What the Heck is an Algorithm?

There’s a lot of talk in SEO conversations about Google’s algorithm. As it happens, a lot of that talk takes place among people who don’t actually know what an algorithm is.

An algorithm is a set of steps taken to solve a problem. Each step is a rule, either a specific action or an if-then action. So, for example, I might follow a specific set of rules to decide each day whether or not I need an umbrella: look at the weather report, for example, and if there is a greater than 50% chance of rain, I take my umbrella.

In real life, humans don’t use algorithms much. Our actual decision making processes are based on heuristics, a more complex approach to decision making and problem solving. For example, our decision about taking an umbrella may also include information about whether we remember where our umbrella is, whether it looks good with our outfit, whether we look fetchingly natural or horribly bedraggled when we get rained on, whether we think that carrying an umbrella looks effete or affected, who we expect to see and how much we care whether they see us looking like a drowned rat, and whether we plan to wear suede.

Computers are rotten with heuristics, but very good with algorithms. They can run through lots of steps very fast. For example, DoINeedanUmbrella.com will take your zip code, compare it with your weather forecast, and give you your answer right away. It can’t tell you anything about how your hair behaves in the damp or what your boss thinks about disheveled people in the office.

Google uses an algorithm to determine what pages to offer people who search for things. So do the other search engines. The algorithms include hundreds of pieces of information and they are continually updated.

This means that suggestions that Google accepts bribes, that you can trick Bing with some magic words, or that Yahoo forces people to go to particular websites — well, you can safely ignore all of that stuff. The owners of the search engines tell us that they are working hard to improve their users’ experience, and that sounds plausible to me. If that’s true, then their claims that the best way to rank well is to have a good, useful website — in other words, to work hard on improving your users’ experience — well, those claims are probably true as well.

With enough steps (and the search engines have hundreds, remember), we could probably create a workable algorithm for deciding whether or not to carry an umbrella. It wouldn’t involve magic, bribes, or emotional responses. Neither do the algorithms that the search engines use.

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