Optimizing for Search Users vs Optimizing for Search Engines

While reading Stoney deGeyeter’s article – 10 Useless SEO Worries (his booboo on PageRank apart, I agree with the fellow on everything else) – I couldn’t help but notice this gem:

Is it smart to work on getting your site ranked on MSN, Yahoo, and Ask? Sure, absolutely. But never at the expense of your Google rankings. Never. While different algorithms are employed, they all tend to run off the same basic premise: a good site will rank well, regardless of the algorithm used to evaluate it.

Don’t think that you need to optimize a page for each search engine. It doesn’t work that way. Just do good optimization and all engines will rate you accordingly.

Stoney’s argument is rock-solid and financially sound, even though the thought of being partial to Google amounts to Google-worshipping and therefore leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some people.

Rebecca from SEOmoz talks about ‘whether you should optimize your site for each individual search engine or not’ (Rebecca says no, of course she’s right…). I’ll this a bit further and say that you should:

Optimize for search users, not search engines.

As Stoney and Rebecca say, it’s important to adhere to basic SEO principles that will allow your website to be picked up and index by search engines. And of course, you need to understand how search engines rank websites, because without that knowledge you’ll interpret fluctuations in your search rankings as magic. Good if you’re interested in delusions, but not helpful in marketing your business.

Beyond the understanding bit though, it’s not about optimizing for specific search engines, it’s about optimizing for search users.

So…What Do Search Users Want?

In the absence of hard research at hand’s reach, I’ll posit a good-enough answer:

Search users want search engines to read their minds and automatically serve up what they need, even if the searcher himself doesn’t know exactly what that is.

Search engines perform this task – clumsily but with increasing adeptness – by using a variety of methods: personalised search, trust and authority (T & A), vertical search, geotargeting, etc (insert fancy term for time and date based SERPs customisation). It pays to understand each of these methods but what if you could understand this as part of a simpler, more unified theory of reaching your customers?

Think of search users as a subset of your potential customer base. There are multiple methods of reaching your target audience – offline marketing, viral emails, search, newletters, social media, online video – with all these options, it’s a safe bet that if you’re only focusing on search, you’re missing out on a significant portion of your potential audience (and thus moolah-spinning opportunities). If search can be classified as just one part of your marketing, we can easily use a more unified and simpler theory of marketing that will help us increase search referrals while improving our chances of … say … bringing in traffic from offline media as well.

Believe it or not, wondering about what search users want is exactly the trap you shouldn’t be getting stuck in. The more efficient way of doing this to think about your audience at large, what they want and figure out the best way to deliver that. At the same time, it’s important to figure out how to reach as much of your target audience as possible – and search users are just a subset of that audience.

If you can figure out what your audience wants, you already have a good idea of what search users in your niche want. Then it’s down to a) structuring that information properly on your website and b) promoting the hell out of it. If you can get people (i.e. your target audience) talking about your website online (where talking means discussing in blogs, forums, etc), and if you can keep that conversation going AND growing, your work is pretty much done.

To quantify this in real terms, let’s take a seo blog. You pay good money to hire a writer to write about the latest seo tactics (with a twist – no self-respecting seo blogger goes in the industry without a hook / angle anymore) and let’s also suppose that you succeed in getting many blogs talking about your site. Conversation equals links (and note that these links are from sites within your niche). Eventually, the conversation reaches a tipping point, where everyone seems to be talking about you, from top to bottom, helping you to reach a big, big part of your audience.

How do you think your search rankings are going to look at this point (assuming you’re doing this in a less competitive niche than SEO, I’d say quite good)? Is this a result of optimizing for a particular search engine, or even optimizing for search users? Yes and no. Yes because the strategies you’ve used cover both search engines and search users.

No because you’re not working on optimizing for either per se – you’re just marketing your website using methods that work through a variety of mediums.

If the question comes up, think of optimizing for search users, not search engines. But if you really want to be successful online, focus on your audience and your marketing strategies as a whole.

Also Read: Are Search Engines Evil?

One thought on “Optimizing for Search Users vs Optimizing for Search Engines

  1. Yeah, if you focus on promoting content geared to go viral on social media site (blogs, forum, voting sites, etc.), you will rank well. I still think technical SEO work like keyword research is still important, but just mostly for hitting search terms that have high search volume and/or high conversion rates.

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