Philippe Masset

Engineer at Buffer.

Don't trust search engines (with your traffic)

May 2012

TL; DR: Never forget that search engines' goal is to deliver information to their users, not to drive traffic to your website.

At the beginnings of the Web, sites could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Tim Berners-Lee was actually maintaining a list of webservers, and judging by how it looked in late 1992, one could easily know it by heart.

Since then, the Web has kept growing, to the point where today numerous billions of pages are battling for our attention.

That's wonderful, but at some point we needed something better than a single list to find what we were looking for. Something that could not only crawl the Web, but also index it and allow people to search it.

That's when search engines (SE) were born. And it was back in 1993, the first one being arguably Aliweb or JumpStation.

At this point, I'd like to direct your attention to a few things:

  • People needed to find information on the Web
  • SE were born to satisfy that need

At that time, the process was as simple as I need information -> Information is on several pages -> I'm served these pages.

The way it worked, search engines were redirecting 100% of their traffic to external websites.

Then, the more time passed, the more SE became efficient, clever even.

In their prime, they only allowed users to search over web pages' titles. They then moved to full page searches. Finally they competed over results' quality (that's when Google became prominent thanks to their PageRank algorithm).

One would believe this evolution would lead to some changes when talking about steps a user has to follow when doing a search.

Well, 19 years after the first SE was born, I'm going to tell you what changed: Nothing. Nothing changed.

The search process is exactly the same as before: I need information -> Information is on several pages -> I'm served these pages.

And that's what I wanted to highlight: during 19 years, search engines have kept redirecting 100% of their traffic to external websites. We're surely getting used to it.

But SE are finally starting to change. At least, Google is.

In addition to its oldie (but goodie) word-based index, Google is "building a huge, in-house understanding of what an entity is and a repository of what entities are in the world and what should you know about those entities", says Amit Singhal, the head of Google's core ranking team.

They're basically building an Artificial Intelligence.

Something that, when finished, will be able to apprehend the outside world as being made of objects, properties and relations between each one of them.

Something that, when you search for "Porsche Carrera", instead of giving you a handful of web pages which talk about it, will understand you're actually talking about a car, and will give you its engine, length, height, width, weight...

That's the next step in search, and this step involves NOT redirecting 100% of search engines' traffic to external websites anymore.

Search engines will directly give users what they're looking for, instead of giving them the location where they can find it. They will keep their traffic all to themselves.

Wait, what? But that's unfair!

Well, maybe it is, but remember why search engines were born: people needed to find information on the Web.

And here's Google's motto: "Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."

This step only makes this easier and more efficient for the end-user.

So, here's the take-out: Even if search engines have always driven all their traffic to external websites until now, they don't have to; and it won't last.