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Thoughts on the dark art of SEO

Posted by Lutz Issler, Systemantics – 25.02.13


Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short, covers all measurements that aim at making your website appear at a better position among the organic, or unpaid, results of a search engine when particular keywords are entered. In SEO terms, this is called making your website rank higher.

The reason behind the desire to rank higher is that the higher your website ranks, the higher the probability is users will see your listing and click on it to visit your website. Obviously, increasing the number of visitors will in turn hopefully increase the number of sales or signups, called conversions. Increasing the number of conversions is usually the ultimate driver behind SEO efforts.

To understand how SEO works, it is vital to understand how search engines work.

How search engines work

A search engine like Google takes one or more search terms and gives a list of results in return. The list of results is ordered by relevance. To compile the list of relevant pages, the search engine has to compute the relevance of each page on the web with respect to the search terms entered as a numeric value. It then sorts the list of pages according to their relevance value. Pages with higher values for relevance will rank better.

To be in anyway useful, the way a search engine calculates relevance values needs to reflect the user’s common understanding about relevance. For example, when searching for the term ‘apple’, computing the relevance of both the Apple, Inc. website as well as the Wikipedia article about apples should result in high values because the sole word ‘apple’ could refer to both. Contrary to that, when searching for ‘apple computer’, it is likely that the user is not interested in web pages about gardening but rather in the website of the computer company. The relevance computation should therefore result in a high value for that site and a low value for web pages about gardening.

The computation method (or algorithm) the search engine employs for obtaining relevance should also avoid being fooled. In the early days of the web search engines looked at text on pages only. Adding the text ‘Apple Computer’ somewhere on your site about gardening was likely to rank your site higher on searches for ‘apple computer’. Algorithms used in modern search engines do not fall for such simple manipulation attempts anymore. Instead, they are able to filter out the main topic a page is about and to understand the meaning of (at least some) search terms as well.

What to base SEO on

SEO aims at improving rankings for a particular site or web page related to certain keywords. Strictly speaking, this could be viewed as cheating (even though entirely legal). As we all know cheating works best if you know about the system or person you are working against. If how search engines worked was to become public knowledge, fooling them would be so easy that search engines would become useless. Therefore, search engines keep their technology secret.

So what can we base SEO on if we do not know about the technology behind the browsers? Luckily, as we have seen, the algorithms in search engines need to compute relevance much like a you or I would. Thinking about what users would prefer and how users would judge page relevance is therefore a vital part of SEO. Furthermore, search engines publish recommendations on how to build sites to allow good indexing.

SEO measurements

SEO measurements based on assumptions about how search engines compute relevance can be divided into five categories:

• technical measurements
• information design measurements
• editorial measurements
• networking measurements
• continuous monitoring and improvement

Technical measurements ensure that the site’s contents are accessible for a search engine in a good way. That means that we do not encode or encrypt text content, that we do not protect any important images from downloading, that we program the website according to web standards, and so on. In recent days, even factors like page loading speed, server response times seem to be included in relevance computation.

Information design makes sure that the site nicely splits into pages that search engines can summarize under a single topic. Furtherly, information design measurements make sure all the pages on a site are linked well along thematic aspects, that sites are split into sections or subdomains if they cover many different topics, and so on.

Editorial measurements affect the content of the site. Well written copy that pairs nicely with the structure of the site and makes use of keywords your site should rank well on, has proven to work. Amending content with outgoing links to relevant resources on the web has proved to be successful as well. In the times of social media, frequent updates with relevant content are also expected to make pages rank higher.

Networking measurements aim at achieving a higher relevance in search engines through linking your website from other sites, blogs, and social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. Direct links to your site from other websites (partner sites, for instance) are generally viewed as good ways to increase relevance. Mentions in social media, on the other hand, direct people to your website. Even more they influence relevance computation indirectly as your happy new visitors might mention you on social media channels as well, which then again will count for relevance.

Not being a real measurement but a continuous task, monitoring and improving the site’s usage statistics on a periodical basis is crucial for keeping the site ranking high. Also, continuous monitoring allows to identify chances to improve rankings.


SEO measurements are manyfold, making SEO a wholistic approach which needs to be carefully taken into account throughout the whole process of creation and operation. Good SEO is always based on assumptions about how users judge relevance as well as technical measurements, the result of employing SEO strategies in the build of a website with a rock-solid technical basis, well structured information design, good copywriting and editing and being well embedded into the ecosystem called the web.