The Search Semantics Screw-Up: Identifying the Language Misuse in SEM Speak


If the search engine industry has issues, then one of its major problems is based on its use — or misuse — of language. Newspeak seems to be at the core of a great deal of the “terms” that both the search engines and search engine marketers have invented to describe its day-to-day business practices.

In George Lakoff’s book “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” the author talks about how Conservatives frame the debate with the use of language, such as “partial birth abortion”, “pro-life”, etc. The point is simple; control the language and you frame the discussion.

Let’s start with the basic way that links on a search engine results page (SERP) are described. The two main types of links are organic and sponsored links. Organic links are those links that are arrived at by search engine algorithm. Sponsored links are those links that an advertiser paid for.

Take the term sponsored, what links aren’t sponsored? Did a link happen by magic? Did a web site get teleported from Neptune and appear in a web server? Did a second software package land from Mars and install itself in the search engine’s server? Did that server then send out a spider to the first serve to make a copy of the website for its cache? Of course the answer is no. This how the search engines are trying to frame the vocabulary; organic is good vs. sponsored is bad, or at least not as bad. It’s as if the search engines are in denial, we aren’t dirty capitalists.

Does anyone want to remember or admit how Goto, Overture/Yahoo’s original name, was treated as a pariah, and how most SEOs kept saying that people won’t click on sponsored links? It’s only the dot com crash that forced reality onto dysfunctional business models.

Ask you self this question, when you open a yellow page directory, do you refuse to look at the display ads? Not if you’ve lost your keys and want to get in your house or car. How is that Consumer Reports filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that stated that people didn’t know the difference between sponsored vs. algorithmic links? In the study, Consumer Reports states that over 60 percent of all users were unaware of the difference. Meanwhile the SEO community would continue, and still does, claim that advertised links get fewer clicks-throughs — somewhere there is a major disconnect. The smart money has actually built on this Consumer Reports study and found that the percentage of people that do know the difference are more likely to click on a sponsored link. If you think about it this makes sense; they are a more aware user and know the company behind the link is trying to sell the product or service they have an interest in.

Then there’s the term organic link; this was actually a second pass at a trying to contrast the algorithmically derived links vs. the advertiser links, the search engines first tried push-edited vs. sponsored. This might have had some level of honesty back when Yahoo was in directory mode, but that just isn’t the case.

SERPs, the organic links and their ranking order, are produced by software algorithms. The software that does this may be rocket science but behind the science is human opinion; it is as much a religion as a science! Saying that the quality and quantity of links from one site to another has meaning is at best a loose emulation of human opinion.

Further, there is nothing organic about them unless you want to use George Carlin’s definition of organic, everything is organic/natural. Organic, as a marketing term, itself is steeped in it own dishonest past. It started to get popular usage in the late 1960’s, as part of the back-to-the-land hippy mindset. Then it was cooped by the cosmetics industry; mostly by a certain shampoo company, which started to call its product “organic” because it had herbs in it. Never mind what the label tells you the ingredients are.

Since 40 percent of all queries are related to some kind of purchase it seems the answer from the search engine is, use our shopping engine. Guess what, Google you’ve trained people too well, they don’t want to, unless it is at the very end of the buy cycle and all you’re really doing is comparative shopping for price. This means in the early buy cycle people are still doing research with the basic search box.

Now let’s take a look at the click fraud issue; Google on its blog is talking about invalid clicks. Look at the word invalid, it implies a lack of intent. If there are multiple clicks done by a web surfer it was done on purpose, that person might be accused of being ineffective because they didn’t bookmark the site, in order to return to the site, but there’s a difference. This seems to be an effort on Google’s part to invent language to blur the line between recognized click overhead and actual fraud, this dog won’t hunt.

Even Search Engine Optimizer is an overstated phrase. You aren’t optimizing the search engine, you’re optimizing a web site in order to rank better on a search engine. Frankly Search Engine Marketing is a better term but it is a stand-in for both SEO and PPC. So here’s my take, watch your language before someone, be it the government, advertisers, or/and consumers wash your mouth out with soap.


  1. You can find the unofficial Search Engine Marketing glossary here at SEMPO:

    It may not answer your particular issues with words like “organic” but at least it attempts to make labeling consistent.

    Thanks for an insightful article – I agree that there’s a bit of ambiguity in some of the terminology. But really, we’re in marketing – what did you expect? :-)

  2. I totally agree. There is even more trouble when SEO firms target keyword sets that make no sense, but do return results. SEO terms are most definitely a confusing space. I spend a decent amount of time just defining these terms with new clients. It’s important to define SEO terms at the get go in the interest of customer satisfaction with your deliverables.

  3. You’ve made a good swipe against creeping Orwellian neologisms in the SEM biz!

    I greatly enjoy the fact that Google’s editorial policies forbid the use of “Unacceptable Phrases” in text ads.

    What is an “unacceptable phrase?” One which Google will not accept, of course! Talk about a tautological statement…

    And how about “FamilySafe” and “Non-FamilySafe,” terms Google also uses in its edit policies. I guess I understand the former term (although I’d argue that families, like people, vary widely in terms of their tolerance for, um, “unacceptable phrases”), but “Non-FamilySafe?” Does this mean “Safe for Non-Families?”

    Why not just say “Unsafe For Families?”

  4. […] The Search Semantics Screw-Up: Identifying the Language Misuse in …ADOTAS, NY – Mar 27, 2006… Meanwhile the SEO community would continue, and still does, claim that advertised … the organic links and their ranking order, are produced by software algorithms … […]


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