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Searching versus ranking

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Second Life search, and the complaints that are made about it. That most say that it isn’t as good as Google Web-search, that some complain that the new-new system has them ranked lower down than the old-new system did, that they can’t figure out how to boost their rankings and so on.

I’ll start off with two maxims:

1. The goal of a search-engine is to produce search results ranked by relevancy.

2. The goal of SEO (so-called Search-Engine Optimisation) is to reduce or eliminate relevancy in search results.

Now, before you choke on your coffee and attack me with forks, think about these two items for a moment. The hallmark of a successful search-engine is relevancy… the quality of results, that is, the likelihood that you’re going to find exactly what you wanted in the first few results, given a sufficiently well-formed query.

The top Web search-engines do just that. That’s why they’re the top engines, and not the also-rans.

SEO, on the other hand, (as it is commonly practiced) is a grab-bag of methods to increase your ranking in search results relative to (say) your competitors, without necessarily increasing relevancy. Why shouldn’t you be number one? Unfortunately, everyone would like to be number one.

SEO is, essentially, the natural enemy of the search-engine. It is to the benefit of the search-engine operator, and to search-engine users that no third-party be able to influence their result-rankings without making a real change in relevancy. Because if they can, do you know what you get? You get the classifieds section in the newspaper, which you and I no longer read, because we’ve got high-relevancy search-engines.

Let’s look at a couple of the criticisms individually. Second Life search isn’t as good as Google Web-search. Well, of course it isn’t. Even when search was using Google’s software for the job (that was ‘old-new’ search, for reference), it didn’t work nearly as well as the same software does when it searches the Web. That’s because Google searches the Web. Google indexes text. Lots and lots and lots of text. Yummy, delicious text.

When it comes to indexing a Second Life land parcel, there’s very very little text to chew on. Hardly any, actually, and the small space for descriptions tended to lead to false-triggering of Google’s anti-cheat algorithms, pushing down the rankings of parcels that might otherwise have ranked higher.

Personally, I think every parcel should have gotten a page on the Second Life Wiki, allowing the parcel holder to write long, detailed descriptions. Google Search would have loved that, and would have been able to produce brilliantly relevant results from it, performing just as well at finding relevant results as Google does with any Web-pages. That would have been a small change for a huge gain in effectiveness. It just didn’t happen.

The next complaint is heard from those whose rankings have dropped under the latest search system (the ‘new-new’ search). When you’ve dropped from (say) third place to twenty-third place, it’s hard to find good things to say about the search system. Mind you, 20 other parcel-holders just went up one rank (so to speak) and seem to have no cause for complaint. This all has to do with how the search-engine defines relevancy and how much it has to chew on – which, as I mentioned, isn’t very much at all.

People complain that they don’t understand how parcels are ranked in the results, and so they cannot manipulate their ranking. I think we covered that when I was talking about SEO. If, of course, the algorithm was widely known, the first few pages of results would simply be irrelevant listings for people who want to be number one. And then we’re back to newspaper classifieds.

Q: How many SEO specialists does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, cheap lamp, low cost light bulb, night light, illumination products, fluorescent tube, outdoor lighting, low energy light, low energy lighting system, power saving lights, bathroom lights, illuminated range hoods, discounted lighting products, solar garden light?

A: All of them. Constantly.

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