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Search Engine Optimization I: Introduction

April 13, 2013

“The Internet is not a thing, a place, a single technology, or a mode of governance. It is an agreement. ” – John Gage
You know, it wasn’t meant to be this way. When Vannevar Bush envisioned his version of the World Wide Web in the 1940s, it was called the Memex and it was a vast network with all kinds of paths running through it like trails in a park.

He even envisioned a new profession of trailmakers  who would make paths through the hypertext that everyone could use. Imagine a path, for instance, that linked all articles relating to Human Evolution in the Wikipedia into a nice linear story about issues relating to human evolution in a nice coherent sequence. Well, I think you know that trail making really hasn’t happened on a large scale. Perhaps it was never practical. There just weren’t enough reference librarians in the world to blaze all the trails that were needed, and neither browsers nor websites were designed with trail making in mind.

But the Web is awfully big….”The Web universe is constantly expanding, so its size is unknowable. In 2008 Google noted that it had identified (but not actually indexed) over a trillion (1012) distinct URLs (Web addresses), and that several billion (109) new webpages appear daily (Alpert & Hajaj, 2008). Estimates suggest that Google indexes about 40 billion webpages” (Fletcher, W. H. (2012). Corpus analysis of the world wide web. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.).

40 billion unique pages, 50 billion unique pages? It depends on how you count them. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked for a mismatched sock in a sock drawer, but finding just the right information amongst billions of Web pages should be a lot harder.
So how on earth can we use the Web effectively? You know the answer. It’s search. It used to be that search was for specially trained librarians who would use special knowledge and complicated Boolean search queries to find stuff. But something remarkable happened in the 1990s, Ordinary people learned to use search engines. And search engines, particularly Google, learned how to give people pretty good answers, even if people weren’t generating particularly good queries. So it was a matter of figuring out what people were actually searching for based on the the words that people put into in the query. And by giving lists of search results, even if the one at the top wasn’t a good guess, people could just scan down to find something like what they were looking for. Amazingly the system worked. Almost everyone could type words into a search engine text box and get back stuff that they find interesting. Unbelievable. If you’d gone to a conference on information retrieval in the 1980s and told them this was going to happen they would have thought you were high on paint thinner.


So there we were in the late 1990s, and people were happy using search engines to find stuff on the Internet. And people were also figuring out lots of neat new ways to make money off the World Wide Web. In retrospect, what happened next wasn’t so surprising, but I’d be lying if I said I had seen it coming.
The Age of Google! There, I said it. Forget about the Anthropocene, whoever owned search on the Internet had just got an amazing franchise. And Google took over search in what seemed like a blink of an eye. And suddenly it was like a vast turnstile that went “click” every time someone wanted to find something on the Web. And if you wanted people to find your stuff when they were looking for stuff, then you had to persuade Google to put your stuff as close to the top of their search engine results as you could. And Google would help you, for a price, and after a while other people too. And all at once the noble science of search engine optimization was born.


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