Search Engines 101

We talk about search engine optimization all the time, but what exactly does that mean? Search, okay, we get that, but what do engines have to do with it, and what exactly are we optimizing?

If those questions puzzle you, today’s post will clear it all up.

First, a search engine is the piece of code — a little piece of software, essentially — that looks for stuff. The major search engines, Google and bing, are the ones we all know about, but every search box has a search engine behind it. If you have a search box on your page, that’s a search engine. If you look stuff up on Facebook or at an e-commerce site, you’re using a search engine.

The simplest search engine just looks for matches for the string of symbols you type in. You type in “mare,” and it gives you everything it has using the word “mare” — plus “amaretto,” “nightmare,” and so forth.

These search engines are not very smart.

We could help them out by saying things like “+mare -nightmare” or “mare OR horse,” but getting exactly what we want from a very simple search engine requires skill and can be frustrating.

Smarter search engines

Companies like Google noticed the disadvantages of these search engines and began improving search engines by making them smarter. They began to work without + signs, to recognize the edges of words and quit giving us “nightmare” if we just wanted “mare.” By now, they know that a mare is a kind of horse and will avoid giving you stuff about the moon if they can tell you’re looking for stuff about horses.

When we optimize for a smart search engine, we can expect that words like “mare,” “filly,” and “horse” will be understood, and that an article using those words will allow a search engine to grasp that we’re taking about horses.

We can’t assume that the search engine will get that “My favorite Palomino temptress” is a horse. That really requires a human level of understanding of English (as of this writing).

Mistakes people make with search engines

We tend to see two kinds of errors when people write web content:

  • They write for dumb search engines, coming up with sentences like, “Tampa Horse Stables will meet all your Tampa Horse Stable needs for horses and stables in Tampa.”
  • They write for people, entirely forgetting about the search engines, and use phrases like “excellent mount” for horses.

If words like “horse” are in the article somewhere, “excellent mount” is fine, but there has to be more information to provide the context the search engines need.

The reason that writing for dumb search engines is a problem is that smart search engines don’t just list all the instances of “mare” in order the way dumb ones do. They use algorithms to determine which possibility is the most likely to meet the needs of the person who typed in “mare.”

When search engines first got smart enough to do this, they relied on things like the number of times the words (and yes, these are keywords) were in the article, or whether they were in the title. That can work pretty well, since we humans often do use the name of the thing we’re discussing in the title or repeatedly or in headings.

However, people are still smarter than search engines, so some people figured this system out and used the information to gain an unfair advantage. At this point, the battle started between SEO and search engines.

Unscrupulous SEOs would figure out a trick and abuse it to get rankings they didn’t deserve. People using search engines would get frustrated with the poor quality results they got. Search engines would change the algorithm. By now, a smart search engine sees content written for a dumb search engine and assumes that it’s some human trying to game the system.

Frankly, it usually is. That type of writing is heavily penalized by now. Unscrupulous SEOs have moved on to other tricks.

The cycle continues

The algorithms take into account hundreds and perhaps thousands of factors at this point, and they keep getting smarter. They still can’t tell whether your “excellent mount” is a horse, your opinion of a gymnast, or a landform, but they don’t need you to use words in certain places or a certain number of times any more.

Write naturally, but remember that there are machines in your audience, just as you might remember that there were children in your audience. Use words the search engines know.

When you’re writing for dumb search engines — perhaps the one at your e-commerce site — you may have to be more specific and more careful. In that case, remember that there are humans in your audience and keep the language natural and sensible for them.






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