SEO is Dead? Yeah Right, and Hell’s Frozen Too!!

I knew it was B.S. when I bought it, so I won’t return it, but I’ve just about run a highlighter dry marking up the crap in "Visitor Optimization". As soon as I stop laughing, I’ll post a less hostile, and more informative analysis, but in twenty words or less … the technology that would make VEO possible simply does not exist. This is not an opinion, it is simply about how the web works. Stay tuned, I’ll prove it, as soon as I settle down. 😉

Can You Have Too Much NoFollow?

This has come up many times, but a new OptiSmarts subscriber asked…

I have enjoyed your optismarts videos so far and am looking forward to future videos. Your speaking voice and style are very pleasant and I appreciate your ability to speak simultaneously to both novices and more advanced users.

I am in the top 10 for my 4 preferred keywords at Google (thanks to OptiLink) and do not want to do anything to lose my rankings. Is it possible to overdo the usage of the no follow attribute to the point where Google thinks I am overoptimized?"

…so I’ll answer again in greater detail.

"There are theoretically two ways nofollow can be a problem, one I’ve seen, and the other I have not. The first is simple misuse, generally due to lack of complete understanding, and the second is an actual "penalty" which I have never seen. Let’s spend a moment on both of these.

Misuse is really really easy, and the problem starts with not knowing what pages you actually want to have ranked. A classic example is an Adsense site where nofollow is used to push all the PR to the home page. OOPS! It is likely that the internal pages optimized for the low traffic but high conversion search phrases are de-ranked in favor of a page (the home page) that never earned any money. For many sites the wholesale use of Dynamic Linking (via nofollow) is not what you want. These sites should use it very selectively where a site more focused on home page traffic should nofollow more extensively.

But an outright penalty is another matter. I do not think this exists and am not aware of even a single case where nofollow can be objectively construed as the "smoking gun". Moreover, there are many very high ranking sites making effective use of nofollow without any sign of penalty. In a recent OptiSmarts video seminar I show one that is a household name. Others exist as well.

As a general rule, I find that "over-optimization penalties" are actually caused by something unrelated, but I do still keep looking.

Hilltop? You Must be Joking

Okay, this one comes up a lot, and it came up again today in an email from my good friend Michael Campbell so I thought I’d try to actually blog for a change.

It seems that someone (who shall remain namesless for the momeent at least) is raising all a fuss about how Google is using the Hilltop algo, and you therefore have to have their brand new widget to rank and nothing else will do.

Drivel! Here’s part of my note to Michael:

To suggest that Google is using Hilltop is like saying they use the Meta Keywords tag. Please! Hilltop was never used, and will never be used, because it is totally old news that never out performed Google circa 2000. Moreover, Google gets Hilltop for free, but they paid really money for what Taher brought with him, so if anyone is looking for a new algo at Google, they should look at TSPR and its cousins. We can be certain they are using BlockRank or a kin even now.

Worse, these guys seem to think that "Hubs and Authorities" is synonomous with Hilltop. Wrong again. Hubs and authorities is Kleinberg’s algorithm, which Hilltop references as prior art, but they are not the same.

And finally, always follow the money: why would Google roll out a new logorithm when search quality is not a critical success factor? New revenue streams is what they are about. They already own search, why would they need to "improve" it?

I’ve blogged this before, but…

Google is just sitting on search technology to keep some other pair of grad students from retiring before they grow facial hair. They use maybe one tenth of what they have licensed or patented. But they continue to buy and patent more because it keeps other grad students poor and drives SEOs crazy reading academic papers that don’t matter instead of turning the crank on what does matter.

Good Ranking at Google is about Balance

Ranking is a balance of several factors, the most important being title tag, (inbound) link text, and PageRank. Every page ranks based on its own measures of these factors sorted against all other pages in the index. Theoretically, every single page ranks for every single search query, but the vast majority don’t rank very well, so we never see this aspect.

The title tag is an on-page factor, and the most important of the on-page factors at all the engines, Google included. In fact, at Google I can get a blank page to rank in a competitive search so long as I use a good title tag and work hard on my text links. This would be much harder to pull off at Yahoo, where on-page text factors are more important.

