Search Engine Optimization Sucks!

Two weeks ago, as part of my “Living the Customer” post, I promised that I’d be talking about how search engine optimization sucks (from the perspective of the small website owner).

As fate would have it, Jeff Weiner, SVP of Search at Yahoo! just spoke at PC Forum and gave the perfect quote: “Search is the tyranny of the Web master. The only people getting into search indices are those sophisticated enough to get into a search index–they only can generate relevancy by incoming links, and there are a number of people for whom that doesn’t apply.”.

For the last few months, I’ve been helping a small niche content/community site to get noticed in search engines. And Jeff’s statement is spot on. Search results today are largely (and sadly) ruled by people who know how to game the system. It is simply too hard for a new, but good quality, site to get noticed and the techniques that search engines use to combat the SEOs and sploggers work against the little guy.

During the process of getting this site up, I worked with them to do everything right: submitted site maps, got into Y! Directory, got a fair number of links from other sites/directories. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. And then I learned about the “Google Sandbox”. The “sandbox”–which Google officially denies–means that you will not show in the results of any popular/generic query for up to a year. Its been 9 months for this site, and it still doesn’t appear anywhere on popular searches on Google (not at all anywhere in the top 1000 results for relevant queries). Thankfully, it is getting good and relevant traction on Yahoo and MSN Search.

So who does appear on relevant queries? Well, the site in the #1 spot for most queries had keyword stuffed hyperlinks hidden on the page (white on white). The site that often appeared as #2 had two screen’s worth of ads before you scrolled all the way down to the content. And then there’s a ragtag bunch of semi-related sites. Now of course everyone thinks their site is the most relevant, but in this case, the site really is. The site that appears #1 most often is actually quite relevant and deserves its place, but they had to resort to Google trickery to get there. An honest, relevant site doesn’t seem to stand a chance.

In the end, I had to buy keywords on Google for this site. They’re paying about $140/month to get some attention. I guess that helps that google stock price, huh?

When I see all of this, its really clear that search has a long way to go. From a consumer perspective search is losing some of its usefulness as a way to find relevant info and from a small business perspective: forget it – unless you pay an SEO, you are not going to get noticed for a very, very long time. Small businesses need to focus elsewhere…