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Chaos Theory in Search Engine Optimization

by Devon Peterson, May 15, 2008

One month ago, Edward Lorenz passed away at the age of 90. He was the primary benefactor to the idea of Chaos Theory, which explains how small initial actions can cause profound changes in a system. This idea has been dubbed 'The Butterfly Effect', derived from Lorenz' example that a butterfly's wings flapping in one area can make changes in the atmosphere so strong that they could force a tornado to develop somewhere else. His ideas have altered the way that we look at most scientific fields, and we would be wise to understand its importance in our endeavors as well.

In the case of search engine marketing, the Internet is the system we analyze. More specifically, it is search engines and their view of the Internet that concerns us the most. Every day pages are added, removed and altered from indices of various search engines. Like any other science, we take data extracted by our tools from the Internet, analyze it, and make conclusions based on those observations. We then proceed to make changes based on those observations, and wait for those changes to have an effect in rankings.

After the search engines crawl our site, we begin the process again, first by extracting the newly formed data, comparing it to our existing data, and making conclusions based on our new understanding of how to better optimize a Web page. Like any other science, the greater the pool of data, the better we can understand how the system works and determine how to work with it to our advantage.

As for chaos theory specifically, search engine optimization is also directly tied in with the observation and management of minute changes within the system. Tweaking is often the term used in this regard. These small changes, when applied correctly, can prove to have vast effects on the system as a whole.

For instance, depending on the status of the rest of the system, it is possible that if one were to do something as small and insignificant as adding a specific word to the title tag of one of their pages, a large effect on rankings for that term could occur. This would then have a huge effect on the system itself. Obviously, in order for one page to increase in rankings, it must displace a page above it. Let's say that your page was before in 50th place, and has now displaced pages above it to become number eight. While on the surface it seems as though not much as happened aside from your page now being present at the bottom of the first page for this keyword, analyzing the situation actually shows us that this is not true.

Firstly and immediately, assume, those aside from your page's rankings shift to number eight, that the order of rankings was preserved. That would mean that all of the pages below your page have moved down a spot in order to make room for you. Number nine is now number ten. Number ten has become number eleven and has now dropped from the first page. Even number 49 has now dropped down to become the new number 50.

Now, let's expand on this example by moving forward a few days. Let's say that your page is fairly decent as far as relevancy to the search term you are ranking for, is providing valid and thorough information on that term, and is well-designed. This is naturally going to bring inbound links to that page, and is going to promote good end-user data from searchers (assuming you believe in such theories). These things may just warrant another shift in rankings. Now your page is ranked number three. In order for that to happen, every page from the existing number three through number eight had to move down a slot. Not only that, but it turns out that one of the major expert pages that you acquired an inbound link from also had a link to the page in slot one. According to the PageRank Algorithm, the worth of that link to the page in slot one is depreciated with each additional outbound link on the major expert's page. That, in turn, decreases number one's total PageRank which causes it to switch pages with number two.

As you can see, a small and insignificant change can make a huge difference to the search engine system. Even by just adding one word to the Title tag of one page, you have managed to increase the ranking of your page from number 50 to number eight, and then on to number three later on. You have also altered rankings of 50 other pages through indirect displacement, PageRank acquisitions and end-user data. You have even managed to knock the first place ranking down to second place without even trying!

Another interesting example is in the creation of pages. One page added to your site, indexed by the search engines, will alter the ranking results for every word contained on that page. This is due not only to PageRank distribution being changed due to the newly added links to and from the new page, but also simply due to its presence in the index itself. By including that page, all other pages containing a given search phrase are now competing with your new page. If you believe in the theory of Naturalism as it pertains to search engine optimization, the theory that being the 'most perfect' is attained by being slightly 'better than average' as far as keyword density and distribution is concerned, then you will see that the overall average has been adjusted slightly by the presence of your new page. This, in turn, could completely change the search engine ranking results because the new 'better than average' keyword density and distribution is most likely most prevalent in a different set of pages.

In search engines where this on-page editing is a major factor, this small edit can cause astronomical changes in the system. Taking this one step further, we can see the primary function of a SEO analyst: knowing when, where and how to implement these sometimes very small changes to your pages in order to provide maximum benefit from the search engines.

For those of us that engage in Search Engine Optimization in our daily lives, it is very important that we take this information and use it to our advantage. Understanding which effects can occur by monitoring the changes we make to our pages and the resulting ranking differences will allow us to better optimize our sites' potential. In the end, the realization shown to us by Chaos Theory is this: a little change can go a long way.


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