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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

Google rankings through search engine
optimization

Ao-Jan Su, Y. Charlie Hu, Aleksandar Kuzmanovic, and Cheng-Kok Koh
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
Email:{ajsu,akuzma}@cs.northwestern.edu
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
Email:{ychu,chengkok@purdue.edu
Abstract
INTRODUCTION
Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to identify
As the world wide web has matured, search engines
the most popular techniques used to rank a
have occupied an increasingly powerful
webpage
highly
in
Google
position, by both channelling the attention of millions
Design/methodology/approach
- The paper
of users, and generating revenue for web sites through
contextual advertising programmes, such as Google's
presents the results of a study into
AdSense (Google, 2005). The search engine companies
50 highly optimized web pages that were created
are in a powerful position in the online world. Indeed,
as part of a Search Engine Optimization
such is the popularity of the search engine that over half
competition. The study focuses on the most
of all visitors to a web site now come from a search
popular techniques that were used to rank highest
engine rather than from a direct link on another web
in this competition, and includes an analysis on
page
(McCarthy,
2006).
With
search
engines
the use of PageRank, number of pages, number of
collectively handling over 4.5 billion user queries a
in-links, domain age and the use of third party
month (Nielsen-NetRatings, 2005), there is fierce
sites such asdirectories and social bookmarking
competition amongst competing web sites to attract
sites. A separate study was made into 50 non-
those users to their site at the expense of their
competitors.
optimized web pages for comparison.
However, the competition is made even more ferocious
Findings - The paper provides insight into the
by the searching behavior of the user. Search engines
techniques
that
successful
Search
Engine
may return many millions of documents for each user
Optimizers use to ensure a page ranks highly in
query, but the user only looks at a select few. Indeed,
Google. Recognizes the importance of PageRank
according to Jansen and Spink (2006), 73 percent of
and links as well as directories and social
search engine users never look beyond the first page of
bookmarking sites.
returned results. Accordingly, the competition for a
Research limitations/implications - Only the top
high ranking for popular user queries is now extremely
50 web sites for a specific query were
intense.Understanding which factors can influence a
page's ranking in a search engi
analyzed.Analysing more web sites and comparing
ne is therefore crucial
for any web site that wishes to attract large numbers of
with similar studies in different competition would
users (in particular, e-commerce sites). This paper
provide more concrete results.
therefore sets out to identify the most effective
Practical implications - The paper offers a
techniques that can be used. In order to do this, the
revealing insight into the techniques used by
paper presents the results from an analysis of the most
industry experts to rank highly in Google, and the
successful pages that were created as part of a Search
success or otherwise of those techniques.
Engine Optimization (SEO) competition (SEO is the
Originality/value - This paper fulfils an identified
process of trying to rank highly a given web page or
need for web sites and e-commerce sites keen to
domain for specific keywords). Because all of these
attract a wider web audience.
pages are highly optimized, the resultant set of data
Keywords Worldwide web, Search engines,
represents an aggregation of the most popular (and thus
implicitly, the most effective) techniques used by the
Directories
most successful Search Engine Optimizers in operation
Paper type Research paper
today.The paper is presented as follows. Section 2




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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

discusses previous research that has been conducted in
name of US states ranked well if they had many in-
the area, both from academia and from industry.
links. However, the Support Vector Machine
Section 3 discusses the problems faced in identifying
they used to obtain their function did not work as well
the factors that are used by search engines when
as they would have liked,leading to inconclusive
determining a specific web page's rank. Section 4 sets
results. Furthermore, the queries they chose were
out the design and methodology of the analysis, and
somewhat arbitrary, and do not reflect the typical user
lists the search engine factors that will be analyzed.
query.
Finally, section 5 presents and discusses the results, and

