Game Time

The art and science of search engine optimization brings back visions of the Wild Wild West

The Internet has been compared a million times to the Wild West. The analogy is rather threadbare by now, but it's hard to come up with a better way to describe the landscape of search engine optimization. Web commerce is a high-stakes game of saloon poker. As with any high-stakes game, there are good players, inept players and also lots of people of dubious character floating around trying to find an angle. Every once in a while, a kerfuffle breaks out and somebody gets a beer bottle over the head.

Search engine optimization—the art and/or science of coming up high on the results page for any particular search—is one of the skills that sets apart the best players. But there is nothing inherently good or bad about SEO. Some SEO activity is entirely aboveboard. Some of it is like card counting—not illegal, but against the house rules. And some SEO is downright dirty. It's one of the ways that cheaters can try to cheat.

SEO is a subject near and dear to my own heart. It's become an essential skill for anyone who publishes on the Web as we do at CSOonline.com (which, by the way, will be redesigned and relaunched this spring). So it has been very interesting indeed to watch Executive Editor Scott Berinato delve into the topic of SEO and examine the good, the bad and the ugly of that world. The first part of his report (Black Hat SEOs: Is This the Future of Search?) looks at the collision of the search world with that of gray- and black-hat hacking. This intertwining was perhaps inevitable, given the amount of money in the pot, and the fact that at some level both hackers and SEOs (regardless of hat color) are engaged in deciphering and manipulating the way machines interpret the world.

The beleaguered search companies—the frontier sheriffs in this scenario, well armed but tasked with enforcing a not-yet-complete code of law—continue to tweak and rejigger their systems' algorithms. They have shifted some of their emphasis from what's on the page of a given site (which is easy for the site owner to manipulate) to what other sites have linked to that site (which can still be manipulated, but isn't quite as easy). The name of the game, ultimately, is trust: Which sites are completely trustworthy, which ones exist only to scam money from Google or from other businesses, and how do you make sense of the vast number of sites that fall somewhere in between?

It will be more than interesting to watch the gradual process of determining what constitutes fair play.

After all, this is a game where my company has chips on the table.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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