The murky world of Search

Summary: Very popular, the big three search engines continually refine their methods to give more relevant search results, and weed out unscrupulous operators playing their systems. Add in new competitors and changing websites and the result is search engine rankings that vary over time, with each website’s ranking often under threat.

What’s Search?

Search is the shorthand for the search engines and anything to do with searching using them.

Google is the best known of the big three, which include Yahoo! Search and MSN Search. Yahoo! dropped Google in February 2004, and now uses its own search engine technology. Microsoft relaunched its search engine with improved technology in February 2005.

There are many other search engines, mostly much, much smaller in market share terms and usually serving specialised areas.

Other ways to search are at “aggregators”, such as the interestingly named Dogpile. Aggregators consolidate results from several search engines, eliminating duplicate results. This can sometimes be a more effective search technique because each search engine produces slightly different results for the same search. Each engine has differing coverage of the Internet, and different methods of ranking websites in the search engine results.

Do the search engines cover the whole of the Web?

Research suggests there is an extensive amount of information which the search engines are not able to process. Either the format is not search engine friendly, as in websites built using Macromedia’s Flash, or the information is in websites that get their content from databases the search engines cannot “see” into.

Relevance: the goal of the search engines

All search services have the same aim: to present you, the searcher, with the most relevant web page at the top of the results for your search.

Cleverly, Google has managed to turn this previously free service into a multi-million dollar business, recently bringing the founders and backers riches. Their main advertising innovation is a sophisticated pricing and ranking mechanism for the little ads down the right-hand side (Google AdWords).

However, Google's advertising revenue depends on it remaining the search engine destination of choice, which itself depends on our continuing trust in Google's search results.

Where it gets murky

As the search engines improve, so more and more companies rely on doing well in their search results. A small industry, search engine optimisers (SEOs), has grown up to help companies get higher rankings in these results.

Some SEOs concentrate on exploiting the automated process the search engines have to use to process the vast amount of information they gather. When successful, their clients' web pages appear above those that are in truth more relevant.

As this lowers the relevance of the search results, search engines stand to lose users and potentially millions in advertising revenue, a fundamental threat to their business.

The response of the search engines (and others)

  • Secrecy about exactly how a website’s relevance to a search is worked out.
  • Continual refinement of their ranking methods. This is mainly to stay ahead of their competition, but also to weed out those websites playing the system to gain unnaturally highly positions in the rankings.
  • Penalising websites suspected of using dubious techniques by decreasing their ranking in the search results, or even removing them from the index (e.g. pages from and in early 2006 - story and example of doorway pages and hidden text - and a case of removal for using cloaking)

Another significant response is legal action, both by the search engines and by local authorities:

Be sceptical - if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Search engine rankings - always changing

The biggest effects can be changes in the way the search engines work out their ranking assessments, something Google has been doing monthly.

Another key influence is from competing websites:

  • changes within websites e.g. altering or adding pages
  • new competitors promoting themselves

Finally, how many people find you in the search engines, and which words they used, also affect where you rank.

What this means for website owners

If you're concerned about the position of your website in the search engine rankings:

  • you will need to keep the situation under periodic review, though less so once the situation stabilises
  • the website will probably need adjusting from time to time all the same.

The more competitive the market, the more work will be needed. It's no different from any other competitive market.

Good results can be achieved, but can take time…

… which is also why they can be durable, and thus a cost-effective way of gaining visibility on the Web.

Need to get better rankings in the search engines ?

Then contact us to discuss what can be done.