summarizes the most effective techniques identified
Commercial studies
during the study before the paper concludes with
Away from the research establishment, a new industry
potential issues and a summary of the conclusions.
has emerged called Search Engine
Related studies
Optimization (SEO), which seeks to determine the most
Academic studies
important factors to be used to get
Pringle et al. (1998) examined the responses given by
a high ranking, and then apply those factors to a client's
the InfoSeek, Excite, AltaVista and Lycos search
web site for a fee. However,despite the large
engines to 50 single-word queries. Using decision trees
proliferation
of
such
companies
(e.g.
Bruce
and regression analysis, they concluded that a high
ClayInc.,HighRankings.com,SearchEngineWorld.com,
ranking required ". . . informative title,
SearchEngineWatch.com,MarketLeap.comSEOMoz.or
headings, meta fields . . . text . . . important keywords
g, etc.),they only have partial information of a search
in the title, headings and meta fields, but do not use
engine's heuristics based largely on trial and error
excessive repetition which will be caught out" (Pringle
(Fortunato et al., 2006). Although undoubtedly some
et al.,1998)
SEO companies have inferred the heuristics accurately,
However, their research is now
there is too much conflicting information on the Web to
eight years old, and three of the search engines listed no
determine the accuracy of the claims of any one
longer provide their own search results (Clay,
individual company without further evidence.Issues
2005).Khaki-Sedigh and Roudaki (2003) used a simple
with inferring search engine-ranking factors .From the
linear regression model to approximate the dynamics
literature (see, for example, Moran and Hunt (2006),
underlying Google, and thus predict the absolute
Fortunato et al. (2006),Bifet et al. (2005)), the web
PageRank of a web page. However, their model does
factors that could potentially influence a search
not indicate which of the factors included are
engine's ranking of a web site can be classified
important. Fortunato et al. (2006) performed a similar
according to two distinct categories:
experiment in which they also attempt to approximate
Query-Factors, which rely on the content of a web
the dynamics of Google's PageRank algorithm, this
page, such as the existence and frequency of keywords;
time through the number of in-links (i.e. URLs that
and Query-Independent Factors, which rely on
reference a particular web page). However, although
information from external web pages that link to a web
they were able to show that the number of in-links is a
page under consideration.However, both types of factor
good approximation of
are notoriously difficult to enumerate as the search
PageRank for popular sites, PageRank is not the only
engines do not reveal which particular ones they use
determining factor used by Google in ranking its results
when determining a web site's ranking. Worse, the
(Moran and Hunt, 2006). Indeed, Google now claims to
problem is compounded by the following issues There
be using more than 200 "signals" when determining the
are over 200 different factors (or signals) used by
rank of a page, with thousands of machines involved in
Google to calculate a page's rank. What these factors
the ranking process for every query (Eustace,
are is unknown, as is the weighting of each factor
2006).Finally, Bifet et al. (2005) used many different
towards thefinal rank. The weighting of each factor used
factors in an estimation function they
to determine the top ten results may be different from
derived for the ranking function of a search engine.
the weighting used for the remainder.Different query
They then used their function to compare their own
terms may employ different ranking factors and/or
predicted rankings with the actual rankings of Google.
different weights (Bifet et al., 2005). Google has
They found a variety of factors affected the rankings,
multiple data-centres distributed across the world, not
depending, seemingly, on the subject being
all of which are in sync at any one time. Thus the
searched for. For example, queries classified as "Art"
ranking algorithm used in one data-centre may change
ranked well if the content had a low fraction of non-
subtly from the ranking algorithm used in another
English words, whereas queries containing only the
(Cutts, 2006) This makes identifying the factors



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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

