25 April 2011
Search Me: A Personal Search Engine Test
Readers, since I published my big (long!) piece on the Walt Whitman cylinder recording controversy, "The Voice of the Poet," I have been unreasoningly obsessed with people reading it.
Well, I guess it is understandable. It is not the best thing I have ever written, perhaps, but I worked on it the longest of anything I've put up here at The Red Wheelbarrow. Like any good human gestation, this blogpiece was a nine-month's effort. That is cumulatively, from the moment I started to the moment I hit the PUBLISH POST button. It was certainly not steady, daily, or even weekly work for me throughout those nine months. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Weeks went by when I never worked on it.
But it has been part of my life for a long time. Call it a habit.
So, I have been charting the piece's progress since I sprung it loose on the unprepared public, now a solid month ago. I can do this, in part, by looking at my stats at the Blogger dashboard, to see how many "page views" I have gotten and where this traffic came from. The other thing I have been doing is testing how my piece shows up at various search engines.
This fervent, obsessive, somewhat narcissistic attention has done funny things to my sense of time.
As I usually do, just as soon as I published the article, I posted a status update about it on facebook. But in my experience, facebook itself warps time and space like a black hole. Anything you put up at facebook swiftly slips below the site's event horizon. And the more facebook friends you have, the quicker an item posted by any of those friends drops down, and down, and quickly sets behind the site's western hills.
With this in mind, I waited until I thought it could use another nudge, and, somewhat reluctantly, put up a notice at facebook again. Worded it slightly differently. Then waited again, checking my Blogger stats to see how much traffiic the piece had attracted. I could see that my notice on facebook got a few friends to read it, anyway. And when the numbers dropped down or leveled off, when I judged the facebooksphere could stand it, and even though I felt somewhat dirty or nagging or "forward" doing it, I posted a notice yet again.
This third shameless flogging of my Walt Whitman piece read: "I know you've been meaning to get to it. . .well now might be a good time!" followed by short details about the piece and a link to the blog.
This one seemed to hit a nerve. The graph at my Blogger Dashboard stats section shows a huge spike, a veritable Washington Monument of page views following that announcement. Forty-eight page views in one day!
When I wrote and posted that 3rd nag notice, I remember thinking "OK! That is enough! Certainly all my facebook contacts have seen and seen this again, and if they are going to read the blogpiece, they would have read it by now. I've given them plenty of time and hectored them long enough!"
Later, I looked at the calendar. The piece had been public for one week!
Ridiculous! I was sure I'd been fretting and flogging it for at least 8 months. Okay, okay, I'll be reasonable: 3 months!
Actually, that announcement was probably not the sole cause of so many eyes being directed to my blog on April 3rd. The night before I had tried a number of other strategies to get the thing noticed, mostly by search engines. I tweaked the labels that follow the blog to be more in accord with the actual wording of search queries, for one thing.
So, let's talk about search engines.
I had never thought all that much about search engines before my efforts to get my own piece of writing noticed by them. I'd read some basic stuff about how they accumulate connections and "learn" from their own previous searches. I have long been a fan of Google, as, I suspect, most of you have.
In the first few days after publishing, I tried out some searching at Google. I put in a likely search string, using words that frequently occurred in my piece, like "Whitman recording cylinder" or "Walt Whitman recording hoax." Sometimes I sprinkled in "Edison" or juggled the words around to where phrases became more apparent: "Whitman cylinder recording" instead of "Whitman recording cylinder," for example.
The test was to see how visible my blogpiece was, that is, how close to the top it appeared in the list of search results.
At first, the results at Google were dismal and disappointing. My blogpiece sometimes didn't show up at all. Sometimes it was buried, many many pages beneath most searchers' attention spans.
I read up on the subject a bit on the 'net. (Do we still have to put the apostrophe in "'net"?) The biggest piece of advice I found was to have patience, that your blog was not going to be noticed (by search engines) overnight.
Another thing these pundits recommended was linking one's blogpiece with other people's blogs on the same subject. So I started doing that. The more reputable and popular the blog you link to, said the advice, the better. So I would do searches on the subject of my piece and add comments where I thought people might be interested.
It was a mixture of all these strategies that culminated in that spike of interest on April 3rd.
In the mean time, I roped my brother, Roger, into what was now becoming an informal test of search engines. I asked Rog, who lives in Berlin, to do some likely searches using terms that he thought should lead to my blog. He did this happily and periodically would report back with results.
On April 16, in a message titled "whitman - recording - cylinder," Roger reported the following:
"Those three terms came up with
Google: Page 9
Bing: Page 4 ~ Two entries for you on the same page !
Yahoo: Page 3
AIM Search: Page 7"
Roger's message shows a timestamp of just past three in the morning on a Saturday. I got so excited at these experimental results in the middle of the night that I did a Google search for "top search engines." Let's branch out, I thought, and see what some other search engines come up with.
By just before 7:00 the next morning, I sent Roger the results of my private test of search engines. [Note: I used the same search string as Roger's search, "whitman recording cylinder."] My email follows, in part:
First I replicated your search of Google, Bing, Yahoo, and AOL.
Then I Googled (?) top search engines and went by one article's list of their top 10. Searched all of them.
One (WEBOPEDIA) proved to be N/A, as it is more of an encyclopedia thing, meant to be searched on specific technical computer terms.
A trio of others (ASK.COM, MAHALO, INTERNET ARCHIVE) never turned up my blog. I searched out to the 20th page.
Here is the rest of the list. I will sort these in a worst-to-best kind of manner, like Letterman's Top Ten List. In each case the numbers should be understood to be PAGES of where my entry appears, unless otherwise noted:
Google - 9
AOL Search 7
DuckDuckGo entry #11.
Interesting. Google, our precious search engine of choice, is proving worst for this specific job!"
I found this fascinating. Google, that search engine we all hold dear, turned up dead last in this one random search. And others that I had never heard of did the job much better.
[In Google's favor, the search worked much better if I narrowed to to Google blogs. Then my piece appeared at a respectable ranking. And Google has so many other worthy things going on. . .like providing this lovely platform, Blogger, for my personal rantings!]
But my little experiment showed me that there are other laudable, effective search engines out there.
Since then, I have added duckduckgo.com to my Firefox search box. It has proved its worth for searches other than just my own personally-obsessed one.
I thereby heartily recommend duckduckgo!