Anyone who has spent 2 weeks in the field of search engine marketing knows that when search engine representatives are asked, "What does your search engine look for?" they always reply with, "Quality content." But is that really the case?
First of all, let's understand the motivation behind the response. When a search engine rep is asked "What does your search engine look for?" they understand there are two main groups of people listening to the answer.
One group is search marketers. To them "What does your search engine look for?" means "What do I have to do to get my site to the top of the rankings?" Search engines strive for relevancy. They don't want search marketers manipulating the results to get their site to the top. So by telling search marketers they are looking for quality content, they are hoping search marketers will stop trying to use gimicks to get their site to move up in the rankings.
The other group listening to the search engine reps is the search engine users. To them "What does your search engine look for?" means "What can I expect to find at the top of the results when I use your search engine?" As search engines fight it out for market share, relevancy is the #1 thing people look for. Saying their search engine looks for quality content is telling search engine users they put relevant, quality sites at the top of the rankings.
Does anyone really think search engine reps are going to tell search users, "We put sites whose owners have spent hundreds of hours exchanging links with other sites at the top of our results even if their content is bad?" Or "We put sites that have a keyword density of X at the top of our results even if no one has ever heard of the site?" Obviously not. So let's all agree that "quality content" is going to be the company line, regardless of whether it's true or not.
Second, "quality content" is more or less a matter of opinion. Two human beings can read a web page and one might think it's quality content while the other thinks it's crap. If human beings can't agree on what constitutes quality content, how is a computer algorithm suposed to measure quality?
It's tough. So, algorithms look at quantitative, measurable aspects of a web page that tend to imply quality - inbound links and the "quality" of those links being the most prominent right now.
It's analogous to diagnosing an illness by looking at the symptoms. If you want to know if a person has the flu you check their temperature, ask if they have a headache, look for a runny nose, etc. The closer those symptoms resemble those of the typical flu sufferer, the higher confidence you have that that person has the flu even though you've never done a DNA test on the organisms floating around in their blood stream.
It's the same way with search engines. They are looking for symptoms of a quality site. The closer the observable, measurable symptoms of a site resemble those of previously observed quality sites, the higher confidence the search engine has in the quality of that site and the higher that site will rank in the search enging results.
As anyone who has tried to play hookie by faking an illness knows, symptoms can be manipulated. Just touch the thermometer to simulate the symptom of a fever. Eat a couple chili peppers to show signs of a runny nose and watery eyes. In the same way symptoms of quality content can be simulated by search marketers.
The bottom line: quality content is NOT king - the apperance of symptoms of quality content is king.
pdstein is an ordinary guy who while consuming beer becomes capable of extraordinary random thoughts on search marketing.