Friday, October 27, 2006

A theorem for the dynamically inclined

Say "theorem" and people start to scramble for their nail clippers, as manicures often seem more important than math and science. That's kind of odd, as the average human mind probably concocts a new theorem every few minutes when faced with a new situation.

Some people become so married to their innate theorems that they seem inflexible -- their theorems become axioms. Technically, you postulate a conjecture first, and on the basis of your conjecture you formulate a hypothesis, which you then test. If the hypothesis passes enough tests, it is promoted to a theorem. A theorem is a very powerful logical proposition that is "proven" to be correct in some fundamental way. Rarely should a theorem be found to be incorrect, although the science of Physics has occasionally been turned upside down when established theorems have been challenged.

In everyday human experience, life is not nearly so formally constructed. Our unvoiced theorems survive challenges through sheer force of will more often than not. That is, plain, simple stubborness may be all that props up a theorem we have come to cherish, though we have neither named nor even recognized it for what it is. For example, when you move to a new home, you have to find a new way to get to work. Eventually, after trying several routes, you settle on one that seems like it is the best for your needs.

Several months, perhaps even a year or more later, you ride along with someone who knows the area better than you and they cut sharply right or left, taking a road you have often passed but never gone down before. And as you ride along, you realize that maybe this path will trim five or ten minutes off your commute to work.

But come the next morning drive, you follow the same path again that you have schooled yourself to follow for months. Simply knowing that there is a better way is not sufficient. Your subconscious mind doesn't like to be proven wrong. And that is why you don't like to be proven wrong, because your subconscious has to accept the better way before your conscious mind can win the battle of wills raging within you. How many times have you promised yourself you would get up 15 minutes earlier and get some extra tasks done? How many times have you forgotten to get up early?

We often attribute our inertial inflexibility to a "force of habit", but it's not so much a force of habit as a force of will. We have convinced ourselves that a certain path from here to there is the best one and our subconscious minds remind us that we have already settled this debate. It becomes more and more difficult to change our minds on a given topic each time we fail to change our minds.

Now, that's my theory, which is unproven (in my experience -- perhaps it has been proven correct or proven wrong formally but that is outside of my experience). It's only a theory, or a hypothesis, but it works for me. And that is the danger. The more it works for me, the more tests it passes for me because I construct tests that I know mmy theory will pass.

In order to truly test a theory, you have to let someone else challenge it. That is the scientific way (not the scientific method, but the scientific way). In science, one party makes a conjecture, presents an argument in favor of the conjecture, and then other parties challenge the conjetcure. Many conjectures are proven to be incorrect, and many conjectures are proven to be correct but remain relatively insignificant.

We clutter our minds, however, with conjectures that are technically incorrect but which our knowledge and experience are incapable of proving incorrect. For all intents and purposes, within the scope of our abilities, these conjectures work.

And that leads me to the point I'd like to make: search engine optimization theory is formulated on the basis of habit and conjecture that seems to work. Since most search engine optimization specialists don't know how to formally challenge a concept, they are unable to properly test their conjectures in a scientific way.

The easiest way to test a conjecture is to look at authoritative sources of information to determine if there are documented contrary points. SEOs typically do not do this. Some of them search the technical literature, but they do so looking for support for their ideas. Seeking only support, they skim over or completely bypass whatever may actually contradict their ideas.

And that is why I am so critical of the propositions put forth by even the most highly regarded SEOs in the industry. They just do not understand that consensus of opinion proves nothing (other than that an idea is popular). Nor does consensus of undisciplined observation prove anything (other than that most people are not trained to make formal observations).

In my present work environment, my freedom to challenge and test the SEO community's ideas and arguments is severely curtailed. I miss being able to point to authoritative references for the sake of a wide audience. I don't always have the right explanation for any particular event in the search engine experience. In fact, I probably don't do any better at conjecturing than the next guy.

But I do at least make an effort to compare my conjectures to what has been published or disclosed by the people who actually know how the search engines go about their business. Maybe 1 out of 10 of my ideas passes that first test.

It's all downhill from there, but I feel satisfied that anything which passes the first test at least has a reasonable chance of passing the next one. It's sort like, if I drive down this street I have never driven down before, as long as I don't see a "Dead End" or "Wrong Way" sign, I have a good chance of coming out upon another street that may lead me to some place useful. Sometimes that is true. Sometimes, there is a huge truck blocking the way and I have to back up and start over.

So, what brought all this meandering philosophizing to a boil? I fear me that my old pals at SEOMoz have lost their way once again. Rand recently took a shot at reverse engineering the Google ranking algorithm. Alas! He seems unwilling to let go of his long cherished idea (which is grossly incorrect) that links heavily determine rankings. Rand judges the effect of links by what he sees, not by what other people see.

That is, Rand -- being involved in the business of helping other business people achieve high rankings -- doesn't take into account the fact that most queries produce no optimized results in the listings. Millions of queries every day lead people to content that ranks almost solely on the basis of content.

That is because that is how the search engines prefer to work. A time-tested principle in most SEOs' plans of action these days is to build as many links as possible to a given Web site to help it rank highly. This methodology often works well in spite of itself, because the search engines really cannot pre-emptively defuse a spammy idea, although they often implement filters once specific link-building tactics prove themselves (note: Ask claims to do the least amount of filtering because its technology is more firmly rooted in provable trusted measurements -- and I agree, they probably have the best algorithm).

My point is one I have often made: just because many people think that linking is the necessary strategy, that doesn't mean it actually is. Nor does their collective opinion make it the best strategy. You need some links to get crawled, indexed, and validated, but after that point you can take one of two paths: you can optimize your content and achieve a high on-page relevance score or you can just hope you get enough links to assert relevance (through their anchor text) to rank highly.

Either way, you're ranking on relevance and not on linkage (proof: three links with anchor text of "skimadagy" will help a page outrank another that has 1000 links for "infamative" if the query is "skimadagy" -- but then, so will on-page content). But try explaining that to an SEO who habitually bangs his head against the wall for no reason other than that most other SEOs bang their heads against the wall. With enough head banging, you will knock a hole through the wall.

But while that hole may seem like the shortest path from here to the other side, the time you spend making it usually is longer than the time you would devote to walking around the wall. That is, if SEOs habitually focused on on-page relevance first, they would find they need fewer links to get good rankings.

Rand gets away with counting on gross inefficiency because he believes in creating link bait -- building content that is so rich and compelling that other people help promote it for him. That's a great strategy and it should continue to work well for him for years to come. Unfortunately for the people who look to guys like Rand for advice (but who are unable to create similarly compelling link bait), they'll continue to scratch their bruised heads and ask in various SEO forums why they cannot seem to get the high, stable rankings they need.

The sucess of link baiting doesn't prove that rankings are based on linkage. It proves that compelling content will be rewarded. Eventually, the distinction will be recognized, but probably not before it's been challenged enough by reality that people stop banging their heads against the wall long enough to realize there is a doorway right next to them that will get them from here to there much faster.

There now: I've said what needed to be said, and I feel much better for it, especially knowing that most SEOs will continue to ignore the short cut and take the long way 'round. That does make it easier for me to beat them in the search engines.

And, quite frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. After all, it's not like I haven't been telling them how to do this more easily than they are for years.


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