Second Life In-World Search Refresh
One of the resources available to Merchants and Sellers within Second Life is the In-World Search facility. While some people may be familiar with how it works and what it does, I’ve found that a lot of people treat it with a good amount of trepidation and fear. It’s really not that difficult to get control of though, as long as you understand what it does, how it works and how you can best utilize it for your business. Today’s post will serve as a refresher on the SL In-World Search facility and give you some basic pointers on how it can be used to help promote your business to prospective customers.
SL In-World Search – A Brief History
There have been a number of stories floating around over the past few months that purport to explain the history of In-World Search. Unfortunately, most of those either miss some important details and skew the true history just a wee bit too much. So before we launch into how to use Search to your benefit, I thought it would be a good idea to give a basic overview of where In-World Search has been and how it came to be what it is today.
Several years ago the In-World Search facility was controlled by dedicated set of servers. Although a number of people have the impression that they were hand-crafted dedicated search machines, that’s only partially true. The truth is that the computers and software used were slightly customized versions of Google’s Search Appliance (or “GSA”). The GSA software systems were originally designed by Google as a means for corporations to provide in-house indexing and search capabilities, most often so they could provide more complete access to their private in-house documentation. In the case of Second Life, the GSAs were customized to expect the standard format “Parcel Object” web pages as well as to incorporate several outside factors in the Ranking calculations. Details such as Parcel Traffic and Parcel Picks were used to compute a final ranking factor for each Parcel web page.
All in all, the GSAs performed fairly well, but they started to run into some problems. For starters, the GSA software was licensed from Google under a standard maintenance contract. As Linden Lab began shifting their expenditures to use more Open Source and Public Domain software, they made the decision to abandon the maintenance contracts on the GSAs and instead consider using the money to fund development of an in-house developed system. This effort was begun with good intentions, but quickly became mired in various internal issues. As a result, the decision was reached to return to using the GSA software systems, but with an upgrade to the newest version available.
During this transition, Linden Lab hired several people with backgrounds specifically in the use and application of the GSA systems. The new team began studying how the GSA software indexed the Parcel web pages and how it applied the various outside factors. It was at this time that a side-issue arose that caused a bit of a stir inside the Search Dev team. The team was somewhat taken aback by the realization that people within Second Life were not only using Parcel Picks to create custom “Memory” pages by editing the default text in the Pick, but also that Merchants were employing the use of “Pay for Picks” systems that would reward customers with cash or other incentives for adding a store’s Pick to their profiles. This issue was really brought home when it was discovered that one store in particular had been “Blacklisted” because someone had created a Pick with their SLurl but using several banned words in the text. (The specific instance included the word “Nazi”.) So the decision was reached to eliminate Parcel Picks from the calculations used to determine Rank.
It also was brought to the team’s attention that despite several strongly worded regulations against the use of Bots and Camping to artificially elevate traffic, the practice was still widespread. As a result, they also reached the decision to eliminate Parcel Traffic as a Ranking Factor. However with the elimination of Parcel Traffic and Parcel Picks, it quickly became evident that the only items of import were the Objects set to show in search, the Parcel Name and the Parcel Description. Thus the team set out on a path of development that saw them playing with various formulas to try and properly weight the text within a Parcel’s web page. (This was also the point in time where we released the Spim Prammer, SRAP HUD, Search Bot and Spider Catcher tools.)
Needless to say, all this monkeying around with In-World Search had some rather dramatic affects on search results. Stores that had for years maintained a top ranking in their keyword niches suddenly found themselves either gone from search or seriously demoted. The hew and cry from the Merchant Public was not only loud, but extremely emotional. Many long-time businesses suffered such extreme hits to their traffic and income that they simply closed up shop and left Second Life. All in all, it was a painful time for everyone involved.
