Yesterday was a rough day for those of us who ply the Dark Art.

You see, there is this competitor who consistently ranks ahead of us for this one search term, and that particular search term is up by 700% in our Google analytics keyword list compared with last month, so naturally I wanted to smite them with my battleaxe improve my rankings. Accordingly, I did just what you would have done: I went to check out their source code and backlinks so I could snag their best ideas level the playing field.

Now, the place where I check backlinks automatically checks my main site whenever I go there to scope out the competition. I wasn’t looking at mine, because there is widespread agreement in the industry that those who check their backlinks more than once a month are lame not making best use of their clients’ time. But I couldn’t help but notice that I had gotten smacked down by half by Yahoo.

My first thought was that I was sailing too near the wind with my recent exciting new methods. My heart sank, as you can imagine. Probably the blood also drained from my face. I was in the store at the time, and I tried to behave as though nothing was happening, just in case The Empress noticed and wanted a report.

A quick check of my competitors’ histories showed that they had also all gotten smacked down.

Yahoo must have made some change in their architecture.

I was hanging around the virtual water cooler to see if I could tell what was going on. Really, of course, I was hoping to find something like, “Everyone who links to their business at Yahoo Answers will now be penalized to the tune of 20,000 points!” Then I would know what to stop. Instead, I found an article by an SEO guy saying, in essence, what if somebody actually needed some information?

Since all ranking nowadays is influenced by people who scurry around in the background faking things calling the attention of search engines to their sites, the top ranks are probably not going to be as useful as they would have been before people started doing that. The writer’s example was medical information. What if you need to know how to manage a violent patient with geriatric dementia, and the top half of Google’s first page is filled with people who have been plying the Dark Art to get their businesses up there?

For example, I was startled yesterday morning to find that our store was #1 on Google for “St. Patrick’s Day [insert name of major party street here].” I don’t live in New Orleans, but it is our equivalent of Bourbon Street. It is the street where people on the Trail of Tears stopped off for keg parties, and I am absolutely not making that up.

We were on the first page for most St. Patrick’s Day party searches for our county, in fact. Many many surprising visits took place from Google images, and I don’t get to see what they were looking for, so I am curious, but presumably it was something to do with St. Patrick’s Day.

This was not because I had put “green beer” or “wet T-shirt contest” in the alt tags for my bulletin boards’ links, either.

I did put St. Patrick’s Day bulletin boards on the front page of the catalog. I posted some, with links, at the store blog. This is respectable white hat behavior. In my further defense, I want to say that the line at Google clearly said “St. Patrick’s Day Bulletin Boards,” and people clicked through anyway.

But for whatever reason, people with sincere desires to find the best Irish parties going on in our county were misdirected.

And I suppose some people looking for important and useful information get sent to some lowdown company with the ability to make good lolcats.

For example, it is almost pointless to search for any term actually used in SEO, because the first 100 places will be taken up by blackhats trying to get you to click through on a fake page and/or send them $179 for questionable purposes.

It’s like testing. It is possible that, if classrooms didn’t spend so much time practicing for tests, there might be some useful information provided by some tests. It is possible that, if the search engines didn’t have to spend so much time staying one step ahead of SEO people, there might be a better chance of finding useful things online.

However, since it is now the norm to do aggressive SEO, there is hardly any chance of ranking merely by being useful, if your keywords are at all competitive.

Anyway, I now have to begin the long slog back up again. I guess it doesn’t matter, since it happened to all of us. It’s like devaluating currency or something. The links are still there. We’re still at the top of the page. Our traffic is only down as much as you’d expect for Spring Break. But it’s kind of depressing.