Ryan Jones Blog – dotCULT.com Ryan Jones Blogs About Internet Culture, Marketing, SEO, & Social Media

October 15, 2007

The Importance of Usefulness in SEO

Filed under: Main — Ryan Jones @ 1:29 pm

After being forced to write down tons of processes and theories for my current employer before I leave, I realized that this stuff would make a good book. So, with that in mind I’ve set about at creating an SEO ebook. I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever get around to selling it, but I’d still like to put all of my SEO thoughts down in one place.

Anyway, what follows is a few sample pages from this upcoming ebook. I’d love to hear your feedback.

One of the most common phrases I hear as an SEO is “Make my site rank for this term.” While it’s the right idea, it’s not actually the right approach. A better question to ask would be “why doesn’t my site rank for this term?” This is where the concept of usefulness comes in. Usefulness is perhaps the most important concept behind doing SEO work because it can be used to guide any decision you’re ever faced with. Whenever you can’t decide if doing something will be helpful or worth your time just ask yourself one question: “Is this helpful to my visitors?”

When search engines compete for traffic, they’re competing mostly on usefulness. If searchers don’t find good results they’ll likely start searching on other websites. It’s important to keep this in mind when doing SEO . Even though the various search engine algorithms may vastly differ, they’re all focused on one goal: showing useful results first. Knowing this, you don’t need to concern yourself with the various algorithmic differences between the search engines. It may be possible to briefly exploit them to rank highly, but by concentrating on building a useful,authoritative site you can assure you’ll be found at the top of the results no matter how the search engine algorithms continue to evolve.

Types of Results

In a recently leaked Google document, the search engine lists 4 categories of websites: Vital, Useful, Relevant, and Not Relevant. Using the search query of “American Airlines” we can easily distinguish between the 4.

A vital result is one that should show up no matter what. If there are any vital results for a query, they’ll most likely show up in the top spot. Vital results are the authority on the term. In this case, the vital result would be the American Airlines homepage. It’s possible for there to be multiple vital results, but in this care there should only be one.

A useful result is one that’s just that – useful. In our American Airlines case, a useful result might be a recent news article about them, an encyclopedia page, a reviews page, or a page that compares their rates to other flight providers.

A relevant result is one that relates to the query but isn’t as useful as others. A relevant result here might be an airline blog talking about American Airlines.

A non relevant result can take many forms. It could be a page that has nothing to do with the topic, isn’t original, or doesn’t offer any value over another site. An example here would be a site that just takes rates from American Airlines homepage and displays them next to ads, or site that talks about “American airline companies” as compared to “French airline companies.”

Chances are pretty good that you won’t be the vital result for anything except your company name, so your SEO focus should go into making sure your site is useful. There’s plenty of ways to do this. Here’s another fictional example:

John’s Chimney Sweeping in Detroit is getting frustrated because their company website can’t rank for the term “chimney sweeping.” The problem here isn’t that John’s a bad chimney sweep, it’s simply that he’s targeting the wrong type of keyword.

Types Of Searches

Just as there are many types of results, there are also many types of queries. The most common types of search queries are navigational, transactional, and informational.

A navigational query is one where a user is simply trying to find a website. Queries like “yahoo site explorer” or “Detroit Red Wings Homepage” are navigational queries.

A transactional query is one where the user is trying to purchase something. Examples may include “buy chrome shelving,” or “cheap golf balls.”

Informational queries are ones seeking just that – information. Examples here include “population of India,” “jeep wrangler reviews,” or “Israel Bissell.”

Getting back to the above example, a search for “chimney sweeping” will show results like the history of, national association of, how to guides, an encyclopedia entry, and a chimney sweep company directory. Based on the results we see, we can conclude that “chimney sweeping” is viewed as an informational query. If John wants to rank for this term, he’s going to have to provide some useful information about chimney sweeping on his website. This can take the form of a blog, historical articles, demonstration videos, how to guides, etc.

If John doesn’t want to provide additional information about chimney sweeping, he should instead focus on navigational and transactional terms like “Detroitchimney sweep,” “chimney sweeping company,” “hire chimney sweep,” etc.

The most important part of creating a useful site is making sure you offer something that other sites don’t. For example, when I creatednoslang.com there were already other sites that listed Internet slang terms. I made my site useful by offering a translator to make it easier for people to look up terms. I also allowed users to submit terms – a feature that made my site an authority on the subject ofInternet slang by not limiting it to one person’s views.

If your site simply sells products that can be bought in other places as well, you’ll have to do something to make you more useful to the user. If people can buy your product on Amazon you’ll need to offer them a reason to visit your site instead. Offering things like coupons, reviews, product comparisons, installation videos, or testimonials is a good way to provide a layer of usefulness.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of SEO that many people lose focus on why they started doing SEO in the first place – to get more visitors. Sometimes it’s helpful to remind ourselves that our primary goal is to increase traffic – not to rank #1 in Google. By using “how does this help my users” as your guide, you’ll be certain not to stray from your true goals. Remember, building a useful site won’t just help your rankings, it will also create more satisfied customers. The more useful your site is, the better your overall success (not just your search engine ranking) will be.


  1. Looks promising…I always struggle to collect this sort of information into a single place/process…and communicating to my customers that “magic bullets” are a rarity (or damn expensive at the very least). I agree with your basic premise of focusing on value rather than exploiting algorithms (this is not really new ground). Most businesses are primarily interested in a final sale and repeat business. More visitors is nice…but more customers is better.

    Good luck with your ebook.

    Comment by Andrew — October 17, 2007 @ 7:57 pm

  2. Ryan, you may want to examine this site’s SEO… you have a “Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed” that has the wrong path and I’m guessing is why 2/3 of your pages are supplemental in google.

    Comment by JC — October 22, 2007 @ 9:19 pm

  3. I take that back, it’s RSS for comments I see (though most are empty since there’s no comments), not an RSS for the headlines. But the duplicate title it creates and the duplicate content for this page and the rss comment page could be penalizing you in google. I’d suggest adding to robots.txt:

    Disallow: /*/feed/

    I think that’ll still allow your headline feed to be picked up

    Comment by JC — October 23, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

  4. Hmm. I’ll look into it.

    Ya nothing here has comments really. I recently turned them on, and when I migrated from my own custom CMS to wordpress, i accidentally wiped out my comments table – whoops! So nothing older than a few months has any comments at all :'(

    Most of the posts of mine I’ve seen in the supplemental results are posts that seem to belong there – old posts, and posts I’ve posted elsewhere.

    I usually don’t care about duplicate content. In fact, many things I write I post in several spots.

    Most wordpress links I nofollow, but I’ll look into that feed stuff.

    Comment by Ryan — October 23, 2007 @ 7:57 pm

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