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The Importance of Humility in SEO

 11:49 am on Aug 10, 2012 (gmt 0)

Let's face, there is only one person in the world with the "highest IQ". For the rest of us, we are not the smartest person around. For most of us, the average search engineer at Google IS smarter than we are. Fact - it's a job I can't do. I don't think I could even get through the first interview.

So we need to stay realistically humble when we analyze what Google is doing or even trying to do. Otherwise we're going to make TERRIBLE SEO DECISIONS, based on our own blind spots rather than the real situation. Or even worse, we'll spend all kinds of energy assuming we can't do anything about our situation. Then we just whine and wring our hands, but we don't start winning again.

The biggest error I've seen is assuming we can read the hidden intentions of any other individual, and especially those of a corporation. This is dangerous territory. It's where we have a strong tendency to project our own hidden character onto another, rather than seeing the situation clearly. And with so many people inside a corporation affecting the group's action, it gets even worse.


For me, doing good SEO work means accepting and knowing that these two shortfalls are mine: I'm not the smartest cookie in the jar, and I can make big mistakes trying to read the motives of others.

By admitting that others are smarter than I am, I am challenged to continue to learn new things. So I study patents from Google, Bing and other Information Retrieval scientists. They are doing the hard work that's on the edge of human cultural change - and I want to know at least something about it at that purist level.

Then the science work gets translated into a pubic search engine service through a large company - because that job TAKES big resources these days. Cuill learned that lesson!

So I do try not to project my own shortcomings onto that corporation. Corporations in any field are a human challenge whenever they hit a certain scale. New effects appear that can look like "evil". Google is doing better than most at keeping that cr@p under control, but still they do create some effects that can feel harsh on a personal level.

It's easy, in a frustrating situation, to lose track of the fact that Google doesn't focus on me - that they're focus is on THEIR user base, just as my focus should be on mine. Emotion will not resolve an SEO problem - that's a fact!

And for me, this approach has worked so far. I have a career that feels like a blessing most of the time. And I can stay relatively balanced at work and still "have a life", too.

We are all in a competitive-cooperative ecology with Google. It's not just a competitive or cooperative situation - it's both, all the time. That much understanding, just on its own, has enough to humble me and keep me from becoming either a fanboy or a whining critic. It keeps me in a place where I can be productive.

I hope that sharing my thoughts on these issues can also help you.

[edited by: tedster at 12:24 am (utc) on Sep 25, 2012]



 5:56 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

The "smartest guys in the room" bit is usually the cover needed for all manner of malfeasance.

I'm not quite sure what the OP is trying to accomplish..google good? google neutral? certainly not "google bad" but I do agree that whatever your personal opinion of goggle practices are, it really doesn't matter so why would a pro-google post be any less crap than a whiney "bad google" post.

Onto the science of IR (information retrieval), large scale IR science also deals specifically with Adversarial Information Retrieval, if you don't get that subject you won't be any good at delivering results to your audience. The issue that I see in the OP by referring to "science" is that any published papers on IR in relation to adversarial IR (unwanted results cluttering a query) relate to relevance, not "intent" or "gaming" or "anti-SEO". The core challenge in large scale IR is to CATEGORIZE content so as to deliver relevant results. Most SEO efforts do that job brilliantly for search engines, good titles, descriptions, KW relevance, it's really not the IR nightmare it once was when everyone was publishing content with file names and titles like "untitled 1", untitled2", etc. so the OP is correct in stating that there is a "cooperative" relationship with google in as much as most astute publishers actually do provide content that is very easy to categorize. Where the OP goes off is referring to "science" when google uses what is generally accepted as cooperative and helpful in categorizing documents in a large corpus and declaring these methods "over-optimized". To what end would it serve to encourage poor or less than optimized categorization techniques? From a "science" standpoint, it serves to screw up your document collections.