The first of the off-page factors is link text. In their original technical papers the founders of Google told use that they take the link text pointing at a page and store it with the target page. This is huge. What it means is that the query engine has only to look at a page to analyze the links to the page. It also tells us that nothing other than the link text itself mattered in link between pages. There is some current argument that this is no longer true, but we’ll leave that for another day.

This accumulation of link text to a target page did not have a name in the Spring of 2002 when I was completing OptiLink, so we had to come up with a name to tell people what we were doing. We decided to name this analysis of the links Link Reputation to differentiate it from Link Popularity which names the mere counting of links.

Link Reputation, because of the way Google handles links, is not "transitive", that is, a link from page A to page B, adds to the Reputation of page B, but none of the links to page A have any influence on the Reputation of page B. For example, suppose we get a link to our hammock site from a site on gardening and the gardening site has a bazillion links to it that say "gardening". Will our hammock site rank for gardening? No. This is easy to prove for yourself by looking search results and doing some analysis with OptiLink.

But PageRank by contrast is transitive. It assigns a number to every page in the Google index using a recursive computation over the entire link graph of the index — a mathematical implementation of "what goes around, comes around". PageRank is one of "elegant" ideas that takes some thinking to understand. If you are interested, take a look at my publications archive, my Dynamic Linking eBook, or my Mastering PageRank video.

But for now let’s talk some about balance.

We’ve all seen cases where a page with few links can beat a page with many links if it has higher PageRank (from its few links). The converse is also true. So how do we get top ranking? First, we do the best we can on each of the major factors (title, link text, PageRank) and then we go look at the pages we are competing against and look for their weakest aspect. It might that we can create better link text; maybe their title is not as good as it could be; or maybe we have to build more PageRank. Whatever it is, the search results themselves tell us what works, we just have to do better.

Google Doesn’t Do Synonyms

Rarely do we want to rank for only one search phrase. Generally there are many different words and phrases that humans might use to get to your pages, different phrases that I refer to here very roughly as "synonyms".

But the notion of synonomy is a "semantic" concept — one that involves meaning — rather than a "syntactic" concept — one that relates only to language. Search engines don’t do semantics, only syntax.

For example, I know that a force transducer is the same thing as a load cell, but these semantically equivalent terms are syntactically disjoint, so ranking for one will not get you ranking for the other in today’s search engines.

This is especially problematic where your company name, which often gets used as link text, does not contain your preferred search. Here’s a concrete example I found to illustrate this point, but you can find many of your own.

A company named Transducer Techniques sells load cells. Totally obvious to me, a total mystery to Google. Many of the links to this firm are from industry directories that use the company name, so they are top ranked for the word "transducer". But according to WordTracker, the real traffic is for "load cell", where this company ranks #4.

Now compare Transducer Techniques to Load Cell Central, the top ranked page for load cell, which is not even in the first 100 results for transducer.

This is entirely a result link text. If links like Transducer Techniques were replaced with links like The Load Cell Experts the rankings would like be very different owing to the difference in PageRanks between these two sites.

A Brief Outline of the Google Architecture

The very front end of Google is the spider function which creates a queue of pages visit with content for each. This feeds the indexer which matches these pages to existing pages in the index and either creates a new index entry or updates an existing one with the new content. Originally at least, and probably still true I think, the indexing stage is also where link text is propagated from linking pages to destination pages where it is stored as an augmentation to the target page. This is one of — IMHO — the great ideas inside Google as it essentially reduces a key off-page analysis to one that can instead be conducted entirely on-page.

As an entirely separate process that uses the existing index as input, the PageRank algorithm is run to create a "side file" of PR values indexed by the same unique identifier used to access pages. The architecture makes no demands as to when PR is updated — it can be on any schedule they like.

What normal humans, not to be confused with SEOs :-), call "the search engine" is really the "query engine". This takes the index of content and the PageRank values and performs a computation to rank results as each user query is received and processed. Clearly, there can be no pre-processing of queries — there is just raw data to feed into this engine.

So what happens to a brand new page?

A new page doesn’t actually "exist" as far as Google is concerned until it is spidered nd indexed. Once it is indexed, meaning you can find it at Google using a site: query on your domain, it is my best understanding that all Link Reputation effects are baked into the index and fully affect search queries. Since spidering and indexing is the fastest part of Goolge, this explains the similarly fast positioning changes that can be accomplished through link text alone.

