Many webmasters and website marketers have a misconception of what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) really involves. They believe if their website is SEO-perfect (if there is such a thing), they will earn and hold the top position for a keyword.

The fact is, there are three core attributes to SEO and each piece plays into one another:

  1. Relevance to Query (on-page SEO)
  2. Popularity & Visibility
  3. User Choice & Sustainability

1. Relevance to Query (on-page SEO)

Making sure your website is search engine-friendly, with structured pages targeting specific keyword themes is the first step.

This also means that people should actually like the content enough to want to link to it, share it, buzz it, tweet it, Facebook it (huh?) and reference it in their own articles and interpretations. Ergo, content is king. You can over-optimize a website all you want, but time, trust, and popularity will be the ultimate driver of ranking. Hopefully this will explain why Wikipedia ranks so well for just about any topic.

2. Popularity & Visibility

To get to page 1 of the search results for a competitive keyword, other websites must “vote” for the page (or at a minimum, the homepage) of the target website with a natural/organic pattern of growth and themed link text variations.

For those of you have considered buying $5k worth of back links from various vendors to satisfy Google’s popularity criteria, be warned. Google’s PhD’s have created an algorithm that detects a pulse from your online marketing activities. Like Santa, Googlebot knows when your site is sleeping and when it’s awake. If your pulse suddenly increases then suddenly dies, so will whatever ranking you have earned. You’ll be celebrating on Tuesday and putting your resume out on Thursday.

Earning links, mentions, visibility and brand equity takes authenticity, useful content, and enough buzz from Internet users to satisfy sustainability. In other words, don’t game the system, you will lose.

3. User Choice & Sustainability

To get to the top spot on the 1st page of the search results for a competitive keyword, users must select the target webpage in the search results more than other results and not return to the search results to select a different result.

For every search conducted, an “impression” is recorded in Google’s database. With every selection made in the search results, a “click” is recorded in Google’s database. The ratio of clicks to impressions is referred to as click-through rate (CTR), which is by far the most important search engine optimization ranking criteria of anything else.

The only action that can void a high CTR is a high “bounce-back rate” to Google’s search results, where the searcher ultimately finds what they were looking for within a different selection. Just imagine Google whispering to itself, “well, I guess that result wasn’t very relevant to what they were searching for”.

Don’t bother paying for clicks, if the ratio of searches increases respective to the number of selections, the corresponding selection will be flagged and filtered out. Bummer, right?

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A Few Other Notes

Added 1/17/11. Leonard Roach points out in his SEO Tips for Blogs post, to “keep creating original content on a normal basis”, a point few webmasters and site owners never consider when it comes to originality and usefulness of a website. Case in point, an SEO Webinar website (like this one) that posts free tips such as the Three Basic SEO Principles you’re reading now. Write great, useful content, and your website traffic from search engines will grow over time.