Google tells all in secret meetingOk, that's the title I wish I could've written after the Search Engine Strategies conference last week. I did have the opportunity to have a private meeting with a Google representative, who more or less echoed the message of the entire conference: There are no secrets.
I got the overwhelming sense that this message frustrated a lot of attendees. The problem, of course, is that there used to be secrets. In the early days of the search engines, if you knew the formula on any given day, you could beat the system and rank at the top. Search engine representatives danced around the formula and denied its existence because, if they gave it away, they knew everyone would game the system.
To be fair, though, I think the dance has fundamentally changed. Google, Yahoo and the rest have put so much effort into making their crawlers behave more like people and have bumped up the complexity of search ranking algorithms to such a degree that even they don't completely understand the resulting phenomenon. Good search engine rankings have become what scientists call an "emergent property": an unexpected byproduct of a system that's too complex to understand.
At the same time, there are many interactions that make a single measure meaningless. It used to be that if you had a keyword exactly 26 times on the right day, you'd win. Now, having a keyword 26 times might be great, if it's relevant, your site is a trusted authority, etc. If it's irrelevant to your topic and you're known for spamming, though, those same 26 occurences might knock you to the bottom.
So, what's a web designer to do? Well, as much as it bugged some people to hear it from the search-engine reps, build a site that makes sense for users. If your keywords are relevant, you're trying to build good content that's useful to people, and you naturally develop links by providing something of value, you'll make the search engines happy. If you try to cheat and steal your way to the top, then best of luck to you.