So why is google adversarial towards those who properly mark up their documents for easy categorization? Science or profit? It can't be "science" that would be like asking for bad ingredients or at least "less than best" ingredients for any given formula, it would be a crap end product, less than it could/should be.

But of course, it can't be profit, no one that is smarter than almost everyone else (the real smart algo guys are on Wall Street working trading algos) would protect profits would they? Would a smart CEO dumb down commercial queries and deliver forum posts and articles so as to increase paid clicks, I say yes, of course he would, a smart CEO is about delivering ever increasing profits to shareholders.

Anyway, much ado about nothing really as google determines their own trajectory, if they keep dumbing things down and alienating users and influencers at the rate they are now, it will be replaced at some point, that's just the way these things work out.

Now get back to work cracking that algo!


 7:29 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

Excellent post. G is what it is and aside from the blatantly obvious fact that its prime motive is to make money, getting personally wound up (apart from the occasional moment of madness) is totally unproductive.

I agree with Tedster 1000%, try to remain focused on your own site(s) not on G. The simple fact is that, whatever G does, if your site attracts repeat visitors it will prosper better than others who don't whatever G is doing.

Unless something blindingly obvious occurs to you on how to game the G system (and one did previously occur to me) then work on getting users to repeat view your site.

G is a corporation and to acknowledge that fact and the implications that follow from it is not being a fanboy. It's seeing life for what it truly is.


 7:42 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

So we need to stay realistically humble when we analyze what Google is doing

I know where you're coming from Tedster but I have to disagree with some of what you say mainly because an SEO is merely a forensic analyst at this point. Not only do we mainly study cause and effect but we knowingly do it of a company that knows we are doing it and has built misdirects and safeguards into their system so that even if you get your SEO 100% correct your site will not instantly jump to #1.

And then there's the human factor. Google's last layer of defense, or maybe its frontline depending on how you look at it, is a team of mostly 3rd party evaluators who look at and get a very human feel for your site. So, humble? No, ruthless and machine like in your testing and retesting is in order. It's likely that focusing too heavily on any one factor results in other factors being negatively impacted, a very complex rubics cube indeed... but still a rubics cube.

The only place I see humility being a requirement is in telling the world what you have discovered because a)Google may very well target you as a problem individual on all your sites and b)Google may very well alter things for just your one site in order to keep it in line.

I just don't buy into the "bow before Google" mentality, Google has nothing to rank without our content, and I don't even consider Google when I write content anymore. I'm providing what my visitors want and if Google doesn't like it, too bad.

Google is shifting from a ranking model to a content providing model so the days of allowing Google free-reign over our site content may also be nearing a point of review.


 8:13 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

Knowing what G is, and what it does, and what the goals of those who are running it are.. does not preclude one from building websites that work / rank / succeed very well in it's SERPS..:)

Using words such as "humility" in relation to Google is however anthropomorphizing it to a degree which will cloud ones objectivity..and assuming that others are equally lacking in intellect in relation to Google's "engineers" as one apparently feels oneself, is not only dangerous, but also presumptuous, and mildly insulting..

Deciding that in order to succeed with ones sites one must turn a blind eye to what a corporation does ( btw in the USA corporations have succeeded via "lobbying" lawmakers, in being given a very similar treatment and legal status and rights as those given to individuals ) is to align oneself with those who say "forget the ethics, as long as it makes me rich, I'll hear nothing, see nothing, speak nothing about it's methods, or it's proven lawbreaking"..

It is perfectly possible, and even beneficial to use animals for hunting, even while knowing that what drives and motivates them is not the same as what drives and motivates oneself..

I have hunted with hawks..they are not my "friend" nor my "partner"..being in awe of them is a good way to get a talon or a beak injury to oneself..

One respects them, and one studies them, in all their facets, one ignores none of them ..

Being in awe of a search engine is a good way to be hurt during changes in it's algos..

One respects them, and one studies them, in all their facets, one ignores none of them ..

