SEO and Search Engines: Which came first?

Over on my AskDaveTaylor blog, I wrote this morning about the fact that Google has, through its popular blogger Matt Cutts, come out and said that it is okay to use the nofollow tag to manage how PageRank flows through the pages on your own site. The article’s here: Use nofollow links to channel pagerank.
The more I’ve thought about this issue today, however, the more I realize that it’s a fascinating example of how search engines and search engine optimization are locked in a weird symbiotic relationship, and how anyone who isn’t paying attention to search engine optimization techniques — even if they don’t use them — is also missing the boat on how search engines work and why one page ranks higher than another.

I keep thinking about the so-called “chicken and egg problem”, namely which came first? I can envision a case for either happening first evolutionarily, either the egg because the chicken was evolving and a mutation from non-chicken to chicken inevitably started with an egg, but then again, maybe since the hen would have had to spawn the mutation it’s not fair to say a non-chicken laid a chicken egg, starting the endless cycle.
In the online world, of course, the stakes are a lot higher than chickens and eggs. As I have stated in many a talk and interview:
    If your site can’t be found, your business is already dead.
The corollary to that thought, then, is that it’s darn important to understand how search engines work and what the engineers behind sites like Google are thinking as they carefully tweak and evolve their tool. That’s one reason I wrote a book about it, Growing Your Business with Google, but my examination of the issue didn’t stop when that was published!
If you accept that what I call findability is so darn important, then arguably there’s little that’s more important to the future of your business enterprise than understanding how search engines work. And there’s no category of people more focused on just that question than SEO consultants, who can rocket their business to the moon if they can just ssqqquueeezzeee out or figure out what factors are considered when a search engine calculates results and then identify techniques for influencing those results.
Done wrong and we’re talking about something bad, we’re talking about “black hat seo”, nefarious tricks that are far too dangerous for mere mortals to play with, the kind of short-term tactics that result in you waking up one morning to find that your site is gone completely from Google and other search engines. Definitely playing with fire.
Done intelligently, though, through understanding keywords, internal linking structures, encouraging keyword rich inbound links, using traditional HTML structures over pure CSS to help ‘bots identify key ideas and phrases on a page, etc, and you’ll get splendid results and be ranking at the top of your categories.
Since SEO is like a smoking gun, though, it’s a sure bet that the engineers inside these search engine firms pay very close attention to the latest exploits, tips, and secret techniques that SEO people have dreamt up. Until Matt’s recent information, though, the sense of this watching was all “avoiding people messing up the results or gaming the system.”
With the note to SEOmoz that in fact you can and probably should be using “nofollow” attributes on your HREF tags to channel and direct your PageRank goodness within your own site (and direct the Googlebot what to ignore too) we really are seeing things come in full circle.
Why? Because rel=”nofollow” was introduced by the search engine companies to let sites combat rampant link spam. The search engine introduced the capability, blogging tools and related adopted it almost instantly, and suddenly we could include links that didn’t have the tacit “endorsement” of sharing our own PageRank popularity with the target page. Kewl.
Enter smart SEO people, stage left. Now since nofollow lets you link to external pages that you don’t want to gain any benefit from the link in the search engines, why not use that internally too to deprecate certain uninteresting pages and thereby more aggressively promote those pages you do want to rank better. Logical and I use it myself, truth be told.
But that was never the intent of the nofollow tag when introduced, so do the search engine companies like internal nofollow links or view them as spam/gaming? Until Matt came out with his official word on the subject, I didn’t really know what to think.
Google watched the SEO crowd, considered their subversion of the nofollow tag and concept, and said “hey, that’s a pretty cool idea. Let’s let it fly…” and the cycle was indeed closed.
So what came first? Search engines, or search engine optimization?

One comment on “SEO and Search Engines: Which came first?

  1. I haven’t used “nofollow” but it seems like an interesting, quality concept. I’d always thought it more useful to let the spiders go through everything rather than screen things out. I guess I’ll emphasize the quality pages vs. the quanity ones.

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