Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has become one of the biggest internet buzz-words recently. Everyone is talking about it. These days it seems there”s an “expert” around every corner promising all kinds of wonderful things to online business owners. Beware! If you are interested in building a long term successful online business, there are few things you should know when it comes to search engine optimization.
Before we move too far along we need to understand a little about the economics of search engines. This will give us a better understanding of why they behave the way they do and why common Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices will continue to provide diminishing returns, eventually into obscurity.
Contrary to a very common belief, internet users searching the web are not the search engine”s customers. Advertiser”s are. Just follow the trail of money and you”ll see what I mean. Internet users are the “product” that the search engines “deliver” to advertisers. Specifically they are selling highly targeted traffic to their advertising clients. When a user types in search criteria, they are expressing their desire for information (or products) related to those search terms. By delivering ads that are directly relevant to the search results, search engines are in a unique position to capitalize on the concept of targeted traffic. For advertisers, search engine users are a gold mine of pre-qualified potential customers and they are quite happy to pay a premium to get their products in front of them.
So now that that”s out of the way, how do search engines (SEs) compete with each other for those advertising dollars? The answer is two-fold and closely resembles the way any marketer goes about increasing sales. The first is obviously to get more traffic to the search engine. The second is to increase the conversion rate of that traffic. In other words the percentage of traffic that results in sales for the advertising clients. So if you own a search engine how do you accomplish these two things? The answer lies in delivering the best search results for any given search criteria. The more relevant the results that a search engine can deliver consistently, the more people will rely on it. This translates into more overall traffic and better targeting of ads to that traffic. Simple in concept… very complex in practice!
A little history lesson
In the beginning, search engines employed some rather primitive methods of determining a web page”s relevance to a search query. These methods proved to be quite simple to reverse engineer and as a result “Search Engine Optimizers” (SEOers) where able to use techniques to manipulate the search results in their favor. This abuse, often referred to as SE spam undermined the search engine”s main commodity, the quality and relevancy of it”s contextual search results. To combat the problem, the SEs developed increasingly complex mathematical algorithms to evaluate pages for possible inclusion in search engine result pages (SERPs). In addition to the traditional “on-page” information that was so easy to manipulate, many SEs began looking at a multitude of “off-page” criteria and giving them an increasing amount of weight in their overall equations.
On-page vs. off-page criteria
There are many different items that a SE looks at “on-page” when it evaluates it. The page”s title, how many occurrences of a searched word or phrase (keywords and key phrases) are on the page and their proximity to one other, what the headings on the page describe, etc. all come into play. The chief disadvantage of using only this information (aside from the ease of which it can be manipulated by clever SEOers is that it tells nothing about the quality of the information on the page. Until the day comes (and it is coming) when search technology and computing power are sufficient to take advantage of “artificial intelligence” to make sound judgements about the quality of a page by evaluating the page alone, SEs will continue to rely heavily on “off-page” criteria. The reason for this is simple. Nothing compares to human intelligence when judging a page”s importance. Computers running even the most complex algorithms simply can”t do it.
So instead, the bright people who develop search engine technology have realized that by tracking how humans behave and interact with a web page, they can get a fairly good idea of how humans rate that page and the quality of its information. This is the “off-page” criteria that we are talking about. There are hundreds if not thousands of different things that are tracked and evaluated “off-page”. We know, or at least can make some pretty educated guesses as to what some of these things are. For instance, it is obvious from the collective experiences of many web professionals that SEs keep track of how many links come into a site from pages on other sites with high quality, relevant information. A link from such a source tells the SE that the information on the site that is being linked to is likely to be credible and of high quality as well. A human with related quality information on their site did link to it after all. It”s also widely accepted that search engines monitor their own search engine result pages (SERPs) to determine such things as which results are getting the most clicks (it”s not always the top ones) and how long it is before the searcher returns to the SERPs to continue searching. Obviously if the fifth site on the list is getting more clicks, it”s probable that it appears to more closely match what the searcher is looking for than the ones above it. Furthermore, if the user stays on that site for an hour rather than five seconds it”s likely that they found what they were looking for and the SE will take these things into account.
There are perhaps a handful of individuals in the world who know the whole picture of how all of this happens and if they want to keep their high paying jobs at the major SEs, they”re not about to tell you or me. But it has led to a lot of speculation among SEOers. In fact the SEO industry has evolved into a world-wide phenomena with “professional SEO consultants” charging companies tens of thousand of dollars to “get their web site into the top 10”. Some SEOers are continuously dreaming up ways of tricking the engines without getting “sandboxed” (having the engine penalize a web site by dropping it”s rank). The SEs in turn regularly update and change the algorithms that they use to rank pages so that what worked yesterday in SEO may not apply today. The SEOers scramble to catch up and the continuous cycle of “algorithm chasing” continues.
SE”s employ some of the most brilliant mathematicians and computer scientists on the planet and the unfortunate truth is that SEOers will always be at least one step behind them. Next time someone tells you that they can guarantee you a spot in the “top ten” with the major search engines ask yourself this one question. “Are they trying to sell me something?” Then walk away.
Now don”t get me wrong here. I”m not against SEO or anyone who does it. I fact, I firmly believe that a certain amount of optimization is vital to any online marketing effort, particularly at the outset of a campaign. It serves to give a site that little push in the right direction towards building traffic. But I caution anyone not to take it too far. Its very easy to misplace too much emphasis on it.
