SEO and Talk: The Non-Story

In the past few weeks, there have been a number of stories presaging a shift in how Google and other search engines rank content.

The contention is simple enough: Current search engine technology is limited because people game the system. Lately, people have been gaming the system a bit too successful; people have documented the unreasonable success of both Demand Media (recent IPO) and The Huffington Post (just sold to AOL).

“Gaming the system” is, in the system, called “Search Engine Optimization.” And, – due to the recent scrutiny -  a number of people are taking the opportunity to forecast the death of search engine optimization.

Farhad Manjoo makes the argument in Slate that content farms are doomed an ignoble death. According to him, the problem is that “Google’s weaknesses aren’t permanent.

There are a few problems with this forecast. To illustrate them, let me back up a bit and discuss search engines and content farms.

Originally, a search engine existed to answer the question “Which pages on the internet have to do with my query?” But, as their power and success has grown (and by “their” I mean “Google’s”) so has the scope of their ambition.

Now, a search engine exists to provide a (satisfactory) answer to a searcher.

The history of search engines means that this has taken the form of links (10 to a page!) and, occasionally, in-line answers (Bing’s “Instant Answers” and the like). The current form of search engine results as a set of blue links casts the search engine strictly as an intermediary between the searcher and the answer.

The history of search engines also lead to the rise of content farms.

From an objective perspective, content farms fulfill the same goals as search engines. That is, a content farm aims to have a page ready for every question an individual may have. Whether it’s How to Train My Hamster, How to Kill Flies in Your House with Mushrooms, or How to Set Up a Super Bowl Party, eHow has a page ready.

How do they know what pages people want? Well, it’s pretty simple: they mine search engine data. (Well, plus some guesswork and interpolation).

It’s a pretty ingenious idea: people are looking for things on Google, so why not create the very things they’re looking for? You already know what they’re looking for, since they’re already searching.

Really, it’s a wonder search engines didn’t think of the idea themselves (Oh, wait, they did).

Now, due to revenue concerns, most of the content in content farms is crap. You pay very little, and then reap in the advertising revenue. As the advertising revenue scales with how much traffic you get, and traffic comes almost exclusively from search engines, content farms sink a huge amount of effort trying to find (i) what search engines consider important, and (ii) doing more of what they consider important.

This is problematic for a few reasons, all of which can be summed up by: “Google isn’t perfect.”

More specifically, search engines like Google measure proxies of quality and use it as an indicator of quality. This is expressed most clearly in Google’s big breakthrough – PageRank. PageRank assumes that (i) humans link to web pages, and (ii) on average, a link is a vote. Someone considers the page valuable, or no one would be linking to it. Certainly, Google uses other variables (Bing uses over a thousand, so we can infer that Google uses at least that many. Sort of.). But (almost) all of them are proxies for value – proxies for the reality of the situation.

When content farms engage in search engine optimization, they are “tricking” Google into thinking that their content is higher quality that it actually is.

To an extent, this is purely a trick. Google must – and has in the past – responded by de-valuing signals which people being to manipulate consciously.

But in another sense, this is good: some of the things Google tracks actually do have to do with quality. The announcement last year that Google was going to begin using page load speed as a ranking factor is an example – sites that load faster as more pleasant to use, so sites that work for a higher Google ranking will also benefit site users.

In that sense, search engine optimization is similar to grammar. Yes, a writer with poor grammar can communicate himself – but it’s considerably easier for a reader to interpret someone who has a grasp of good grammar.

This explanation of search engines and content farm  suggests a couple of things.

First, that search engine optimization isn’t going anywhere (nor has grammar, to the dismay of many).

Second, that as Google becomes better at providing links to high quality answers, content farms will provide higher-quality answers.

It’s a terribly symbiotic relationship. Since content farms subsist on advertising revenue, the more accurately Google (and others) can reflect user judgment, the higher the quality of the content that content farms will produce.

Unless both run out of money, which is rather unlikely – after all, it’s Google (AdSense) that’s paying the bills for the content farms, and it’s Google AdWords which is paying the bills for search.

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