No one believes that Google is "out to get" them personally, but only someone whose vision is too wrapped up in the ROI of their or their clients sites believes their PR that they are doing it all for the "Good of humanity" or to make a child's dream about a computer answering question in Startrek come true..Amit's true dreams involve them choosing the questions that one should ask, in order to get the answers they wish to give..

Some at Google already apparently consider themselves "‹bermensch" ..hubris has ensnared them..advocating humility in relation to them only encourages them in their delusion..

Beware of Maya ;-)


 9:27 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

Those guys a the plex are talented for sure, but Google Search is just not working. I type "widgets for sell" and I get "something else to buy". Come on Tedster, we all run some websites and our internal search solutions work better than Google.


 10:40 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

I take nothing google does personally, it's just business. google invested in a direct competitor of mine. Shortly after that we lost 70% of our organic traffic due to an "algo update" named penguin, coincidence or not it's just business. google has years of analytics data that we gave them that they can share with their newly invested in business, my bad there. Can no longer even compete in adwords because we are buying traffic directly from our competition, again, nothing personal, just business.

This business will be the biggest PIA it can be on the way out and the next business, I guarantee you will get it's customers before google does, not from them.

Call it whining if you want but it's just the facts, and from these facts I have learned very valuable lessons.


 11:01 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

It's rather simple, really; I didn't expect to read so many versions of the possible google motives behind their moves.

As with every corporation, there are only two major questions asked in the "boardrooms":

1. How can we improve our product?

2. How can we improve profits?

Everything a corporation does is a direct result from the answers given to those two questions. And while the first question is not so important to most as the second, there are still large businesses, which do emphasize the quality of their product. For example, there are famous French winemakers who will forgo an entire harvest just so they don't lower the quality their name is associated with, which results in millions of $$$ being lost.
However, clearly google is not focusing on improving their product, since we can universally agree that overtime the results are getting worse and worse (the actual product people are using google for).

So the reasoning behind what google does is simply the answer to the second question - how can we improve profits. I would liken their actions to a washing detergent manufacturer, who adds extra water in their bottles in order for people to have to use more of the product, i.e. google is watering down their results so people would click more on the ads. And yes, they can do this and will do this as long as they are the monopoly.

Whether you are calm about it or not, fact is that with the current business model, what's good for google is bad for you, the working webmaster. Why would people click on ads, if they could get a good generic result?!? Anyone who has been googling for a while is well aware that the ads could actually be 100 times more dangerous than the results.
For example, a website selling Nike gear in the generic results used to mean that there is a good chance the website got there through a lot of recommendations (links), thus it's a good chance it was legit. On the other side, nothing prevents a Turkish company making fake Nike gear to buy an AdWords spot and sell junk though a warehouse in New Jersey :)

But, on the other side, if you have bad set of generic results, your options are to either try to search in a different way, hoping that you wont get another set of bad results, or click on the ads, which are (somehow) always well-targeted to what you searched for.
You could, in a perfect world, go to a competitor, but Yahoo now = Bing and Bing is really not focusing on popularizing their search engine. At least back in the days "ask Jeeves" and "yahoo" ran TV ads. Nowadays Bing can't even decide on a domain name for more than a couple of years...

Bottom line is that we desperately need some competition around here!


 11:28 pm on Aug 11, 2012 (gmt 0)

Bottom line is that we desperately need some competition around here!

Amen to that!


 12:48 am on Aug 12, 2012 (gmt 0)

The other bottom line is, everyone isn't cut out for this.


 3:20 am on Aug 12, 2012 (gmt 0)

I suppose one could say "everyone isn't cut out for this", it's the sociopaths "go to"..blame the victim (horrors! people got jammed), not dissimilar to blaming people who bought houses (how greedy and stupid) and then watched their equity evaporate due to a criminal banking syndicate. Of course that response is likely coming directly from the perps.