So what do we do instead?
This one”s easy. Rather that playing the SEO numbers game with the SEs, we instead give them exactly what they”re looking for in the first place. If you recall from earlier, SEs are trying to learn from and indeed relying heavily on human behavior patterns to rate search results. The are on a mission to provide results and information that are highly relevant and real to searchers (in other words, human beings). So, provide information that is highly relevant to humans and the rest will fall into place naturally and organically. It may take a little longer, but the results will be worth it. Believe me!
Let me illustrate with a couple of examples
John decides that he would like to build a web site and make some money online. He builds a rather elaborately designed site and proceeds to optimize it to death. John”s been reading all about optimization strategies and he pulls out all the stops on this one. He has a page title that”s twenty-five words long (most of which have nothing to do with each other). He”s packed the text of his pages full of his favorite keywords to the point that they are nearly incomprehensible to a normal reader (but the search engines “love them”). He”s cross linked every page so many times that people are actually getting lost on his little 5 page site because they”re clicking on every second word which is underlined. But it doesn”t stop there. He then goes out and submits to every search engine and directory known to man regardless of locale of relevancy to his topic. He joins a few link exchanges and starts trading links with anyone who will reciprocate no matter how poor their site is. Maybe he even pays for a few “high rank links”. You get the idea. Before he knows it his site is showing up on the first page of the SERPs of all the major search engines and he”s sitting back patting himself on the back for a job well done.
Mary on the other hand comes up with and idea for an online business web site based on her area of expertise and after researching and identifying a niche in the market. She goes about building a nice simple cleanly designed web site that is logical an easy to use. She puts a lot of time and effort drawing on her experience and skills to write high quality content that is helpful to her visitors (or rather will be when she has some). After writing fifteen or twenty pages of original article content, she decides that she too should do some “optimizing”. At this point she”s realizes that the “on-page” SOE is already more or less done. Her keywords and key phrases (which she carefully researched from day one) are appearing naturally though out her articles, her page titles are reflective of the content of the pages, her headings are also aptly descriptive, and her pages navigate with function and simplicity. So, she moves on to the “off-page” optimization. She submits her site to the major search engines and directories. She then researches local and industry related directories and submits to them as well. Finally she identifies several well ranked important sites with in-demand content that is complimentary to her own and will be of use to her visitors (or rather will be when she has some). She drops a friendly e-mail to the owners of these sites outlining the possible benefits of a reciprocal link arrangement. Most, sadly, don”t reply but a couple of enlightened ones do. After reviewing her site they agree that it could be beneficial to their users as well and set up a link to her site. Mary spends the next several months occasionally checking her traffic stats, her rank in the search engines etc., but finds she is still way down on the SERPs if she”s on them at all. Not one to be discouraged though, she continues to churn out several solid articles a week and add them to her site.
Now remember John? He”s been sitting back riding the wave of initial success for the last few months. He”s even made a few sales. But then he starts to notice a disturbing trend. His site is slowly falling in the SERPs and his traffic is dropping off. People are visiting but they aren”t staying long and they”re certainly not buying anything. He also begins to notice that the large number of links he had pointing to his site are disappearing at an alarming rate. Try as he might, he just can”t seem to turn it around…
Mary”s spent the last few months patiently waiting for traffic and continuing to add excellent content to her site. And then it happens. First, a trickle of visitors come. She can see from her server logs that they are being referred from those well-chosen link partners she made agreements with. The search engines have also discovered those links and noticed the high quality sources that they are coming from. They represent a pretty good endorsement and the SE”s are starting to realize that Mary”s site must have something useful to offer. Consequently Mary”s rank starts to improve. Now people begin to find her in the SEs. Even though her site is still a page or two down in the SERPs people seem to like the description and they”re visiting. They”re also staying on her site for long periods of time reading all of her superb content, The search engines once again conclude (and quite rightly) from tracking this behavior that Mary”s site is worth even more rank. Finally the day comes when Mary find”s her site at the top of the SERPs for her chosen keywords and she has a large amount of targeted traffic coming in. She doesn”t quit though. She continues to create new and interesting content and her business continues to grow and prosper. Why? Because she continues to provide exactly what the SEs want. The same high quality content that human searchers are looking for.
…And where did things fall apart for poor John? Well, most of his “link exchange” partners suffered the same fate he did. The SEs noticed the irrelevancy of the links and dropped their weight to zero. His visitors coming in through his first page SERP placement where hitting the back button on their browsers as soon as they realized that John”s site was of absolutely no use to them (even if they could read it or figure out how to use it). Eventually people stopped clicking those links altogether. Additionally, one of the major SEs went through an algorithm change during that time period causing Johns site to lose some additional rank. Things just kind of slid downhill. Did John not work hard enough on his business? Actually in the beginning John worked very hard and the short-term results proved it. The problem is that he concentrated way too much of his effort in the wrong areas. In the long run instead of building a viable online business, all he ended up doing was playing a complex game of “chase the algorithm” with the SEs for a short time (and big surprise, he lost). Oh well, it was fun while it lasted…
I realize that the above examples are a bit of a simplification. But the bottom line is that as search engines become increasingly sophisticated and try harder than ever to deliver results that are real and relevant to humans, you can make your life and theirs much more lucrative by just giving them what they want from the start. Leave the math to the mathematicians and the tricky SEO to the SEOers and go about creating compelling content that humans and search engines alike will love.