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Archive: 18 December 2004

SES Chicago Report

Due to some weather-related travel upheavals, I didn’t get to spend as much time at SES Chicago as I would have liked—I ended up flying in Tuesday afternoon, speaking before lunch Wednesday, and leaving Wednesday evening.  Still, the panel went very well, the speakers were quite gracious, and I didn’t even need a fire extinguisher.

Based on what was said in the panel and the fleeting conversations I was able to have (sometimes from the podium) with Matt Bailey and Shari Thurow, here’s what I took away from the conference:

  • Semantic markup does not hurt your search engine rankings.  It may even provide a small lift.  However, the lift will be tiny, and it isn’t always a semantic consideration.  Search engines seem to use markup the same way humans do: headings and elements that cause increased presentational weight, such as <strong> and <i>, will raise slightly the weight of the content within said elements.  So even the presentational-effect elements can have an effect.  They also stated that if you’re using elements solely to increase ranking, you’re playing a loser’s game.
  • The earlier content sits in the document, the more weight it has… but again, this is a very minor effect.
  • Hyperlink title attribute and longdesc text has no effect, positive or negative, on search engine ranking.  The advice given was to have a link’s title text be the same as its content, and that anything you’d put into a longdesc should just go into the page itself.  (Remember: this advice is ruthlessly practical and specific to search-engine ranking, not based on any notions of purity.)
  • Having a valid document neither helps nor hurts ranking; validation is completely ignored.  The (paraphrased) statement from a Yahoo! representative was that validation doesn’t help find better information for the user, because good information can (and usually does) appear on non-valid pages.
  • Search engine indexers don’t care about smaller pages, although the people who run them do care about reducing bandwidth consumption, so they like smaller pages for that reason.  But not enough to make it affect rankings.
  • A lot of things that we take for granted as being good, like image-replacement techniques and Flash replacement techniques, are technologically indistinguishable from search-engine spamming techniques.  (Mostly because these things are often used for the purpose of spamming search engines.)  Things like throwing the text offscreen in order to show a background image, hiding layers of text for dynamic display, and so forth are all grouped together under the SEO-industry term “cloaking”.  As the Yahoo! guy put it, 95% of cloaking is done for the specific purpose of spamming or otherwise rigging search engine results.  So the 5% of it that isn’t… is us.  And we’re taking a tiny risk of search-engine banishment because our “make this look pretty” tools are so often used for evil.

Reading that last point, you might be wondering: how much of a risk are you taking?  Very little, as it turns out.  Search engine indexers do not try to detect cloaking and then slam you into a blacklist—at least, they don’t do that right now.  To get booted from a search engine, someone needs to have reported your site as trying to scam search engines.  If that happens, then extra detection and evaluation measures kick in.  That’s when you’re at risk of being blacklisted.  Note that it takes, in effect, a tattletale to make this even a possibility.  It’s also the case that if you find you’ve been booted and you think the booting unfair, you can appeal for a human review of your site.

So using standards will not, of itself, increase your risk of banishment from Google.  If someone claims to Google that you’re a dirty search spammer, there’s a small but nonzero chance that you’ll get booted, especially if you’re using things like hidden text.  If you do get booted and tell Google you aren’t a spammer, and they check and agree with you, you’ll be back in the index immediately.

So there’s no real reason to panic.  But it’s still a bit dismaying to realize that the very same tools we use to make the Web better are much more often used to pollute it.  I don’t suppose it’s surprising, though.

Due to my radically compressed schedule, I was unfortunately not able to ask most of the questions people suggested, and for that I’m very sorry.  There was some talk of having me present at future SES conferences, however, so hopefully I’ll have more chances in the future.  I’ll also work the e-mail contacts I developed to see what I can divine.

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