For brick-and-mortar retailers, real estate has always been a very important factor in their success. I remember learning in a college marketing course that the three most important decisions that any retail business will make are “location, location, and location.” This passed as humor in an otherwise dull marketing class.

Today, most businesses have a new location that is extremely important – their website’s location on the search engine results page. Consumers and businesses often go to Google when they’re looking for a product or service. According to a recent Forrester study, 71 percent of consumers begin their purchase decision journey by using a search engine to discover new products and services.

With the importance of ranking on search engines, namely Google, came the rise of a practice known as search engine optimization, or SEO. Despite how it sounds, this is not about optimizing search engines. That’s Google’s job. SEO is about optimizing your company’s website and individual web pages in order to appear as an organic listing on the search engine results page for relevant search queries, often referred to as keywords.

The practice of SEO continues to evolve. Google and other search engines have always kept their algorithms a secret so that marketers and website owners couldn’t use it to game the system. However, Google has often provided guidance and many companies have used reverse engineering to discover various ranking factors. In the early days of Google, a website’s inbound links were an important ranking factor. The thought was, if other websites think your content is good, it must be important. It was actually based on the way academia measures the importance of academic papers. The credibility of a given academic paper can be determined by the number of other papers that cite and reference it.

This principle worked extremely well and was one of the reasons why Google quickly became the predominant search engine. Other search engines more heavily relied on the specific keywords themselves appearing on a web page. That led to many website owners and marketers performing what is known as “keyword stuffing.” Basically, they would “trick” the search engines by over-using specific keywords they wanted to rank for. Sometimes even writing the text in the same color as the background so that only the search crawler could read it. I remember a meeting I had many years ago with the owner of a well-known local company who did this. I asked why he was doing it and his answer was, “it works.” Guess he got me on a technicality.

Google’s search algorithm wasn’t immune to what’s commonly referred to as grey hat and black hat SEO techniques. Companies were able to gain the system by creating whole websites with the sole purpose of linking off to the other sites in order to increase those sites’ rankings. These were known as link farms.

In 2013, Google made a major change to its algorithm. The update was named Hummingbird and it’s believed to be a complete overhaul of how websites are ranked. The goal was to provide real answers to each search query rather than rely on keyword matches and inbound links as main ranking factors. This new algorithm was built to understand the intent and contextual meaning of search queries, known as semantic search. For example, if you searched “best place for italian” Google would show you nearby Italian restaurants, even without you including a location or the term “restaurant.” Their artificial intelligence was starting to get pretty smart.

In the years following the Hummingbird update, semantic search has continued to improve. Since August of 2019 there have been three major updates. Google has revealed that the all three are putting a further emphasis on content. This is great news for marketers and website owners because this puts them in control. If they have expertise in a subject and they can write unique content, they can create pages that rank for highly relevant keywords.

If you’re a marketer looking to get your website to rank on the first page of Google, focus on specific topics and build out entire pages and sections with extensive information about them. Remember that the search engine’s goal is to provide the most relevant and comprehensive information available, which is why Wikipedia often shows up on the first page of Google. Copy this style. Also, it’s important to keep the page copy informational rather than focused on your company’s own products and services. Your taglines and product names won’t help your website’s ranking for the keywords potential customers are searching.

Since the pandemic, many companies have discovered that the location of their physical offices is not as relevant as employees work from home. When we talk about “location, location, location” these days, perhaps at least two of those refer to your real estate on Google.

Originally published by the Rochester Business Journal