Earlier today I responded to a forum post about whether search engines would be able to successfully incorporate user behavior as part of the algorithm. I can’t say with certainty that search engines are using behavioral data at the moment, but they are definitely collecting it. I do think it would make sense for them to use the data.
Coincidentally about an hour ago I caught a post at SEO Black Hat about Establishing Site Trust and SERPs with User Behavior. I mention the seo black hat link for a few reasons. First the site is an interesting read and Quadzilla usually has some useful information to share. But the forum poster I responded to was of the opinion that behavioral patterns wouldn’t work for search engines since black hatters could easily manipulate those patterns.
I disagree. Yes I do think they’ll manipulate things. It’s how they work. Black hatters often look for holes in the algorithm which they can take advantage of and I see no reason why they wouldn’t try with user patterns. For the record I have no problem with them doing this either. It’s simply a different approach to seo. However I think behavior will prove to be harder to mimic than current ranking factors. Quadzilla seems to agree towards the end of his post, though I’m sure he and others will find holes to exploit both now and in the future.
Using behavioral patterns makes sense. For the foreseeable future, if not always, human beings will be better at determining relevance than search engine algorithms. If we’re better at deciding if something is more relevant why not make use of our ability. If the top ranking page to a query seldom keeps people and instead sees them quickly hitting the back button perhaps it shouldn’t be #1? If the #2 page does keep visitors, gets them to stay on site and even come back then isn’t it more relevant and doesn’t it deserve the top rank?
There’s a lot of user information that can be collected. The click patterns, the time spent on pages and sites, the return visits to sites and pages, how often certain pages and sites get bookmarked. All can be used in some way to determine things like relevance and trust and quality. In fact as user behavior takes on a greater role in search ranking the seo strategy of websites becomes more about building websites for people. That should only help improve the quality of web pages and the web in general.
As webmasters find their most useful content and not their most optimized content ranks better it stands to reason that the future pages they add to a site will focus on quality before optimization.
There’s no question search engines can collect this data. Thinking of myself, I know I have Google accounts and a Google toolbar that can track my search and browsing patterns. My site is registered with a variety of Google services like Analytics and Webmaster Central. Yahoo has similar access to me and my site through my account with them as well as their toolbar.
Is user behavior a perfect way to measure things? No. Search engines will have a lot of access to data, but they will still be missing the majority of users. Pollsters and the Nielsen ratings know you don’t need everyone to paint a fairly accurate picture of everyone. Of course Alexa data relies on a limited set of users and their data is pretty much worthless.
The whole concept of behavioral patterns is still in it’s infancy with regards to search engines. It’s hardly perfected, but it does offer some good possibilities to help make search results more relevant. I don’t buy the argument that it would be easily manipulated. At least no more so than the current state of things. What is certain though, is that search engines collect a lot of data about user behavior. Most likely they’ve already started using it and will continue to use it more.