Searching for Something Special


I got in a silly argument recently that I’m hoping the experts can help me resolve. My little sister and I were shopping online for a birthday gift for my mother when I did a Google search and clicked a link. My sister insisted that I was ridiculous for clicking one of the first links I saw on the page--she thought I should open up a bunch of the results in different tabs and compare them. She says that it’s easy for companies to trick search engines into putting them at the top of the results page, and that there’s no guarantee I was looking at a good online store. I say that’s nonsense, and that you have to run a reputable site to make it to the top of Google’s results page. What’s the truth here?

Your sister is referring to the art of search engine optimization--SEO, for short. Search engines are powerful tools, and companies know that searches on sites like Google can be worth big bucks to the businesses that are lucky (or good) enough to land the top spots on the search engine results page. There are 4,464,000,000 Google searches being performed each day, and 81% of customers head to the internet to do research before making a big purchase. Customers are increasingly searching on mobile devices, and 72% of consumers who perform a local search end up making their purchase at a store within 5 miles of them.

SEO has existed to some extent since the very earliest days of search engines. Knowing that search engine programs (called “robots” or “spiders”) move from page to page through hyperlinks, early websites tended to focus a lot on links. When Google’s robots got better at identifying keywords in text, websites started relying heavily on those.

So can a modern site game a search engine? If only it were that easy, say the SEO experts at Bambrick Media. The reality is that the complex (and largely secret) algorithms used by companies like Google are hard to appeal to unless the site in question really is relevant to the query it’s trying to rank for. And since Google penalizes cheaters who use so-called “black hat” tactics to trick its systems and rewards high-authority sites, the fact is that good SEO often goes hand-in-hand with great content and a trustworthy brand. In SEO, “content is king”--there’s no truly effective way around delivering the answers, information, and goods that searchers are actually looking for. So while your sister is right that companies try hard to rank high on Google, she’s not quite right to say that just any old company could pull it off.

Besides, SEO alone can’t win the day for companies. When you clicks on your result, you could still have seen something you didn’t like and hit the back button in your browser. Quick departures collectively determine what SEO experts call the “bounce rate” of a site, and a high bounce rate means that a site is failing despite its good search engine ranking. That’s no surprise to the birthday gifts experts at GiftBlooms, who say that, despite their internet focus, they cannot live by SEO alone. Customers may click on a high-ranking site, but their decision to stay is determined by the look and feel of the site, and their decision to buy something--a “conversion,” in marketing terms--is determined by the site, products, prices, and more. With luck, a good business will earn another visit from the same customer--and, this time, the customer won’t have to use a search engine to get there.

I’d rather have a search engine or a compiler on a deserted island than a game. -- John Carmack

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