Search Engine Orientation (SEOr)

Internet | Familiarity

Search Engine Orientation (SEOr) is SEO for Ordinary people.

Ordinary people should not have to wade through SEO websites, SEO books, SEO seminars. SEO is important once you find yourself in a zero-sum game for a certain word or phrase (even possibly, your own name, should somebody else share it, or worse, should somebody else want to offset your reputation), but many folks who are starting out don't have to worry about that. They just want the right their page to come up when people search for them.

Given the hyper-competitive connotations of SEO, the blogging/social media crowed either sees it as gaming the system (per Jason Calacanis, blog impresario) or is just plain jealous of it (per Aaron Wall, SEO consultant). Thus the social media approach is offered as a low-tech alternative. Here are JD Lasica's suggestions for a man trying to get his web page to come up above a couple of old Times articles (I cut Allen's last name to spare the additional Google hits):

Start a blog. Post photos on Flickr. Join a social network. There are only 476 results in Google for everyone in the world named Allen K____. Within a few months, your blog home page will be the top result in Google, some of your blog posts will also be at the top, perhaps your photos will be up there as well, eventually knocking that 16-year-old story down to the second or third page. Google loves blogs that are frequently updated and part of a larger conversation.

Almost. If you have a blog, Google only includes one blog post from the site in the results in addition to the front page. As for the other suggestions, not all of it is exposed to Google. There's a website called pipl which does a “deep web search” into these sites to show you what Google doesn't find. For Allen, we find, we see that various individuals by that name have actually registered a number of places; there's a friendster profile for a 56-year old man from Brooklyn, NY. Multiple profiles for Amazon users. A flickr profile. And none of it known to the Great God Google.

Here's the only SEOr advice you'll ever need: create a web page about yourself, or through a directory service (such as the professional directory LinkedIn), and have multiple sites link to it using your name as the anchor text. That may be all you need. At least, that's what worked for Allen: it took just three links to get his web page established as #1, and it took 36 hours, not a few months. [Update: the 36-hour "victory" was only temporary as the third link came in courtesy of Google's "FreshBot", it's been dropped until Google's "DeepBot" comes along to re-index it. It has been #3 as of September 2nd.]

But I'm no expert. Ideally, the SEO industry should do the occasional pro bono advice for individuals needing just to get oriented. The SEOr concepts bleed over into search engine reputation management, and there is in fact an acronym for that: SERM. Yet somehow the SEO thought leaders managed to pick an acronym which is already commonly used in another context; type SERM into Google and you see that it stands for selective estrogen receptor modulator, a class of medication used in the prevention of breast cancer.

I checked the trade industry websites. SearchEngineWatch, features ten experts; Search Engine Land carries fourteen columns: none are dedicated to societal issues. A search on SEO reputation brings up ten links on the session at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose last week, which talked about the reputation of the SEO industry. (To wit: “SEO is a four-letter word to some people that stands for snake-oil salesmen and blog spammers. Yet SEOs are also highly in demand and plenty help website generate traffic that converts. This session looks at SEO's reputation problem and explores possible solutions.”)

I don't doubt that the industry experts address it from time to time. Danny Sullivan, the founder of both sites (he sold SEW and is now the editor-in-chief at SEL) is a terrific reporter and has regularly given due coverage to social concerns, such as privacy.

But savor the irony: I don't know how to search for other societal concerns. I could try to search for evil, since many critics summon Google's informal motto “Don't Be Evil” when discussing any apparent fault. I'd otherwise think to search for values / privacy / sociology / reputation / ombudsman, but none of them fully cover the span of societal concerns. I merely propose SEOr as a unique tag that would convey “the things that search engines do that concern the ordinary guy (getting smeared).”

Without a shared term, it's difficult to get people to coalesce around an issue. Before Clark Hoyt's column in the Times this past Sunday (which motivated the work to rescue Allen K's ranking), the Online Journalism Review posed the same dilemma about undesirable artifacts in online archives, but didn't receive any notice from search engine experts. Very few people, as least publicly, shuttle between the online news and search engine communities. I myself follow online journalism somewhat and have passing knowledge about search engine technology (not much more than I have put forth here); Seth Finkelstein keeps more regular tabs on the search engine world & land, and as a side interest follows online journalism. Undoubtedly major media companies like the New York Times Company speak directly to SEO experts. But, again, the topic was notably absent from last March's Online Publishers Association program

Also, SEOr should manifest itself into some sort of message on a search page. Among the Big Four, only Google's search page attempts some human communications at its footer: “Dissatisfied? Help us improve.” It could pose a question for the spurned searcher, “Why am I not here?”

To get the Google's Webmaster Guidelines takes three clicks off the main search page. There's a lot of technical information there which may overwhelm the ordinary user who's not a webmaster. The most important suggestion is the first one: “Have other relevant sites link to yours,” but it's a bit incomplete considering what Danny Sullivan has advised Search Engine Land readers:

People still continue to mistakenly think that doing well at Google is about getting as many links as you can. It's not. It's about getting quality links from important sites and ideally, very descriptive links — links using the terms you want to rank for in the anchor text.

And that's it. That's your Search Engine Orientation. That's how our friend Allen got his site to #3 using three simple links– from myself, from Megan McArdle, and from Seth Finkelstein.

Call them Personalized Anchor Links— or PALs. You're going to need them if you want to be found.

Update, Thursday September 6th: Thanks to Jack Shafer of Slate for pointing to this.