LAS VEGAS—A casual observer might not give the rankings of search-engine results a second glance, but the thousands of Webmasters who gathered here this week watch their every move.
Figuring out how to legitimately influence those rankings by tweaking site content and technology was the major theme during discussions and sessions at the WebmasterWorld.com World Search Conference.
Search engine marketers and representatives from major search engines, including Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Ask Jeeves Inc., gathered during the three-day event. And it was clear that the cat-and-mouse game between the sites and engines was alive and well.
“As the industry grows theres more at stake, and its getting more sophisticated,” Michael Palka, Ask Jeeves director of product management, said about techniques to influence the engines.
The conflicting interests of marketers and search engines appeared most visible in discussions of the strategies sites use to boost links from other sites in order to gain in link popularity, one of the factors considered in the rankings of major engines.
Search marketers led sessions about developing linking campaigns without going too far into practices such as buying and selling links that search engines consider suspect. Meanwhile, in the small exhibit hall, affiliate marketers and link brokers touted programs to buy and exchange links.
One top search-engine marketer steered Webmasters away from centering link campaigns on purchased links or link exchange with any type of site.
“Dont think that throwing money at link campaigns is an aggressive solution,” said Bruce Clay, president of Bruce Clay Inc., an Internet business consultancy in Moorpark, Calif.
Large numbers of links coming from the same IP address raise a red flag to search engines, which could penalize a site because it suspects an orchestrated exchange of links, Clay said. He also warned Webmasters not to judge links solely by their quantity, especially when comparing a site against its competitors.
“If another site has 500 sites linking to it, that doesnt mean you need 500 links,” Clay said. “You need 40 of the right links.”
Still, links often can make or break a site, particularly when it is new. Links to and from a site help search engines determine how to index and rank it.
“The reality is, especially when starting a new project, you are what your links say you are,” said Greg Boser, president of WebGuerrilla LLC, a search marketing company in Valencia, Calif. “And once you get anchor text on the Web established saying youre one thing, its hard to shift that down the road.”
For the search engines, links often are open to the most abuse. Link spam, where sites create hundreds or thousands of links among each other to game link popularity algorithms, is one of the biggest search-spam problems for Ask Jeeves, Palka said.
He likened a site buying links to a company paying for a good review in The New York Times.
“If you think about it, its like buying reviews,” Palka said in an interview with eWEEK.com. “Our end-user doesnt want a site that is best optimized because [someone] knew how to buy links, but the site thats the best.”
When sites go too far in the tactics they use to boost search rankings, search engines can and do ban them from their results. Then sites have to roll back their optimization techniques to fit the engines various guidelines and reappear in results.
While they have differences of opinion, the search marketers and search engines at the conference searched for common ground. Webmasters might be jockeying for higher placements in search results, but they also can give search engines some of their best feedback.
“They are passionate about search,” said Tim Mayer, director of product management for Yahoo Search.
He said the communication between Webmasters and Yahoo has improved in the past year, particularly because Yahoo launched an option where sites can pay to ensure that they are included in its Web index. Its paid inclusion program, though, does not impact the relevancy of results, he said.
Yahoos paid-search approach also has stirred controversy as other search engines have moved away from such options.
During one conference session, Palka even joked with the gathered Webmasters after having described how Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves had doubled its search market share from the acquisition of Interactive Search Holdings Inc. earlier this year.
“If you participate in algorithmic manipulation, I dont think were large enough [for you],” he quipped.