Throughout my life as a professional web designer, I have tried to avoid getting sucked into the dank, dark hole that is "search engine optimization." I have stood steadfast in my belief that web design techniques that embrace web standards and accessibility guidelines will ultimately find their way to the top of the pile because, well, nice guys should get what they deserve. In that, I haven’t given too much thought to optimizing client sites for search engines, and I have rather tended my focus on web standards and accessibility.
However, my professional life has often found itself trudging through the woods at night, running from dangerous things like kingfishers and were-marmots and the occasional bear holding a shark. I have found myself faced with clients who do not have the same beliefs as I do on the subject of search optimization, and I often have a lot of explaining to do if their standards-compliant redesign doesn’t instantly pop to the top of all relevant search results.
Our Challenge: Be Kind, Be Effective
Sometimes it appears that web standards, accessibility strategies and well-weighted content do not offer sufficient ammunition to bring down the search engine exploitations of competitors. As a designer you know that you’re doing the right thing for your client by following standards, but as a client you know that you need to see results for your web investment to be worthwhile. Must our competition force us into doing evil things?
Participating in ethical search engine optimization should not hamstring us in the face of unethical practices. Rather, it should let us take wing and rise above the bickering, exploitative hordes of yore. Could this ever be the reality, where ethical search practices are rewarded and evils are punished? Can we, web designers and clients alike, make it so?
What is this thing called search?
To bring some insight to these thoughts, let us first illustrate what a search engine actually is, and what makes them so valuable to us. The web is a huge space, a hugely huge attic, and there is clearly too much junk sitting around to just peck around at random.
If someone is looking for something, they often turn to a search engine (like Google, Yahoo, etc.) to find it. If the search engine is able to return websites that offer what the person is looking for, then the person will be pleased with the results and will click through to a relevant website.
If the search engine returns unexpected results, however, the person will likely try a number of other things. He can refine his search by using fewer, more or different words, he can take a chance and click through to a site that doesn’t appear relevant, he can try another search engine, or he can give up and sob uncontrollably.
Why do I love thee uncontrollably?
If we take these two scenarios, the successful and the unsuccessful search attempt, it becomes obvious that the primary strength of any search engine is its ability to return relevant results. When people search for something online, they typically want to find it. Period.
If the content on your website delivers what people want when they search on a particular term, then your website is relevant and should be ranked highly. However, if your website does not have what people are looking for in regards to their search, your website is irrelevant and should be ranked lower.
With that, we can safely establish the following maxim for search engines:
Search engines are powerful and useful if and only if they consistently return results that have content relevant to what people are looking for when they enter particular search terms.
Pause and reflect on this notion. Even though it seems obvious when laid bare like so, the issue becomes more convoluted as we move forward.
From our maxim, we can infer the million-dollar search engine optimization question: “How do search engines decide which pages are relevant in relation to particular search terms, and which pages are not relevant?”
The answer is a tough one, and if I told you, I’d have to kill you. However, in our next installment we will reflect on the colorful history of search engines, in an attempt to figure out how modern engines filter their search results. For those who starve for something more meaty and technical, all I ask is your patience. There is still a lot of ground to cover, and the answers are coming.