Monday, October 13, 2008

Website Optimization: The Mind Behind the Mouse

One of the more effective ways to increase traffic to your website is a high ranking in web search results. Top page ranking from Google or Yahoo and others has become such a sought-after commodity, that it has spawned a minor science and a niche industry known as search engine optimization (SEO), also known as website optimization. These expressions refer to code, terms, and other elements which elevate the ranking of that page in users' search results. The closer one's web page is to the top of the first page of Google's search results, the more people are likely to visit that page and, for those with something to sell, this means more eyes on the goods and, presumably, higher earnings. And even for those with nothing to sell, a large audience is a source of satisfaction.

It's no wonder then, that in a comment to an earlier article I wrote about Thunderbird, the popular email application, a reader named Omar remarked that he'd done a Google search and that an article of mine came up at the very top in his search results. Having the number one listing in a Google search, regardless of how obscure the topic, is an event to ponder... as did Omar. He wrote:

Question: How do you have your blog set up to draw traffic so quickly? I googled "thunderbird reply header include time" without the quotes and it brought the link to your blog right at the top.

I'm new to blogging. I have a Blogger blog, but would like to know how to increase traffic. Thanks.

(Note: Since Omar posted his comment, because his question contains his exact search terms, Google homes in on the words in his comment, perhaps doubly ensuring that a search for that set of words will return my blog posting at the top. However, now, instead of pointing to my article, Google points to Omar's comment on it. So, Omar, in a way you've got yourself at the Number One spot in a Google search. Congratulations!)

Frankly, I had no inkling of my article's high ranking until reading Omar's comment. (So thanks, Omar, for pointing that out.) Truth be told, I've read about and dabbled with SEO and, yes, there's an ever changing multitude of tricks and techniques which may increase ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). One major problem with most of them, however, is that a simple alteration to a webpage which I could do in a few minutes could be done just as quickly by others to theirs. And if thousands of people begin using the same technique, its effect is diluted, it ceases to be a decisive factor to the search engine, and then is no longer effective for achieving that holy office of high page rank. In other words, like most any quick fix, it doesn't last.

Despite the fleeting effectiveness of the quick trick, many people still try to uncover the golden code, pivotal conditionals, and obscured algorithms which Google employs in determining which search results to display and in what order. Though for a time I was fascinated by SEO and its effects on SERPs, in the end, trying to figure out how to "game" the system didn't feel right. Moreover, the possibility existed, I thought, that Google, or anyone so disposed, could leak a faux tip, some ostensible magic which, instead of increasing page rank, would lower it. Most important, however, was that I just wanted to write articles and post them on the web for others to read and benefit from.

So not only was I pleasantly surprised to read Omar's comment, I was genuinely curious: Since my efforts were pointed solely at composing a helpful article and not at the deployment of even the most commonly known optimization techniques, why did Google give my article such a high page rank? After enough head-scratching to get down to skull, I've been able to come up with only a thousand possible explanations. I'll point up just two and make it easy to see the rest.

One explanation for the article's high page rank is just pure, dumb luck... a fluke, an accident, the stars and planets lining up in just the right way, or some really nasty dust on a critical component inside the search engine's hardware. Nothing meritorious issued from anyone's efforts. It was a remarkable event that will never happen again.

A second explanation begins with the inarguable observation that the web is a big place, so big in fact that people need help finding their way around it and locating what they're looking for. Without the assistance of search engines such as Google, we'd all have to rely on recommendations from friends and co-workers, newspapers and magazines, and social bookmarking sites to find what we want on the web. Imagine the world's biggest library with all the books, CDs, videos, and magazines in a huge, unorganized pile... we'd all just have to climb around on it, excavate into it, and browse through the chaotic mountain of offerings one by one just to find the one or two items we want. Such a mountainous mess would likely be littered everywhere with corpses of people who died from exasperation.

We're fortunate, then, that Google came along and came up with a business model that depends on satisfied searchers. While it's too much to expect that Google could provide an exact reflection of searcher interest, that each and every query by any person on the planet should yield precisely what that user wants at that moment, Google goes to great lengths to put itself in the shoes of virtually every user and expends quite a bit of time and energy to calculate which results to display and in what order for any particular search query. If web publishers try to game the system by using cyber-tricks whose sole aim is to artificially increase page ranking, then SERPs will suffer. Doing a search, we'll find, not what we're looking for, but web pages inundated with SEO hype. Such trick-laden pages could, but likely wouldn't contain the most illuminating answers. They might not even be at all relevant to what we were searching for. In response we'd hit the "Back" button to try a different search result. If we found ourselves hitting the "Back" button too often, eventually we'd come to the conclusion that the search engine we're using wasn't of much help and we'd stop using it. Finding it not much better than the chaotic mountain, we'd likely latch on to a different search engine, one which did a better job of finding what we were looking for. We can be sure that Googledom is constantly at work to prevent that from happening, revisiting and refining what it examines and amending the algorithms which rank what it finds.

