A Mixed Message Leads to Missed Opportunity

This statement could be accurately applied to lots of situations, but for the sake of sticking to the subject of this blog, I’ll try to keep it to search engines. But I apologize for any future digression beforehand, since I’m frequently guilty of that whole digression thing.

Two recent conversations have brought into stark relief the fact that it’s a %@#&! miracle anyone is understood by anyone else. Ever. The first involved the topic of communication clarity and how it affects Google (and life in general).

Here is the definition of semiotics from Wikipedia:
“Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology is the study of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood. In semiotics, a sign is defined as, “…something that stands for something else, to someone in some capacity.” It may be understood as a discrete unit of meaning, and includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds, etc. essentially all of the ways in which information can be communicated as a message by any sentient, reasoning mind to another.”

For example: one sign could be the image of the word “boy.” When I say “boy” or you see the word on a page, an image may pop in your head of a red haired kid with a striped shirt, a fat belly, a dirty face, holding a frog. Another person might have a completely different image: maybe of a skinny teenager riding a skateboard. You get the point. Every word out of our mouths holds myriad possibilities for “misinterpretation.”

Apply this to the internet. Specifically, to the HTML behind the internet. I’m assuming the goal of anyone’s website is to get a message across. To do this you need search engines. The search engines look at the HTML (source code) of your website. They don’t imagine different boys in their head when signs are encountered. The code is either there and functioning or it’s not. The markup should be well-structured, which enables your business to take advantage of communication opportunities simply by allowing the search engine to do its job. This achieves your goal: your site gets efficiently spidered; your information gets communicated clearly and accurately. Trying to trick the engines with keyword saturation, link bait, et al. will only yield temporary results. When you pay attention to SEO, the algorithm will do its job and your site will rise in the search results.
However, since the internet was created and continues to be expanded by recently evolved apes, unexpected things can happen.

Now let’s make things more interesting. Take the word “hidden.” Search engines don’t glean innuendo from that word like humans do. Even the smarty pants over at Google got a bit uncomfortable in a recent event. Apparently it caused a bit of an uproar when this word was encountered in the source code of pages that had javascript drop down menus to provide static text to pages for optimization purposes.

Understandably, Google is very uncomfortable with sites that engage in chicanery. Even though technically there had been no rule-breaking behavior, that little word, “hidden,” right here in 2007, amid the progress of these post-post-postmodern times, was very upsetting, simply because of its connotation. So now, we’re advised, that even though the navigation menu you’re creating is, for all intents and purposes, not “hidden” in the sense Google suspected, but right there in the code, please don’t use that word. It makes some of us very uncomfortable.

I’ve heard idealist programmer types say that the web is a mess and should be cleaned up, it’s a damn shame, etc. etc. But I find the inefficiency of the web to be fascinating at times. I see it as yet another manifestation of the rumpus that is humanity. It would be nice if the world were more efficient, but at what cost? The internet was created by imperfect beings: apes, struggling with biology and trying to communicate with one another. Every once in awhile, in this glossy electronic age, this fact becomes crystal clear and all the progress we’ve made seems somehow artificial.