When google flipped the switch on panda and penguin they knew better than anyone how many were going to be wiped out and had PR/talking points in place well in advance. They pretty much kw jam "quality" and "improvement" in referring to their "updates".


 3:41 am on Aug 12, 2012 (gmt 0)

Google is shifting from a ranking model to a content providing model so the days of allowing Google free-reign over our site content may also be nearing a point of review.

exactly...this is a major shift and it might have been planned much earlier but understanding this is vital in how we build sites and allow third party robots to spider our sites. It is their market share and dominance which allowed them to make this shift and webmasters individually can do nothing against this dominance than to discuss about it...Yes, this may be creating some bad PR for Google but they are definitely doing well, so nothing to worry for them now.


 5:43 am on Aug 12, 2012 (gmt 0)

Those guys a the plex are talented for sure, but Google Search is just not working.

In 2012 I'd have to agree, perhaps as early as mid 2010 it started to break down, but back in 2008 I'd have defended Google as they DID bring me new sites I didn't know about. Today they bring me Amazon or some other store I'd have gone directly to if that's what I wanted.

Smart? Absolutely, smart enough that even they will be working on alternatives such as - and were seeing this now - bringing all the content they can directly onto Google properties before the ship is permanently grounded and as relevant as netscape.


 7:14 am on Aug 14, 2012 (gmt 0)

I had a discussion over dinner with one of my children. In his lifetime, he's wanted personal CD music players and various MP3 play devices. The CD players and MP3 devices have come and gone, so they're not really significant now.

He walks around with a computer in his pocket, can stay in touch with his friends wherever they may be in the world, and shares video/images and text as he desires. If he needs information, the capability is instantly available, regardless if it's maps or fairly obscure bits of knowledge.
Cultural change? Yeah, this is the greatest change humanity has ever seen. If you don't see it, take a couple of steps back.

The concept that humility in SEO is in some way deferring to search engine engineers is kind of sad. Knowing that you don't control the exact end result of your work should make you humble.

The world is changing, search engines are advancing and improving, knowing we don't have total control of some aspects is healthy, IMHO.


 12:09 pm on Aug 14, 2012 (gmt 0)

Being comfortable with being out of control may well be "un harmful" until the out of control entity, "humbler of persons" shows its non benign face

The years of peace have not being kind to our readiness for conflict

Lessons learned by our predecessors at great cost forgotten

C'est la vie


 4:31 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Tedster, you make great points as you often do. I believe that Amit once stated that he couldn't even write down all of the nuances that are currently in the algorithm. Yandex stated that the size of their algo has grown exponentially. The complexity of the system has gone beyond a singular person, and into a collective structure built by dozens. From an IQ standpoint, none of us can compete with that.

However, I will push back in two areas. By not having a singular vision of what the results should be, there are blind spots a person would not otherwise experience. Decisions have been made that have been forgotten, but can still impact real businesses. Add the sheer number of diverse queries that we all track, and I think it's actually our responsibility to point out areas where BigG is getting it wrong. SEOs experience the edge cases more profoundly than others.

Second, Google has an awesome responsibility. They, for most, are the front door to much of human knowledge, especially that which has been recently generated. The results they display have a chance to alter perception. Not showing legitimate complaints, or showing potentially false ones can change opinions about brands. It opens up all sorts of extortion possibilities, on both sides. This is a real case where I have to worry about far more than my own information.


 5:26 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

The problem:
Being Google dependent (almost all of us) while not knowing what would be the future of our websites/web-business, is not a good business model especially if you can't predict or assess nothing.
It has never been a good business, no matter how profitable it is right now.

The solution:
Focus on the users/readers, because there's no guaranty you get traffic from any search engine.


 5:35 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Thank you Tedster.

I've been doing web design & programming since '96. I may be one of the webmasters Ted speaking of, if not exactly how he meant.

