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Each search engine ranks differently. In the past, search engines such as Altavista or Excite used a system that was based on page content, formatting, and the content of metadata tags. Extra attention was given to bolded text or keywords and summaries in the head of the HTML document.

Webmasters figured that out quickly. And for several years, they packed their websites with bogus content to trick the search engines into giving them a high ranking. One thing they would do is have a single word or phrase repeated 10,000 times, displayed white on white, black on black, or color on color so the user would not see it… but the search engines did. Due to the misuse of this, search engines no longer trust content of a web page to determine its rank. They only trust the relevance to a particular topic. However, you need content on your site to have relevance, and the search engines need to use the content to determine its relevance. If the keyword does not appear in your page, it will not come up in the results for that search.

Then Google arrived and changed things for the better. Google ranks by how often other sites link to yours, but not what you say or do not say on your site – even though they do need to know what is on your site to determine whether or not your page has any relevance. It took several years with Google before anyone had found a way to trick Google into artificially raising their site's rank. In those years, searches were extremely effective as the sites were based on the popularity and measured by the amount of sites that deemed it worthwhile to link to.

In recent years, advertisers figured out that a plain text link, direct from a site with a high Google rank, will increase their own rank. They began purchasing their own links from these sites. Unfortunately, this has diluted Google's effective ranking system. Google is still much more effective than any other search engine. Thankfully, Google's techniques are ever changing and they will eventually find ways to discount the effects of such links and make websites distinguish themselves well enough from other sites with actual content that does not annoy or offend users. Google will likely be able to adapt and make placement on the page and other important factors accountable when ranking the importance of links.

On many search engines, excluding Google, placement can be purchased. Google distinguishes these purchases as "sponsored links" in search results. This policy has generated a loyalty from users and advertisers. Google's basic approach is known, however its exact technique is still a mystery. The only reason Google's basic approach is known is because it was included in published academic papers – that was prepared by the founders of Google. Other search engines do not make their techniques public, either, and even their basic approach is not known. Other search engine companies are serious about competing with Google are incorporating many of the techniques used by Google to improve their own results, and making improvements to Google's basic plan to become bigger and better than Google.

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