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November 2, 2006

What is Search Engine Optimization?

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An interesting thread over at WebmasterWorld has grown some legs, asking “Can any SEO company be black hat free from Google’s view?”.

That may be the initial question posed, but based on the debate that occurred, I think the real question is what is search engine optimization and do Google and the rest of the engines support it?

Trying to define search engine optimization is never easy. It’s one of those questions that you can ask a hundred people and get two hundred different answers. Some people will start talking about doorway pages, others will jump into a tirade about content and links, some will run away scared and then some will start talking about colors and hats for no apparent reason.

I try to avoid the good vs. evil debates as it pertains to SEO. Frankly, the white hat/black hat debate is tired. SEO isn’t about hats (even if they do come in a multitude of shades). There is no good versus evil. Search engine optimization is a methodology and there are many ways to go about it.

Search engine optimization is about effectively communicating what you do to the search engines and your visitors, in order to increase traffic and ultimately conversions.

For me, that’s the basic definition of SEO. Or at least that’s how I would answer if anyone ever asked me, not that they ever will.

But of course, there are different ways to accomplish that task and different degrees of SEO, which is where the definition can get a little muddy. There are no hats here, so instead I’ll refer you to the contrasting approaches offered by Tedster in the thread:

“Low Risk: Understand how Google measures relevance-trust-authority and clarify every possible relevance-trust-authority signal associated with a site and its urls.

High Risk: Look for and exploit loopholes in the way Google measures relevance-trust-authority, causing Google to rank a url higher than the actual intention when Google put the algo together.”

For me, intention is the best way to look at it. Of course, there are obvious risk levels that would fall between low and high, but if you want to know what side of the fence you’re on, ask yourself what you’re trying to do.

Are you trying to learn the ways of the search engines to better communicate the topic of your site, or are you trying to find loopholes in the system to help your site ‘earn’ rankings by beating the algorithm?

That may seem like an over-simplified way to look at it, but I think it’s a solid means to differentiate between the two (and to admit there is a difference). It also makes it crystal clear which the engines would be in favor of and which they wouldn’t.

I think it’s fair to say that the search engines benefit from low risk SEO. SEOs help companies to understand the rules of the engines, helping them to create better sites, which will ultimately rank better. The sites are easier to crawl, more tightly themed, and better structured so the engines can feel confident they are sending visitors to the “best”, most expert site on the Web for that topic.

High risk SEO is a different beast altogether. It’s less about creating the “best” site and more about creating “the most rankable” site. Search engines do not support sites that try to spam, bully, trick or scream their way into their SERP. The search engines are about providing value, not rewarding manipulation, as noted in their Webmaster Help Center.

If you want to know if the engines support search engine optimization, it depends on which level you’re offering. If you’re creating better, more tightly themed sites, then yes. The engines will probably reward you. If you’re trying to expose flaws in their algorithms, well, the I think you’ll find the rewards aren’t as sweet or as long-lasting as you originally hoped.

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