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Search engines are stupid

November 6th, 2008 by mdmcginnis

We webmasters would get along much better with search engines if we really understood how limited they are. We would pay more attention to search engine optimization if we remembered all the times that the search engines let us down when we tried to find a piece of information.

A search engine is just a machine, or a group of machines, loaded with software that attempts to do one thing: to think like a human being. Thinking like a human being is something that we take for granted, because we’ve been doing it all our lives. But a search engine can only simulate, even guess at, human thought processes. Artificial intelligence still can’t beat natural intelligence.

Here’s how our favorite search engine might look at one of our favorite campus websites, with the imaginary coaching of a Google software engineer:

Googlebot: I just found a new website. I wonder what it’s about.

Engineer: THE TITLE SAYS, “UNIVERSITY WRITING CENTER.” DON’T YOU THINK THAT MAYBE IT MIGHT BE ABOUT WRITING AT A UNIVERSITY? HMMM?

Googlebot: Oh, I didn’t see the title. You mean I’m supposed to look at the title?

Engineer: I’LL REMIND YOU (sigh).

Googlebot: University Writing Center? It really says that?

Engineer: IT SAYS, “UWC @ TAMU.” EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT MEANS, “UNIVERSITY WRITING CENTER AT TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY.”

Googlebot: Well, I didn’t know that! They don’t let silicon-based life forms enroll at universities. It’s positively discriminatory!

Engineer: WHAT ELSE WERE YOU SUPPOSED TO LOOK FOR?

Googlebot: You tell me! You’re the human!

Engineer: HOW ABOUT HEADINGS? DO YOU SEE ANY HEADINGS?

Googlebot: No! I don’t see any headings!

Engineer: DON’T YOU GET SARCASTIC WITH ME. IF YOU DON’T START SHOWING SOME RESPECT, I CAN RECOMPILE YOU IN A HEARTBEAT.

Googlebot: Well, I don’t see any headings. You have to make things real simple if you want me to understand them. I need to see an H1, maybe an H2, or how will I know?

Engineer: DO YOU THINK THAT MAYBE IT MIGHT BE AT LEAST MILDLY SIGNIFICANT THAT THE WORD “WRITING” APPEARS PROMINENTLY THROUGHOUT THE PAGE?

Googlebot: Sure, if you say so.

Engineer: YES, I SAY SO. DID YOU EVEN NOTICE THAT THE WORD “WRITING” APPEARS PROMINENTLY THROUGHOUT THE PAGE?

Googlebot: Oh, sure I did. It was those other big words that confused me. Like, transitions, citations, abstracts, literature. You know.

Engineer: WERE YOU AWARE THAT THOSE WORDS ARE CLOSELY RELATED TO WRITING, AND HELP TO PROVE THAT THE SITE IS ABOUT WRITING?

Googlebot: Uh… no.

Engineer: AND HOW ABOUT ALL THE OTHER WEBSITES THAT REFER PEOPLE TO THIS ONE IF THEY WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WRITING?

Googlebot: You mean I’m supposed to look at the links to the page too?

Engineer: LET’S JUST SAY THAT UNTIL YOU BECOME A LITTLE LESS… COGNITIVELY CHALLENGED, YOU SHOULD PAY A LOT OF ATTENTION TO LINKS TO THE PAGE.

Of course, that verbal exchange is not really what happens when the Googlebot searches your site. No, Google, Inc. is sensitive toward the frailties, the weaknesses, of its ‘bots, and you should be too. We need to spell out everything we can. Don’t assume that the Googlebot will know that your site is part of the College of Science, or even that it’s part of Texas A&M University. Don’t assume that Googlebots can read images (they can’t – they’re blind). Don’t assume that the Googlebot can tell the difference between bold text and a heading. That Googlebot visitor needs all the help we can give it. It will thank you for it. And so will a lot of humans.

Thursday, November 6th, 2008 Search
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