Ignorance Isn’t Bliss in SEO

I sometimes irritate the odd person with this column. Not that I lose any sleep over it, but one or two readers are obviously stuck in the past.

I don’t know why they read an SEM (define) column and then send useless feedback; “I’m the black-hat, romantic, swashbuckling Johnny Depp of search engine optimization. I’ll teach you a thing or two about keyword density analysis and doorway pages” -type stuff.

What it has to do with SEM is beyond me.

I’ve just done a quick flip around the planet, from ad:tech New York to ad:tech Shanghai. Often, I meet people at the conference who are new to search. They relate previous conversations with (what they believe to be) search marketers. I can usually tell from their comments and questions whether they talked to an actual marketer or just some self-taught tech-head.

The conversation goes something like this:

SEM Newbie: I understand you need to put a certain number of characters in a title tag.

Me: What’s your product?

SEM Newbie: Ink.

Me: Try three characters, then.

SEM Newbie: Oh no, the guy we spoke to said 60 characters.

Me: OK, you can spell it in Welsh. They usually have very long names for things.

I can’t believe people even think about such technical minutiae before considering whether they stand a chance of succeeding in their online marketplace.

There’s certainly a mixed bunch of advisors and players in this space. Let’s do a quick personal analysis of our industry and the current constituents. There are:

  • A few search marketers who are indeed marketers.
  • Some tech-head search engine optimizers who really do want to be marketers.
  • The tech-head, self-centered opportunists who think they’re marketers.
  • The bottom of the barrel: blog spammers and sploggers (define), who also think they’re search marketers.

John Battelle summed it up perfectly in his excellent book, “The Search“: “Wherever there is easy money to be made or an opportunity to game a system for profit, you’ll find a fair measure of hucksters, cheats and opportunists.”

If we want to be perceived as marketers, we must demonstrate a depth of understanding about our environment. Good marketers perform an environmental scan for clients and prove they understand both the marketplace and the medium.

A detractor of my previous column suggests we don’t need to know about information retrieval, we can just use what he calls brute force. Can you imagine pitching for a global account and telling the SVP marketing your strategy is brute force? It’s like admitting you don’t know anything about information retrieval and how search engines really work. You just do trial and error, and hope something happens, for which the client has to pay (or suffer).

About four years ago, notables in search engine positioning wrote about a “new” concept used by search engines called “term vectors.” Had they done a little more research into information retrieval, they would have discovered the concept of vector space goes back as far as 1975.

Even now, forums and conferences are full of questions about the “new” concept of latent semantic indexing (LSI) used by Google. Once again, people are talking blindly about a topic that certainly goes back as far as 1990 (perhaps further). Long before the earliest Web search engines, let alone Google.

Ignorance of information retrieval techniques and hyperlink-based algorithms has given search engines the opportunity they need to fight the spam wars. PageRank, for instance, is never used the way people think it is. But as long as people think it’s a major influence in the ranking process, the easier it is for Google to use that to its advantage.

As I’ve said before, doesn’t it appear a little suspect when the enemy leaves you ammunition? It’s bound to backfire. Buying and selling links based on PageRank’s global scale is a wonderful breadcrumb trail for Google.

Last month, Yahoo’s Dr. Pavel Berkhin completed a paper that explains how PageRank can be turned against those using it to detect spammy networks. He also made a previous paper (perhaps the most comprehensive work on PageRank you’ll ever read) publicly available. Check both papers out, and learn the real, scientific facts about PageRank.

Well-executed marketing to increase product awareness also provides excellent, quality linkage. A greater understanding of search engine technology helps prevent others from turning that linkage against you.

Google can put out Florida updates, Jagger updates, whatever it cares. Heck, the gods themselves can fire lighting bolts from Mount Olympus directly at my clients. But those clients will still be in Google’s results pages. Because, marketing- and information-retrieval-wise, they’ve done all the right things to be there — and to stay there.

Meet Mike at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains