SEO 101: Why Text Triumphs in Search Engine Optimization

My last three posts on search engine optimization have dealt with gathering information about your customers or clients, their wants, needs and surfing habits. To help you understand why I keep emphasizing text, text and more text, let’s take a quick tour down memory lane for a short and sweet history of the World Wide Web. 

Long, long ago in a computer lab far, far away, a new technology was born…

Well, ok, maybe it wasn’t so very long ago, and maybe the lab wasn’t all that far away, but you get the idea.

In 1989 a man named Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. He wrote the first WWW client (a browser-editor running under NeXTStep) and the first WWW server along with most of the communications software, defining URLs, HTTP and HTML. In short, forget about Al Gore “inventing” the Internet. Tim Berners-Lee is the true father of the World Wide Web!

What few people know, however, is that the web technologies Berners-Lee invented during the late 1980s and early 1990s had a very different purpose compared to our modern usage of the Web. Initially, the Web was intended as a means of sharing data and documents in a consistent and searchable manner. The first version of the Web didn’t even support images! All you had was black text, a white or grey background, blue links, purple visited links and red active links. That was it!

Over time, more and more people saw the potential for this new way to share information and started adding features like graphics, font formatting, animation, and so on. But even with all the multi-media, streaming videos and flashy bells, whistles and widgets available on the Web today, its heart remains based in text.

This is important!

No matter what color they are, or how many videos may be embedded in them, all web pages are, in their most essential form, nothing more than a text file that has tags mixed in with the text that forms the content of the page. All your pictures and CSS files and QuickTime movies and Flash files are window dressing. Remember that because it ties in with everything else that we do in relation to search engines.

From the beginning, web pages were intended to be searchable, and search engines have always been used to find words and phrases contained within documents on computers scattered all over the world. Some have been easier to use than others, and some are better at returning meaningful results, but the primary thing that search engines do is take your query (remember, that’s the Geek word for “question”) and try to find something in their volumes of data that matches the words you typed.

For those of you who aspire to be programmers, the technical term for what search engines do is “string matching”. You type a “string” of characters, what we lowly humans call “words” and “numbers”, into the search box, and when you hit the Enter key or press the “go” button the search engine looks for the closest match it can find to that string. If you change your query by even one character, be it a letter or number, you may get radically different results.

Don’t believe me? Try typing your name into your search engine of preference. (This is called “ego surfing”, BTW.) After you’ve taken a look at the results from Round 1, change your query by altering just one letter in your name. Maybe you have a nickname. Maybe there is an alternate spelling for your name. For example: Bronwen vs. Bronwyn; Glen vs. Glenn; Louise vs. Louis. You get the idea.

Play around with this for a bit and see how your results change. Once you’ve got a feel for how your favorite search engine mixes things up, try doing the same searches on a different search engine. Are the results the same? Are they different? What do the search engines do similarly? Where do they differ?

This exercise is not just “busy work” to help you waste time at work. By playing around with your queries and seeing the differences in how search engines handle them, I want you to get a better feel for how little changes can make a BIG difference in your search engine optimization plans. Keep experimenting with your searches and play around with variations on your list of key words.

Next time, weaving your keywords into your website…


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