Many people ask if SEO is an art or a science, and I often jokingly say “Yes” (as do quite a few others in our industry). The art of SEO is, of course, the practice, whereas the science of SEO is the methodical organization of the knowledge that we obtain from practice and testing our hypotheses.
Of course, there is still more Art to SEO than Science today because so few people in our industry practice formal science. We don’t submit many papers for peer review (I have yet to submit any) and we rarely publish formal studies. Those who champion the Art of SEO as a shield for basing their practices on favored opinions in no way invalidate the Science of SEO.
Those who seek to understand the science behind SEO in no way invalidate the opinions of others.
Nonetheless, we can reduce all the theory and practice to a few relatively simple axioms. To keep things simple, let me start off with a definition. A search resource is any searchable database or index of documents. We don’t have to call it a “search resource” — that’s just what I’m calling it. You could call it a “search engine”, a “bag full of ideas”, or a “doggie”. I’m just going to say “search resource”.
I also want to speak in more general terms about search ecosystems because these fundamental laws work well outside the world of the Searchable Web Ecosystem. They work the same way in a business application that handles accounting data and in an Intranet search system and in any system that resembles our Searchable Web Ecosystem. So these are the laws that govern the operations of search ecosystems, and not simply the Searchable Web Ecosystem.
A search ecosystem operates within three perspectives: Publishers, Indexers, and Searchers. That is, each member of the search ecosystem has a set of objectives and priorities that determine the arbitrary criteria he uses when participating in the ecosystem. A Publisher’s perspective is unique and distinct from the perspectives of the Indexer and Searcher. However, unique distinctiveness does not preclude similarity.
The First Law of Search Engine Optimization therefore says that for every searchable ecosystem there are precisely three sets of arbitrary criteria that determine the outcome of any search operation.
Any search resource may be reorganized by any perspective according to arbitrary criteria. In other words, any member of the search ecosystem may reorganize (optimize) the search resource according to his own perspective. Publishers do this by changing content. Indexers do this by (excluding or including content, changing indexing structures, adjusting ranking mechanisms, etc.). Searchers do this by changing the way they search.
If that seems familiar to you, it should, as it is a restatement of the Theorem of Four Search Influences. So we Web marketers are not the only people optimizing search — the search engineers optimize search and the searchers optimize search.
Hence, the Second Law of Search Engine Optimization says that the result of any search function is determined by the inseparable union of the three perspectives. You cannot eliminate any one influence from the searchable ecosystem, although you can weight the influences differently.
Any reorganization (optimization) of a search resource that achieves a most desired outcome is an optimum use of the search resource. Any reorganization of a search resource that achieves less than a most desired outcome is a partially optimum use of the search resource. In other words, we optimize for search when we seek to achieve a specific goal of (being found, providing a satisfying result, finding something specific).
Fundamental economics tells us we will only participate in a search ecosystem if there is a tangible benefit, a payoff or return on investment. Hence, the Third Law of Search Engine Optimization says that search ecosystems seek or tend toward optimum use. That is, the purpose of the search ecosystem is to meet some fundamental need, and that can only be achieved through optimum use of the search ecosystem.
The Third Law of SEO does not guarantee that optimum use will be achieved by anyone. It only means that a search ecosystem is going to follow the path that leads toward the most optimum use.
Each perspective seeks to reorganize a search resource in order to achieve optimum use for itself. This principle allows for only two possible states: Conflict and Agreement. A perspective agrees with another perspective when both perspectives share the same most desired outcome. Two perspectives are therefore in Conflict if they do not agree with one another.
We measure the Degree of Agreement between any two perspectives or across all three perspectives by comparing the most desired outcomes for the perspectives. A perspective X disagrees with a perspective Y if and only if X’s most desired outcome does not match Y’s most desired outcome. The Degree of Agreement for X and Y is denoted by D(x,y); D(x,y) equals 1 if X and Y agree or 0 if X and Y disagree.
The Degree of Agreement between three perspectives is denoted as D(x,y,z). D(x,y,z) = 1 if X agrees with both Y and Z. D(x,y,z) = .5 if X agrees with Y or Z and Y disagrees with Z. D(x,y,z) = 0 if there is no agreement between X, Y, and Z.
The Degree of Agreement between perspectives is Perfect if and only if D(x,…,z) = 1.
Any perspective may negotiate with (provide sufficient incentive for) other perspectives to alter their most desired outcomes.
The state S(Time) of a search ecosystem is the value of D(x,y,z) at a given time T. A state S(T) fails if Conflict outweighs Agreement — that is, if D(x,y,z) is less than .5. A state S(T) succeeds if Agreement outweighs Conflict.
Therefore the Fourth Law of Search Engine Optimization says that a search ecosystem transits through states of diminishing Conflict toward Perfect Agreement. A search ecosystem that is in a state of Conflict is Dysfunctional and the Dysfunction can only be resolved if one or more of the perspectives negotiates with its partners to achieve Agreement.
The Fourth Law of SEO does not guarantee that Perfect Agreement will be achieved, but so long as the Dysfunction is reduced an acceptable outcome for any search operation should be achieved.
We can put it another way: if there is NO Agreement between the Publisher, Indexer, and Searcher then a search operation has failed, as no one’s objective has been accomplished. If only one of the three partners’ objectives is achieved, that is still insufficient as the Conflict outweighs the Agreement. As soon as any two members of the ecosystem reach a state of Agreement we can say we have a Majority Consensus and therefore the outcome of the search operation is acceptable.
Let me illustrate with three examples:
- In this example, the Publisher and the Indexer are in Agreement, but the Searcher does not agree with either of them. The result of the operation is that the searcher does not find anything acceptable — and that is because there is nothing acceptable to find.
- In this example, the Publisher and the Searcher are in Agreement, but the Indexer disagrees with them both. The result of the operation is that the Publisher and/or the Searcher have to overcome the Indexer’s most desired outcome in order to achieve an acceptable result. The Searcher might look deeper into the search results, or the Publisher might manipulate the search resource in order to be found.
- In this example, the Indexer and the Searcher are in Agreement, but the Publisher disagrees with them. The result of the operation is that the Indexer and Searcher agree on something without involving the Publisher. They may conclude that acceptable content does not exist; or the Indexer may provide an answer that bypasses the Publisher.
It could be argued that in the third scenario the Indexer becomes the Publisher, which is actually something that has been said of modern Web search engines. Google, for example, seeks to provide “answers” to searchers by aggregating information it finds on the Web. Wolfram Alpha is another search engine that seeks to aggregate Web information to provide answers. But you can also use Google as a calculator, or it may be that your query doesn’t require you to click on any result — you simply want to “know” what the results for a query may be (such as when you compile rankings reports).
Clearly we don’t have to achieve Perfect Agreement in all searches, but the less conflict there is between the members of the searchable ecosystem the better.
Every theorem and theory that I have put forth in search engine optimization theory is based upon these fundamental laws of search engine optimization. Even when I discussed topics like Naturality and Opacity, I was still building upon the four laws of SEO:
- First Law of SEO: For every searchable ecosystem there are precisely three sets of arbitrary criteria (called perspectives) that work together to determine the outcome of any search operation.
- Second Law of SEO: The result of any search function or operation is determined by the inseparable union of the three perspectives.
- Third Law of SEO: Search ecosystems seek or tend toward optimum use.
- Fourth Law of SEO: A search ecosystem transits through states of diminishing Conflict toward Perfect Agreement