It may be that all games are silly. But then, so are humans.
– Robert Lynd
People today often participate in a challenge called "Search Engine Optimization contests." In a nut-shell, the goal of these contests is to get to be the top ranked page in the Google search results for a given term or phrase. In order to not disturb "normal" search results, contests often take nonsensical words as their target. While in the beginning I was often taking part in these contests myself, after many lessons learned (including a contest for the nonsense phrase "Seraphim Proudleduck") today I do not participate in them anymore. But before we jump into the history of search engine optimization contests, let's go back several thousand years and start recapping the history of search engines themselves.
Before Christ, there was the counting aid Abacus. Some centuries later, in 1642, Blaise Pascal builds a mechanical calculator. Around 1820, Charles Babbage follows-up with his steam-powered Difference Engine, and Countess of Lovelace Augusta Ada Byron is pondering programming it after having met him.
The first computer (a programmable calculator) by German engineer Konrad Zuse is completed in 1941.
Britain and USA take over the computing technology field with Colossus, ENIAC, the transistor (by Bell Telephone), and UNIVAC – the "Universal Automatic Computer."
In 1957, ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency, within the Department of Defense, DoD) is created to foster US technology. Some ten years later, DARPA marks the beginnings of the Internet. Intel is founded in ‘68, Doug Engelbart spends time show-casing his revolutionary ideas of word processing, and a year later, Xerox creates the equally revolutionary think tank PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center. Universities are slowly being connected together via ARPANET in 1969. In 1977, Apple II is born, followed by the IBM PC in ‘81. 1984, the year of cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, sees the introduction of the Domain Name System (DNS).
In the late ‘80s, the number of Internet hosts breaks 100,000, and people are starting to get lost. In 1990, before the days of the World Wide Web, McGill University student Alan Emtage creates FTP indexing search tool Archie. One year later, Mark McCahill introduces the alternative Gopher. Veronica (Archie's girlfriend in the comic books, and the "grandmother of search engines") appears on the scene in 1992, spidering Gopherspace texts, and Jughead arrives in ‘93.
In the meantime, the World Wide Web, created by Tim Berners-Lee and released by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in ‘91, is starting to take off. And 1993, the year the first web browser Mosaic takes the world by storm, also sees the first acclaimed web robot, Matthew Gray's World Wide Web Wanderer. Martijn Koster announces meta-tag spidering Aliweb in late ‘93.
The World Wide Web is becoming the most important internet service. Pizza can be ordered online, and soon Sun will give birth to Java programming technology. (The Java motto was "write once, run everywhere," but frustrated programmers around the world later changed it to "write once, debug everywhere.")
In early 1994, Jerry Yang and David Filo of Stanford University start Yahoo! in an attempt to exert some kind of order on an otherwise anarchic collection of documents. (The word Yahoo is short for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," but was pretty much looked up randomly in a dictionary by the two Yahoo founders – the two creators say they liked the name because they considered themselves yahoos.)
Some months later in Washington, Brian Pinkerton's WebCrawler is getting about its work; over at Carnegie Melon, Dr. Michael Maldin creates Lycos (the name comes from the Latin wolf spider).
More and more search engines appear. There's Metacrawler, Excite (in late 1995), AltaVista (late 1995), Inktomi/ HotBot (mid-1996), Ask Jeeves and GoTo. Yahoo, actually a directory, is the leader, but AltaVista – meaning "a view from above," and being a wordplay on (Palo) Alto-Vista – launched in 1995 and brought some fierce competition. In 1997 AltaVista was bought by Compaq and we have some right to assume this and a resulting lost focus brought its downfall.
It's late 1998. Stanford's Larry Page and Sergey Brin reinvent search ranking technology with their paper "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine" and start what some time later becomes the most successful search engine in the world: Google (Larry misspells "Googol," which is a really large number, and Sergey draws the colorful logo on his own using the free GIMP painting software). The uncluttered interface, speed and search result relevancy were cornerstones in winning the tech-savvy people, who were later followed by pretty much everyone looking for something online. Other contenders, like MSN, are left in the dust. In September 1999, Google leaves Beta.
Search engine optimization in the meantime becomes a bigger and bigger business, with experts and amateurs alike trying to boost rankings of websites, more often than not for commercial reasons.
In 2000, Yahoo and Google become partners (Yahoo is using Google's search technology on their own site for a while). In late 2000, Google is handling over 100 million daily search requests.
In 2001, AskJeeves (which dropped the "Jeeves" in the meantime) acquires Teoma, and GoTo is renamed to Overture.
It's hard to tell which search engine contest truly was first. People have been competing to get on top of search results for commercial reasons pretty much since the invention of search engines, and the employed tactics are called "Search Engine Optimization." But so-called "SEO contests" are created mostly to have fun, and to shed more light on Google's ranking secrets – and potential methods for abusing those rankings. At times, there were also prizes up for grabs during the contests. Some of those even got handed over to the winner (not all, mind you – it's a fun sport in a shady environment!).
Today, there are so many different SEO contests going on at any given time it's hard to keep track of them all. I'll list some of the first, some of which I participated in myself with the weblog "Google Blogoscoped."
SERPs is short for "Search Engine Result Pages" (completely coincidentally, it also means "State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme"). It was the target keyword for a search engine optimization contest. A group of people, myself included, started the challenge in a search engine discussion group and came up with the term "SERPs" on January 16, 2004. The term was both self-referential, which was fun, and relatively harmless (presumably not a lot of people were searching for it, as there were only 30,700 pages prior to the contest – that may sound much, but it's only about 1/10th the page count a search for pink speaker manuals yields).
