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Weblogging vs. The Googliath

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In: Articles

By Brandon Olejniczak

Published on December 31, 2003

I can’t tell you how many times lately I’ve seen somebody or other point out a blog entry—or seven—listed in the top search results for X service or Y product. Many have griped about there not being enough corporate topic coverage for this or that, or too much personal rambling about various things. Most noticeably, Matt Haughey scratched his head at the predominance of his PVRBlog showing up regularly for requests on TiVos and TiVo equipment.

As much as I hate to say it, I’m starting to buy the whole ’blogs are ruining search engines’ hype that’s been spread around these past few months.”

– Matt Haughey

His findings showed that doing some pretty basic queries on Google resulted in his PVRBlog being listed at the very top of the results. He then went on to state that maybe it’s time to instate a new algorithm that didn’t favor weblogs. Evan Williams, a current Google employee, lent us a little insight into the matter; he conjectured that those of us who are seeing blogs in the search results are seeing our own blogs mainly because we are searching for terms that we use frequently in our speech and writing.

I don’t think Matt was trying to be deceptive here. And this was just one example. But it illustrates an interesting point. Most of the people who I’ve heard, anecdotally, say that they think blogs sometimes get undue ranking and mention coming across their own blog for searches. They don’t necessarily complain about coming across other blogs.

Could that in part be because:

a) They’re using phrases to search that are natural to them (and, therefore, the words they use to write) but that aren’t quite as likely to be used by others as they might think?

b) They’re not going to learn anything from their own blog, so they consider that result useless, while another blog’s contents they may find valuable?”

– Evan Williams

While both authors cover many good points, neither answers any other questions. Then again, maybe they aren’t asking the right ones.

Do we have a problem?

The biggest question on many minds is whether or not the presence of personal Web sites truly constitutes a problem for search engine users. Many of us get search results where there are only a few relevant hits sprinkled across a dense collection of personal sites, but no one has known to what extent we were dealing with this problem. That is to say until Microdoc detailed the findings of a research study they conducted wherein they performed five thousand searches on Google and documented how many personal sites appeared. [editor's note: resource is no longer avilable]

Their findings showed that only one hundred and five searches—out of the five thousand searches performed—contained a blog in the top ten results. That’s 2.1% which, needless to say, is not a whole lot at all. What is most interesting about their findings, however, is that every blog that did appear was within the top ten positions.

Item Number Percent
Total Searches 5,000 100%
Blogs in top 5 85 1.70%
Blogs in top 10 105 2.10%

The problem, as I and others have seen it, is not about the amount of weblogs showing up in search results – it is about their position within these results and how this affects the lay users of the engines. What’s more, weblogs usually tend to be well-optimized which gives them a better page ranking than many corporate or business Web sites which are frequently less well optimized.

It’s not that any of us hate weblogs or personal Web sites. It would be hypocritical of me to chastise the growing group of bloggers when I count myself among them.

The How and Why of it All

Weblogs possess many qualities that search engines – Google, Yahoo, and Overture being the most formidable – deem noteworthy. A vast number of bloggers mark up their Web site in XHTML and format everything with CSS. These two languages alone promote search engine optimization by providing a clean separation of content from code and this helps to designate what information within a Web site is important. Aside from their code, the most predominant optimization features among weblogs are frequent updating, content archival, and link popularity.

Google, and most of the major search engine spiders, love to see things like:

The entire definition of weblogging is to chronicle writings on any subject, or number of subjects, in a descending chronological fashion and archive previous entries; all of these are exactly what search engines love to see.

How They Do It

Few webloggers actually bother to hand-code their site and fuss with backend structure and FTP programs. Some have resorted to automating the process with home-grown PHP programs. But the majority of others have resorted to one of the many fine blogging programs out there.

Most, if not all, of the popular weblogging programs out there were derivatives of those few who built their own. With adaptation, they have improved over time and become extremely powerful content management systems. Some of the most popular include names such as WordPress, b2, Radio, Blogger, GreyMatter, Moveable Type, and, most recently, TypePad. While the majority of these programs reside on each individual’s server, Blogger, Blogger Pro, and TypePad are all centralized, subscription-based programs (Blogger is free, but still requires membership.)

As I said, the problem is not the presence of blogs on the internet, it is more their tendency to be placed in high-ranking search result positions for certain topics. What little trend there has been has shown that most of the time this is happening, it is happening on topics that are current, fresh, and right off the shelf. Cool, new products gain a large following quickly and are talked about frequently amongst bloggers, both offline and on. Political information, news reports, and current headlines become highly “buzzworthy” topics and thus blogs tend to be highly promoted by search engines.

