news:rewired - “SEO is a four letter word”

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 20 December 2010

In the news:rewired search engine optimisation session, Malcolm Coles did a sterling job of making all the men on the internet look like a desperate bunch of sad pervs.

His talk essentially revolved around how to use tools to identify the patterns of people searching for Karen Gillan’s underwear or fake naked pictures of Emma Watson. He said to me afterwards that out of politeness, he had deleted the section that examined whether the British were most likely to search for “$celebname + breasts/boobs/tits or topless”.

Being a man in that audience was not an edifying experience.

What amused me was that Malcolm was talking about his work helping celebrity gossip site Holy Moly. Their problem with search is they specialise in entertaining and mucky celebrity gossip, but whenever a celebrity becomes particularly topical, Google responds by essentially throwing away all the regular top ten results for a search, and replacing them with recently published stories and the little ‘news’ box that gives a primary focus to mainstream media sites.

Which effectively means that their main rival is Mail Online.

Think about that for a second - Holy Moly’s biggest rival for traffic from search engines is the brand that in print claims to represent the voice of Middle Britain...

I found the session to be a mixed bag. Malcolm’s talk was energetic and had lots of useful tips for tracking what people are looking for, and James Lowery was really entertaining, but at one point I found myself involuntarily typing ‘I have been transported to 1999’ into my notes as Frank Gosch of MSN began talking about people having to submit sites to vertical news and video searches by hand.

I was sitting in the audience next to Silver Oliver from the BBC, and we had to agree that as large publishers we have a huge advantage in the SEO stakes. Not only is there the authority of our domain names, and we have dedicated staff working on SEO, but our own in house CMS solutions meant that a lot of the issues that might trip people up are simply just taken care of for us. There is no question of me ever having to phone up an IT department and start trying to explain what a Google News sitemap file is all about.

Nevertheless, I’m still always surprised at how little knowledge there is, even amongst otherwise digital people, of how search engines work. It has been a specialist interest of mine for a decade now, but given the fundamental way in which web search engines dominate the human ability to navigate across the world wide web, you’d think content publishers would be an awful lot keener to have their staff understand the fundamentals.

Malcolm has written up his talk as a guest blog post on the news:rewired site: How specialist publishers can compete with national news organsations for SEO

4 Comments

"we had to agree that as large publishers we have a huge advantage in the SEO stakes."

Actually, that is even truer today than it was just a month ago.

Google News seems to have redefined what a "news publication" is and has started blocking small publishers that are - in its opinion - too small to qualify as a news publisher.

One of my business news sites was dropped by Google recently and their email basically said the publication is too small, which is hardly to be a surprise as, like most trade publications, it targets a specific niche in the market.

Google's help pages are full of people complaining about the change - which benefits the larger general news publisher over the specialist.

I get the impression that lots of people believe the behaviour of search engines is indistinguishable from magic. There's an assumption that they just can't be understood by mere mortals, so why bother trying.

I think Google is starting to experience a problem that they've always been able to handle well, in the past. Now i'm not so sure. The balance of power seems to have shifted towards the spammer a little.

Take an area like consumer advice, suddenly Googles search results seem full of spam. Content scrapers etc are able to rank really well. So logically, Google have to adjust their algorythm to upweight reputation. The result - smaller enterprises i.e. Holy Moly suffer.

That said, an organisation like Holy Moly can counter this the old fashioned way. Word of mouth, they have to use social media to create a buzz, innovate constantly and rely on the viral power of twitter/facebook etc for traffic.

At least until google can work out how to win this latest round vs the spammers!

Referring to Karen's comment above, I would have to agree that many people find trying to analyse the actions of search engines daunting, including many SEO "experts". There is, however, plenty of useful information out there. Take some time to study some of the techniques and you could soon find yourself achieving good results.

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