involved in a search engine's ranking algorithm
one of the more popular items searched for by users.
extremely difficult without a large dataset of millions of
According to Yahoo's Overture Keyword
Search Engine Results Pages(SERPs) and extremely
Selector Tool (Yahoo, 2006), which lists the number of
sophisticated data-mining techniques.
searches for a specific query submitted to Yahoo in a
A novel approach to identifying ranking
month, the query was used 4,666,114 times in
factors
September 2006. As such, mobile phones are an
extremely popular query, and should serve this analysis
Although identifying the ranking factors is extremely
well.Experimental design and methodology
difficult to infer, and the claims made by individual
Defining the factors to analyze.The search engine that
SEO companies difficult to verify, an understanding of
will be used in this analysis is Google, as it is by far the
the most effective techniques can be achieved by
most popular, handling 46.2 percent of all search
analyzing a set of highly optimized web pagescreated
queries (Nielsen-NetRatings, 2005). Of the 200 or so
by a host of the leading SEO companies and
factors that Google claim they use when determining a
individuals.These web pages can easily be found by
page's rank, the following have been chosen as
entering a specially constructed query into
representing the factors that most likely exert the
any search engine. This query contains the keywords
greatest influence on a page's rank,Number of web
V7ndotcom Elursrebmem, which was defined by the
pages in a site indexed by search engine. Some web
industry-leading SEO web site: www.v7n.com in a
sites are bigger than others by several orders of
SEO competition it ran between January 15 2006 and
magnitude. Bigger may be better as far as rankings are
May 15 2006 (Scott, 2005). The aim of the
concerned.PageRank of a web site. Google's PageRank
competition was to see who could rank highest for this
(Brin and Page, 1998) algorithm
particular query by noon on May 15 2006.The
helps rank web sites according to the number of in-
keywords in the query constructed in such a way as to
links, and the calculated authority of each site providing
ensure there were no existing pages that would rank for
the in-link. Generally, the higher a site's PageRank, the
this query before the competition began, and the only
higher its ranking (and the more authority it can confer
pages that would ever rank for it would be those that
to other sites it links to).
would be competing in the competition. The
. Number of in-links to a web
site. Fortunato et al. (2006) speculate that PageRank
participants were leading SEO companies and
can be substituted by in-links as a goodapproximation
individuals. Winning the contest meant not only
of rank.
receiving a cash prize, but also the personal and
. Age of the web site's domain name. The SEO
community currently speculates that older domain
commercial kudos that comes from being seen as the
names will rank more highly than newer domain names
best SEO in the business.Consequently, the competition
for the same content (WebConfs, 2006).Listing in
was fierce, and every page returned for V7ndotcom
Yahoo and DMoz directories. Both Yahoo and
Elursrebmem is highly optimized. Those pages that are
DMoz.org (the Open Directory) are human-edited
returned in the top 50 results, therefore, should reveal
directories whose results feed into directories from
the techniques used by the top SEOs in the field.
other search engine companies such as Yahoo and
Although this approach will not elicit a definitive list of
Google, respectively. Because of the high quality
the factors used in a search
engine's ranking algorithm, it will provide an insight
control of these directories, the sites they list are
deemed to be of high authority, which the search
into the most popular and effective techniques used by
today's leading SEOs
engines may use as one of their ranking factors
. As these techniques clearly work
. Number
of pages listed in Del.icio.us. Del.icio.us is a social
the end result should be just as effective as knowing the
bookmarking site thatenables anyone to bookmark a
set of ranking factors used by the search engines.For
page. Because of its popularity and the fact that a
comparison with this set of results, a separate analysis
bookmark
can
be
interpreted
as
an
implicit
of the results returned for a different, regular query will
recommendation of a page, the number of different
also be conducted. For this second analysis, the query
people who have bookmarked a specific page may add
mobile phones will be used. This query was chosen as
to that page's ranking.
mobile phones are extremely popular devices, with over
2 billion in existence (Wireless Intelligence, 2005); are
Capturing the data
The data was captured using a utility called SEO for
complex enough to require the user to seek information
Firefox from SEOBook.com (SEOBook, 2006). This
before purchasing them; have acquired a large number
extremely useful tool captures a variety of SEO-specific
of both corporate and independent web sites; and are
information for a particular query, and inserts that
information into the results page



