Archive for May, 2006

Honest Search Optimization

Thursday, May 25th, 2006


There are two approaches to promoting websites, one adversarial and one
cooperative. You can either fool search engines into thinking you are
useful, or you can actually become useful, attracting search engines and
users. Both can work. But in the long run, the latter is more effective
with less effort.

My qualifications

I’m not a recognized SEO expert. I don’t consult or sell books. This is
the only thing I’ve written on the subject. Yet in a few years, in my spare
time, with a budget of zero, I have sent several websites to #1 at major
search engines, generating 50,000 to 100,000 page views a month.

Since it cost me nothing to learn this, I will now tell you, for free, how to
do it.

Do this for each site

  1. Choose a domain name that describes the content.
  2. Put interesting and useful content there.
  3. Get listed at
  4. Describe each page clearly and succinctly in the page title and body.
  5. Get links from established, reputable sites with similar content.
  6. Wait several months.

That’s it. You don’t need to hire anyone, nor buy any tools or books.  This method works for nearly every site, nearly every time, for years, with almost no maintenance.

Why it works better

This approach arises from a simple guiding principle:

Understand how search engines work, and what they want to do — and cooperate.

Traditional promoters want to use Google like a megaphone, because that’s how news media works these days. But Google is not a megaphone. It is a listening device.

To really understand that, and to appreciate the cooperative approach to SEO, you need to be in right frame of mind, which by itself can be difficult for the typical person reading an article like this. You very likely work in a frantically competitive job, involving long hours and the threat of layoff or reassignment. This tends to create a short-term, shortcut, screw-you mindset. So first, a brief exercise to distance us from that world.

Preparatory Exercise

As you’re sweating alone over a particularly tedious project at 11pm on a Saturday night, please stand up, look into your bloodshot eyes in the mirror, and read the following:

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

If, at this point, you still feel highly motivated to tap away like a chimpanzee, then there’s nothing I can do for you. Try clicking some helpful consultant’s ads — they’ll probably sell you cool, colorful charts or something.

On the other hand, if you are now in tears, bemoaning your wasted youth, you are mentally prepared for cooperative SEO.

Choose efforts that will last

It’s not widely recognized that Macbeth was discussing search optimization philosophy. Do things that will still have value in a year or two, and you’ll feel less like a chimpanzee. Even a tiny effect is valuable, if it lasts for years with no further effort.

The goal in search optimization — the true goal — is to gain a position whose value (measured in dollars, readers, or whatever else is important to you) greatly exceeds the effort required to get there and remain there.

This means working with those features of search engines that are utterly stable, and likely to change slowly or never.

Stable features of search engines

Search engines use a huge and ever-increasing array of techniques to measure importance and relevance, and to filter out scams and spam. But the following have been stable for about 10 years.

  1. Your page’s importance is based on the number and importance of links coming in to your page from other pages. 
  2. Importance is calculated iteratively, and must begin from a set of initial conditions provided by a reference directory. For Google, the initial conditions are provided
    primarily by 
  3. Relevance is inferred from the similarity between a user query and the contents of a page and pages linking to it.

The reason this hasn’t changed in 10 years is that it works. It is a powerful set of insights into delivering what people need. So powerful, in fact, that it’s difficult to improve upon. And difficult to change.

Stated another way, the search engines have solved the search problem so well that they’re now beneficially unable to change their basic ranking approach. That inflexibility means that if you can gain high rank according to the above three criteria, you will tend to sustain that rank indefinitely, with no further effort. That’s the promise offered by cooperative search optimization. Now, let’s look at the alternative.

Gaming the system — beyond ethics, it’s a waste of time

Looking at the stable features above, you can see the potential adversarial strategies: link farms, link exchanges and so forth. Some of these probably do work — for a while.

Let’s say you had no ethical qualms about gaming the system. You’re only concerned about return on investment. Is this an effective way to spend your time or money? Probably not, because you are exploiting an unstable set of loopholes.

The search companies have huge teams of smart guys dedicated to prevent cheating. As a result, adversarial strategies are a constant arms race. You would need constantly to invent new strategies as they discover and shut down your old ones. All your old work becomes worthless within a few months. A sound
and fury, signifying nothing.

Spending your time becoming interesting

By contrast, providing end users with something uniquely useful is a great investment of time or money. To see why, look at the two main hurdles you need to jump in gaining a good search rank: DMOZ and inbound links.

People know DMOZ is critical to a good search ranking, so this creaky all-volunteer Web directory is utterly overwhelmed by requests from websites to get listed. Yes, there are probably ways to sneak in, but the most straightforward solution is to offer something unique, useful and authoritative. The DMOZ reviewer will immediately recognize this in your site, if you have chosen the right category and are truly providing unique utility.

Inbound links are easier to obtain than a DMOZ listing. But authoritative, closely related inbound links are not. You need to create something sufficiently distinguished to warrant attention from people with no vested interest in your success.

Your content is not automatically unique or useful

Note the previous section is not saying, “Spend all your time creating content.” If that were all you needed, every high school student’s blog would get more traffic than the Toyota home page. No, the previous section says to spend effort creating not just content, but useful content. And not just useful content, but uniquely useful content.

My blog (I do write one) is unique, but not useful. As a result, no one links to it, and so it’s mostly invisible on the Web.  Similarly, if you create a website full of recipes, it is likely useful, but absolutely not unique, and thus unlikely to gain a good rank.

You need to think about what people need, what you can provide, how you are unique, and how that uniqueness might be valuable. This is a completely different type of challenge from frantic chimpanzee tapping. It involves talking to people, asking questions, and just sitting in a quiet room, thinking.

Knowing the difference between adversarial and cooperative

Now you know the answer to success on the Web. In the abstract. But in practice, for someone not accustomed to thinking in this way, it may not be obvious which activities are adversarial and which are cooperative. Here are a few examples.

Adversarial (basic intent is to fool a search engine)

Link exchanges offered by mass email.

Buy a domain with existing high rank, intending to change the content.

Cooperative (basic intent is to deliver value to site visitor)

Buy a domain with existing high rank, slowly adding similar content.

Get a legitimate online newspaper to link to your site.

How would you rather spend your time?

In conclusion, your mom was right that cheaters never prosper. But beyond that, why would you want to live like that? Always looking over your shoulder, trying to stay a step ahead of the anti-spam cops. Anyone smart enough to do that successfully for a while is more than smart enough to generate actual content, of actual unique value, to benefit a lot of people.  

Why would you want to do it any differently?

Note: If you find this article useful, please link to it, thereby helping to prove its thesis. :-)