A common misconception about search engines is that they're built on the principal of popularity. Many people mistakenly believe the bigger a website is, the more traffic it gets, and the higher it will rank as a result. Fortunately for smaller websites, search engines care less about popularity and more about trust.
Trust in any relationship is built on many signals, the most important of which are reliability, credibility, and honesty. Prove that you follow these principals, and trust will follow.
Search engines are primarily concerned with providing results that create good user experiences, because good experience leads to trust in and continued use of a particular search engine. In order to do this, they rely on sites that, time and again, generate happy customers. First and foremost, good search engine optimization takes this into account.
For websites, reliability signals come in a number of forms:
Nobody wants to see a "Page Not Found" message when on a website. Limit the number of 404s on your site, and increase your site's reliability. Programs such as Screaming Frog can help identify pages that lead to 404s.
Search engines know people are incredibly impatient. The average individual is only willing to wait about 3 seconds for a website to load. Any longer than that and they're likely to bounce back to the search results page and try a different site. Try running your site through Google's site speed test and remedying any issues that pop up.
Get yourself a good host who provides excellent customer service and has limited downtimes. Although some server downtimes are unavoidable, make sure your host can be trusted. Here's a list of September 2013's most reliable hosting sites. A little downtime is not the end of the world, however, as it will take days, not hours, for downtime to significantly affect your site's rankings.
There's a reason doctors post their credentials in their offices: people pay attention to them. Search engines are no different. Here are a few things that can help establish your website's credibility.
Links from High Level Sources
All links are not created equal. If you look at links as recommendations, a recommendation for a doctor from a Johns Hopkins professor of Medicine whose webpage is located on jhu.edu is going to carry a lot more weight than a recommendation from the first person on the street who happened to pass by and whose website is joesblog.wordpress.com. Relevance is also key, as are links from credential sites such as professional organizations. A green home builder with a link on energystar.gov is going to have significantly more credibility than one with a link on buygreenlinks.biz.
Although it is arguable whether or not reviews actually influence search engine rankings, they can't hurt, and on websites such as Yelp, Urban Spoon, and Trip Advisor, ratings can significantly sway an individual's choice to use your service. Work on increasing positive reviews on these sites, as well as Google+, not with a myopic focus on search engine rankings, but with the goal of increasing your online credibility. Make sure you follow each site's guidelines, as different rules for soliciting reviews exist for each.
Your Online Presence
Is your website a good resource? Is your blog informative, helpful, and authoritative? If yes, links will follow naturally, the way they were meant to. It doesn't hurt to establish your reputation throughout your industry, not just on your own site, and a guest post now and again never hurt anybody.
You wouldn't trust someone who frequently tried to deceive you, so why should search engines trust sites that use deceptive SEO practices to sneak up the rankings. If you're doing SEO solely for search engines, you're doing it wrong. First and foremost in any SEO campaign should be the user's experience. Search engines are getting better at identifying the sites that truly deserve to rank, taking into account many of the aforementioned signals, and it's no longer necessary to:
- Keyword stuff
- Submit to low quality directories
- Get excessive exact keyword match anchor links
Because Google especially is doling out penalties by the hundreds to sites that use deceptive tactics, it is no longer a viable option to use deceptive strategies, as one of the goals of search engines is to eliminate artificially inflated rankings. Just because you may be getting away with it doesn't mean they won't eventually catch on. Play it safe and do it the right way.
The Golden Rule of internet marketing is: Add Quality to the Internet. If you follow that rule in all you do, rankings and traffic will follow. Search engines rely on trust, and establishing that through reliable, credible, and honest internet marketing will send signals that your site is worthy of that trust.