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No. 3142:
Search Engine Optimization

by Andy Boyd

Today, a truly mammoth engine. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's one of those things we use daily. It's immensely sophisticated, and we completely take it for granted. I could, of course, be talking about many things. But today I'm talking about internet search engines. In 2017, that means Google for over eighty percent of us, with Bing, Yahoo, and China's Baidu taking up the slack. Google is now a verb, as in "I'll google that," having been inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. Google, by the way, takes its name from the googol - ten to the hundredth power - a value bigger than the number of atoms in the known universe.

Google logo
Google logo Photo Credit: Wikimedia

And there's a reason the founders of Google chose that name. Google and other search engines sift through one of the largest databases imaginable - conceptually, that of all web pages on planet earth. And they perform this feat so that when someone wants information on "vintage six-sided glass paperweights" they'll learn where to look further.

A Google Search for Vintage Six-Sided Glass Paperweights
A Google Search for Vintage Six-Sided Glass Paperweights Photo Credit: E. A. Boyd

The year 1994 saw the emergence of commercial search engines as names like AltaVista, Infoseek, Lycos, and other now-forgotten names found their way onto our web browsers. When Google arrived a couple of years late to the party, I and my tech-minded friends adopted it because of its inner workings. Google used some sophisticated math, and that was all the enticement we needed to jump on board.

In the two decades since, search engine sophistication has only grown. And it's given rise to a new industry known as SEO, an acronym for search engine optimization. If a company wants to be found on the web, it needs Google and other search engines to find it. SEO is the process of making a site stand out to these search engines.

SEO Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Seeking and being found is a technological game of cat and mouse that's both art and science. And the stakes are high, since rising to the top of a search list can make or break a business. Imagine the windfall if a business could crack the code on how search engines do their magic.

Companies like Google share some basic facts about how they search. Keywords are important, and businesses embed keywords on their websites to help search engines find them. But stuff in too many repetitions of a word and you'll get penalized. Keyword stuffing used to be effective, but search engine designers caught on and changed the way they search.

Website activity is important, too. Busy web sites tend to get more attention from search engines than inactive ones. If many other websites reference you in their pages, that's valuable as well.

But there are few hard and fast rules, and the game is forever changing -- being played out right before our eyes, though we're not aware of it. Happily, however things evolve, the result will always be a great advance over the only search engine so many of us grew up with: those library catalogs stuffed with cards.

Card Catalog Files
Card Catalog Files Photo Credit: Wikimedia

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Google Algorithm Change History. From the MOZ webpage: Accessed September 6, 2017.

The History of Search Engines: An Infographic. From the Wordstream webpage: Accessed September 6, 2017.

Search Engine Statistics 2017. From the Smart Insights webpage: Accessed September 6, 2017.