In many ways search engine optimization has gotten a bad rap because of firms that base their service on implementing methods aimed at tricking search engines into giving pages a higher score. However, a professional search optimization industry does exist, and can be useful to us.
While Google is very open about how we should build our web pages, most of their advice comes in generalities. They do not tell us specifically what their algorithms look for or how much various page elements are weighed. This is where SEO researchers can help. They use several methods to analyze search engine behavior and make intelligent guesses at what specific elements are or are not important.
One way they do this is through patent research. Search engines belong to large corporations who are anxious to protect their competitive advantage. One way they do this is through patenting their technology. Researchers can read these patent applications and comb through them for clues on how the algorithms work (or at least how they might work since there is no guarantee that the production software exactly follows the patent document.)
Another way they can test the search engines is through manual testing. They set up several dummy web sites with a common base content, and then make slight changes to them and track how each gets ranked after the change. From this they infer which elements help or hinder page ranking.
These and other techniques slowly create a mosaic that reveals important insights into how search engines rank our web pages. This is how we know that
<title> tags are very important and that
<meta description> tags are almost insignificant. Our key now is to find these legitimate researchers and learn from them while not falling for those who would manipulate the system.
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