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Through the looking glass

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I recently followed a two-day course about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in Paris. Interesting topic: I learned a thing or two about Google indexing, and quite a lot about how Google is perceived by a crowd who now purely survives on them.

SEO agencies are companies that will help your web site come on top of Google results to increase visibility, sales, and fame in general. The course was about tips and tricks to get your site up the ladder.

To put it bluntly: Google is seen as a god by SEO agencies. Actually: not just a god but the Only God on the Web. The first 10 slides were all about Google’s market share in the search business and why there is no need to optimize your site for anybody else. If you catch Google’s eye you have the Netz in your Pocketz. Fair enough, the point is valid in most Western countries. Other search engines just have to follow suit.

There were mentions of Google sanctions for those who do not behave: if your site is not a good netizen you first get sandboxed, then blacklisted,which means the end of your presence at Mountain View and by extension, the rest of the world. Apparently this is worse than getting your Internet access revoked, at least for the marketing crowd. Digital death is permanent.

The speaker kept freely exchanging the words Google and Internet as if they were the same thing. It really made sense in all his sentences but it was kind of scary, a late realization for me that an ad company is now completely ruling the digital world.

Problem is: ads are a fairly twisted version of our reality. Ads are all about marketing and messages to convey, no matter how much you have to deform it to make it fit. Humans, on the other hand, tend to live in their daily reality.

Not an issue, really, but the fact is: the more I look around and the more I see web sites getting formatted in exactly the same way everywhere. The aim is of course to please data munchers and indexers. Go check any recent corporate web site on any topic and you will quickly see the pattern. Place your logo here, your content there, put a site map at the bottom, create mini-sites for dedicated topics, separate dynamic from static content using robots.txt. The web is slowly formatting itself for Google.

Some recommendations were just lame. Examples:

When describing your products, use vocabulary that relates to your field.
Er… Guys, I need to talk about software, do you really think I would diverge into a conversation about lawnmowers and beer?

When choosing a title, make it descriptive of the paragraph it introduces.
Oh really?

Pump up as many keywords as you can into your META tags, this attracts search engines.
Oh wow. After years of success with PageRank, Google has apparently reverted to the dumb algorithm that killed AltaVista. Yet you would think these guys are smart or something.
Edit: Thanks to Mathias for pointing out that the Google search guys made it clear: Google doesn’t use the keywords meta tag in web search

Do not use more than one H1 tag per page.
This one kinda stumped me. What? But the speaker insisted: using more than exactly one H1 tag per page may get you blacklisted. To be fair this is not the first time I heard that one. If you google “SEO H1 tag” you will find numerous appearances of this with no explanation of any kind. The whole thing got somewhat debunked by a Google search engineer in a video: More than one H1 on a page: good or bad? (hint: they don’t care).

The speaker also mentioned an interesting practice: if you want to appear as number one in Google results, you may also want to drive down your competitors, something like a reverse SEO. Techniques include hiring a large number of questionable domain names and replicate your competitor’s contents onto those fake sites, or posting links to your competitors inside forums dedicated to weird discussions. If you have the resources you can also setup fake shady web sites that add horrible links to your competitors. Your fake sites may get demoted in the end but there is currently no law preventing anybody from doing this. I guess you could always sue for slander but once damage is done, your SEO may have taken quite a blow anyway. “Calomniez, calomniez, il en restera toujours quelque chose.”

There is a feedback loop at work here:

Google tries to index the web with a very pragmatic approach. Figuring out a generic algorithm for page ranking can become incredibly complex with millions of special cases that can only be manually designed to work around various site structures.

Web designers want to be better indexed so they try to figure out the ranking algorithm used by Google to defeat it.

Google notices this, needs to thwart gaming attempts, adds some rules for ranking to avoid spamming. Back to square one.

This is the same cat-and-mouse play we have seen happening in our mailboxes with spam filters and spam senders fighting for mail ownership. Now it is happening on your corporate web sites too!

I just love when a billion people are trying to outsmart one another.

Hopefully this will not turn the web into a gigantic uniform mass of information structured in limited ways. Vive la différence!

Written by nicolas314

Saturday 8 December 2012 at 11:23 pm

Posted in google, seo

Tagged with , ,

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