By Dan Thies

Search Engines Know More Than You Think

By Dan Thies

These days, every time I read another oversimplified explanation of SEO, I cringe. In one sense, it really is that simple, but in another, the complexity goes far beyond what any of us can fathom.

The super-simplified version of SEO is:
[*]Build optimized web pages based on your (hopefully well researched) keyword strategy.
[*]Optimize the link structure of the site around them to support the keyword strategy.
[*]Build the external profile of the key pages through link building campaigns.

A lot of folks have been very successful by following this very simplified approach, in fact, many have been successful without bothering much with item #2. Building optimized pages and hammering the search engines into submission with optimized text in incoming links still works, although it’s a lot more difficult these days, especially with Google.

But the future is staring us right in the face, folks. Search engines know a lot more than you think. In January of 2004 I released a report on Google’s “Florida” update, then a hot issue for SEOs, which described a “topic-sensitive” variation of PageRank. (If you’d like to read it, follow that link, look for “How to Prosper in the New Google.”)

The search engines today have a pretty good idea what the topic of a web page is, how that relates to other topics, and even the type of information resource the page/site represents. Ask.com’s Teoma search engine was built this way from the ground up, but Google and Yahoo have also shown their own topical search implementations as well.

At Google, it’s called personalized web search and site flavored search. Both of these work the same way – you specify topics of interest, and Google modifies the search results depending on the topics. Pick the right mix of topics, and you can deliver search results very similar to what Google was producing during the “Florida” update in November 2003.

Yahoo’s new tool is called Yahoo Mindset, and is described on their website as “intent driven search.” Users move a little slider control to bias the search results toward either commercial or informational sites, and Yahoo delivers an appropriate mix of listings. Further details are offered on their FAQ page. Give it a try, and you’ll see how useful it will be for searchers.

These two (beta) search tools show a little bit more of the capability the search engines already have. They also offer SEOs a bit more insight into how the search engines see different web sites and pages, beyond the keyword-laden text and links. We can find topical authorities on Teoma, get a sense of what topics Google sees as relevant to our website, and learn whether Yahoo thinks we’re selling something or offering information.

In my advanced SEO training classes (and in the SitePoint SEM Kit), I tell students that search engines want to deliver a mix of different web pages in each search result, to give searchers a better chance of finding what they seek. It’s important to understand what type of resource your website (or your client’s) represents, because this gives you a better idea of how much space there is in the search results, and against which sites/pages you are actually competing.

If this is the future, I say bring it on.

  • I have a really simple SEO strategy:

    1) Use clean, semantic markup.
    2) Add good, important content.
    3) Spread word about good content.
    4) Wait a few months.

  • Good advice for anyone, even without search engines.

  • artemis

    I think the Mindset tool is brilliant. My only major gripe about Google is about getting commercial sites when I want information and vice versa. I hope that soon Yahoo or Google might create an additional option to filter comparrison shopping sites and review sites that lack reviews.

  • Bring it on, indeed. In a sense, I’d like to see the death of SEO as it exists today. As Search Engines get a more and more sophisticated, more of these basic ‘tricks of the trade’ become obsolete, and more Web site owners need to start thinking more about content.

  • i really liked 37signals’ take on yahoo’s mindset:

    “The slider is 300px wide with a continous motion from one side to the other. That means there are 300 settings to choose from. And what does 27% from the left mean anyway?”

    its interesting that the search engines have this capability, but most people won’t know how to fully utilize it (how far to the left to I push it?).

  • The user interface could be an issue, but even without a slider operated by a user, the search engines can deliver different types of sites for a lot of search queries, based on analyzing the query.

  • Peter

    Simplifying things helps to be practical in implementation. But at the same time one needs to be aware of the details to keep the simple version up to date.

    Search Engine like Google are starting to touch real information retrieval. I am so much looking forward to the future. :)

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