Think Like a Search Engineer

Most search marketers are used to looking at things from a single perspective: that of a search marketer. Some of the more savvy marketers know enough to look at things from the perspective of end users as well, since those are the people they are ultimately trying to influence. The savviest of search marketers know that it's also important to step back from time to time and try to think like a search engine engineer.

By stepping into the shoes of the men and women who spend their days developing ways to improve search results, we can gain a unique perspective on the world of search engine marketing. To do that, we are going to examine what search engines are trying to do, consider their goals, and look at how those goals affect their interaction with the webmaster and SEO community.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members adds more SEO tips, including knowing how much a site should be designed with search engines in mind, a deeper look at search engine quality goals, and the role of trust. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

First, a disclaimer: None of this represents the official position of any search engine. This is my interpretation of what a search engineer is thinking, based on what I have seen out there, and based on my discussions with a variety of search engine engineers over the years.

I have found adopting this way of thinking to be an extremely effective technique in reviewing a Web site strategy. I don't have to agree with the thinking of the search engine engineer, but understanding it makes me better equipped to succeed in a world where they define the rules.

So we can more completely adopt the mindset, this article will be written in the first person, as if I am the search engine engineer.

The Basic Task of a Search Engine

Our goal is to build a search engine that returns the most relevant results to searchers. To do this, we need to have a comprehensive index that is as spam-free as possible. We also need to create ranking algorithms which are able to determine the value to searchers of a given site in relation to their query.

We build our index through these 4 simple steps:

  1. Crawl the entire Web
  2. Analyze the content of every crawled page
  3. Build a connectivity map for the entire Web
  4. Process this data so that we can respond to arbitrary user queries with the best answers from the Web in less than 1 second.

OK, so I am being a bit facetious when I called it simple. But if you had set upon this task yourself, you would need a sense of humor too. In fact, to accomplish this task we have had to build and manage the largest server farms the world has ever seen.

Search Engine Quality Goals

Like all businesses, we want to make money. The great majority of our money is made by selling ads within our search results and the rest of our ad network. However, we can't make money on our ads if users don't use our search engine to search.

So for search engines, relevant search results are king. In simple terms, if our search engine provides the best answers to users, those users will continue to come to us to search. And we'll make money by serving them ads. So we try to gain more users by providing the best search results they can find, hoping all new users that come online will search with us and continue to use our search engine for the rest of their lives.

Making matters more complicated in our quest for providing the best results is that a large percentage of user queries require disambiguation. By that, I mean the query itself does not provide enough information for us to understand what the user is looking for. For example, when a user searches on "Ford", they may be searching for corporate information on the Ford Motor Company, performance details of the latest Ford Mustang, the location of a local Ford dealer, or information about ex-President Gerald Ford. It is difficult for us to discern the user's intent.

We deal with this by offering varied answers in the top 10 results, to try and provide the user the answer they want in the top few results. For our Ford example above, we include in the top 10 results information on the Ford Motor Company and its vehicles, as well as on Gerald Ford.

We also implement new programs to provide disambiguation. To see examples of this, try searching on "Cancer" in Google and notice the "Refine results for cancer" links, or try searching on "Beatles" on Ask.com, and see how they have formulated their Smart Answer with links to music, images, products, and a drop-down box listing each of the four band members.

To summarize, providing the best answers leads to increased market share. More searches means more clicks on our ads, which means more revenue and profit. And it all flows from having the highest quality (including the best disambiguation) in our search results.

Modeling Webmaster Behavior on the Web

The best ranking algorithms we can use depend on models of Webmaster behavior on the network, where the Webmasters are not cognizant of the effect that their behavior has on the search engines. As soon as Webmasters become aware of the search engines, the model starts to break. This is the source of the famous "design sites for users, not search engines" stance that you have heard us talk about.

The Webmasters who do not follow this policy range from those who are black hat spam artists that will try any trick to improve their rankings, to those who bend the rules gently. All of this behavior makes it more difficult for us to improve our index, and to increase our market share.

Links as a Voting System

As an example of this, let's talk a bit about how links play a role in building our index. We use inbound links as a major component of evaluating how to rank sites in response to a particular user query.

If the search is for the term "blue widgets," then we evaluate the number and quality of relevant links that each page in the index has pointing to it. While there are over a hundred other factors, you can oversimplify this and say that the page with the best mix of relevant (to the query), quality links to it wins.

However, this concept is very fragile. It is heavily dependent on the person providing the link doing so because they really like the quality of the content that they are linking to. Fundamentally, the value of this algorithm for ranking content is based on observations about natural Webmaster behavior on the Web -- natural behavior in a world without search engines.

As soon as you compensate someone for a link (with cash, or a returned link exchanged for barter reasons only), you break the model. It doesn't mean that all these links are bad, or evil; it means that we can't evaluate their real merit. We are slaves to this fact, and can't change it. This leads to the stance we take against link purchasing, and the corresponding debate that we have with Webmasters who buy links.

The Role of FUD

All probabilistic models work best when the subjects being evaluated are not aware that they are being evaluated. However, we do not have that luxury. So the next-best thing is to make it difficult for the Webmaster to understand the nature of the algorithms used. Doing this still provides a certain amount of randomness, the foundation of all probabilistic models.

This is one big reason why we don't publish lots of clear guidelines about how our algorithms work. A little bit of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) improves overall quality. For example, you will never see anything that clearly defines how we identify a paid link.

This sounds a bit nasty, but we don't mean it to be so. Once again, we are just trying to provide the best possible search results for our end users, and this approach helps us do that.

Summary

So now let me jump back out of our fictitious search engine engineer's mind, and explain why this is all useful. Simply put, it's always useful to understand the goals and aspirations of the dominant business industries in your space. Without a doubt, when search engines roll over, there are lots of casualties.

You don't have to endorse their mind set, just understand it. You should seek to protect yourself from becoming an incidental casualty. Have an idea of how the search engines think, and use this knowledge to evaluate new search engine marketing strategies.

Understanding the way search engineers think can help you decide whether or not that new idea is worth trying. Is it at odds with the goals of the search engine? Does it help the search engine understand your site better? Knowing when you are taking risks, or making the decision to avoid them, can help scale your search engine marketing strategy to new heights.

Eric Enge is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric is also co-founder of Moving Traffic Inc., the publisher of City Town Info and Custom Search Guide.

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