Search Engine Algorithms and SEO Firms

Competitive analysis and comparisons among SEO (define)/SEM (define) firms can be quite entertaining. One SEO firm might guarantee top search engine placement due to short-term spam methodologies, while another might guarantee top placement from overconfidence.

How do I know my competitors’ sales pitches? I encounter many pitches from entertaining SEO e-mail. I purposely opt in to SEO/SEM mailing lists just to see what my competitors are trying to sell. Some companies hire me as a consultant to audit SEO/SEM firms’ proposals. And some companies hire me to actually attend these SEO-proposal meetings.

Today’s column was inspired by one recent SEO-proposal meeting.

“We Know Google’s Algorithm” and Other Lies

I get a variety of reactions when I attend SEO-proposal meetings. One common reaction is noticeable apprehension because SEO sales people recognize me as a speaker from Search Engine Strategies conferences. Another reaction (which I find far more amusing) is outright ignorance. Technical SEO staff usually take one look at me and assume I have no technical background whatsoever. Maybe I look like a marketing person. Who knows?

This particular SEO firm comprised mostly technical staff. Below are their three primary claims:

  • We have PhDs analyzing the algorithms of all the major search engines and have successfully reverse-engineered them.
  • We push the envelope to get your site placement — and our client sites have never been penalized.
  • We guarantee your site will get top positions.

I wish you could have seen my facial expressions during this meeting. You would’ve seen my jaw hitting the floor, especially after that first statement. I know my facial expressions were entertaining because I could hear my client trying to stifle giggles throughout the meeting.

Let’s examine one of these sales pitches in a little more detail.

Reverse-Engineering Search Algorithms

Whenever an SEM company makes a statement about knowing a search engine algorithm or being able to reverse-engineer one, don’t believe it. It’s the biggest SEO lie I’ve ever heard.

One of the largest U.S. SEO/SEM companies actually claimed it had Google’s algorithm as a black box. At this recent meeting, the salespeople claimed their staff had PhDs, but they neglected to mention what field the degrees were in. Other SEO firms claim to have hired former search engine employees. Yet they don’t mention which department these employees worked in. Misdirection and lies.

Bottom line? No one, including search engine software engineers, knows exactly how search engines rank pages. Even the reverse-engineering claim is often bogus.

Many SEO firms who claim to reverse-engineer a search engine algorithm do three things:

  1. Review the top 30 or so search results
  2. Find what the Web pages have in common
  3. Use those commonalities as evidence for reverse engineering

This procedure isn’t reverse engineering, but it sounds pretty impressive during a sales pitch. In reality, a search algorithm often comprises a large number of mathematical equations. When SEO staffers claim to have reverse-engineered an algorithm, they’re claiming to know every single mathematical equation that composes that algorithm.

When this particular SEO firm made this claim, I said, “OK, I’ll bite. Let’s use a couple of mathematical equations as proof you understand Google’s algorithm.”

Google published the PageRank component of its search algorithm years ago. Here’s what it looked like in 1998:

PR(A) = (1-d) + d(PR(T1)/C(T1) + … + PR(Tn)/C(Tn))

All search engines have duplicate or redundant content filters as part of their algorithms so they don’t deliver the same search results repeatedly. Here’s a mathematical equation for possible duplicate content filtering via content evolution and shingle (word set) comparison:

ClickZ Graphic

I presented these two possible search algorithm components during the meeting. Search engine representatives have publicly stated their algorithms contain over 100 components. Any SEO firm that claims it’s successfully reverse-engineered a search engine algorithm in its little black box is essentially claiming it knows all 100-plus components of the mathematical equation that constitutes a search engine algorithm.

Trust me. The vast majority of SEO staffers can’t even explain these two equations. Even some of my most technically advanced SEO colleagues didn’t know what shingles were. If you’re going to prance your PhD staff out as your unique sales proposition, they had better know their stuff… and I’m going to ask tough questions.


I’ve never claimed I could reverse-engineer search engine algorithms. It’s a waste of time and effort because no search engine will reveal its top-secret means of organizing Web content.

No SEO firm knows Google’s algorithm. No SEO firm knows the marvelous, convoluted mathematical equations that constitute a search engine algorithm. I can pick a random software engineer from Google, and that person won’t know exactly how Google ranks Web pages.

When an SEO firm claims to know an algorithm, always understand it’s a well-orchestrated, but false, sales pitch.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 4-7, at the Hilton Chicago.

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

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