I'm speaking with the investment of someone who chose a career on the Internet but had SEO forced on me. Ted is correct. The engineers at Google are using their spare resources to rebuild the human brain. Yes. They are that smart.

Ted is correct. This behavior from business owners is fatal. Blaming someone else is fatal whether you're a homeless drunk or an SEO CEO.

The willingness to wallow in that kind of emotional swamp is killing off good webmasters and good online businesses.

I could write entire volumes to back this up. I'll just offer that sixteen years is a lot of time to see a lot of things, and all of that experience agrees with Tedster.


 5:36 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

For most of us, the average search engineer at Google IS smarter than we are.

True. But many of us *can* be more clever/cunning.


 7:53 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

I agree, and SEO has traditionally done just that - be more clever and cunning to exploit places where the Google algorithm is weak.

However, today I tend to go with Zivush's approach when he says "focus on the users/readers". I'm really beefing up my understanding of analytics software, including special adaptations to learn more about how users interact with each page. It's actually quite refreshing, because I'm looking more directly the actual visitor or customer and doing what's right for them.

It also appears that Google and Bing may be looking directly at that user data, too - so it's a double win. Not only that. but it's a lot easier to explain what I'm doing to others on a team.


 7:58 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Smart? Ha!
Some SEO's (black hat) are running circles around Google and their updates.
Tricking Google in doing what I want is child's play.
Been doing that since '01 and now it's easier than ever.
It became so silly that their algo is getting confused by in its own rules!
You want smart? Trying tricking Yandex...


 8:14 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

True. But many of us *can* be more clever/cunning.

100%, you got the right spirit. It isn't the smartest who comes up on top.

Plus you have to remember that they are bound by 'side effects'. One of those guys can figure a way to filter some SEO trick I might be doing. But in that filter they might hurt good sites and lower the overall quality for the end user.

I LOVE when Google releases an update; it weeds out so many competitors that reduce my profitability.


 8:22 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Tedster, I have always enjoyed your postings on webmasterworld over the years and this one is another great one that is very thought provoking, but I definitely don't fully agree with this

For most of us, the average search engineer at Google IS smarter than we are

I think this is a fallacy.

Search Engineers are smarter at coding complex algorithms to detect relevance, but they are not experts in the creation of relevance. (Outside of the SERPs they create of course)

In my opinion the goal of great SEO is to create highly relevant, unique web experiences focused on natural language that people actually use, that are fully indexable - This is not easy, especially within a large organization.

For me, doing good SEO work means accepting and knowing that these two shortfalls are mine: I'm not the smartest cookie in the jar, and I can make big mistakes trying to read the motives of others.

If the focus is on creating truly relevant web properties rather than algorithm chasing, there aren't unfixable "mistakes."

"Mistakes" in my mind is another way of saying "aggressive, manipulative tactics."

Also Google Engineers make mistakes as well. A few of the Panda updates were not without their mistakes and over time they will be corrected. Hell I'm sure any Google Engineer would admit that any algorithm update is never completely perfect.


 8:27 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

The world is changing, search engines are advancing and improving, knowing we don't have total control of some aspects is healthy, IMHO.
In me experience Google is certainly not improving. I would say that its results have deteriorated massively over the last year or two.

[rant]Google is relying too much on deciding what people want rather than letting them learn to use the search engine to find it for themselves. All the Google local results that are forced upon us are driving me nuts and they dropped the +operator for "must include". How can anyone possibly see that as an advancement?

Bing don't allow us to search by date, which is a basic requirement in many of my searches. What is all that about?

They seem to ignore what people want in the chase for profit![/rant]


 8:47 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Google forgive us for we are not worthy to search? The average IQ is supposedly around 100 but that whole "average" thing is a nice strawman argument. The way it is framed, however, is a bit grovellingly pious. This does not mean that I disagree with the idea of learning as much as possible about Google.

