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Chasing Search Engine Algorithms: Wisdom or Folly?

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Properly optimized web sites can achieve top rankings in web search results. But when search engines change, should you follow suit? Even the experts disagree.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 8-11, 2005, San Jose, CA.

Search engine marketing is based on algorithms—those unpublished formulas by which search engines determine how to rank websites. Most search marketers spend a fair bit of time contemplating algorithms—how they work, what they're looking for, how they might change and constantly ask: Can you beat them at their own game?

Some search engine optimization (SEO) experts focus on decoding and beating these complex, ever-changing formulas. They find clever ways to capitalize on algorithm idiosyncrasies. Other search professionals prefer to concentrate on improving general website effectiveness and visibility, without necessarily trying to gain an advantage over the algorithms.

Which is the best approach?

This very issue was debated at the recent Search Engine Strategies Conference in San Jose. With friendly sparring and lively debate among panelists who hold very different opinions on this key question, a candid, insightful, and entertaining discussion ensued.

Various Expert Opinions

Jeff Watts, Search Manager at National Instruments, explained that his company takes a long-term approach to search engine optimization. They focus first and foremost on providing quality content for customers. While he admitted that they occasionally fall behind competitors who are "reverse engineering" their sites to take advantage of algorithms, he also explained that National Instruments has enjoyed consistent high rankings over the long haul.

David Naylor, SEO Expert at Bronco in Yorkshire, England, provided a different perspective. He described projects where the sole purpose of his efforts is attaining a top ranking. How does he manage this? David proactively searches for "holes" in the algorithms and capitalizes on these weaknesses to win that top spot, and make money for his clients and himself.

Shari Thurow, Webmaster and Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, countered that she has never found it necessary to engage in questionable practices or techniques designed to take advantage of algorithm weaknesses. In contrast, she has been able to obtain excellent visibility and high rankings for her clients by focusing on customer needs, quality content, and sound website usability principles. Shari humorously used the phrase "ALGOholics" to describe those marketers who are obsessed with beating the algorithms to obtain a top rank. Needless to say, several panelists readily admitted to this newly-identified addiction!

As many search marketers have experienced, optimization is becoming more difficult. Mikkel Svendsen, of Red Zone Global, believes "things are not as easy as they used to be." He asserts that search marketers must now look at each SEO challenge individually, study the competition, and figure out which strategic approach will work best for each website.

Web Guerilla's Greg Boser, supported this position. "Things were easier when there was more focus on on-page factors. It's harder now." That said, opportunities definitely do exist. Greg described "glaring holes so large you can drive a Mack truck through them." These algorithm glitches can deliver big money, and not just for the short term. One thing many people don't realize is that "algo-chasers" DO care about conversions—not just rankings. "This is because most of us are compensated on an affiliate-type payment model. We don't make money unless our clients make money."

Jill Whalen, of High Rankings, believes that many marketers are looking for a cookie-cutter approach—a single recipe to follow—a silver bullet. "Unfortunately, search engine optimization is not a paint-by-numbers process," cautioned Jill. Her advice: "Don't drive yourself crazy watching small, daily changes. Position will change. It's inevitable. Marketers should try to think longer-term."

Holes? What Holes?

Greg Boser explained that engines implement what he called "fillers" to fix algorithm problems as they are identified. Google has had the most time and experience filling these holes, followed by Yahoo, and finally MSN. Greg also noted that the engines' top priority is to fix the problems that impact the most people. So, holes are usually patched first on US search engines. Often times these same problems are not corrected on foreign engines nearly as quickly. In the same vein, it can be easier to find opportunities in the B2B world, where searches involve a very specific, smaller audience. Many of these opportunities fly "under the radar" and are not fixed as quickly as algorithm problems impacting masses of consumers.

One conference attendee asked the panel to elaborate on all these holes they'd been mentioning. Moderator Danny Sullivan explained, "You'll never get that kind of specific advice during a formal SES presentation." Why?

  • Search engine personnel are in the room
  • Once a major hole is identified, it will be fixed, and
  • Algorithms are constantly changing. A hole today is not necessarily a hole tomorrow.

Want some real counsel? Sullivan suggested, "Befriend an SEO expert at the bar after conference hours!"

What the Experts Can Agree On

Panelists were asked to summarize "the most important things" for SEO success. This group of experts gave the expected responses:

  • Do your keyword research.
  • Select 3 - 5 phrases to optimize each page against.
  • Write unique, compelling Titles for each page.
  • Focus on unique content that adds value to users and incorporates sound SEO copywriting techniques.
  • Ensure site architecture and design do not prohibit thorough search engine crawling.
  • Build high-quality, in-bound links.
  • Keep working on it. SEO is not a one-time project. Continual growth in content, links, and pages is required for long-term success.
  • And finally, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Still confused? Look for an ALGOholics Anonymous 12-step program coming soon near you.

Patricia Hursh is founder of SmartSearch Marketing a search engine marketing agency specializing in lead generation and customer acquisition solutions, located in Boulder, Colorado.

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