I was contacted recently by an online directory. The woman who phoned me began by telling me that they didn't have a web designer listed in my area and they had 20-30 people every week who were looking for a web designer and were unable to find one. As I listened to this sad story tears started to form in my eyes as I began to realise that in the 21st century there are still people in the world who are having to go without a web designer.
Of course I quickly realised that this sob story was intended to soften me up in an attempt to sell me something, so I interjected by saying: "So you're looking for someone to advertise on your website?"
"Oh no it's not advertising," she said, "We're looking for one exclusive web designer in your area to handle all the enquiries we are getting..."
She went on to tell me that this fantastic opportunity would only cost me £1 per day and that they would be able to get me listed on the first page of search results in all the major search engines.
Now there's one thing I don't like and that is when people use a promise to try and sell you something knowing full well they cannot deliver on that promise.
"So if I go to Google and type in web design wiltshire, will I find your company?" I asked.
To my amusement she replied with one of the funniest lines I have ever heard in telephone marketing: "Oh no," she said, "we don't use Google anymore - we use Yahoo instead."
Once I had stopped laughing I pointed out to her that nearly 60% of all Internet searches were made through Google and if you were in business online you would not deliberately 'stop using Google'. What she was saying of course was that it was harder to get a top ten listing in Google than it was with Yahoo.
Now the point of all this is that when she was busy making excuses for not being listed in Google she did say something rather interesting and that was that 'Google does not always show you the websites that are the most relevant to your search phrase'.
Now this is quite interesting. Because Google uses a different formula from Yahoo and MSN when calculating search results, you get a different set of results from each search engine for the same search query.
MSN appear to give more weight to keywords than they do to link popularity, whereas Google places a high importance on the quality and quantity of incoming links but also takes into account a whole host of other factors.
The more success I had with getting top ten search engine results the more I advertised those successes on the SEO page of my website. Every so often I would check the results to see if I was still on the first page. What I began to notice was that on MSN the SEO page of my website was getting to number one for a phrase that I had listed on that page. For example, I built a website for an acupuncturist in Swindon, Wiltshire and wanted to advertise the fact that I had secured a number one slot in Google for the search phrase 'acupuncture treatment wiltshire', so I listed it on the SEO page of my website. A week or so later when I went to check the MSN rankings for the acupuncture site I noticed that the SEO page of my site was at number one for the search phrase 'acupuncture treatment wiltshire'.
Now the problem with this of course is that the search phrase is not relevant to that website. So in terms of relevancy MSN has failed: it has not delivered the most relevant websites for that search phrase because it has put a web design company at the top instead of an acupuncture website. This is one of the pitfalls of placing too much emphasis on keywords.
But why was my site at the top instead of the acupuncture site (which was coming in at number 2 or 3)? Presumably because my site is more established, has more incoming links and a higher Page Rank. Presumably, although not definitely.
So do these problems occur with Google? The answer to that is yes and no.
Google does get irrelevant sites mixed up in it's top ten from time to time but they are more likely to be there because of Page Rank than because of keywords. An article about SEO and linking strategies that I published on a high ranking website turned up in the top ten for a completely unrelated search phrase because I had mentioned that phrase once in the article. The reason was that Google placed more importance on the PR of the site the article was on than the keyword density of that particular phrase.
As Page Rank is based largely on link popularity the end result in this case was that link popularity beat relevancy hands-down. This is the main bone of contention that many webmasters have about Google: link popularity does not necessarily equate to relevancy and ultimately it is relevancy that is most important to the user.
Some may argue that a more popular site is more relevant. But if you were looking for a web designer in Marlborough you wouldn't want to find a listing for a hotel in the top ten just because it had more incoming links and a higher page rank than the site of a local web designer and happened to have a link to another web designer at the bottom of the page.
Part of the problem of course is that whatever system is in place some people will try to cheat the system. That leads to companies like Google having to change the way they evaluate the web pages that their robots crawl. This inadvertently leads to some website owners finding that their sites have been devalued because they have accidentally done something with their site that is frowned upon by Google because it was once used by the cheats to artificially boost their search engine rankings.
Until such time as a telepathic search engine is invented it seems unlikely that such problems will be eliminated. Perhaps in the coming years some kind of global directory will be used in conjunction with domain name registration, whereby each website could be registered in a maximum of two categories (web design and SEO for example) and some kind of system could be used to make sure that websites could only show up in search results for search phrases related to those categories. It would probably be too expensive and labour intensive to implement but I'm sure if someone could find a way of making money from it we might well see it happen!