Perhaps it is safer to consider Google a potential enemy and do whatever it takes to analyse its moves so that one can build up a good threats and intentions model. Patents, the Open literature is often riddled with assumptions and ideas that may never actually make it into Google's main algorithms. While they might appear to be plausible explanations, the only way to be certain is through experimentation. The classical approach would be that of Leonardo DaVinci - test first and then state the hypothesis. Unfortunately a lot of SEO just tends to make things up. In an ideal situation, even for the Google fans, it would make sense to follow the dictum of a particular US president and trust but verify. But some webmasters, having being stung by Google and its antics, are coming around to the view of Google as an enemy and just leaving it at that level.



 8:54 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

I'm really beefing up my understanding of analytics software

Tedster. I couldn't agree more. I have been focusing much more on conversion analysis, AB testing and writing sales copy that converts. I think SEO is alive and well - it may be easier than ever if you can think outside the box a bit AND don't believe a word you read anywhere about SEO.

That said, I think the writing is on the wall... trouble is, I can't fully translate it, but I know it means a shift of sorts.


 9:05 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Although I have a high regard for Tedster and agree with some of the general gist of what he says, I can't agree with some of the specifics.

If what is being said is:

be humble, we don't know everything
don't jump to conclusions
learn more because there's a lot you don't know
getting angry with G solves nothing
we are both competing with and cooperating with G

well I can't disagree with that.

But ...
is the average G engineer smarter than me? depends how you define smartness - is Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory smart? - he is very knowledgable in some things and totally unsmart in others. G engineers maybe very smart at coding but very unsmart at knowing what real people want when they search.

I also cannot agree with the apparent assumption that if I complain about an organisation I am "projecting my shortcomings" onto them. I may be but I may not be.


 9:06 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

I'd like to clarify a couple of things - mostly about WHY I wrote this post. It was not at all casual. It is the result of many years of soul searching and analysis. You see, whenever I clearly go wrong in SEO, I ask myself "why". This post is the result of that self-analysis, that damage control, that post mortem analysis of my own SEO work over 15 years.

My intention is not to put Google, or any search engineer on a god-like pedestal. Far from it. But I have found that knowing my own limitations, both cognitively and emotionally, is the best safeguard I have against making big mistakes.

Yes, there is the actual science of building algorithms. And there are the emotional pitfalls that humans are prone to: hubris and projection. I've found over the years that this is where I go wrong almost every time.


 9:11 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

Tedster. I *thought* you were saying,
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

But then, I re-read your post, and saw your calm and well-meaning
We are all in a competitive-cooperative ecology with Google. It's not just a competitive or cooperative situation - it's both, all the time.

Bravo! But for the fact that, I'd love to see more acknowledgment from Google of the existence of that ecology.


 9:38 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

It's not just a competitive or cooperative situation - it's both, all the time.

In the beginning it was only a cooperative situation. It has since moved to a competitive-cooperative situation and will, IMO, continue until there is no longer a cooperative component. Good business is not only educating yourself on what your competition has done but also on the moves your competition is likely to make in the future.


 9:52 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

I believe that if and when there is no longer a cooperative component, this will be the opportunity for a true competitor to Google to finally emerge.


 9:53 pm on Aug 15, 2012 (gmt 0)

A good read :)

On the comment: "For most of us, the average search engineer at Google IS smarter than we are", I'd just add that logic and common sense don't necessarily go hand in hand ;) Remember Nasa's Mars "Climate Orbiter" mission? One team working on it used metric units of measurement while another used Imperial. Unsurprisingly, it never made it to Mars. D'oh!

Bottom line is G is a business and as far as I am concerned, where SERPS are concerned they are free to make their own bed how they see fit. And I'm grateful for whatever traffic I can get to be honest. Without G, I wouldn't be sitting here typing this right now.

Where I perhaps have some issues is on privacy, wanting to know a bit too much about me for comfort from time to time but again, I have a choice.

On the competition front...yes, but be careful what you wish for IMO.

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