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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

returned from either Google or Yahoo.It should be
indexed, a high volume of pages is clearly not needed
noted that the link analysis component of SEO for
to rank highly - quality seemingly counts over
Firefox (and thus of this study) is based on links from
quality.That said, an analysis of the top 50 shows that
Yahoo. This is because the link: operator used by
creating a large number of pages is a technique used by
Google to return the number of links pointing to a page
many SEOs, with some success. Figure 1 shows the
is notoriously unreliable, whereas the Yahoo equivalent
number of pages indexed for the top 50 (number of
is much more accurate. However, although the exact
pages shown on a logarithmic scale). The
number of links to a particular page recorded by Google
majority of pages ranked in the top 27 clearly have
and Yahoo may differ, the
more pages indexed than those that rank between 28
relative difference will remain the same for all links to
and 50.For comparison, Figure 1 shows the number of
pages. Thus as long Yahoo is used consistently for all
pages indexed for the mobile phones set (again, y axis
link analysis, the results will remain valid.
uses logarithmic scale). This reveals a much more
Results and analysis
uniform distribution of pages. The outliers on this graph
The following sections present the results of the study.
are for pages from wikipedia(55,900,000 pages, ranked
For clarity, the results from the
no. 2), Google (9,450,000 pages for its SMS service,
v7n query will be called the v7n set, while the results
ranked number 18), Amazon (116,000,000 pages
from the mobile phones query will be called the mobile
indexed, ranked number 37) and Google again at rank
phones set.Analysis of the top ten results for the query
44.Such enormous sites tend to appear highly in the
V7ndotcom ElursrebmemTable I lists the results of the
rankings for many different terms due to their extreme
analysis of the top 10 results for the query V7ndotcom
size and the large number of pages containing high
Elursrebmem. The winner was Scott Jones's site called,
quality content, and thus can skew the data. It is
unsurprisingly, "V7ndotcom
therefore important to identify exactly which sites
Elursrebmem"(www.v7ndotcomelursrebmem.net).
represent the outliers in the data before determining
However, as if to confirm theuncertainty of search
whether or not they are
engine rankings, this site was number 1 on very few
representative of the results being studied.
Google datacenters, which had been slow to update.
In this case, the outliers can mostly be ignored, as it is
The majority of the datacenters showed Jim
the general trend under observation, but other
Westergen's site (www.jimwestergren.com/v7ndotcom-
researchers should analyze carefully the properties of
elursrebmem/) appearing at number 1 at the time the
the sites they are analyzing, as it is difficult to compare
competition ended. However, when the search was
equivalent sites without first identifying
made at noon on May 15 2006, it was one of the older
the type of site being analyzed. Evans (2006) describes
datacenters that served the results, giving Scott Jones
a method for identifying similar
the win. Just 15 minutes later, this datacenter had
sites for comparative analysis.Conclusion: volume of
updated, placing Jim Westergen's site at no. 1 (v7n,
pages is a factor employed by many SEOs, but with
2006), where it still ranks today. SEO is anything but a
limited results. Google's claim that high quality content
precise science. At first glance, the results presented in
beats low quality seems to be borne
Table I, and indeed of the top 50, show a wide variance
out (although spammers can still get high results if they
for each individual factor. However, the techniques
are not too obvious in other areas)
used by each SEO

competitor become clearer, as the following analysis

shows.






Number of pages indexed
For the top ten results, the number of pages of
individual sites indexed by Google range from two to
21,600. Widening the result set to the top 50, this range
increases from two to 334,000, with some SEO
competitors clearly attempting to influence the
rankings through sheer volume. However, with the
second placed competitor having only eight pages



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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

Figure 2. 55,000,000 pages indexed, only a very small
proportion of which are relevant to the
mobile phones query).In contrast, the v7n set is more
focused, with every page specific to the v7n
competition, and thus to the v7n queryAnalyzing the
percentage of pages having a specific PageRank shows
a disparitybetween the two sets of results. The mobile
phones set has an average PageRank 5.84,
compared with 4.5 for v7n, reflecting the longer amount
of time the mobile phone pages
have had to earn their high PageRanks.More interesting
is the broader distribution of PageRank values for the
mobile phone set. With the v7n set, the standard
deviation is just 0.16, with 78 percent of the pages
having a PR4 or PR5. This compares with the mobile
phone set, which has a standard deviation of 0.89. It's
clear from this that attaining a high PageRank was
obviously a tactic employed by the SEOs, but given the
short amount of time they had
to accumulate their PageRank value, PR5 was the
highest most of them could achieve (only one achieved
the highest value in the set of PR7, which was ranked at
no. 5). In contrast, PR accumulated naturally for the
mobile phone set over a long period of time (ten years,
in some cases), hence the broader distribution of values.
Conclusion: PageRank is still extremely important in

