What do I know about Search?

Not much. But I do know a little:

  1. Website owners want a return on investment. They want traffic. Search engines are one way to pass along lots of hits. That’s why site owners want to “be on the first page of results”. But which results, to which search queries? This they rarely say.

  2. That under-defined business goal causes problems for web development crews. You can’t satisfy “be on the first page of search results” without knowing the search query. Web teams can’t fulfill the goal, because it has not been defined by the client. But the team knows they’re judged by overall traffic results. This is a stressful situation for website developers. They seek relief.
  3. Meanwhile, search engines do need to keep most details closed and proprietary. An opensource search-engine business, if sufficiently popular, would attract spammers. The co-evolution of engines and spammers means perpetual security-by-obscurity and confusion. Truth is necessarily proprietary.
  4. Put these three conflicting desires together, and there’s incentive for consultants and speakers to to promote their own services in search engine optimization. The more complex it all seems, the more business opportunity… if SEO is mysterious, then the beleaguered web team can fulfill its discoverability requirements by hiring an SEO specialist. And being in the public eye helps raise the employment possibilities for an SEO firm….

The core driver beneath all this is the business need of website owners to attract sufficient qualified traffic. (The meaning of “qualified” would vary with the site and its purpose.) If a manager is charged with responsibility for the website, they need to be able to prove that it’s worth the corporate investment. Site traffic is the easiest metric to use.

“How can I attract enough qualified visitors to my site?” That’s the reality. This need of site-owners is what puts the whole Search Engine Optimization business in motion.

But much of the weblog conversation on SEO is about relative trivialities, such as whether every word in a database is “exposed to the spiders”. Who cares? There would be too much competition for such incidental search terms anyway. If your personal Ajax or Flash apps can draw dynamic data from remote databases, then so can other Ajax or Flash apps. Who is going to get on that first page of Google results?

Attracting visitors is only partially solved by search. We websurfers do sometimes discover new sites through keyword-matching on a search engine. But we more often discover new sites through the recommendations of friends or trusted strangers. And if enough other websites link to a site with anchor text of “best insurance website” or whatever, then that site will naturally do better when people type that phrase into a search engine.

If emphasizing the search engines in the overall pursuit of traffic goals, then the best approach I’ve seen is to first consider how your potential audience might actually try searching for you. What terms will they likely enter in a search engine? What’s the current competition for those terms? On which search terms can you realistically compete, to get that desired top listing on the first page of results?

Start by looking at the searching process itself… look at things from the visitor’s point of view. Think of how they’ll try to find that site. Then make it easier for the search engines to find it under those terms, with the classic bodytext, metadata, and sitemap info.

But don’t forget that search is only one ingredient in attracting an audience… the site will still have to be useful enough for others to advertise with informative text.

So what do I know about search? Not much.

I do know that the SEO marketplace has been remarkably resistant to inconvenient questions, and suspect that much of the conversation isn’t really about search at all.

And I’m not convinced that search engines are the best discoverability engine we should be considering anyway. Even for keyword-matching, they’re already pretty much overwhelmed by noise.

I do know that trusted recommendations are still the key way to attract traffic directly, and authoritative inbound links incidentally have a beneficial effect on search results.

But I do know that there are enormous social drivers for the creation of all types of SEO beliefs… the rewards are great, the details few, the promises many. We’ll likely see confusion for a good long time to come.