I recently had a new client want a website in a hurry. Like, they wanted in up the next day! The iron was apparently red hot, and they wanted to strike! A good website takes a while. You need to gather some good pictures, write some good copy—not to mention actually designing and developing the site and the system. A lot goes into a well crafted story. However, in a pinch, we can get something up pretty quickly. I suggested that they go ahead and launch a single page to have a web presence while they develop the rest of their site. The very next day, at 4:00pm, their one-page site was live. Less than 30 minutes later I received a text asking how they could "be up top on Google and Bing." Well ... that happened fast!
I started thinking about the best way to explain this process. I like to use analogies. The virtual world can seems so foreign, and it is often helpful to use more tangible things to help us understand the processes. There are a lot of good analogies out there, but it might be helpful to think of a website like a restaurant. (Or maybe I'm just hungry.)
Imagine that you decide to start a restaurant. You've been cooking (or in my case grilling) for a while, and you've decided that the time is right to start your own restaurant. So, you go to a builder and say, "Hey, I need a restaurant!" The builder starts asking you all of these questions about how you want your restaurant laid out, the atmosphere you desire, the number of people you want to serve. Instead you say, "No, no, no. I need a restaurant. I want it tomorrow." The builder tells you that these things don't happen overnight, but that he could construct a freestanding facility with a kitchen that could operate as a temporary short order stand while the two of you work on developing your permanent restaurant. You clarify that he can have it for you lickity-split, and with nothing more than that, the builder constructs a short order stand as your temporary restaurant. What do you do? Do you call him up and thank him for his ingenuity, his speed, his craftsmanship? No, before your very first customer walks up, you call him up and say "Hey, we've not been reviewed by GQ or Esquire yet. How do we be on the top of their restaurant lists?"
That's an imperfect analogy, obviously. As appalling as that would be to a builder, I actually don't mind the question very much.
There are, however, a lot of positives to this analogy. Neither websites nor restaurants are built overnight. Reputations for neither are achieved overnight. Recognition for neither is given overnight. Most importantly, if you want to get that recognition for either, it's going to take a lot of work.
If you want the recognition of being a good restaurant, you need the reputation of being a good restaurant. If you want the reputation for being a good restaurant, you first need good food! Pull all of the strings you want, but when it comes down to it a trusted brand is not going to give its approval to food that tastes bad. Likewise, the benefits of a strong pagerank are going to be short lived and limited by a weak product or service. Long before you attempt to be at the top of a Google search result, you should create a good product.
If you have great food that takes an hour to receive after having to be sent back and corrected three times through a rude server with an offensive smell, it really doesn't too much matter how good the food is. People will not want to come back. This isn't to say that your service can't be unique, thematic or even relaxed. You can even have insulting servers that make fun of the guests so long as everyone knows that it's all in good fun. Your service, however, must be intentional and consistent. The website equivalent here is content. Content is essential how you server the visitors your goods. Your content needs to be correct, clear and compelling. Write good content about your good product.
Once you are confident about your food and service, you need a good place to actually serve people. It is unlikely that a short order stand is going to be reviewed by a top brand (let alone be recognized by them). If that were to occur, the "atmosphere" would be such that the "al fresco dining experience" would be filled with "true culture." In other words, you still have to devote a lot of time and thought to the atmosphere; you need a good place to serve your good food. The same is true online. Develop a good website to house your good content about your good product. Why is this important? Because to get the long-term attention of a search engine you need a lot of returning visitors.
So, you've got a nice place where good food is served well. Now, what do you need? Clients! You need guests, of course. Can you image a food critic coming to review your restaurant only to find that the place is empty!? No, you need satisfied customers bustling about the place. But, how do you get those clients? Well, you are already well on your way, but it would be a good idea to advertise. You're new, remember? You've got to let people know you exist; you've got to let people know about your good food. There is no parallel here—only a cross over. If you've got a good website with good content about your good services, bring in good clients. The way to get them is through advertising. You can use traditional ads, cold calls and everyone's favorite misunderstood marketing tool: social media!
You now have the reputation but no recognition. What do you do now? Well, you take the initiative and reach out to critics and reviewers and ask them to rank you. When they do, you listen to their responses. You improve what isn't working and highlight what is. With a lot of luck, you can be recognized as one of the top restaurants in America. The same is true with websites and is commonly referred to as SEO. Search Engine Optimization is the process of making sure your site is built to communicate clearly with a search engine. You submit a sitemap and ask them to rank you accordingly. They tell you what works and what doesn't. You improve what doesn't work and highlight what does. The good news is that a search engine list can be a lot more specific, and there is a long, long tail to benefit you.
Top restaurant lists tend to be fancy and fairly pricey. What if you really are a short order stand or a drivethru service. You don't stand a chance of getting on the top of those lists! The great thing about search engines is that they have an infinite number of lists; all of which are based (mostly) on the searcher's query. If someone is searching for a Taco Truck, they will never find you in the pages of GQ, but they won't look there either. They might, however, turn to Google and query "taco truck in downtown area." If you have a taco truck in the downtown area with good food, good service, good clients and good "al fresco atmosphere" you could be at the top of that list! In order to be there, though—in order to "be up top on Google"—you need good clients visiting a good website with good content about your good product.