Natural rankings: The equalizer

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When performing an online search on just about any given subject, a person is likely to see a variety of sources for results, including listings of Fortune 100 companies and postings of small organizations. So do search engines favor one site over another, or one company over another, when determining how to return results?

The playing field is still fairly equal, though variations do exist between engines. Success hinges on relevant content and an understanding of natural search-optimization techniques. Applying best practices can help influence the result.

One good practice is to consider optimization for phrases rather than single terms. For example, searching for "flowers" delivers results that include types of flowers and gardening tips. However, if the intent is to buy a flower arrangement, searching for "buy flowers online" or "buy flowers in Washington DC" returns more relevant results. A site optimized this way is more likely to appear among the top results because it targets a phrase rather than a single word, which typically means less competition and greater relevance for the searcher, making conversion or purchase more likely.

Remember also to optimize for phrases used in direct mail and other offline campaigns. People may remember campaign headlines and taglines and conduct a search using these terms.

Also consider leveraging social search. Increasingly, user-generated content and reviews are interspersed in search-engine results. For example, Google Co-Op results are displayed for certain categories, such as health, destinations and auto. Google Co-Op is a platform that enables people to customize their search experience by subscribing to other links or by creating their own link subscription. A search on Google for a term such as "diabetes," for example, will include options above the natural results for narrowing the search, such as "treatment," "symptoms," "for patients" and "causes/risk factors." Google is displaying these options to all Google users based on reviews from contributing editors such as the Mayo Clinic, Health on the Net Foundation and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Social search will continue to develop as consumers become more aware of sites such as Del.icio.us, Digg.com and others that allow users to provide ratings and feedback and assign keywords to a site themselves through shared bookmarks. Most of these social mechanisms are free.

Following some simple rules for natural search can bring a small site results just as high as a large one receives. The key is to provide relevant content and the kind of user experience that is likely to generate good reviews.

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