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SEO Quality Indicators & The Heap Paradox

I recently held a poll on Twitter about whether a Yahoo Directory link was necessary if you are building a website in a high-competion niche. Most people said yes, a few said “not necessary.” Ugh. I hate when there’s no consensus.

Thankfully this got me thinking about SEO in general and my view that modern search engines basically sum up Quality Indicators when it comes to evaluating a website. And further thinking reminded me of this interesting puzzle I encountered as an undergraduate student in my philosophy elective course.

So I’ll do my best to accurately describe this problem as I remember it. If my description is not entirely perfect, you can consult the Wikipedia entry here. So there’s this classic paradox in philosophy that asks you to consider when exactly a heap becomes a heap. Take one grain of sand. Add another. Do two grains make a heap? How about ten? How about 100? Clearly one million grains of sand would make a heap right?

  • The paradox enters when you try to identify clear points of division between a heap and a non-heap. Is there an exact number of grains that makes a heap where if you were to remove one grain it would cease to be a heap?

Let’s leave answering this problem to the philosophers. As SEO professionals, we’re concerned with much more practical matters … like rank. Still there is a lesson to be learned from the Heap Paradox.

Search Engines are consistently aiming to return the most relevant results. As such, they are constantly tuning their algorithms to identify “quality” for their results. What makes quality? Old age? Lots of links? Links from trusted and powerful sources? Good design and CSS semantics? Editorial references? A 1-800 number? An address? A Yahoo Directory link? And finally let’s add to this stream-of-conscience list the idea that having a “brand” is a quality indicator?

The fact of the matter is that there is no single, definitive recipe for what makes a quality site. Answering the question “what makes a quality site?” is like answering the question “what makes a heap of sand?” There are clear cases of both, but there’s no clear line of division between quality and non-quality.

If your goal is to create a heap of sand, your best bet is to leave no question and gather so many grains of sand that you clearly have a heap. The same goes for a quality website. Your best bet is to go overboard and steadily increase the number of Quality Indicators on your site while reducing negative factors.

Now on to the part you really care about;-)

10 Quality Indicators You Should Aim For As A Serious SEO

1) A physical address listed on the website

An address says to both Google and your visitors “I’m not some punk in my parent’s basement who’s trying to make a quick buck.” Even if you are a punk living in your parent’s basement, at last hide that fact by paying the small monthly fee for a Suite/POBox address.

2) A toll-free number

Again, this does the same thing as an address. Get one and point it to voice mail (unless you plan to staff a person to answer the phone)

3) Lean Code and Meaty Content

Lots of issues I could cover here. First, the less code the better. The goal is to have more actual content then html or javascript. Get start by cleaning up your website’s design template. Second, and related, don’t copy and paste from Microsoft Word into your blogging platforms Visual Editor lest you trash your article with miles and miles of junk code.

For an example of ultra-lean code, check out reddit (no meaningless line breaks or spaces).

4) Content up top

Always make sure that your content shows up in the top 1/3 of the HTML source code.

5) Proper Tag Usage

I could try to explain this in this article, but it would best if you read about it over here.

6) Outgoing Link Quality

I think of this as a defensive measure that protects your site from getting flagged for link spam. As a general rule for a new site I link out sparingly and when I do link out, I only link out to established, trusted, sites.

7) Incoming Link Quality

Aim to get 20 high quality links from 20 different quality websites. One place to start is the Yahoo Directory and Next, you should aim to build content that other sites will enjoy linking to. This sets the stage for everything that follows, so do it well.

8) Incoming Link Breadth

The more sites you get links from the better.

9) Incoming Link Depth

After a while, it’s easy to plateau on the link breadth side of things. By now your site is trustworthy enough to go after some Run Of Site links (blogrolls, etc.)

10) Internal Linking

A bunch of stuff here. First, you should nofollow pages that you don’t really need to rank. Second, you should find all relevant places on your site to link to other pages on your site that you do want to rank. Third, you should shape your linking so that your site doesn’t have much if any duplicate content.

Bonus: Visibility & Branding

Google had recently announced that they are placing heavy value on “brands” in their search results. What exactly this means is up for debate, but I would worry about the specifics. The idea is that you want to wide site visibility across the web. You want mainstream news mentions. You want to show up on twitter, on myspace, on facebook. You want to be present on old crusty websites, breaking news blogs, and everything in between.

Unless Google’s indicator for “brand” takes information from AdWords spending (after all, big brands are inclined to be big ad spenders), the best you can do here is just contrive as many opportunities as possible to expose your site to the social networks, the social media and the mainstream media. Press releases might help too, I’m not sure (I’ve not had much success with press releases). My bet, though, is that at the end of the day, you want the name of your website to become a household name, with a massive footprint all over all kinds of neighborhoods on the great big world wide web.

Advanced: Semantics

It’s critical to make the search engines intensely aware of what your site is about. Sometimes this requires that you bang them over the head. Everything on your site, from tags to incoming links, serve as clues to what your site is about. Don’t be afraid to reinforce common themes with slight variation. If your site is about t-shirts, make sure that term and similar terms are clearly present in your internal linking structure. Make sure lots of your page titles have that word. Make sure that incoming links and outgoing links from your site have that word. There are thousands of quality websites out there that have done the hard work of building authority yet forgot the easy work of making sure their “semantics” are laser targeted.


The idea for this post came from a question I had while building out a user-friendly credit card search site (which happens to be a terrible niche to get into right now with the economic crisis at hand). The question was: should I submit this site to the Yahoo Directory or not? I haven’t used the Yahoo Directory much in the past, as I’ve managed to build successful sites without it. But I’m fully aware that this niche is extremely competitive. Yet for some reason I thought to myself that one single link couldn’t really make much of a difference.

That was the wrong way to think of things. The Heap Paradox is informative because it shows us that the solution to our problem as SEOs does not lay in debating whether each individual piece of sand is necessary. Instead, if our ultimate goal is to build a heap, we should aim to pile up as many grains of sand as we can possibly get our hands on. The same goes with building a quality site. You should never ask yourself the question “is this quality indicator essential.” Instead, the best way to go about building a site is to say to yourself “I’m going to accumulate as many quality indicators as possible so there is no longer any question as to whether my site counts as a quality site.”

If you’d like help improving your site’s quality indicators, Ryan would be glad to help. Please see his consulting page for more information at Ryan Caldwell Consulting.

Category SEO

Ryan Caldwell

Ryan Caldwell, along with many other things, is currently working with a good friend to build a web hosting review ...

SEO Quality Indicators & The Heap Paradox

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