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Funny Search Engines

Comments:
With the move to this current domain in late 2002, I’ve rather messed up this article. Still, the lessons stand. I’ll have to revise it once I’ve worked my way up the search engine tree once more…

I find it amazing that people will put up a significant website and then not at all monitor who comes to it. Surely the need for feedback should be there, to know that someone is reading. And a plain counter is not the answer; as we’ll see by looking at the example that is my site. That example also showcases the funny and brain-dead ways that people can come to your site…

Search engines are funny beasts. They can make the oddest connections within pages, sometimes brilliantly but also often irrelevantly. The thing to keep in mind is that while search engines can provide stupid links, equally stupid people must then click on those links. Keep that fact in mind as we work through some of the more unusual ways people have come to my site — the examples I quote are only the ones where someone made the search, and then confirmed my site was the one they wanted…

I mean, why did someone search on Google for Australian sites that matched "she had black box"? One of my pages pops up as the very first match (out of more than twenty thousand). I can see why, in retrospect, it matches up well: "she had" and "black box" are in there, and importantly "black box" is in the title of the page, the meta-tags, the first heading, and throughout the text. It doesn’t make the search make any more sense to me though!

We’ll come back to some of the more nonsensical ones later, but let’s now look at what has been the major generator of visitors to my site — and it most certainly hasn’t been something I invited…

(The following paragraphs on Yahoo and the terms ‘CV’ and ‘timeline’ are now obsolete, as I have had my description at Yahoo changed to avoid the problem. Given the regular comments that it is nearly impossible to change your directory description once it is established, I have to say Yahoo made this change quick and easy — I guess I made it clear that people coming to my site for this reason represented a hindrance to their customers, and not just a whinge on my part!)

Go to Yahoo, and search for "how to create a CV". Note how such a generic, and you would think common, search presents my site as the very first match. Until recently, I was the only match. The main Yahoo site has more recently re-jigged the more common alternative ("how to write a CV") and thus locked me out and returned some decent results, but if you try it at, say, Yahoo Australia you’ll continue to get my site only.

I get hits every day from people trying to write their CVs. Look at the description that the Yahoo editor gave my site: would you think it was about writing one’s CV? Obviously lots of people just hit the first thing that pops up after their search…

If I’d just had a hit counter, I would never have known this. I’d have just thought I was really popular!

Similar issues arise because of the "timeline" in my Yahoo description — I get lots of visitors who want to create timelines of Australia. Sigh. Still, the "how to" and "fanzine" in my description give me lots of relevant hits, so I’m not going to cry too much.

Anyway, back to the stupid stuff. Literally, in this case. Go to everyone’s favourite place, Google, and search for "stupid Doctor Who review". I have the dubious honour of owning slots 1 of 102,000! And it’s a very straight-faced review too!

Typos used to cause me quite a high number of hits, due to my online tag (’borad’). I mean, you get eighteen thousand hits for "borad" on Google. Only a tiny number of them probably make sense; about 2% refer to my source. Twice as many are for Borads of Directors — despite Google usually being quite smart at picking up typos, here the typo gets precedence. Depressing. One person went all the way down to the 51st match for "kitchen borad" so they could visit me.

Anyway, this originally came to my attention courtesy of the Korean Yahoo site. For some reason, they choose not to use Google as their backup search engine (Yahoo is a search directory), but rather use a mob called Softwise. As it turns out, Softwise has a very small database — but all of my site is all in there. This can result in the most trivial searches returning my site as a high priority; our example here is "plastic borad". I’m #1 of 6. Woohoo. Remember, someone clicked on that.

I get ranked really high at Softwise for all sorts of things: magician’s nephew, pop-rivet gun, www.oh.tv, english assignment and CCG. It may not be the only, or possibly the major, factor in search engine success, but size does matter.

(Update: many of the nonsensical Softwise links have been removed, but most often this very article has come in to take its place. At least that makes sense, kinda.)

Of course, I can’t be high and mighty as regards typos all the time, as seen by the person who came to me courtesy of their search on a "religous artifact in Ethiopia". There I come first of just two matches. Add the extra "i" into "religious" and things look more sensible. (Note: I’ve since corrected the typo on my page, as can most easily be seen if you search for "religious artifact in Ethiopia borad" (I’m otherwise at about slot 100 of 500.) I’m not sure why both examples are in the Google database at once!)

In fact, typos are probably a decent method to up your number of visitors: it makes you stand out of the pack. Compare searches on Google for "Colussus machine" and "Colossus machine" for proof! Of course, if there’s that many typos, said visitors might not stay for too long…

I do worry sometimes about the mentality of some of my visitors. If you’re the person who burrowed down to the (then) 341st match for "ticklish" on Google: WHY? Did the first 340 matches fail to satisfy you? The same applies to the person on Softwise who went through hundreds of vastly more valid responses to the query "table manners". Seriously determined!

And if what you’ve read in here depresses you, here’s a bright spark to end with: everyone always goes on how Google, and increasingly all the other search engines, place a very high priority on links to a given page. I know there are bugger-all links to my pages out there. The fact that I continue to get very regular hits, from Google in particular, shows that a site with lots of text and a decent use of page titles, headings and meta tags can still get up to the top of search results.

Make the content, and they will come.

Probably only for the typo though.

For a different viewpoint, see some of the feedback received on this article.


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This page last updated by David J Richardson on Sun, 27 Apr 2003.