Are search engines male or female?

More column inches have been written about how to please the search engines and persuade them to bestow favour on your website than almost any other internet-related topic. But as far as I know no-one has previously tried to understand their gender: do they behave more like a man, or more like a woman? Understand their gender can surely help us to gain a better insight into how to appeal to them.

MSN is very clear: MSN is a man. Everything about MSN is straightforward: do the right thing and you will be recognized. Follow the advice of the experts and you will surely rank highly on MSN as long as your competitors are less diligent in this respect than you. Good content, relevant titles, keyword-related metatags, loads of quality inbound links, varied keyword anchor-text, a good smattering of deep links and a #1 ranking will be your reward. I have gained #1 positions on MSN for moderately competitive keywords within a week of trying. What you see is what you get with MSN: he is a man.

Is Yahoo a man or a woman? I find it hard to decide. Perhaps it is a serial transsexual, or maybe just androgynous. Sometimes Yahoo is as straightforward as a man: do the right thing, pay your dues and join the club, no complications. This happens to me on some of my keywords: I have followed the rules and gained my reward. On others, apparently no more competitive, and where I am just as well-optimized, if not better, I am nowhere. For these words, she is a woman, immune to my blandishments.

On the other hand, Google is surely all woman, with womanly wiles and deeply imbued with womanly mystery. If you want to penetrate deep into Google you need to learn the art of seduction. Is there anything on the planet more frustrating than trying to optimize your website to rank highly for a competitive keyword on Google. Sometimes I think not. She is like a woman that is always just out of reach. She will not reveal her secrets for even the largest bunch of flowers. I know that I have the best content in my category, more quality links, deeper links, more varied anchor text, more articles and more of everything that is supposed to drive positioning than any of my competitors. By far. Not a single one of my 5000 odd backlinks is directly reciprocated, and I have at least 10 inbound links for every outbound one. I have never paid for a text link ad, or joined a link farm. A decent proportion of my inbound links are voluntary recognition of the value of my site by 3rd parties. Is this enough? Well, yes and no. I do have the best positions on all the search engines, measured on average on all the keywords that I target. But whereas my positions are undisputedly dominant in MSN, they are only excellent in Google. I am only 2nd or 3rd on my target words. I do very well, but I don’t blow away the competition like I do on the others. Google has recognized my worth, somewhat, but she has not opened herself to me entirely.

Like a woman, she has her favourites: sites which appealed to her long ago, but whose luster has long since dimmed in the eyes of the rational observer, can still be favoured with a top position. She is also fickle. I have been trying to build position for a single keyword for a couple of years now. (It’s a fairly competitive category – around 36 million sites feature this word.) When I started my efforts I was at about 25 (by virtue of this single word being part of all the other keywords-phrases that I compete on). I have steadily built anchor text links with this single word into directories, into articles, into listings on other sites. Lots of these links are on pages with good PR. Better than 80% of these links are nicely inserted into the middle of well-written text.

The outcome: every few weeks I find I have moved up to a respectable position: say 10th, sometimes even 6th or 7th. Then, the next day, or even an hour later, I fall back to 14th or even 18th. She likes me, she flirts with me occasionally, she tolerates my company and sometimes I even manage to amuse her. But just when I think I could expect a kiss in return as my lips approach, she turns her cheek away and I am banished to the outer circle of courtiers. But her appeal is such that I am drawn again into attempting to understand her mysteries. But I feel that if I ever make it, and my lips touch hers, and she longs for me as I long for her, I will never be sure what it was that I did to merit such bliss.