Loving Each Other More: Search Engines & Blogs

From the outset, let me make it clear that I don’t know the world of blogging intimately. My immersion into it has mainly happened over the past two months, in the wake of Google’s purchase of major blogging tool provider Pyra. With great interest, I began seeking out blogs to see what the community had to say about the move.

I often saw the suggestion made that Google wanted Pyra’s Blogger.com service primarily as a way to shore up Google’s own news search engine. By purchasing Blogger, Google will learn how to better index blogs and their often timely content, the theory went.

For me, this didn’t hold up. As I’ve previously written, Google is quite capable of understanding how to index blog content without owning a tool provider. In fact, now that Google itself is beginning to talk about the deal, it is not saying that possible search technology gains were the motivation. More about this is explored at the end of the story.

Having said this, my recent exploration of blogging certainly has left me with the thought that there’s a good reason for Google or someone else to create a robust, blog-specific search engine. In addition, there are certainly things it would be nice to see bloggers do to make their content more accessible to ordinary web search engines. In this story, we’ll explore both issues.

Blogs As Online Journals

What is a blog? Generally, I (and many others I’ve read) would characterize them as being like online diaries or journals. On a regular basis — such as each day, every few days or each week, a blogger will post observations to the home page of their blog site.

These observations may cover many different topics, such as the blogger’s view on a current news event (the war in Iraq or the mystery flu), a personal development (I bought a new car. Here’s why it’s cool) or a comment about what another blogger is saying (Can you believe this idiot? Have you read this amazing essay?).

Indeed, it’s very characteristic to see blogs commenting on other blogs. The system of RSS distribution, explained more in my sidebar article New RSS Search Engines Emerge, makes it very easy for many bloggers to do this.

Over time, the home page of a blog often grows with several days’ worth of entries. These eventually get archived in some fashion — each day’s, week’s or month’s worth of entries may move into their own pages.

Not all blog are journals, however. You can find blogs that instead explore a central topic, then essentially write an article about that topic. However, rather than create a separate page for these articles, they may instead be posted in the blogging format of falling under a daily entry.

For the curious, see Rebecca Blood’s good essay on the early development of blogs.

Blogs As New News Media?

Who cares about blogs? Many bloggers certainly do, and some can be borderline fanatical that the medium is going to usher away traditional journalism. Not surprisingly, you then see some traditional journalists pushing back, resentful of the idea that they are archaic. No one likes to be called dinosaurs.

My view is that blogs and traditional news outlets will both continue to thrive and survive as they mature online. In fact, rather than seeing blogs as a replacement for news outlets, I’ve grown to see them as complementary. To me, reading blogs is like reading the “Letters To The Editor” page of a newspaper.

I love to read newspapers. Where some people have coffee in the morning, I can’t get going until I’ve gone through the paper. One of my favorite parts is always the letters sections. It’s interesting to see what other people think about current news. It’s often enlightening, too, as those readers may go beyond the news and know more about a topic than what’s been reported.

Blogs to me are like a new “world wide letters” system. It’s incredibly easy for anyone to get going with blogs, share their views and often invaluable information. Such ease contributes to the rising popularity of blogs.

Of course, things are not that clear cut. John Hiler has a wonderful piece from last year about the “blogosphere,” the community and content made up by web logs. He covers how there is both news and letters/opinion style content, though he accurately points out that some blogs may break news stories faster that traditional news outlets. Hiler’s essay also coves the uneasy feeling that some traditional journalists and bloggers may have for each other. But rather unease, he believes both sides benefit from each other.

Searching The Blogosphere

Today, it’s not difficult for bloggers to locate news content. We have several excellent news search engines. But how can journalists locate blog content? Indeed, how can the general news-seeking public search through this valuable information?

We do have some existing blog-style search engines, as covered in my sidebar article, RSS: Your Gateway To News & Blog Content. However, a common feature I found when looking at all of them was that they could be slow or unstable.

Aside from this issue, which I’ll return to below, there’s the fact that blog content often is not search engine friendly. That can make it difficult for search engines to rank some of it well.

Search Engines & Blogs

But search engines love blogs! I can hear some bloggers saying that, since I’ve seen some post this is the past. And Google especially loves web logs, they say. Sure, Google and other search engines do have some love for blogs. But there’s more love that could be had, with some small changes on the part of bloggers.

It’s important to remember that blogs are simply made up of ordinary web pages. When Google or any other search engine indexes pages in a blog, the pages are not seen as special, “blog-like” or treated in a way different than how any “ordinary” web page is analyzed.

Because of this, blog pages face all the same requirements to rank well with search engines as any other web pages. And when it comes to “on-the-page” ranking factors, some blogs are very anti-search engine friendly.

Lack Of Titles

Let’s take HTML title tags. If you create a web page and hope that page will rank well in a search engine for a particular topic, then it is helpful to include those terms in the title tag of the page. But many blogs fail to do this. For instance, the blog’s home page often seems to be the person’s name followed by the word “blog,” such as “Danny Sullivan’s Blog.”

That’s fine, if your blog is eclectic and covers all different types of topics. However, if you maintain a blog focused around stamp collecting, then a title of “Danny Sullivan’s Stamp Collecting Blog” would be far better, if you’re hoping to help people searching for stamp collecting to find it. It’s also a change that should be easy to make, with most tools.

Topically-Focused Pages

In addition, if you want a page to be found for a particular topic, it’s helpful if the page is fairly focused on that topic. So, let’s say you make a long comment in your blog about the war in Iraq. Adding further comments to the same page about the birth of a new child, a new PDA you’ve purchased, a comment on someone who’s blogged about a recent company acquisition and so on tends to dilute the main topic you’d like the page to be found for.

