Thursday, August 2, 2007

You are who you know, online

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

In the 1800’s, the Hooligan family established a reputation for themselves in Ireland that caused their name to fall in to the language.  In later years, perhaps understandably, the family changed their name, adopting Houlihan to distance themselves from their forebears’ reputation.  

The Hooligans knew the value of a name.  They knew it could create personality for a person you’ve yet to meet.  Think, Rockefeller, Iscariot, Hitler, Hilton – they all create associations you just can’t help.  And just as this works for names, we’re seeing a similar phenomenon online today, a sociological parallel replicated by search engine algorithms and the optimisation of websites.  

Each site has a name (its domain), and to a search engine this represents its family & background.  Older established sites tend to have more visibility in natural search results, resembling a family with deep historic roots.   Families like this tend to have built generations of wealth, be it property, land, financial assets or treasures from centuries ago.  And this is how search engines value sites.  

If a site has been running with a steady flow of good insightful content for many years, it will have built up a good presence in search engines.  Stronger sites end up linking to this content as a result, just like families tend to associate with others in their social class, and with similar interests and background. 

In search engine results, we’re presented with listings for hundreds of sites that we might never have visited.  It’s a chance for the sites to present themselves and see if we want to associate with them.  

Many sites will have optimised title tags and descriptions in their listings, going beyond a simple brand listing and providing some further background information to help users choose.  Users make instant judgements, using subtle cues in the search listing copy to determine whether this is a site they want to spend time with, just as they make snap decisions about people based on first impressions.  This is a game of nuance and delicacy, where getting the right level of optimisation is crucial, and a title that screams keywords all over it may not appear the sanest of characters to deal with.

In life, some families migrate, split, or start anew, and it is usually these that have a tougher time making ends meet.  Similarly, a new site or domain struggles initially to rank well in natural search, usually taking time to build a strong foothold.  

As networking families and business people have known for years, building acquaintances and relationships can drive opportunity your way.  And the power of that network is determined by more than just the sheer number of people in it, but by the quality of those people, the relevance of their shared interests and the closeness of their relationship to you.  In exactly the same way, search engines evaluate the quality and relevance of these relationships, putting more value on those that are closer to your interests and using these factors to influence your position in the rankings. 

So don’t hang out with the wrong crowd.  Don’t live in bad areas; associate yourself with transients, and with people whose interests don’t coincide with yours.  Don’t move house too frequently, establish yourself in your neighbourhood and put down roots.  Contribute to your community, and have valuable and interesting things to say.

Just as there are tips for social climbing, there are techniques for optimising your website for search engines.  And whilst people nowadays might draw the lines at taking elocution lessons to boost their social standing, their equivalent online are critical to business success, making a Rockefeller out of any Hooligan

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