Friday, May 05, 2006

Talk like an SEO: Optimizing your SEO vocabulary

There's nothing more boring than reading a search engine optimization forum where all the members use the same jargon and buzz words without any variation in meaning. Deciphering people's intentions and problems is much more interesting and challenging when not only do they clearly not know what they are talking about, but they also clearly don't know what they are saying.

For example, let's take the popular Google word PageRank. Originally, PageRank referred to Larry Page, co-founder of Google, who naively concluded that Web site operators only link to Web sites that have good content (he obviously never operated a Web directory where he had to vet thousands of submissions from sites that consisted of nothing but fluff links because the site operators couldn't think of anything to say).

Larry's idea was that citation-based ranking would help determine which sites are more important to the community than others. On a megascale, the concept generally works. Unfortunately, communal judgement of what is important and worthwhile is about as helpful as taking a political poll among delegates at a convention: Tell me, Mister Republican Delegate, will you vote for Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter?

In today's SEO world, PageRank is used to refer to the little 0..10 numbers that Google displays in its toolbar. Google doesn't explain what these numbers are, although many SEOs believe they are a proxy value derived from a logarithmic scale that converges to an average of 1. Don't ask me what that is supposed to mean, because I don't speak gibberish. But many SEOs do.

People who are new to search engine optimization, however, often confuse PageRank for the actual rankings Web pages are assigned in various search results. And to make matters more confusing, most of those people are unaware of the fact that the same page can rank 1st for "goffy stuppid phraseoncology", 2nd for "phrased oncology stuffy guppid", and 3rd for "what was that?". So often enough search engine optimization forums are filled with posts from newcomers who ask how to increase their PageRank for some specific expression.

And some SEOs do talk about "context-specific PageRank", which is pretty much useless and meaningless in itself.

PageRank is designed to evaluate importance, not to determine placement in search results. Google claims to add PageRank scores into total ranking scores (which are derived from about 100 factors). A page's value of importance can, therefore, influence its position in search results, but many pages with low PageRank often outrank other pages with much higher PageRank.

Keyword density is another expression that has been beated to death. Most experienced SEOs now know to beat up on anyone who talks about keyword density, largely because Dr. E. Garcia of Mi Islita wrote an article called The Keyword Density of Nonsense. Dr. Garcia is a true, bona fide search engineer. He has a degree and everything.

Like so many academics, he speaks well above the heads of most SEOs (and most people in general), but he has made a legitimate effort to reach out to the search engine optimization community to explain some of the science behind search engine design. He also uses his expertise to promote his own search engine optimization consulting service. One must wonder, at least on some mildly amused level, if he is not therefore seeding the competition with some slightly inaccurate information.

Keyword density is almost as useless as checking an Alexa ranking. Alexa tracks the activity of about 11 million Alexa Toolbar users who, supposedly, visit Web sites of interest and value. Alexa warns people not to take their rankings seriously. Nonetheless, some well-known marketers tout their "Top 2000 Alexa Ranking" as if it means they actually provide value to the Internet community. Knowledgable SEOs know that the Alexa service is a joke. Anyone with a CGI-BIN privilege can boost their Alexa ranking by clicking on their page pages through proxy servers. You can also require all the people in your office to surf the Web with Alexa-enhanced browsers, and require that they visit your own Web pages throughout the day. Alexa won't care.

The only people who do care about Alexa are those folks who don't know how spoofy the service is and people who want to take advantage of the folks who don't know how spoofy the service is. It's sad when a service like Alexa says, "Don't trust our numbers -- they are not reliable" and people insist on trusting the numbers. But that is the world of search engine marketing. They don't read what Google says about its ranking algorithm, either.

No SEO forum discussion is complete today without someone babbling on about the Semantic Web and Semantic indexing. There are still some clueless people who insist that Google has implemented Latent Semanic Indexing despite the fact that experts like Dr. Garcia say it's too complicated for search engines. Despite the fact that simple searches which show that no semantic indexing is occurring.

Semantic indexing's goal is to identify the concept behind your query. If you search for "how to meet girls", maybe you're really interested in "dating and marriage". A semantic index will reduce all "how to meet girls" and all "dating and marriage" documents to a table and figure out which ones are really talking about the same stuff. That just doesn't happen today. You get some overlap because some pages mention both "how to meet girls" and "dating and marriage". For that matter, some of those same pages also talk about "save the whales" and "dolphins stranded on the beach". Does that mean this article is really relevant to environmental issues?

If your company wants to find a good search engine optimization specialist, they need to look for people who don't shout endlessly about PageRank, Keyword Density, Semantic Indexing, and link building.

Linkage is important to search engine optimization, but search engine optimization specialists who rely on linkage to achieve high rankings are either only focusing on a handful of hyper-optimized search expressions or they don't know what they are doing. Search engine optimization begins with keyword research. But not all keyword research is good. Some people still look at what their competitors are optimizing for. That tells you nothing about what you need to know. Effective keyword research focuses on what people are searching for.

A good SEO specialist knows that some links are better than others, but a good SEO specialist will not blabber on about high quality links. You want solid linkage that will help build your traffic and visibility. Whether it affects your search engine rankings should be at most a secondary consideration. If you emphasize linkage over everything else, you're ignoring 3 out of 4 of the Fundamental Principles of SEO.

Don't do that.

In fact, stop worrying about your search engine rankings. If you have this much time to read my blog, you should really be more interested in dancing and body language. Or maybe J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Have a great weekend!


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