other site owners doing something good or bad with their sites will affect you. Though even there, it’s worth asking if you’re competing for the same audience and the same keyword phrases. Say you own a site that focuses on dog training. You notice that there’s another site that’s ranking higher for you on your chosen keywords. When you look more closely at that site, however, you see that it focuses on police dog training, and your site concerns itself with training seeing-eye dogs. So you two aren’t really competing at all – and you now know what you need to do to distinguish yourself, don’t you?
Going on to the third point, you really can’t control what the search engines do with their data. Consider that the basic change Google made to search when it sprang on the scene is to count links to a site as votes for that site. Now everyone, black hat and white hat alike, tries to build their rank by getting lots of links. It’s true that larger sites seem to have an advantage here, because they have lots of pages that link to each other. But links are no longer the be-all and end-all of SEO, if they ever were.
Martinez tells the story of a self-promoter who got under his skin and was ranking highly for a particular query that drew lots of traffic. He noticed that the person’s flagship web site “had about 10,000 very tightly focused backlinks” boosting it. So Martinez built a page on one of his sites and beat the other’s position in the SERPs for that query. He didn’t give it 10,000 backlinks and didn’t do anything sneaky. “So why did my page knock his out of the SERPs?” Martinez asks. “Maybe because I just happened to make a more relevant page than he did and I only pointed enough links at the page to help the search engines find it and see that its backlink profile matched its content.”
It’s this idea of relevance that is the most important. You can get all the links you want, but if they’re not relevant to your content, on some level you’re gaming the system. If you can build pages that are more relevant for your chosen keywords than the ones built by the big guys, you can beat them in the SERPs. How do you do this? To judge from Martinez’s blog post, one way is to narrow your focus.
Large web sites will probably be competing for many, many key words and key phrases. You don’t have to win against them for all of those phrases – and the fact that they’re competing for so many may dilute their efforts. Instead, try to win carefully chosen key words and phrases that are very relevant for your site’s content. Martinez says of the large sites he competes with that “They may outrank me for more queries than I outrank them but then they have more content and I’m just not chasing that many queries. I’m good with that. Most commercial sites see less traffic than my personal sites do, too. I’m also good with that.”
So the fourth bullet point implies that you should make sure your content is highly relevant to what your target audience is looking for, if you’re hoping to get traffic. That means giving your audience better content than they can find with the big guys. How do you do that?
Think about what the big site doesn’t do well that you do – or that you can do. Is the site’s information fairly generic? Get more specific, with case studies, book reviews, whatever seems suitable. Is it poorly organized? Make sure your visitors have no problem finding your content; set it up in sensible categories (which is a good idea anyway).
Maybe your competitor sticks with articles when they want to explain things. Spice up your site with some how-to videos and good images, properly optimized so the search engines will be able to find them easily and know where they belong. With many search engines using blended search to mix various kinds of results together, you could make a good video that outranks your competitor’s text-based content.
So, what have we learned? Relevance is important; make sure your content is relevant to your key words and that your backlinks match your content profile. Focus your key word and key phrases; don’t expect to beat your larger rivals on every key word query, but pick a few and fight with those. Stand out from larger sites by offering something those sites don’t; do something much better, or different, or with some kind of added value. You’re not going to win in the SERPs or with your visitors unless you can find some way to stand out – but you CAN win. So give it your best shot. Good luck!