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SEO, Documents and Search Engines

The term “SEO” may conjure up negative reactions for some and rightly so, if the only experience someone has with an SEO are outdated, high priced practices that produced temporary solutions.

Optimizing for a search engine isn’t the goal anymore.  It never really was.  Few people truly grasped the reality of what it would take to make one web page come up in the top spot of a search result for a carefully pre-determined word or phrase specifically targeted to actual people looking for precisely that word or phrase. The enormity of this exercise is such that we don’t even recognize its intricate nature and how laughable it is to simply find popular keywords and write about them. We don’t speak the same language, use the same words, interpret the same symbols or use the same mechanisms for communication. We never have.

Do you look for fitness or exercise or workout videos? The term may be different based on age, hobby, habit, culture or local lingo. Is yoga an exercise, fitness regimen or workout, or meditation practice that throws it completely out into a new box of keyword choices.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that many of us have a limited understanding of search as it relates to people who search.

The Universe is Filled with Documents

The one thing humans have produced without fail are documents. We love to communicate with each other. How we communicate is fascinating and creative. The Sumerians and Egyptians used symbols. Sometimes one symbol had multiple meanings which meant context was important for understanding meaning.  Cave drawings and clay tablets were the documents of their day.

I own a peace mandala made of rabbit fur and various feathers and beads made by a North American Indian tribe. Native Americans made war mandalas which their warrior braves carried into battle as they charged full speed on the backs of their ponies. Each mandala was a document that communicated a message in a specific language targeted to a specific group of people. They also wove beads into patterns for wampum belts that told entire stories and were used in treaty agreements. These were handmade documents created in a language understood by a certain group of people.

Anyone on the outside would not be able to interpret cave drawings and wampum belts. Documents change when the method of delivery changes.

They may change when the recipient of a document is no longer able to translate it.  This leaves room for mystery and intrigue.  Crop circles are documents for example. There may be nobody on the planet who understands this form of communication. They continue to be delivered to farmers’ fields’ inboxes anyway.

Documents are cherished by us. So much so that we use a variety of media to create them, from paper to music, dance to verbal storytelling. We use documents to preserve history by weaving together chants, dialog and songs from around the world with music, like the work produced by Deep Forest. Were it not for the idea that Deep Forest’s Michel Sanchez had, to mix native Baka pygmy words with modern music, most of us would never hear their language.

If you spend any time researching your family roots, you may find yourself wandering around the many websites available for tracking and finding your ancestors. I took over the Ancestry.com work begun by my mother and one of her sisters many years ago. When they were researching, online resources were limited. Before the Internet people sent mail and visited libraries or historical societies.

Today, I have it easy. Google has been copying every piece of written documentation it can find and making it available online. Not only are birth, marriage, ship, death, draft and property deed records available online, but so are old manuscripts of local town histories.  I’ve never lived in Tennessee or Missouri, but a huge part of my heritage originates from those two states and I’ve poured over local town histories and images for hours.

Now even the Library of Congress is available online. We create documents and search for them in many ways, from many devices and in various environments and languages.

And we expect the best answers for our search queries.

Looking into a starry sky
When we want answers, we ask questions.

The Universe of Documents and What You Need

When we want answers, we ask questions.  Even when we get what we need, we don’t stop to consider that the answer will change.  This is one reason why blogs are dying.

A well written article has a moment on stage and then it is forgotten. It becomes a buried URL with a date mark.  If it is from a previous year its value decreases because “old” information on some topics is considered out of date and likely incorrect. This is the case for people in technical fields for example. It can also be a factor in the healthcare industry, where the most up to date information is considered the most accurate.

For search, we didn’t consider that documents change, don’t change, or go missing. When we search, we have human requirements attached to the act of searching, like “things I care about”, “things I trust”, “things I use”, “things I need”, and “stuff I look up when bored out of my mind”.  Then, there are “things I’m looking for but have no idea what it’s called.” (I just went through that while looking for a replacement part for a bread-making machine.)

If you’re someone who optimizes content for search engines and you exclude the human element, you’re not understanding the monumental job of a search engine and why they continue to make the changes that frustrate you. It looks like Google has an agenda when they throw paid results at the top. They, like us, have electric bills to pay. What most of us aren’t grasping is how a search engine has begun to change who to trust for information.

Google is a new document medium. It’s the new cave with drawings we’re trying to interpret. There’s a fascinating study called Internet Usage and Patient’s Trust in Physician During Diagnosis: A Knowledge Power Perspective.

Knowledge power

How many of you research symptoms in Google before seeing a doctor? The paper defined “power” as the control or capability to influence others. Knowledge power is based on having superior skills or knowledge and the ability to convince another with logic, argument, or information. A person that comes to the doctor’s office armed with knowledge from the web has to decide if they trust the doctor’s knowledge or Google’s.

One of the findings was that face to face, physical contact from body tests for diagnosis and the human delivery of information created more trust for the patient. Another finding was that the more a person searched for a diagnosis online, the less likely they were to trust the diagnosis of their doctor.  Online search results bring back all kinds of diagnosis information and surprise, people are trusting documents written by people paid to optimize to rank with the answers.

Another clue on the enormous responsibility of document creation and its retrieval is how we value personal information.  Another study finds that we don’t all care the same way about what we consider to be personal and valued information about ourselves. Called Consumer Valuation of Personal Information in the Age of Big Data, it delves into regulating documents. This ties back to my point about how we care, or don’t care, about the information we seek and find.

Do you optimize for the searcher who cares and if so what is it they care about?

Fingers touching
Do you optimize for the searcher who cares and if so what is it they care about?

Documents change when the method of delivery changes.

An expert SEO deep dives into how web based documents are indexed by a computer system learning as much as possible about each of us.  We are unpredictable until we are not. And we are quickly becoming lost from one another despite being connected to each other by email, social sites, search engines, forums, newsletters, videos, pictures, and voice activated lamps in the living room.

We are living in a universe of documents, trying to understand ourselves and each other without ever needing to leave our homes.  An expert SEO does not optimize for a search engine. They optimize content for the universe of documents in the hopes it meets the needs of the information seeker they want to reach.

The expert SEO has a realistic grasp on the enormity of their task. Their job is crazy difficult and misunderstood, and yet when coupled with an empathic usability professional, exploration and experimentation with all the changing technology and machine learning can be rewarding and gratifying, and even may change the course of humanity.

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One Comment

  1. Alan Whiteside Alan Whiteside January 19, 2018

    I followed a tweet from Bill Slawski to this article and I really enjoyed the article and agree with with your conclusions that all good content should be written to answer questions that real people will ask. Many thanks.

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