I started my own entry as a normal blog post in "Google Blogoscoped," wanting to see how it would fare in the contest (it was pushed out of the top ten pretty soon). However the leading entry on Google's blogging community Blogspot was deserted by its owner, Sam, and I was able to open up a site with the same name, thus sitting on his top-ranked page now. Sam's tactic (which included leaving a lot of links in website guest-books, an approach rightfully deemed spam) made his page the winner on February 16th, 2004.
The "Kebapgraz" SEO competition owes its name to "Döner Kebap," a Turkish dish popular in Germany and Austria, and the Austrian city Graz. Most of the participants of this challenge were from Germany or Austria, using German-language pages. The contest started on June 16, 2004, as a follow-up to a previous challenge for "Haltezeitmessungen." Linkfarms (a large group of interlinked websites trying to increase their Google PageRank) or other kind of spam were not allowed in this contest. The end date was September 10, 2004, and the amount of web pagescontaining the word went from 0 to 167,000 later on. A German wiki entry (a wiki usually is a encyclopedia-style website which everyone can help edit) was inhibiting the top rank for almost all the time, only to be pushed to number two in a 24 hour period starting shortly before the end date.
The contest was started by David Reisner, aged 17, from Austria. "One day I thought, there are some funny contests going on, but there was no Kebap on the web" David said. I asked him for lessons learned, and he answered one should think about the exact competition rules beforehand to avoid some longer fights he's been through. He added: "In SEO there is a nice tip: give and you will be given, be it advice, links or content."
Yet another German-language Google contest was the hunt for "Schnitzelmitkartoffelsalat" (which translates to steak with potato salad). It was started by Steffi Abel on November 15, 2002, in a German discussion group. At that time the word Schnitzelmitkartoffelsalat did not return any pages in Google. More than three years later, 22,000 occurrences can be found. According to German webmaster Lars Kasper, who covered the challenge on his website, variations of the Schnitzelmitkartoffelsalat challenge included the nonsense words "Telefondesinfizierstudium" (the study of phone desinfection) and "Walnichtfischmitkartoffelsalat" (whale, not fish, with potato salad).
Some time later, German Googlesport really took off with the creation of the "Hommingberger Gepardenforelle" contest ("Gepardenforelle" translates to "Homminghill leopard trout"). It was launched by Germany's biggest IT magazines (on- and offline) and the two keywords today return almost 3 million web pages.
And then, there was a French Googlesport contest for the phrase "Mangeur de Cigogne." Launched by Promo-Web, the games began in March 2004, and were to be ended in June 15 2004. This might have been one of the weirdest and most obsessive of all search engine optimization contests. And naturally, because most content was French, you couldn't understand a word of what happened unless you were fluid in this language.
So what does "Mangeur de Cigogne" mean? It literally translates to "eaters of stork." But, according to Jerome Chesnot from the south of France, "It means nothing really. This string was chosen to not pollute Google results."
Jerome held the 1st place in this competition for the 15 last days, but then came in second. He told me Mangeur de Cigogne was "really a good experience ... in terms of HTML optimization and other technical things."
"Nigritude Ultramarine" was arguably the biggest SEO contest that ever took place. It received enormous coverage including articles on Wired.com and tech site Slashdot. The competition was started by SEO company DarkBlue (hence the name "Nigritude Ultramarine," which is another way to say "dark blue").
Blogger Anil Dash nearly won the top rank in the first round ending June 7, 2004 with a blog entry (the second round prize, a 17" LCD flat screen, went to the aggressive contenders of a web discussion forum). Anil's post was linked from various other high-profile blogs who wanted to push a friend up the Google rankings. Anil wanted to prove that good old content – as opposed to sleazy optimization tactics – is king, and he was successful in doing so.
As I'm writing this, there are around 215,000 web pages containing the phrase "Nigritude Ultramarine." Anil Dash is still number one.
So how do you win these search engine optimization contests in the first place? This depends on the search engine, but for Google, heavy "on-page" optimization is futile in a competitive environment, and all depends on "off-page" optimization.
To explain, "on-page" optimization means you create a page which repeats the target keywords in a variety of places, in the meta keywords, in the title, in page headings and so on. What you do on your page might have an effect on the human reader – which is indeed important – but it's of little value to the Googlebot and the way Google ranks your site. For competitive keywords, all that Google is interested in is this: how many important pages link to your page using the target keywords as link text?
If you can get a lot of valuable "backlinks" from authoritative web pages (say, a mainstream news site, or a #1 blog for an industry), then a high ranking will come naturally. So, the real key is to get good backlinks (ideally links containing the target keywords). Not necessarily 1000s of them; it's of more value to get a dozen high-value backlinks, then a million low-value backlinks. For example, Google pretty much ignores it when you create 100,000 backlinks from your website A which point to your website B (and creating such a huge amount of links is not too hard with the help of server-side programming). Google understands that such "close-knit" networks aren't showing natural authority – they might easily be faked by so-called spam farms… and spamming is one thing Google in their rankings try to avoid.
Now how do you get all those links from others? Here, we need to forget about technical optimization for a second. What's important now is to have great web page content, and to make it be known to the right people – not by mass-mailing everyone and their dog, but by submitting your link to blogs on the subject, emailing the right people, pitching your story to mainstream news sites, or sharing it in newsgroups or web forums relevant to your site. Outside of an SEO competition, that means you need to understand a community, be part of it, and help others. People won't link to boring and perhaps over-optimized pages, but people will link to pages that help them (or make them laugh). They link to a tutorial, a good read, a funny video, a cartoon, or an interesting photo. Within the scope of an SEO competition, it's also likely that people simply link to a friend. If you're actively participating in making the web a better place for all (content is king!), you'll also be getting your share of "link love."