October 29, 2004

Search Optimization Reflexions (Part II)

In the first installment of our series on search engine optimization we introduced the search engine, and discussed what it is they do that makes us feel so warm and gooey inside. We established a maxim that clearly spells out what makes search engines so appealing to internet users. To recap, our maxim is:

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.

If we want to optimize our websites to be included in relevant search results, it would appear that our mission is to figure out how search engines filter their search results, and then tailor our content and designs to cater to these criteria. The history of search engines, however, is littered with the bodies of those who were slain in the arms race between relevant search results and irrelevant websites. Today we will take a brief tour through the history of search engines, to clear the air over which optimization techniques we may find effective, and which ones will cast our website into the depths of Hades like so much horse malarkey.

A brief history of search engines

Way back in the early 90’s or so, there were websites. Pretty soon there were a lot of websites, and people needed a way to wade through them. A few primordial search engines crawled out of the muck, and at first they did a pretty decent job in helping people find what they were looking for. These early search engines relied heavily on HTML <meta> tags, which were intended to explain what sort of content one could expect to find if they visited a particular website.

Ideally, your <meta> tags would accurately explain the content on the webpage that they were included on. They could have said anything, really, from "kings quest walkthru" to "pranks to play on your roommate" to "pictures of kittens". So long as people who built websites played by these rules, people who searched websites would find what they wanted.

The golden years of search engines didn’t last very long, as "webpage makers" (you could hardly call them web designers) quickly found ways to exploit the weaknesses in these early search tools. All it takes to ruin a perfectly good infrastructure is a group of people with sufficient motivation to do so, and one came along soon enough.

Pr0n0graphy sites started popping up in all the nooks and crannies of the internet, with their <meta> tags filled to the brim with words and descriptions. Mind you, these <meta> tags were not confined to words that would curl linoleum. Oh no. As time went on, the <meta> tags on pr0n0graphy sites co-opted every search engine keyword known to mankind, such that a search on any term (from "monster trucks" to "compaq 8086" to "pictures of kittens") returned nothing but page after page of irrelevant smutland.

It got worse. Search engines tried to smarten up by increasing their sophistication or enforcing coherence between <meta> tags and page content, but the search engine exploiters got smarter in turn. They twisted their websites so that search engines would actually see completely different content than internet users. Techniques like invisible text, commented-out text, or black text on a black background all but ruined the ability to search the web.

Search Wars: A New Hope

It was a dark time for the internet until a beacon of hope lit up on the west coast. Along came Google, which sliced through the smut and revolutionized the way search results were returned. Suddenly, everything was relevant again. Well, not everything, I suppose, seeing as how that was the problem beforehand…

Suddenly, everything that was relevant was relevant again! Google burst onto the scene in the late 90’s and today it is by far the most widely used search engine, chosen by nearly half of the browsing community as the search engine of choice.

With those numbers, it makes sense that Google is typically the target of obsession with search engine optimization practices. It begs the question that if Google is so darned great, and if people love Google so darned much, how do we get ourselves way up high in Google’s search results?

"If only we knew Google’s search criteria," you may say, "we could once-and-for-all write our website to be a Google knockout." Of course, it’s not that simple. Take a moment to consider this. If we knew absolutely how Google selected its search results, and if we could optimize our websites to specifically cater to Google, then there would be absolutely no reason for us to cater to Google. Huh? Why is that? Why this paradox?

Remember our mantra: 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. If we trick Google into returning our unnaturally relevant site that has irrelevant content, and people performing searches find it irrelevant, Google has lost its power. If Google continues to be exploited by our irrelevant website (as well as by the irrelevant websites of others), there would no longer be a reason for people to continue using Google.

Ultimately, the market would demand that a more relevant search engine take Google’s place at the top of the pile. Google is aware that its greatest strength is also its greatest vulnerability, which is why it takes such great pains to avoid being subjected to the exploits of unethical search optimizers.

Does that mean that all is hopeless when it comes to developing any sort of strategy for search engine optimization? Heck no. It just means that we need to be a lot kinder and use a bit more creativity in how we approach the issue. There is promise in ethical search engine optimization. If we code our website to naturally weigh and serve up our relevant content, our site in turn will be relevant and will be included in Google’s search results. This is the One True Path of search engine optimization, and this is the one that I choose to follow.

In our next essay, however, we will discuss the inverse approach. We will examine the various search engine exploits used by unethical search engine optimizers, the snake oil salesmen of this modern day. We will learn how to identify poor search engine practices which may appear effective in the short-term, but run a terribly high risk of getting your site banned from major search engines.

Feel free to join us again next week. Have yourself a happy Halloween, and please remember to vote if your country is holding elections.