Search in the Real World

Search Engine Results Don’t Mirror the Real World

Search Engine Results Don't Mirror the Real World #SEOOn NPR’s Science Friday radio program, I heard an interview with Microsoft Research Lab co-director Eric Horvitz. He was telling a story about how search results impact people’s perception.

How Search Impacts “Cyber-Chondriacs”

In the story, people who had a severe headache would search for it in search engines. Search results listing “brain tumor” as a potential cause would come up just about as much as “coffee withdrawal”.

The fact that so many results show a possible brain tumor as a potential cause leads a fair amount of people to ask their doctors if they have a brain tumor. Even though this is much more rare than caffeine-related causes!

This was a great example of how search doesn’t mirror the real world. If it did, caffeine would come up on most (or all) of the results in page one and “other causes” would have a link to a bunch of other possible causes.

Do Search Results Accurately Reflect the Business World?

I had been thinking about something similar related to business. The other day I was presenting to a group and I told them that search results don’t match the real world.

Search engines like Google and Bing don’t rank companies in the search engines based on their market capitalization, rank in the Fortune 500, or based on the size or age of the company. Also, the search results don’t always deliver results based on objective (or even subjective) rankings for the “best” product or service in a category.

Instead of delivering results based on biggest company or “best” company (or product), they deliver results based on a search algorithm.

Simplistically speaking, a search engine’s algorithm takes hundreds of factors into account to deliver results that best match the terms (and intent) of the search query. It can also include algorithmic factors based on your current location or your search history.

Try searching for just “pizza” in your search engine and see what you get. This search will absolutely be impacted by your current location.

Google Doesn’t Use Size or Quality (of the company/product) for Search

The group I presented to was surprised to hear that Google doesn’t rank search results and the related companies by company size or quality. It uses keywords on their pages, website history, and other factors like links pointing to that site from other sites. It can even include factors like site speed and where the keywords are placed on the pages (and how often).

Of course, size of a business and the resultant size of their website can help them rank better, but this isn’t always the case. Previously, Costco had such poor Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) that it ranked much lower for certain product keywords than you might have expected.

Because search engines like Google and Bing use these algorithms, that presents an opening for smaller industry upstarts with better online strategies to outrank or rank equally with the big dogs in their industries. To perform better in search, these upstarts can use SEO strategies, buzz marketing, content marketing, or just create great products (or experiences) that naturally create online “word of mouth” via social media.

The message is don’t ignore SEO – no matter what size you are

There’s no natural order in Google or Bing. Don’t give up on trying to rank for your target keywords (especially for your niche or geographic keywords). And yes, you can improve your SEO, no matter what size your company is.

What will you do differently to outrank your competition?

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heh, I like the term Cyber-Chondriacs. this is sooo true – I do it myself sometimes – I check something and then I think I am seriously sick :>

Tom Treanor

Thanks Siegfried – yes, I think there are a lot of Cyber-Chondriacs out there. It is a great term!

Cendrine Marrouat

Hello Tom,

I really like this post. It’s a great reminder of the basic rule of marketing. If you don’t optimize your messages, you will never be able to reach the right audience. 🙂

Tom Treanor

Hi Cendrine – yes, optimizing messages and being clear about what and where you deliver for your clients (in writing). Thank you for the comment and shares!

Frampton Martin

Great and useful topic chosen to discuss upon and I must say your message is definitely for the corporate and that too highly recommended.


Tom Treanor

Thanks Frampton – I appreciate you stopping by!

Frank Steiner

Well, it is good that search engines don’t mirror the real world. Otherwise, small business have no chance of survival in the online world. Guys with big pockets will use marketing to the fullest extend to improve their position. Thanks to SEO, we have chance to attract customers for cheap.

Tom Treanor

I totally agree. That gives people who are willing to work hard (and smart) a chance to out-compete the big boys. Thanks for stopping by!


I really like this post. It’s a great reminder of the basic rule of marketing. If you don’t optimize your messages, you will never be able to reach the right audience.

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