& the GII
This page discusses search engine optimisation (SEO) and the
It covers -
It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
search engines (and popular search terms), metadata, online
resource identification and networks.
The following pages consider SEO principles, myths and responses.
They also highlight independent studies about search .
Search engine optimization aims to ensure that online content
is found by users of web search engines, in particular by
appearance of the 'optimised' site/page at the top of list
of search results.
It reflects recognition that many users rely on search
engines rather than domain
names, links or other pointers (eg an URL featured on
a business card or the side of a bus) for identification of
content. It also reflects awareness that some users rely on
search engines as their primary measure of the quality of
online content, for example assuming
that the first item on a list of search results will be the
most authoritative, accurate or merely up-to-date.
Vendors of search optimisation services offer various methodologies
that are claimed to "guarantee" online content a
favourable position in search results.
Some of those methodologies are so obvious that it is surprising
consumers would pay for the advice or emphasise optimisation
at the expense of more effective mechanisms to attract the
attention of desired demographics.
Other claims by participants in the search optimisation industry
are deceptive or merely nonsensical. That has led critics
to compare SEO businesses with those that purported to offer
sure-fire solutions for choosing
the perfect domain name and
thereby being 'found' during the dot-com bubble.
Search engine optimisation is predicated on recognition that
search engines use algorithms for sorting web sites, pages
and other content for presentation in a list of search results
in what is sometimes referred to as a search engine results
page (SERP). Those algorithms are proprietary and often highly
sophisticated. They are not static: they change over time,
reflecting factors such as changing user needs, efforts to
foil abuse by site operators and work to produce better results.
Algorithms and thus SERP results vary from engine to engine.
Variation is also attributable to different coverage of the
net: some engines have simply encountered more sites/pages
than others, some visit different parts of the net more frequently
than other engines, some process submissions about new sites
more quickly than their competitors.
Most base their retrieval on identification of content within
the body of a HTML page, PDF file or other online resource.
They are not based on metadata in the header of files. Major
engines indeed appear to penalise crude attempts by SEO vendors
and site operators to gain a higher rank by using a particular
word twenty or one hundred times in the header.
They instead rank sites/pages through weightings that appear
to include -
the particular resource features the search term (or an
equivalent term) - often referred to as a keyword, a usage
that confuses many people from a library, print indexing
or legal background
significance of that term (eg does it occur once or several
times; is it featured as a page title, subdirectory name
or navigation point within a page; does it occur as part
of what the engine perceives as natural syntax or as an
attempt to artificially weight the page)
such as the site's age, liveness, 'reputation' (in particular
whether other respected sites point to it) and avoidance
of negatives such as participation in link exchange schemes.
Some of those factors are highlighted below.
SEO services centre their marketing on a supposed understanding
of the individual algorithms and on claimed expertise in retitling
web pages or rewording text to increase the number of keywords
Such promotion is problematical. In particular, mechanistic
approaches may result in -
by search engine operators, which are known to have automatically
rankings or even excluded
some sites after egregious abuses
that read strangely and thereby send the wrong message to
the SEO industry
resource identification is a billion dollar sector of the
Australian and global economy, with search engine and directory
operators gaining (or aspiring to gain) substantial revenue
from paid placement and other services and site operators
seeking ways of ensuring that their sites appear prominently
in SERP results.
The SEO industry appeared in the mid 1990s and first gained
public attention after 1997 as the dot com bubble expanded.
It is an echo of the domain naming and domain name valuation
industries, which flourished with the bubble and attracted
criticism over poor (even deceptive) performance.
There has been no comprehensive independent study of the industry.
At a global and Australian level it appears to be volatile,
with low barriers for entry by individuals and businesses,
many of whom seem undeterred by unfamiliarity with search
technologies and - alas - uninhibited about offering guarantees
that demonstrably cannot be met.
SEO services for example cannot meaningfully guarantee that
any new site will gain a top ranking immediately, particularly
as some engines 'sandbox' new sites - ie do not include them
in SERP or give them a low SERP ranking - for several weeks
or months in order to minimise evanescent sites created as
pointers to adult content
There is no licensing by government or accreditation by the
search engines, which are fiercely competitive.
