Rand Fishkin knows how valuable it is for a website to rank high in a Google search. But even he, president of an SEO (search-engine optimisation) firm, was blown away by a proposal he received when he was a panellist at an SEO conference in London, February 2007.

‘Can a poker site rank highly on a Google search using purely white hat tactics – so no spamming, cloaking, link farms or other frowned-upon ‘black hat’ practices?’

Fishkin answered yes, provided the site added other marketing techniques and attracted some media attention.

The rest of the panel scoffed. “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” one chided. After all, this is the cut-throat online gambling sector we’re talking about.

But one poker website owner was intrigued, and he later approached Fishkin. He said, “If you can get us a search ranking in the top five for ‘online poker’ or ‘gambling’ [using white hat methods], we’ll buy that site from you for $10m,” recalls Fishkin, president and CEO of SEOmoz in Seattle. Intrigued but sceptical, Fishkin consulted other gambling site owners at the conference. They said, “If it really does rank there, we might be interested in paying you $10m more.”

A single online gambling customer brings in at least £500 in revenue. With a recent UK Google search of ‘Texas Holdem Poker’ yielding 420,000 results, it’s easy to see why site owners would pay millions to crack the code for Google’s PageRank algorithm.

The stakes are high for online businesses, and Google is the formidable gatekeeper between site owners and their customers. Kinderstart (www.kinderstart.com) is one of a handful of websites that’s sued Google for alleged ’deliberate de-rankings’, although none has been successful to date. A US court dismissed Kinderstart’s claims in March.

Site owners are eager to get their hands on the 75 percent of free Google traffic that’s not affected by AdSense and AdWords, Google’s pay-per-click programs. With 47 percent market share among search engines and three billion search enquiries a month, Google is king.

“Being at the top of Google is probably the most important factor in your whole marketing plan online,” says Chris Winfield, president of 10e20 LLC, a search marketing and web solutions company.

Deceptive black hat tactics run rampant among highly competitive websites, but they’re now under the watchful eye of Google’s spam group, which identifies deceptive practices and then quashes the problem – sometimes by devaluing the site’s ranking or relinquishing it to the supplemental index, which in effect means ‘no priority’. Google, however, says it takes steps to help sites identify and fix the problem so they can apply for re-inclusion. Pursuing white hat, legal tactics to raise a search engine ranking has become a top priority.
Google acknowledges the influence that its algorithms have in the web world, but officials say that – just like Spiderman – with great power comes great responsibility. No decision to devalue or omit a website is made without the algorithm behind it.

“Just because somebody doesn’t like Google, it certainly is no reason to take any action [against it],” says Matt Cutts, senior engineer and Google’s de facto liaison to the webmaster community. “We care about spam and the quality of the results. That’s purely about whether the site is abiding by our quality guidelines.”
But playing by the rules can be frustrating. Even Winfield has cried foul, citing a search for translation services. “It amazes me that five out of 10 results were for the same website and it was completely irrelevant. When I see things like that, it boggles my mind,” Winfield says.

But he’s quick to add that Google was “great for feedback” to an inquiry about the issue. “It can be frustrating that Google controls so much, but it does care.”

What’s in the secret sauce?

PageRank is Google’s trademarked process where a numeric value represents how important a page is on the web. But that’s only part of the formula. The secret sauce, much like many recipes in the food world, is a matter of how much of each ingredient is being used.

While there’s a bevy of information on the web about the primary parts of the algorithm, Google remains elusive on most of the 200 factors it uses to score pages and decide which page goes to the top of the results.
“There isn’t one answer any more. The majority of factors we don’t talk about,” Cutts says. “A lot of people have theories, but we don’t usually confirm the theories.”

Cutts freely offers clues, including placing keywords in the title, headings and even the URL, and keeping related words close together. He points to many tips that Google offers on its site to raise a site’s search ranking, as well as web forums and conferences for communicating. But some say Google’s tips are often ambiguous.

“We deploy all the techniques that Google approves of and they have given those measures out on their guideline pages,” says Atul Gupta, president and CEO of RedAlkemi, a search engine marketing and web-development firm in India. “But not all of it is in plain and simple language that anyone can understand. For example, it says, ‘We will reward links from old pages’ [that have important information]. Then in the next sentence, it says, ‘We’ll reward pages that are freshly updated because they’re newsworthy.’ So one has to figure out what Google really wants and how much it wants it.”

Page link mysteries

Even mathematicians familiar with the equations used to create the PageRank algorithm struggle with other non-numeric factors. David Austin, a maths professor at Grand Valley State University, who published a paper on cracking Google’s algorithm, says the secret sauce is really a popularity contest wrapped in linear algebra.

“It’s like you’re having a popularity contest and you think everybody gets a vote, so I can vote for as many people as I want to,” Austin says. “So if I vote for 10 people, I give everyone 1/10th of a vote. So who wins?”
But then Google goes further. “It takes a second pass through it, and looks at who voted for who,” he explains. Google assigns a value to the importance of the site that casts the vote (or links to a site), and that site can pass on its popularity and importance to the site it linked to.

Gupta chisels away at the PageRank algorithm simply by looking at what the number one ranked sites are doing.

“We have identified 250 parameters that Google studies to rank a site,” he says. “We’ve got labs where people are constantly monitoring the impact of each. But the birds-eye view is, how can we make a site simply perform well in the natural course?”

Execution: the hard part

Google’s Cutts says that creating a high-ranking website is easy. Just focus on the customer and create compelling content that’s ‘buzzworthy’, vital, or that provides some sort of service or resource that a reader would want to bookmark. Pretend Google isn’t even there.

He points to comparisons between two English-to-Japanese translation websites. One site is like a brochure with only four or five pages. The higher-ranking site includes a tutorial about how to write your name in Japanese, as well as information about different Japanese dialects. “It’s that kind of creativity and information that hooks people,” Cutts says. “This kind of compelling content is exactly what helps you crack Google’s code.”

Pro Acoustics, an acoustic equipment, consulting and design service company in Texas, followed Google’s guidelines and worked with RedAlkemi to redesign its website for higher page rankings. It has doubled traffic every year for the past four years. “We probably have 100 keywords we work at all the time... and I think we have a good handle on it,” says Pro Acoustics’ Emery Kertesz.

Kertesz says the key to a high page rank is to correctly present relevant information, including title tags, meta tags and links. His site usually ranks among the top 10 in his category. But he won’t rest on his current ranking.

“Nobody is very satisfied with their ranking,” Kertesz says. “More is better, higher is better. Everybody’s in a death battle for money and ranking.”

As for the offer of $10m or more for Fishkin to develop a poker site that ranked in the top five results, he said “We’re still weighing it, but the general sentiment is that the effort and time required would force us to abandon a lot of other projects and clients – even then it’s a gamble, so we are leaning away from the offer.”