ranking highly, but a high

PageRank will only make it probable that your page

will rank highly. Other factorsplay a role that may
PAGERANK OF A WEB SITE
negate a high PageRank.Number of in-links shows the
The PageRank of the top ten from the v7n set ranged
number of page in-links for the v7n set (with the
from PageRank 4 (PR4) throughto PR7. Figure shows
removal of theoutlier at rank 26, which, with 173,000
the frequency distribution of PageRank, which clearly
in-links, is some five times that of its nearest
shows how important PageRank is to a page's ranking.
competitor). Note that these figures reflect the number
For example, no page with aPageRank less than 4
of in-links to a specific page,rather than to the whole
ranked at all within the top 40. However, despite the
web site. The trend clearly shows a decline in the
obvious importance of PageRank, it is impossible to
number of in-links as the rankings fall. In contrast,
state that a specific page with a certain
there is no apparent declining trend for mobile phones
PageRank will rank higher than other pages with a
This can be explained by the number of pages returned
lower PageRank; only that high PageRank pages tend to
by Google for the mobile phones query (83.7 million),
rank higher than lower PageRank pages.
and the length of time the top 50 mobile phone sites
Comparing the PageRank distribution for the v7n set
have had to accumulate in-links (up to ten years). The
with the mobile phones set reveals a broader
trend would surely be downwards as the rank number
distribution of the PageRank values for the mobile
increases, and it would be interesting to see at which
phones set. This is due to different types of web site all
point in the
ranking highly for the query mobilephones, each with
rankings the downward trend becomes apparent for
its own individual properties that will impact upon a
such a mature query.
search engine'sranking algorithm. For example, some
DOMAIN AGE
web sites may rank highly without the whole site being
Domain age (i.e. the date at which each domain was
specific to mobile phones (e.g. Wikipedia, ranked no. 2
registered) has been posited as an important factor in
with PR6, but over
the ranking of a site, as older domain names are said to
be inferred by Google's ranking algorithm as conveying
more trust, and therefore should rank higher than newer



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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

domains.Analysing the domain age for both the v7n and
mobile phone sets reveals a marked difference between
the two, in terms of the modal average age. For the v7n
set, the modal average of first registration is 2004 ,
corresponding to an age of two years, whilst for the
mobile phones set, the average is 2000, or six years .
Note that the data for the v7n set is limited to 17
domains out of the 50 web sites analyzed, as no data
could be found for the remaining 33. This discrepancy
is clearly to be expected, given that the v7n contest only
began on January 15 2006, and most of the web sites in
the top 50 were created specifically for the contest.
What is interesting, however, is that despite this, some
of the web sites' ages are up to ten years old! This
occurs because the SEOs used an old domain that had
been registered many years before the contest began,
and populated it with content specific to the v7n query.
As such, they were relying on the domain already
having an element of trust within Google's ranking
algorithm, in order to get a higher ranking than a brand
new domain. The number of SEO pages using this

