Search engine results: Only the first page counts!

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"Only the first page counts" is a paraphrase of Marshall Simmonds, search guru of the New York Times Company, which (if that's not enough SEO cred for you already) owns a little business unit called About.com.

Simmonds' point was that SEO is about bringing people to your site, and the first page of search engine results is where all the clicks happen.

All the clicks? Well, pretty close. Yahoo once published a chart that showed the breakdown of clicks by SERP (search engine results page) position, rounded off here:

  1. 42%
  2. 12%
  3. 8%
  4. 6%
  5. 4%
  6. 3%
  7. 3%
  8. 3%
  9. 3%
  10. 3%

It's old data and may predate the one-box and blended search and embedded shopping results and various other developments. Nevertheless, that's nearly half the clicks for any search going to the top-ranked item. Even if the numbers have changed a bit, it's safe to say that a huge number of people performing any particular search don't even look lower than the top result, and only a small fraction bother to look at the second page.

What does this mean for you and me? Does it mean that your articles landing on page two are worthless failures in the search context?

Just the opposite! Second-pagers are practically free money. They're the proverbial low-hanging, ripe, ready-to-pick fruit. (Dredge up your own additional clichés and paste them here). 

A page-two item is often one that just needs a little more focus in its presentation. Time spent polishing up these articles, lists or database may well be the most productive time you spend on SEO. These pieces have already demonstrated some appeal to search engines. They're primed to start bringing new visitors to your site.

You just have to push them up to page one of the search results.

So how do you do that?

Here's a checklist of 7 SEO tips to move your content from page 2 to page 1 in search results:

1. Double-check the basics. Is the keyword phrase used early in the 

- headline

- deck or kicker

- and first paragraph?

2. Add subheads to the article, obviously using the keywords. Preferably these subhead should use the <h2> or <h3> tag, although <b> is also useful.

3. Add links to the article from others on your site. Ideally these should be topically related, but it's not crucial that they cover exactly the same topic. What is more important is that these links have the desired keywords in the anchor text.

This is very simple to do. Let's say I've got a Page Two article about hot tubs. I use my site search to find other articles that use the term "hot tubs". I go into my CMS and in each of these articles, I turn that exact term into a link to my target article (possibly encorporating some additional surrounding text if that's a better link).

4. Create topically relevant promotional spots on your site. Look at the Essential Reading box on the right-hand column on CSOonline's landing pages, e.g. http://www.csoonline.com/topic/587702/cloud-security.

5. Update the content of the article itself. And make sure to note in the text that it's updated. As I've mentioned previously in this column, we do this with lists such as The Security Certification Directory.

6. Add relevant materials to the page.

Add boxes, a bookshelf, or an image, all of them using the appropriate keywords. See for example Organized Crime and Retail Theft: Facts and Myths. This online presentation evolved over time, with the addition of the bookshelf and a photograph. Actually I think this is a nice testimony to the development of search engines' algorithms – they reward rich and varied information packages.

7. Re-promote the content. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs, newsletters, home page, roundup articles – the usual suspects. This is particularly logical if you've updated the article. You'll occasionally find me tweeting "Made a few minor updates to [such-and-such article]" or "BTW, have you ever taken the clean desk test?" This process will hopefully garner your article a new link or three, and more links equals more Google juice. That will also help search engines recrawl the page more quickly.

Putting these 7 SEO tips into practice

So you ask: Does this work? Of course it does. As with everything I write about SEO, it starts with excellent content. This is not a substitute for great content. Once you've got great content, this exercise is a matter of making sure people can find it. It won't work 100% of the times you try, but some solid percentage of your Page Two articles should see a worthwhile uptick in search traffic.

Let's try a proof-of-concept experiment. Here are five Page Two-ers for my site, as of 7/7/2010.

SAS 70

Ranks #11 on Google search results for "SAS 70" (an auditing standard).

End to end encryption

#12 for "end to end encryption".

Social engineering: the basics

#14 for "social engineering". If you aren't in the security profession, this one's still fun to read. It's about how people trick others into giving up valuable information. 

How to compare and use legal hold software

#16 for "legal hold". Also #17 for "legal hold software".

The DDOS attack survival guide

#18 for "DDOS attack". DDOS is distributed denial of service, a method of flooding a computer with so many requests that it essentially grinds to a halt.

Four of these articles are in-depth pieces with good reporting and analysis, and the fifth is a roundup pointing to lots of good resources. Some are old, some are new. People who find these articles via search spend more time on my site and have a lower bounce rate than the site averages. So these are articles Web searchers find very useful. 

Let's see if over the next several months I can improve the labeling and clarify or update the content in these articles and help them move up higher in Google's rankings. 

What about you – have any articles itching to move onto the first page? Give this process a shot and check your results.

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