For a web search engine, the retrieval of data is a combination activity of the crawler (or spider or robot), the database, and the search algorithm. These three elements work in concert to retrieve web pages that are related to the word or phrase that a user enters into the search engine’s user interface. As noted earlier, how that works can be a proprietary combination of technologies, theories, and coding whizbangery.
The really tricky part is the results ranking. Ranking is also what you’ll spend the most time and effort trying to affect. Your ranking in a search engine determines how often people see your page, which affects everything from revenue to your advertising budget. Unfortunately, how a search engine ranks your page or pages is a tough science to pin down.
The most that you can hope for, in most cases, is to make an educated guess as to how a search engine ranks its results, and then try to tailor your page to meet those results. But keep in mind that although retrieval and ranking are listed as separate subjects here, they’re actually part of the search algorithm. The separation is to help you better understand how search engines work.
Ranking plays such a large part in search engine optimization that it appears frequently in this book. You’ll look at ranking from every possible facet before you reach the last page; but for now, let’s look at just what affects ranking. Keep in mind, however, that different search engines
use different ranking criteria, so the importance each of these elements plays will vary.

■ Location: Location doesn’t refer here to the location (as in the URL) of a web page. Instead, it refers to the location of keywords and phrases on a web page. For example, if a user searches for ‘‘babies ,’’ some search engines will rank the results according to
where on the page the word ‘‘babies’’ appears. Obviously, the higher the word appears on the page, the higher the rank might be. Therefore, a web site that contains the word ‘‘babies’’ in the title tag will likely appear higher than a web site that is about babies but does not contain the word in the title tag. This means that a web site that’s not
designed with SEO in mind will likely not rank where you would expect it to rank. The site is a good example of this. In a recent Google search, it ranked as the sixth item in the results, rather than first, potentially because it does not contain the keyword in the title tag.
■ Frequency: The frequency with which the search term appears on the page may also affect how a page is ranked in search results. For example, on a page about puppies, one that uses the word five times might be ranked higher than one that uses the word only two or three times. When word frequency became a well-known factor, some web site designers began using hidden words hundreds of times on pages, trying to artificially boost their page rankings. Most search engines now recognize this as keyword spamming and ignore or even refuse to list pages that use this technique.
■ Links: One of the more recent ranking factors is the type and number of links on a webpage. Links that come into the site, links that lead out of the site, and links within the site are all taken into consideration. It would follow, then, that the more links you have on your page or leading to your page, the higher your rank would be, right? Again, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. More accurately, the number of relevant links coming into your page, versus the number of relevant links within the page, versus the number of relevant links leading off the page has a bearing on the rank that your page gets in the search results.

■ Click-throughs: One last element that might determine how your site ranks against others in a search is the number of click-throughs your site has versus click-throughs for other pages that are shown in page rankings. Because a search engine cannot monitor site traffic for every site on the Web, some search engines monitor the number of clicks each search result receives. The rankings may then be repositioned in a future search, based on this
interaction with users. Page ranking is a very precise science. As previously mentioned, it’s accomplished by assigning
a quality score, based on numerous factors, to a web site; and it differs from search engine to search engine. To create the best possible SEO for your site, it’s necessary to understand how these page rankings are made for the search engines you plan to target. Those factors can then be taken into consideration and used to your advantage when it is time to create, change, or update the web site that you want to optimize. Understanding how a search engine ranks a web site is no easy task, and ultimately it ends with some educated guesswork. One way to become educated is to read what others have learned about how specific search engines rank web sites. I try to decode the mystery a little by providing some tips and information about the top three search engines — Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. But bear in mind that search engines change constantly based on how Internet users behave online. What’s true of search engine ranking today may not be tomorrow. This is evidenced by the value placed on keywords
today versus what it was just a few years ago.