Margins for successful SEO services appear to be high but
many minor operators appear to leave the industry within two
years, whether because they discovered revenue was hard to
achieve, they received bad words of mouth (or even court action)
by disappointed clients or they simply got bored.
Some have expanded into search engine submission services,
charging what are often exorbitant fees to alert engines and
directories to the existence of a client's site. Such services
often claim that there are 2,500 or even 5,000 search engines,
with success supposedly requiring submission to each and every
engine. One enthusiastic spammer for example offers to submit
"your web site to 700,000+ Internet search engines and
Elsewhere on this site we have noted that those figures are
gross exaggerations (eg conflate directories with engines)
and that most users rely on a handful of engines.
Given the comments above it is unsurprising that there are
no generally accepted standards, particularly standards developed
by entities outside the industry and articulated by independent
organisations such as Standards Australia or ANSI.
Some industry participants proclaim that their staff are "certified",
for example have certification in "search engine optimisation"
or are graduates of an "advanced search engine marketing
skills" program. Sceptics respond - fairly or otherwise
- that is difficult to embrace self-certification or diploma
Wariness is appropriate where -
is no independent testing or validation of the certification
expertise of the graduate is not reflected in endorsement
by computer scientists or academics engaged in the study
of information retrieval.
SEO vendors emphasise a proprietary methodology, often with
a black box approach that claims to identify desired keyword
weightings and enable the service to effectively rewrite sites/pages
for guaranteed higher rankings.
Some, with a hazy understanding of engines such as Google,
claim to dramatically boost a site's ranking through inclusion
of the most popular search
terms or through rapid generation of other sites that exist
merely to point to the client's site.
Promises from such services typically feature guarantees that
the chosen site will go to a top page - or even the number
one rank on that SERP - within weeks or even days. In discussing
such myths later in this note we suggest that clients might
better spend their money elsewhere, particular if their site
isn't unique and is located in a crowded part of cyberspace.
Jason Calacanis commented
the SEO folks I've ever talked to--and I've talked to many
over the past decade or so--have pitched me on expensive
contracts that you can't cancel for two years with them
to do all kinds of shady things to move up in the rankings
... I know for a fact that a lot of folks in the industry
look at the SEO companies as shady. They feel like it's
filled with slick guys in really bad suits running around
at cheap hotels pushing desperate clients to sign fat contracts.
That's how folks look at SEO--like it or not.
Information about how different search engines rank search
results is uncertain. Understanding has been impeded by myths
about SERP and the effectiveness of SEO services.
Factors that may be significant for major engines
such as Google appear to include weightings or exclusions
age (including how long the site has been online, the age
of individual pages and measures of how frequently content
is updated). Overall there appears to be a bias in favour
of sites that have existed for a while, are stable and are
updated on an ongoing basis - thereby being different from
sites that are 'dead' and from those that are manufactured
merely to redirect traffic or increase another site's link
(including number of pages/files, number of words in aggregate
and number of words per page)
(is the content available 24/7, especially in regions such
as Australia where continuous availability is expected)
reputation (number of citation by other sites, particularly
citations by sites that have a high score in terms of age,
quantity and so forth)
negatives (non-compliant code, broken outgoing links, conflicts
between page titles and page content, indications that metatags
have been heavily 'optimised' through recurrent use of words
such as sex or adult, use of 'invisible' text)
negatives (outgoing links that point to sites with a low
reputation, files that feature illegal content or malware,
participation in commercial link exchange schemes, sudden
spurts in inclusion of links to sites with a poor reputation)
indicators (uniqueness of content, inclusion of bibliographic
material and of automatically verifiable contact details)
of user satisfaction (eg click through from initial entry
to other pages on the site, time spent on the site, correlation
between free and paid-placement search results)
demographics (matching site content with information about
(weighting for recognised publishers, government agencies,
addresses (weighting against ISPs/ICHs that are perceived
as being permissive to spammers
and against address blocks that have an unusually high number
of low reputation sites)
(in particular keywords that the engine perceives as presented
in an appropriate syntax rather than at an unnatural frequency
and at random to subvert the algorithm)
(whether the site serves different content to different
categories of users)
observers have suggested that there is human validation of
particular sites or of leading results on some of the most
frequent search terms.
next page (SEO myths)