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Old 01-25-2006   #1
mcanerin
 
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SERP Overflow and Butterfly SEO

At a certain point in some SERPs, especially highly competitive ones, it becomes really hard to pick a winner. The differences between the top 10, 20 and 30 sites are so miniscule that a search engine could probably apply a random order generator and the searching public would not notice the difference. They are all great sites. Or they are all equally bad, take your pick.

The point is, what does a search engine do then? There are several options.

First, they can stop worrying about it, since no matter what they show, as long as the top 50 or so are all good results, then they don't have to spend the resources worrying about sorting it much. After all, at a certain point, who cares (aside from the owner of the website in question)?

If I get a great list of sites in the top 10, do I really care as a searcher if the ones in the top 20 are good too? And do I really care what the order they are listed in at that point is? An SEO might care, a website owner would care, but the users would not.

We see this effect with DMOZ, where the editors care a lot less about adding a website to a sub-directory with 100 other good sites on the exact same subject than they are with adding sites to areas with only a couple of good results.

In some over-stuffed categories, it would take a miracle (or a completely off the wall site) to get listed, since the number of good sites is so many there is more of a perceived negative attached to the time of the editor involved in checking and listing the site (no matter how small that may be) than there is a positive benifit to the visitor attached to adding site #389 to an already overstuffed category. The visitors don't usually go past the first 20 or so, anyway.

This effect completely changed the positioning and importance of directories once they reached the "overflow" threshold. Yahoo first, then DMOZ. Now, with so many websites on the internet, and so many being launched every day, it appears that we are starting to see this overflow threshold within search engines for some SERPs. I have no doubt that it will continue to increase as a problem.

Once you reach this, then, as a software engineer, you have to make a decision. "Do I continue to refine this result, spending more and more resources on detecting smaller and smaller differences that the end user doesn't even care about, or do I spend those resources in areas that the user does care about"?

On the other hand, I know a lot of engineers. They usually don't have an "it's good enough" mindset, but rather an "it can be better" mindset, particularly if they are young and ambitious, like many search engine engineers. Especially if they have lots of powerful tools to work with.

So what would happen if a search engine decided that there really was a difference in there someplace, and that difference mattered?

You would end up seeing either 1) smaller and smaller differences having a larger and larger influence on the SERPS, or 2) a movement towards completely different or new measurement tools that offered the ability to measure things that were not, before.

The reason I wonder about this is because this creates 2 possible scenarios in an highly competitive SERP (which I tend to be in, lately):

1) "Once the top 30+ are all passing the quality checks, we don't really care what order they are in". The result in this case is likely to be sorted out via the proverbial "butterfly effect", named after the effect where a single flap of a butterflies wings could, in a complicated self referencing system like a weather system (or search engine), cause a hurricane to occur in another part of the world.

This could result in what I'll call "Butterfly SEO", where, once you get to a certain level of optimization, the things that affect your rankings are things that are less and less obvious, and more and more technical. I know for a fact that in certain SERPs you can see this effect, where something that traditionally isn't an problem, suddenly makes or breaks your rankings.

2) "Since we are having a hard time figuring out which sites are better than others at a certain point, we need to start measuring criteria other than the traditional ones". This is interesting, because instead of needing to get pickier and pickier about links, content, etc, the search engine begins to look at areas that are not normally looked at, and thus more likely to show meaningful and measurable differences in the sites listed.

This implies that a more holistic, less regimented approach to SEO would work better than just pushing the same traditional buttons harder and harder, over and over again. Or at least a change in SEO tactics that also addresses the new criteria. I see indications of this type of thinking in the aging delay and other similar issues.

These are 2 totally different possible approaches to SEO for highly competitive results, depending on current and future search engine direction.

I have some ideas on this, but I'd be interested in hearing what other people think, first.

My opinion, as usual.

Ian
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Last edited by mcanerin : 01-25-2006 at 12:26 AM.
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Old 01-26-2006   #2
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I see the concern for finding more relevant CONTENT shifting to finding more relevant PEOPLE. Everything I'm seeing makes me think that you are exactly right. That words are words and once you have a large enough inventory, which word is more better than another word is entirely subjective.

Of course I admit to be somewhat of a cynic and I have never believed the objective of a search engine was to increase relevancy, (I think they all knew that is a completely subjective endeavor long before I did), rather it's objective is to increase revenue and that has little to do with what I think is relevant and all that matters is what YOU think is relevant.

I think you are also absolutely right about the engineers having to question the vlaue proposition of trying to algorytmically determine relevancy and that is why I believe they see the smart money on algorythmically profiling YOU as opposed to rating the content.

So, in my opinion, how do we optimize for the Google butterfly effect?

Wrong question.

How do I optimize for YOU when you go to Google.

I think demographics is going to become much more of a focus for the SEO of 2008 and beyond.
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Old 01-26-2006   #3
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Quote:
How do I optimize for YOU when you go to Google.
An excellent insight.

Rather than spending a lot of time tweaking things that are less and less important, one method of dealing with this overflow would be to personalize it, and use those personalization criteria to further refine the listings.

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Old 02-04-2006   #4
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well, if you don't need to go in any specific direction it doesn't matter much what road you take.

Meaning, you might choose to optimize to some "border value of labour" after which your efforts won't be worth the hours put in. IOW, as you get to that "top 20-30" threshold, forget about it and move on with another keyword. As Brett Tabke said once, you're not CNN...

Last edited by claus : 02-04-2006 at 08:12 PM.
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