The following is the second half of an interview that Search Marketing Standard staff carried out with Bill Slawski, President of SEO By The Sea. The interview was originally published in the Winter 2008/2009 issue of Search Marketing Standard print magazine. Bill talks about how he searches through patent filings to try to figure out what trends are likely to soon be important for those involved in online marketing. By watching items like patents, one can get some idea of how the algorithms might be changing as well as new products/features in the works, all of which can be extremely helpful for SEO and SEM purposes. The first part of the interview with Bill was posted a couple of days ago. It’s particularly interesting to look at what Bill had to say about upcoming changes and trends he saw reflected in what were then recent filings, considering that the interview was conducted near the end of 2008.
SMS: There has been a lot of talk about making search results more social, harnessing the “wisdom of the crowd.” What are some of the less-explicit ways search engines might be collecting user behavior in determining the popularity of a given page or a website? How might this affect the way we optimize websites?
Once search engines stopped looking only at the words that appeared upon web pages, and started looking at things such as the links to pages, they began to become social, harnessing the wisdom of the crowd that published links to the web. Early PageRank patents and papers do mention that actual user behavior could possibly play a role in how web pages are ranked by a search engine.
Search engines collect a lot of information about searchers and searching from query sessions found in their log files, from tracking browsing behavior with toolbars, from search and web histories collected when someone is logged into personalized search, from data purchased from ISPs, from profiles created on social sites, and many other ways.
Search engines may create profiles about individual searchers from all of these sources, and about groups of searchers that share some common interests, but they may also create profiles for specific websites and for specific query terms.
Profiles for sites could be developed from analytics tools, from appearances in search results for specific terms, from visitor interactions as measured through toolbars, personalized web histories, bookmarks or other annotations, and in other ways.
Profiles for query terms might be developed by looking at the kinds of results showing up for those terms, how fresh or old those results might be, how often the terms appear in searches, what kinds of pages are selected during those searches, how the terms might be changed or refined by a searcher during a search session, etc.
The profiles developed for searchers (or groups of searchers) that may appear to share some common interests, for websites, and for query terms could play a role in which pages are presented to different searchers. For example, if a search engine knows a specific searcher likes baseball and lives in Ohio, when he or she types in a search for the word “Reds,” the search engine may assume they are more likely looking for information about the Cincinnati Reds than about communism. Therefore, they may be shown search results for web pages, blogs, and newspaper articles that other searchers interested in baseball and located in Ohio have chosen previously when typing that query into the search engine.
As far as optimizing a site when search engines may be considering user behavior more, it still helps to know something about the audience for your site, what they are interested in, and what words they will likely choose to find your site.
SMS: Let’s talk about social media. Clearly, social media profiles hold a lot of valuable information that can be used in refining search results. What are some of the ways you believe that search engines like Google and Yahoo! are trying to incorporate these “social graphs” into SERPs?
Bill: Looking at social media profiles is only a part of developing search around the interests of people who use a search engine, and they can be a noisy source of information. Whenever you collect information that has been developed for one use, and try to use it for another, you run the risk of misapplying that information. For instance, when someone tags a page in a social bookmarking setting, the words that they use may have more to do with the relationship between them and the page that they tag rather than the content of the page itself, such as a “toread” tag.
It may be more beneficial for a search engine to look at the actions of an individual to learn about their interests than to try to gather that information from a profile page. If someone frequently visits and searches for baseball sites, their activities may be a stronger indication of their interest in baseball than a listing of that interest in a MySpace profile.
Patent filings from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! do describe how they might create implicit profiles for searchers (and groups of searchers) who appear to share some common interests, based upon their activities on the web, and use that information when presenting search results. These activities may involve more than just browsing and searching, looking at user reviews, annotations, bookmarks, tags, and other activities that might take place at social media sites, and it’s likely that those actions are more important than stated interests on a profile page.
SMS: Many of the new search technology developments have privacy implications. How do you see the struggle between search engines and privacy advocates unfolding?
Bill: The web is forcing us to think carefully about some of our notions regarding privacy. Information that has been publicly accessible, yet hard to access, is becoming easier to look at on the web (such as deed and property information, civil and criminal case information, news from small town newspapers, etc.). Publishing through blogs and content management systems allows for individuals and businesses to place more information online than ever before. Search engines can provide access to a lot of information that might have been difficult to find previously.
Search engines are also collecting a lot of information about individuals and what they look for and browse online. While they may make some of the information that they collect about us available to view through places like Google’s Web History feature, there are limits to our ability to control what information a search engine collects about what we do online.
Organizations like The Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the ACLU provide a fair amount of information on many issues surrounding privacy on the web and on practices that search engines have adopted. It’s worth spending some time with these resources.
SMS: If someone doing search marketing wants to get more involved in looking at and researching patent filings, can you give us an idea of a couple of places to check on a regular basis to keep up to date (aside from your blog of course)?
Bill: It’s not a very large niche, but I can recommend a couple of other people who do write about search-related patents: David Harry at The Firehorse Trail (www.huomah.com) and Stephen E. Arnold at Beyond Search (arnoldit.com/wordpress).
Bill Slawski writes about search engines and search-related patents on his blog at seobythesea.com. With an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Delaware, and Juris Doctor degree from Widener University School of Law, he began promoting web pages in 1996.