Instead, from a search engine point of view, it would be far better if each item you blog resided on its own individual page. Obviously, that cuts against the nature and ease in which blogs are compiled. Nevertheless, it is worth examining whether your blog tool will allow you to create standalone pages with their own unique titles. If so, for certain cases, you might consider making a reference in your blog to that page, then use the page to expand more.

Here’s a real-life example. Blogger Dane Carlson wanted to comment about why “Google Loves Weblogs” last year. However, rather than post all of his comments on this topic as part of his daily web log, he instead used a handy feature of Radio UserLand, his blogging tool, to create a standalone “story” that he could reference. This meant that the new page he created was solely about the topic of Google Loves Weblogs and had a unique title that reflected that topic:

Dane Carlson’s Weblog :: Google Loves Weblogs

In contrast, imagine he hadn’t created a separate story. In that case, his original post would have shared space alongside his musings on the possible end of dentistry and having upgraded his computer to Windows XP. Aside from this dilution, the archived page for that day’s post has this completely unhelpful title:

Dane Carlson’s Weblog :: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Here’s another example, this time from Microdoc News, another Radio UserLand web log that focuses mainly on stories about Google.

The Microdoc site is very savvy in having arranged things so that each post can be clicked through to its own individual page, keeping that page focused on a particular topic. Unfortunately, the title tag stays generic. So, while Microdoc does very well at Google for many topics that its pages are about, how it is displayed in the listings is rather poor.

For instance, one article is “Alternatives To Google Referrals” and discusses building up traffic via RSS feeds. The page comes up eight in a search on Google for “alternatives to google,” which is great. But are you inclined to click on it, with this title and description?

Microdoc Microtoons: 2003/03/18
/. daily link Tuesday, 18 March 2003 Alternatives to Google Referrals.
Copyright ? 2003 Verity Intellectual Properties Pty Ltd. How many /.

If Microdoc has the ability to insert a meta description tag, that might make the description look a bit more attractive, as Google has been using this tag more since last fall. However, certainly if Microdoc were able to use a custom HTML page title, such as:

Microdoc News: Alternatives To Google

then Google would definitely use that title. The listing would be far more attractive and it might even rank a bit higher, as well.

Saved By The Links

Despite on-the-page search engine optimization flaws, link analysis has definitely helped some web logs rise up in Google and other search engines. Of course, that’s true of non-blog pages, as well. Try a search for “o2” on Google and look at the fifth listing:

Flash 5 sniffer
Checking for Flash 5.
www.o2.com/ – 7k – Cached – Similar pages

That’s the US-based site of cell phone company O2, which does everything wrong for search engines by showing only Flash content to them. Nevertheless, link analysis saves the company from being lost.

So, links do help. Links build the love! But bloggers (and anyone, really) should also explore whether their publishing tool will let them make some simple changes to be more search engine friendly, as explained above and in more depth in these search engine optimization tips.

The goal isn’t to change the unique way in which blogs are constructed. They are popular because they are easy to construct. But slight search engine friendliness changes may be possible to add.

(Looking for a blogging tool? Check out BlogComp, which lets you examine and compare blogging tool features. Sadly, however, it doesn’t provide a glossary to help those unfamiliar with some features listed).

Search Engines & Blogs: The Future

What could search engines do to better work with blog content? For one thing, moving toward a system of ranking portions of a page independently would help. In other words, rather than looking at all the words on a page, the page’s title and other on-the-page factors, a system that examines portions of a page and ranks those portions independently could be helpful.

Another improvement of course might be to offer blog searching. As mentioned earlier, my RSS: Your Gateway To News & Blog Content sidebar article covers some new RSS search engines that have emerged this past month. They give us some blog-like searching ability, and they join established web log search engines such as Daypop. But these services are all largely labors of love, which can impact their dependability. In contrast, a major search engine would have the resources to produce a fast, dependable service.

So how about it? Will Google or some other search engine’s next acquisition be Daypop? Or will we see Google, now equipped with internal blogging evangelists, consider creating a blog or RSS search engine?

We definitely have talked about taking in those feeds to improve the timeliness of our search engines,” said Google cofounder and president of technology, Sergey Brin. But he remained fairly non-committal. Google’s first priority is to help stabilize the Blogger service itself. And why did Google get it?

“The definite benefits were clear. Here was very successful product but not a successful business on its own,” Brin said. “We have the ability to scale the system and monetize it with advertising [as currently done with Google’s new contextual links”. It becomes solid business. That was the clear business case.

Beyond the primarily reasons of turning Blogger into a stronger service and having a new ad venue, Brin does believe that other synergies will come out of the deal.

“We’ve thought of around 20 different ideas, of which I‘m hopeful some will come to fruition, like how can we leverage the Blogger data to improve our search, how can we improve Google’s crawl of Blogger,” Brin said.

Blogs & RSS

Finally, the new crop of RSS search engines covered in my RSS: Your Gateway To News & Blog Content was inspired by a March 6 post from blogger Dave Aiello, who wanted a pure-RSS search engine as a way of finding more blog content. Feedster, the first of the new group, acknowledges this in its about page. Prominent blogger Doc Searls also called for a blog-only search engine on the same day.

RSS isn’t the perfect solution, however. Not all blogs use RSS, nor is all RSS entirely blog content. Because of this, old hands at blog indexing, such as Daypop and Blogdex, both have told me that they can’t depend solely on RSS. A bigger problem will be when RSS grows in popularity well beyond the blogging world. When that happens, it’s possible that blog-specific content might get lost. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s one to consider.

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