PageRank is another matter and can take any amount of time. There is no requirement in the software architecture that requires any particular schedule. In fact, my research suggests that the way PR is computed and the schedule used to compute it are drastically different today than 3 years ago.

While awaiting PageRank values for a new page, it can be very difficult for that page to rank to any significant searches. Likewise, making significant linking topoloy changes in an existing website, using my Dynamic Linking approach for example, will generally take a quite a while to have a ranking impact because of how long it takes for PR values to be recomputed across your site.

Links that open a new window. Do they pass PageRank and Link Reputation?

Spiders are simple little animals and the theory that guides the way search engines are built admit of few special cases, so generally speaking, a link is a link is a link. Let’s consider some cases.

The most often question is what happens for the target="_blank" case. This is very common so it would have staggering consequences if it did not act as a "normal" link. Moreover, treating it differently is theoretically unsound, as linking into a new window is not conceptually different, in terms of citation considerations, than linking in the current window.

The question of the use of style classes and DOM ids also comes up. I am certain that these are simply ignored by all search spiders, but that is a subject for another day (why spiders are so dumb).

BTW, OptiLink and OptiSpider both treat all of these links the same. The only exception is the rel="nofollow" attribute (Google’s simplified approach to Dynamic Linking) which is optionally processed by both programs so that our computation of Link Reputation will follow what Google does.

What kinds of “links” are spiderable

When most webmasters talk about links, they almost always mean "navigation". There are several ways to connect your pages together so that humans can get from one to the next.

By contrast, there is precisely one way for spiders to get from one page to another and that is the HTML <A> tag. To look at a page in your browser, you will often be unable to tell what navigation is actually spiderable links. That’s one of the primary uses of OptiSpider.

OptiSpider, like the search engines, is only able to follow <A> tags — all other kinds of navigation, like Javascript, and form buttons as two examples, are completely invisible to OptiSpider.

So, if you are uncertain if your navigation is spiderable or not, just run OptiSpider and see which links are found and which are not.

What are the problems in ranking?

First, let’s define terms.

Dynamic content generally means that pages are generated by some chunk of software by reading data from a database. This is a common design pattern for big catalog style websites.

But no matter how the content gets generated, it still ends up being just plain-ol’ HTML by the time it leaves your web server. What the browsers and search engine spiders see is no more nor less HTML than so-called "static" pages. So the content itself is certainly not a problem — the URLs might be.

To generate the right output, a catalog style site will typically use one or more parameters in the query string. For example, /product.jsp?model=12&color=green&style=7.

Historically, search engines have not liked these complex URLs because they will routinely lead to a (nearly) never-ending sequence of pages. A "plain" URL — one without a query string — tended to have an advantage over complex URLs.


This is not as much of a problem today as it once was, but it is still better to avoid complex URLs. To do so requires the use of a URL rewriting engine like Apache’s mod_rewrite module so it is fairly technical, but once done, a "dynamic" website can be made to look entirely "static".

Do the engines discount links from the same domain versus links from a different domain?

Not now. Not ever. To be sure, just follow the money.

Big sites involve big dollars and it is big dollars that makes the world go ’round, so you can bet that the now public Google will have joined the other public financed engines in a gentle but certain catering to the American greenback.

Consider: If my name is Bill and I build a 10,000 page website to support my software business, I expect to have a high PageRank at Google and I expect to be able to control the Link Reputation of my home page using my thousands of internal links. Now suppose some disgruntled open-source weenie links to me with the text "Windows is Evil" and gets ranked ahead of me for my own product name? I would have good reason to be upset.

So, you can bet that at the very next social event for young billionares, Bill will corner Larry and get it fixed.

But seriously, if internal links are significantly discounted relative to external links, then small sites always gain an advantage over large sites. This is very bad. In general, big sites actually do deserve to rank better than small sites, external linking being more or less equal, which internal links will accomplish automatically.

If you rely instead solely on external links, what you will find is that the first to get a top rank will continue to keep top rank because it is top ranked pages that get most of the links. This would make it even harder for a large site to displace a small site that happens to get top ranking.

And finally, just go look at some search results with OptiLink. Big sites have a clear advantage. Do they have more external links than small sites? Only some of the time. It still appears that links from any source are sufficient, so they might as well be your own.