Today I attended a panel at SXSW titled “Web Standards and Search Engines: Searching for Common Ground”.  The description of the panel was “Experts from the web standards community and developers from the major search engines discuss how semantics can help websites and search engines accomplish their goals.” It was moderated by (MOD) Molly E Holzschlag of Inc.

The panelists were:

Note that unless you see quotation marks, these are not exact quotations; this is my synopsis of the event. You can download an mp3 (18mb) of the panel.

[generic introductions]

TM: Search engines look for “signals of quality”; indicated that html validation and web standards are not soq for Yahoo!. It’s more important to let search engines know “what the site is about”.

JH: White hat seo leads to good standards.

MOD: What are standards of quality?

TM: [Doesn’t really answer the question] Validity / standards will propogate organically; if top 7 results on serp are well-done, standards-compliant, 8th will copy those standards to try to rank, too.

MOD: What are standards of quality?

TM: [Again, doesn’t really answer the question.] Web standards are not standards of quality.

PM: Users are busy, developers should design for “distracted users”; don’t make them think. References his site — Making site standards-compliant is a lot of work for very little return as far as search engines go.

JH: Indirect results of validation are more important; you are really “unlocking” your site for the search engines.

MOD: Who thinks validation helps in rankings? (everyone in audience raises hand)

AG: Basically says ha! suckers! it’s not true. web standards are NOT soq.

PM: Tells us that he includes keyphrases and meta tags on every site; thinks about keyphrases and description even before writing content

TM: Will valid / better sites rank higher? Yes. Because it improves “signal” of site. “we as search engine really want people to be semantic about the information”. Talked about the nofollow tag (proposed by Google); doesn’t like the NAME of the tag, thinks google should have chosed different name; too prescriptive — search engines should decide whether to follow a link on their own and content producers should “rank” value of outgoing links.

JH: Using web standards IS going to have SEO benefit; caveat – low hanging fruit; accessibility is great, but you’re not likely going to get better ranks. You will get better ROI from the targeted group (i.e. design for the blind, get better results from the blind community)

MOD: We’ve been duped. If you follow the rules, you will rank better: Not true.

PM: [puts up slide; I’m sitting too far away to read] SEO is tremendously cross-industry; SEO professionals deserves credit for not limiting themselves. The answer to the question of how to improve ranking includes design, marketing, technology. National Cancer Institute example: PM talked to them about SEO and standards, convinced them to appreciate importance of standards and accessbility but upper mgmt decisions didn’t allow for all suggested changes to be made.

MOD: [Ignores the fact that PM just contradicted everything said so far.] How do we create relationships? What are linking strategies? How are people using the “title” attribute? Does it affect ranking? Why does “click here” have no semantic meaning? Do you have any tips? What can we do to improve linking practices?

AG: explains gooogle-bombing; miserable failure example; says it proves importance of words in anchor; asks TM to have search engines use LSI instead of anchors

TM: doesn’t think that google-bombing will work for “generic” terms; only works for strange words; says google bombing is gaming search engines / spamming; says that using LSI will help relevance, anecdotally makes sense, but doesn’t give any meaningful information.  Says that you want to get links from authoritative sites — [FUNNY!] says wikis and blogs are NOT authoritative; CNN / Yahoo! are authoritative. Yahoo!’s been using link text “for a long time”. Says that it’s been “gamed” by google-bombing and thinks value will decline.

JH: Admits that he works for link company; says link-pop is single most important part of ranking; on-page factors are less than 1/2 of value; linking structure is very important; using descriptive anchor text is very important

PM: National Cancer Institute– thinking about home page real estate: which links are most important? think of search engines as another “user group”. Harvard Business School: they were unhappy because HBS was #2 afer London Business School; says that reason is that all of LBS has links back to home page. Says that Harvard bumped up to #1 a few weeks later by “trying to quickly buy inbound links” which is a bad idea, but then says that all the inbound links from sub-pages @ LBS is why they ranked higher.

TM: Suggests use of

MOD: Suggests use of your own statistics and logging on site to reveal search engine rankings.

TM: Basically says no, don’t try to analyze your own statistics. says that siteexplorer is better than analyzing website stats

mod: “Interesting”. Basically asks, How do you optimize? To what extent do bad practices hurt us?

JH: “As an experienced SEO and a spammer, I can tell you … ” there are some people that do black hat SEO, but the truth is that black hat SEO has gotten a lot harder; an average webmaster should not even try; says a lot of black hatters are switching to white hat techniques because search engines are getting better. basically says stay away from black hat SEO.

TM: Design for the user and not the search engine. seo is high stakes, that’s why there’s so much crap. Would you feel comfortable showing your mom what you’re doing? Show the search engine the same content that you show users. Links should look natural. Four hundred links all with same anchor text is not natural; exchange links in a “natural” way.

AG: Best rule of thumb: Keep text legible, don’t repeat same thing over and over, mix it up, don’t be a keyword spammer

MOD: Microformats hold the potential to do great things; tagging. Uses movie example. asks for comments.

PM: Says that he learned about microformats last week. Says it’s a combo of meta-data and coding standards; uses business card example; says that it’s “interesting”. He is skeptical that it will “take off.” Says he skeptical for the same reason he is skeptical of “the semantic web”. How do you get people to follow a standard?

TM: Says key thing for search engine is TRUST. Is someone trying to game the system? Anchor text, for example, is a microformat. says “Why not use keywords”? Says that Yahoo! bought flickr, etc. because of the value of tagging.

JH: Says there are early adopters, gain critical mass, then get spammed; says that future of microformats is going to be different from impmlementation of tags today.

AG: Says that microformats currently only count for niche search engines.

MOD: Let’s take questions! [audience questions]

QUESTION: If you are using keywords and you’re referring to content NOT on the page, will that penalize you?

TM: Says they can’t penalize a site for having bad code; says half the people that think they are penalized are just doing a bad job of SEO.

QUESTION: Says that major search engines should reward accessible, standards-compliant sites because it’s moral and ethical. What’s your view? [scattered audience applause]

TM: [nicely handles question] Says that UI designers can give options to search for standards-compliant / accessible only sites. Asks questioner if there’s a way to tell “black or white” if a site is accessible [I think he meant “with 100% certainty”.].


TM: I know it’s a hot topic, so I’ll definitely bring that back to Yahoo! to discuss.

QUESTION: Do you have any tips concerning sponsored links?

TM: Depends on how much you pay. [audience laughter]

QUESTION: No, I meant the relevance of ads themselves.

AG: Makes a strange octopus comment; something about ads for sushi on a page about sea life, I think. Says that search engines have a long way to go before making semantic sense of content.

MOD: Any last comments?

AG: A quick thing to say on search: search is what we use to find things on our own sites. We need to make sure that users can find things, too. Says good copywriting and menu design is important.

QUESTION: If someone takes your content, how does that affect you?

TM: You should contact the search engine and let them know. File a DMCA complaint. That does the trick. Determining original owner is very complex. There is no prescriptive answer. It’s a very big problem because of RSS. It really comes down to … you may be determined as not the original owner and get bumped; if they’re the same age, it might be a random selection by the search engine.

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