When Search Engines Go Wrong

I love search engines. Organizing information is a noble calling, and search engines do it well. I teach classes in how to use them, and have done so since before Google existed. I wish real life had a search function.

That said, sometimes search engines screw up. Usually, when search engines are confused about your content, it’s because there’s something wrong with your content. Most people don’t write with search engines in mind, or try to do so and do it badly, and I spend most of my time correcting those errors — or helping people to avoid them.

In the case of our lab site, Freshplans, however, the search engines have recently just gotten things wrong. First, Google sent us hordes of people looking for Irish dance, and now Yahoo is sending us bunches of folks looking for vampire babies.

We’re simply not the best option for either of those searches.

Why should we care? Not ranking for important keywords may be distressing, but ranking for stuff we don’t deserve is just sending us extra visits at no extra cost, right?

Not quite. The 524 visitors we got over the weekend in search of vampire babies found instead lesson plans for vampire literature, and the bounce rate was over 93%. Since we believe that FreshPlans lost rankings because of a high bounce rate, and we’ve been working to improve that, getting an influx of lost searchers is bad for our website from the point of view of SEO.

Searchers for Irish dance have a bounce rate of about 55%, in case you were wondering. There just isn’t much online for the subject, apparently.

But vampire babies, since Bella, the insipid heroine of the madly popular Twilight saga, is having a baby in the most recent movie, are getting lots of searches. While there are lots of other options for vampire babies, we’ve gotten some overflow because we have the best page around for vampire lesson plans. If you didn’t already know that traditional Baltic folklore includes the damphir, offsprings of a vampire father and a human mother, lots of sources will now enlighten you on this, along with the unnerving information that damphirs are traditionally thought to have no bones. I doubt that detail makes it into the movie.

Our vampire lesson plans now contain this information, since we don’t want to disappoint people, but this is definitely a screw up. Our lesson plans page didn’t contain the word “babies” at all until this morning. I don’t get why people click through from the search engine results page, but some do, so there we are with an artificially raised bounce rate.

Should this happen to you, you have some options:

  • Ignore it, secure in the knowledge that as long as your content is good quality and clear to search engines overall, it’ll settle down. That’s probably fair for the vampire babies searches. Once the fad passes, so will our problem.
  • Come up with a way to leverage the random visits. Rosie, the bottom line girl for Team Haden, is even now trying to figure out a way to make vampire babies pay over at FreshPlans.
  • Get rid of whatever is misleading the search engines. We had another case like this in the past. when searches for “motorcycle girl” were turning up lost searchers at a site that had nothing to do with motorcycles or girls. We tracked down the culprit: alt text for an image. These cases are nearly always caused by user error, so we can just find the problem and fix it.

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3 responses to “When Search Engines Go Wrong”

  1. Johnny Optimist Avatar

    Alt text for an image? Fascinating.
    Always amazing what leads someone to click a link. The ease of closing the page & trying another (IE virtually zero risk to click on the wrong result) along with the “trust” associated w/ the engine producing the “best” results are probably the biggest culprits.

    Good article.

    1. Rebecca Haden Avatar

      Good point about the low risk. They have no idea about bounce rate 😉

  2. […] trying to drive more “vampire baby” related searches to FreshPlans. I did this in response to Haden Interactive complaining about the unusually large number of visitors that came to their site as a result of these searches, […]

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