technique shows how popular it is amongst the SEO
the top 10 sites and the remaining sites, and only 22
community. However, there is no discernible trend in
percent of sites in the whole set being included.Being
the domain age results, with the number one ranked site
listed in DMoz is notoriously difficult, however, with
being only a year old at the time the contest ended,
lead times of six months to a year before an entry
while the oldest site, at ten years old, is ranked number
submission is actually included, due to the fact that
36. However, the data in this particular sample is
human volunteers must judge each and every entry.
limited, so no firm conclusion can be made about the
With the v7n contest only running for four months, it is
success of this technique. What can be concluded,
to be expected that so few sites were listed. It is
however, is that it is a technique widely used amongst
interesting to note, however, that of those listed, over
the SEO community.
twice as many rank in the top ten as for the remaining
Turning to the mobile phones set (Figure ), there is a
ranks.
much broader distribution of ages, centred around those
Conclusion: Being listed in DMoz is a technique
that are six years old. Interestingly, no web site appears
employed by the successful SEOs. Yahoo directory
in the top 100 that is less than two years old. Equally,
submission,The results of the Yahoo directory
despite there being no obvious correlation between age
submission analysis were less conclusive, as so few of
in the top 20, as Figure shows, there is a clear trend for
the v7n set had a Yahoo directory entry. Only 14
the average web site age for those sites ranked from 21-
percent of sites were listed compared with 90 percent of
80. Although not conclusive proof,
the mobile phones set. The reason for this is
it does lend credence to the idea that domain age plays
an important role in a page's
presumably the fact that entry into the Yahoo directory
ranking.
costs $300 and again may take several months for a site
Conclusion: Domain age is perceived as an important
to be listed. Consequently, with a high initial outlay and
factor by SEOs, and initial results suggest there may be
no guarantee that an entry will even appear in the
some truth to this. DMoz directory submissions shows
Yahoo directory in time for the contest's closure date, it
the number of sites listed in The Open Directory for the
appears that very few SEOs attempted this option. As
v7n set and the mobile phones set. The mobile phones
such, no conclusion can be drawn on this
set is consistently high, with 80 percent of sites
result.Del.icio.us bookmarks The number of pages
included in the directory. In contrast, the v7n set shows
bookmarked in Del.icio.us for both the v7n set and the
a marked difference between
mobile phone set also shows a notable disparity.
Del.icio.us links will only appear if people choose to
bookmark them. Although this appears to be a fail-safe
way of determining a page's popularity a bookmark



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20008 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology

does not, of course, give any indication of the intention
CONCLUSION
of the bookmarker. As such, a page can appear popular
This paper has presented the results of a study into the
simply by the page's author encouraging as many
techniques used by top SEOs to
people as possible to bookmark it for reasons other than
rank their web pages no. 1 in a SEO competition. After
popularity. One example might be a plea to "add this
describing the experimental
page to del.icio.us to help me win this SEO contest!"As
design and methodology used, the results of the study
can be seen in Figure 7, there does appear to be a trend
were as follows Many SEOs generated many pages to
in the number of sites being bookmarked in Del.icio.us
influence rankings, which proved a partial,
for the v7n set, with more of the high ranking sites
if limited, success.High PageRank in Google clearly
appearing in del.icio.us than the lower ranking sites.
plays a major part in a page's rankings, and
This does not imply that a high ranking in del.icio.us
attaining a high PageRank was a goal of most of the
necessarily affects the ranking; just that the successful
SEOs. However a PR of a particular rank will not
SEOs chose to use del.icio.us as a high-ranking
necessarily rank higher than a PR of a lower rank.The
technique more frequently than the less successful
more successful SEOs attracted many in-links to their
SEOs.That said, the number of bookmarks gained from
page, with a clear trend showing declining in-links for
del.icio.us for each site was low, with only nine out of
lower rankings. Accordingly, attracting
the 50 web sites receiving more than ten bookmarks.
many in-links is another technique used by SEOs that
However, one site stands out with 1,562 bookmarks
would appear to have a good deal of success.A listing
(rank number 25), although the site itself (Google
in DMoz is a technique favoured by the more
Blogoscoped (Lenssen, 2003)) is a blog that has been
successful SEOs.Many SEOs use older domains for
running since 2003 and which has a large readership,
higher rankings, and there may be truth that
rather than a site designed specifically for the contest.
this is a successful technique.The more successful
In contrast, the number of pages with del.icio.us
pages had more del.icio.us bookmarks
bookmarks in the mobile phones set is very high, with

only four out of the top 50 sites not having any links at
all. The number of bookmarks is also much greater per

page, with only 16 having fewer than ten bookmarks,
and the range varying from 0 to 7,940.Conclusion: 92
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811


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