Helping search engines provide better results

August 18, 2007

Topics: Search Marketing.

I just want to discuss one concept (mine) behind search engine optimization. There are still people out there who would opine that all efforts at search optimization are a form of trickery – although that number is certainly shrinking as the SEO community grows and matures.

A key element to SEO is the concept of the “perfect search result.” For my purposes, this is defined as the search result which:

  1. Provides access to the most relevant information pertaining to the search.
  2. Appears as the first or only result of its media type to a search.
  3. Satisfies the searcher’s needs for the search they performed.

There is hardly such a thing as a perfect search result. As the explicitness or uniqueness of the search increases, the perfection of the results increases — but the challenge of constructing a search which will return perfect results is pretty significant. Once you accept that, the whole world of search optimization becomes much more clear. The goal of search optimization is to make your site the most perfect result for the broadest range of relevant searches. It’s a fuzzy definition, I know — but it works for me.

The perfect result is entirely in the eye of the searcher – for the vast majority of searches, there is no guaranteed correct answer. It is the task of anybody attempting search engine optimization to attempt to tune a site until it will appear effectively for some set of desirable and probable search phrases.

Most levels of search engine optimization revolve around topical clarification. Optimization is the act of studying the website and taking appropriate steps to make it more clearly apparent what the site is about. Clarifying the subject and topical areas of a website is of benefit to both site visitors and to search engines.

What do relevant links provide? Subject clarification. What do effective page titles provide? Page-specific clarity. What do headings do? Specify the topic of a given segment of a page. These are the basic, basic steps which need to be taken in order to help a search engine provide better results.

Search engine optimization, when performed correctly, is not at all about trying to trick a search engine into inflating the value of your site. It’s about trying to inform the search engine about your site so that the search engine can provide better results.

Now, of course, in the eye of the searcher, your site may not actually be the best possible result. This is inevitable. No site can provide the perfect information to every potential visitor. It comes back to the search terms: searchers do not always provide explicit enough search phrases to actually find their own best answer.

This is why the range of search terms should be as broad as reasonable: because searchers don’t always know what they’re searching for. As an example, if your site makes use of your own custom industry terminology for “widgets”, describing them throughout your site as “gidgetized pseudo-elemental devices,” you’ll potentially have the only results for your custom terminology. You’ll always be first, and anybody who searches for your term will get to your site.

Of course, most users will search for “widgets,” and visit your competitors. Those who do wind up at your site are possibly just those people who ran across your phrase and wanted to know what it meant!

So, you can see that there’s a paradox between having a perfect search result and actually receiving traffic: it’s easy to accomplish a unique search result or top rankings only if you accept that the specific term for which you rank is very uncommon.

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4 Comments to “Helping search engines provide better results”

  1. I emailed you using the address listed on linkedin. You should check it promptly, as it is regarding a matter of great immediacy.

  2. @ Stevie D – The paradox is a statistical paradox: the more “perfect” the search result, the lower the likelihood of traffic.

    “Perfect”, as I’m using it, is quite different from “relevant.” For common search terms, there are thousands of relevant results: there will be no perfect result, since the search can’t be resolved that explicitly from an algorithmic perspective.

    @ all: In real search terms, being #1 is very nearly irrelevant. Note that I specified media type as an important part of being a perfect result. This concept of Universal Search has made this an important aspect of search – the actual first results may not even be the type of information you’re looking for. As a result, you’ll inevitably end up continuing past the top results. Enumerating results at all becomes much more difficult, since you may obtain the first position for your class of result, but still appear as the fourth or fifth listing on the page.

    @David: Yes, the actual search phrases people use can be mind boggling…

  3. I agree, Joe, that there is a delicate balance between being #1 and to actually winning the race.

    To make matters worse, I am always amazed when I review my server logs and see some of the strange ways in which people keyword their search strings. No wonder the concept of SEO is so confusing!

  4. So, you can see that there’s a paradox between having a perfect search result and actually receiving traffic: it’s easy to accomplish a unique search result or top rankings only if you accept that the specific term for which you rank is very uncommon.

    I don’t see that as a paradox.

    Sure, it’s a compromise – you can focus your attention entirely on being #1 for a certain uncommon phrase, or entirely on being on page 1 for a more common phrase, or any mix in between. But that kind of compromise is not unusual.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that if your site appears in, let’s say, #3 to #6 on the SERP, but is the highest ranking relevant result, it probably isn’t a problem that you’re not #1. If the results that the search engine puts at the top are less relevant than yours, a high proportion of searchers will still look at your site. It’s only when competing sites offering a similar service appear above yours, or when your site is so low down the list that most people will stop looking first, that you are in trouble.