Of course this isn’t a bad thing. No publicity is bad publicity, right? Where this does create a problem is on the screen of the average searcher. The average searcher won’t even know what a blog is. Chances are if you said “blog” he’d say, “Gesundheit.” How helpful is someone’s personal story, of how they purchased an iPod from that really cute guy at BestBuy, when someone is trying to find prices, specifications, and the elusive signal-to-noise ratio that Jobs never released? Not very.

What Can Be Done About It?

Yes, there are ways to alleviate some of the confusion that might befall an average searcher, but is it possible to change human nature and convince the some-odd million active bloggers to adopt new practices? I will worship the human who can prove me wrong when I say no.

So what can be done about it? Certainly everyone with a Web site has a right to be wherever they want to be within the rankings. And, even more certainly, Company X selling Product B would want to be right up on top of all the major search engine results for any relevant request. Why is this not the case? Because too many corporate or business Web sites are poorly optimized.

One answer I wholeheartedly preach, and practice, is to fight fire with fire. Much of the Web has been founded by people seeing something done and then wanting to copy it or improve upon it. So why not continue along that path and present regularly-updated content on corporate and business Web sites?

I tend ot do a lot of research before making any major purchase. When the second generation iPod made its debut, I began my research on whether or not it was superior to my MiniDisc player. Months after the third generation release, I finally made a decision. All of my research was conducted on the internet; a lot of my search results pointed to personal accounts of iPod and MiniDisc owners. Personal reviews can weigh even more heavily than the most persuasive marketing copy. And if those reviews are negative, be wary if they ever work their way to the number one position for the name of your company’s product.

Choosing the Right Program for Your Needs

But don’t rush out there in the search of a custom-built .Net content management system with an Oracle backend to ward off any naysayers that might be. We don’t all have the benefit of a thirty-thousand-dollar weblog budget to develop such a system. Many of the most popular blogging tools are fully-customizable to the point of being able to handle the needs of even the most complex business site. Though they were primarily intended for personal use and remain free for individuals, small to medium businesses can choose to manage their Web sites with blogging tools and can benefit from their SEO inclination. (For a usual business license fee, of course.)

I use one blogging tool. Somebody else might use another completely different one. I can’t tell you which is right for you and your needs. The best I can do is point you in the right direction. Many of the latest incarnations offer clean, sophisticated user interfaces with many bell-whistling features. Look closely for features such as multiple template capability, different archived output options, and the ability to back up your content quickly and easily.

Tweaking a Personal Content Management System

Once you’ve got the hang of your new blogging tools, they are easy enough to tweak and mold into powerful optimizing-for-search engine machines. The best way to optimize a Web site for a category is to be entirely focused on that category. Well-written copy, and quality information, is the required backbone of any optimization project. By using a good content management system you can increase your chances of being spidered and ranked well by regularly publishing some of that well-written copy and archiving it somewhere on your site.

The most important thing about search engine optimization is good text. Bar none, it is the absolute bare minimum you must have to begin optimizing a site. And once you have it, you’ll want to keep it. Profitable cookbook-selling sites would do well to release some recipes as a teaser for the upcoming release of a new book. Rather then simply dumping two dozen recipes into a folder with a bunch of links, a good marketing agent will tell you that releasing one recipe every day or week, leading up to the book’s release, is bound to increase the awareness of your upcoming product. Doing so enhances the hype of the book and creates a need for users to return – to get the latest recipe.

Using the archiving settings of your blogging software you could easily set up a category archive for each type of recipe you produce: one for Cajun, Italian, Chinese, American, and so forth. Doing so promotes the chances of a higher listing for requests for “Italian cooking recipes” or “Cajun dinners in under 20 minutes.” Customers to the site for one of these reasons will be pleased at finding what they wanted. A happy visitor is more likely to buy than an unhappy one.

Further flexibility will allow you to customize the look, structure, and feel of your content updates. Doing so in a code-consistent manner is never frowned upon by search engines and will undoubtedly increase any chance you have on gaining and maintaining search engine placement. I mentioned earlier that utilizing XHTML and CSS is an advantageous method for improving a site’s readability for search engine spiders. With blogging tools you can format your entries semantically with correct heading tags and then style them accordingly with CSS.

Wrapping It All Up

Not everyone could benefit from maintaining a corporate weblog. Maybe more accurately, not everyone will want to maintain a corporate weblog. Discuss the option with your optimization consultant. They will be able to help you decide the best course of action in order to meet your needs.

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Related Topics: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search, Content, Blogging

 

Brandon Olejniczak is a freelance web developer, designer, and SEO practitioner. He also contracts remotely for BroadLook and Content Hound. Whatever time Brandon doesn’t spend working, you can usually find him enjoying the Portland Waterfront.

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