Search Engine Optimization is Unfair

Sometimes life is unjust. You work hard, you become master of your domain, but then you don’t reap the rewards that you probably deserve.

Often this can be for some reason that shouldn’t matter, but somehow it does. But, this column isn’t about life, it’s about the unfair nature of SEO.

For background, consider that search engine algorithms work best when people don’t know what they are. It’s just like testing a mouse’s ability to wander through a maze and find the cheese that is tucked away in one corner. It’s a great test of their intelligence, but when scientists started doing these tests, they quickly discovered that once the mouse realized that it was being watched the results changes significantly.

In this analogy, website publishers are the mice, and the search engines are the scientists conducting the test. The initial link based algorithms worked best when publishers didn’t realize their importance to rankings in the search engines. As soon as people understood that, the overt effort to obtain links began, and, a bit more sadly, the spammers began looking for ways to manipulate the algorithms.

This has led to the complication of increasingly complex algorithms that are harder and harder to understand. This is what has led to two injustices in the world of SEO.

1. Publishers Lacking SEO Knowledge Suffer

Imagine two different publishers. One is the world expert on some topic, say Asian butterflies. The expert creates never before seen pictures of rare Asian butterflies, and provides a rich array of thought provoking and interesting articles on the topic. They also address the needs of consumers for related information and products.

The second publisher is an expert on SEO, but they have also decided to publish a site about Asian butterflies, probably because they see an interesting commercial opportunity in that space. They create their articles by hiring a writer who previously wasn’t aware that there are butterflies in Asia.

The writer diligently puts some effort into researching the topic, and writes a series of articles about them. Unfortunately, because the writer isn’t an expert on the topic, the writer perpetuates some myths. Unintentional, perhaps, but it happens just the same.

Who is most likely to get the most search traffic on the topic? It could easily be the second publisher.

2. SEO Mysteries

Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time in the SEO world has had the experience of looking at a search results and being totally mystified by some of the websites that appear in the results. All the results may be relevant, but some of the sites don’t really look like they belong in the top 10.

Sometimes publishers of low quality sites that primarily use spammy, but easy to detect, link practices, still succeed (for a while). Unfortunately, if the spammer outranks your site, then your patience with being ranked below someone who is cheating the system is low.

You really don’t want to hear that Google is working on some new things in their algorithms that may be able to help you in a year or so. You want satisfaction now, but most likely, you won’t get it.

Mysteries crop up other ways though. Sometimes a site ranks highly and it’s really hard to figure out why. They may have OK content, but the link profile is weak, and no other compelling reason for it to be there seems to exist.

One way this happens is with query deserves diversity. This is the notion that the search engine will push up a different result just because it’s different. For example, if someone searches on “Jaguars,” do they mean the football team, the car, of the animal?

So even if the football team had 30 different sites that by pure traditional link and content analysis should occupy the top 30 slots in the results, the search engines recognize the ambiguity of the user’s search query, and so they make sure that a few results related to the animal and the guitar show up in the top 10 results. Query deserves diversity is just one way this happens. There are more than 200 factors used in ranking sites these days, and any number of them can cause an unusual result.


How do you deal with these types of injustices? There really is only one way: to make a consistent, and constant, investment in arming yourself with knowledge about SEO. This may give you an unfair advantage over your competition, but it’s better than if they’re the ones who have the unfair advantage.

The challenge becomes to use the knowledge of SEO to better your traffic results, yet still provide a high quality of content that truly serves the searchers who come to your site (unlike my first example above). With power, there is also responsibility. If you can do both, you can get the traffic and deserve it too.

Join us for SES Toronto June 9-11, 2010 at the Hyatt Regency Toronto. The event will be packed with sessions covering topics such as PPC management, keyword research, SEO, social media, local, mobile, link building, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization, usability and more while offering high-level strategy, big picture, keynotes, an exhibit floor with companies that can help you grow your business, networking events, parties and more.

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