The point is that users aren't seeking web pages employing great SEO techniques. Rather, they want information, answers, and entertainment. Some search for understanding, consolation, or enlightenment. If you want people to visit your site, give them what they want, whatever that may be. That's what Google does, or at least strives very hard to do. It wants happy users, users who are satisfied with or pleasantly surprised at their search results. Because it wants what users want, like its users, Google isn't impressed with pages simply deploying the best SEO techniques either. Undoubtedly, some SEO techniques might for the short term deceive a search engine, but over the long term, as users gravitate away from the gamed pages to what they genuinely want, and as Google discovers when it's being gamed, it's going to change the search algorithms to more closely reflect where users' interests are. In the end, any tricks used will be found out, most likely rather quickly, and perhaps— unless you're on the cutting edge of SEO research— even before you implement them.

So there are a lot of reasons for not doing SEO: First, searchers aren't interested in it and most likely will simply back out of irrelevant pages. Second, it might not be effective or, even if it is, it likely won't be for long. Third, there's a definite element of deceit in it, enough that it doesn't feel right. Fourth, it's hard to imagine that Google looks kindly on it. Fifth, after a typical work day packed with technical tussles, it's a relief just to kick back and carve out articles that in one way and another will help people. Sixth, the flow of intentions of both users and search engines— and let's add social bookmarks too— is to better content. This same flow inevitably takes us all to a better web of the future. Altogether that's a fairly hefty flow. So it shouldn't seem over-the-top cosmic simply to synergize with it, float along with that big muddy river of intentions rather than fight it. Finally, and not to ignore the practical, Omar's discovery would suggest that optimizing for search engines (SEO) really isn't necessary.

These several reasons indicate that perhaps the best "optimization" consists simply in writing an article which reflects what users want, this because search engines want their results to reflect what users want. To the degree that my article on Thunderbird achieved that, this is the second possible explanation for its number one Google ranking... but only the second of a thousand explanations.

The other nine hundred ninety-eight consist of varying ratios of the first and second explanations together, i.e., 99.9% dumb luck and 0.1% writing what users want, 99.8% dumb luck and 0.2% writing, and so on. Which of these thousand possible ratios is the actual or most accurate explanation is impossible for all but a few Google insiders to know.

So what's an enterprising blogger to do? Since there's no counting on dumb luck (which is why it's called dumb luck), the only option is to try to provide what users want: superior content. Over and over again we hear "Content is king." Users say it. Google says it. Even SEO company execs say it. Some argue that backlinks (other people linking to your site or page) are more important than content. Others maintain that social bookmarking sites such as Digg and Delicious and many others are pivotal in drawing traffic. While backlinks and social bookmarks will likely increase visitors, these are contingent upon good content. If the content of a web page is lacking, people won't link to your site. Nor will they be moved to bookmark it. In other words, backlinks and bookmarks depend upon content. They aren't a replacement for an informative and well written article, but rather a consequence of it.

The obvious next question is: What makes for a well written article or web page, one which web users will seek out? That's a formidable question and far beyond the scope of this discussion. However, there are hundreds of books and magazine articles and websites and other resources on writing. In addition, there are coaches and classes and conferences aplenty, even online, any of which might also be of benefit. Most cities and towns have writers groups which, in any number of ways, gather to help each other. Properly persuaded, a friend who's a good writer might lend a scribe's hand.

Alternatively, if spending time researching and polishing writing isn't what you want to do, there are many good ghost writers, copyeditors, and proofreaders, savvy with the language of the web, who would happily step up. Fortunately for you— unfortunately for them— most writers, even those quite talented, work for a ridiculous pittance, for a fraction of what an SEO firm or consultant would charge. Given that the heart and drive of a webpage is the quality of its content, cash for word craft is cash better spent.

Either way— whether you create it yourself or have someone else do it for you— quality content is crucial. It's the core of a page's value. Should you still have any doubt about this, critically read any of the many finished pieces on Wikipedia, a site which nearly always ranks at the top, and there's little doubt you will find articles of high quality. Read also articles people are posting to social bookmarking sites and it's apparent that, though the article topics range across all areas of human endeavor, they all have this in common: as a rule, they are all well written. The links on social bookmarking sites tell us a lot more: these links point to pages which people aren't shy to attach their names to, pages which they themselves may want to find again later, and pages which they publicly recommend to others. Consider too what you yourself would want to find online. Together, these considerations should provide a guide to the kind of content quality that will draw people to your webpages ahead of others whose content isn't quite so sterling. As the numbers wear a path to your page, the Google computers will note them and with that you should see a rise in your page ranking. And perhaps with a little bit of luck.

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