Tectonic Shifts in the Search Landscape
As a result of all the disruptions, the Search Dev team underwent some pretty dramatic changes as well. The people originally hired for their experience in use of the GSA systems were for the most part let go, and those people retained were tasked with completely revamping the entire In-World Search systems to use a new tool … at least new to Search. It was during this same time that the SL Marketplace was reaching its initial release, and part of the Marketplace’s features was the use of the SOLR/Lucene search engine. SOLR/Lucene is an Open Source search engine that provides the basic framework for creating a search system, but may be customized in many different ways to fit it to a specific application’s needs. As a result, the In-World Search team also began investigating the use of SOLR/Lucene for In-World Search. Not only could it be customized to fit their precise needs, but it made it much easier to reintegrate some of the search ranking factors previously abandoned such as Parcel Traffic.
The Search Dev team also felt it necessary to shift the importance of the parts of a Parcel’s web page in calculating Search Rank. This was partly due to the abundance of devices such as the Spim Prammer, but also because they felt it was more important to level the playing field. It was also at this time that they began work to try and restore the prior top-level ranking to some of the more popular stores. Thus began a new period of massive change that saw the ranking of Parcels and stores change radically, sometimes overnight. Once again a new spate of abandoned businesses hit the Grid.
Another side-effect of all this rapid change was that the Merchants and Store Owners began to ignore In-World Search as a useful tool, and the shopping public began to ignore In-World Search as a way to find things in Second Life. Lots of change, especially change of such drastic magnitude, always has a tendency to make people draw back from anything. But as the search results exhibited such dramatic volatility, and since previously top-ranked businesses virtually disappeared from Search, the overall result was that people pretty much gave up on Search and started falling back on word of mouth and recommendations from friends to find things.
Where It Stands Today
So now that you have a basic idea of the path taken to get “Here”, let’s discuss where “Here” is. First off the engines that run In-World Search are based on the SOLR/Lucene system. These systems perform periodic indexing of the Parcel web pages, picking out the portions of each that have been configured as having import in calculating Search Rank. They also again use Parcel Traffic as a factor in calculating Search Rank. While it is not commonly known that Parcel Traffic is a factor again, several other improvements in the way Linden Lab controls and calculates Parcel Traffic allow it to be used. As an example, they have become much more aggressive in invalidating the use of Bots and Alts to game traffic. While not totally effective, the net effect of using Bots is much less than it was in the past.
The Search Dev team also completely rewrote the API that can be used by programmed devices to access Search Results. Before the last major shakeup in the team’s staff, there had been discussion of utilizing an OAUTH style login system to prevent an anonymous user from accessing Adult-rated content. However once the team was pared down, it appears this initiative has been put on indefinite hold.
Another major change in the way In-World Search works is to greatly lessen the importance of the objects set to Show In Search. Whereas a Parcel’s rank could be dramatically influenced by careful naming of those objects, today’s system virtually ignores those objects, instead using the Parcel Name and Parcel Description almost exclusively.
The Parcel Web Page
Let’s begin by looking at a Parcel’s web page and explaining what each section is and how it affects Search Rank. Here is an example Parcel web page taken from the DGP4SL Main Store Parcel:
The two parts that are of highest importance are the Parcel Name (also called Land Name) and Parcel Description (Land Description). These two values are set in the “About Land” floater in your SL Viewer. Here is the General tab of the About Land floater for the same Parcel:
As you can see, the Name and Description fields are reflected on the Parcel web page. In order to have your Parcel appear in Search Results, you also need to make sure you enable the “Show Parcel In Search” checkbox on the Options tab of the About Land floater as shown here:
Parcel Name – The Most Important
Today’s ranking algorithm uses the Parcel Name as the most important factor in calculating Rank for a Parcel. Words and phrases found in the Parcel Name are given the most importance. As such, it is absolutely crucial that if you want your Parcel or Store to rank well for a specific word or phrase that you include it in the Land Name. There is just no way possible for a Parcel to rank well for a search term if it is not included in the Land Name. Furthermore that first word of the Land Name is given very slightly less importance than the rest of the words. This is so that the Store Name (or acronym) or the Owner’s name can be used as the first word without negatively impacting search rank. Using the example above, you can see that I’ve included my brand name acronym (DGP4SL) as the first word of the Land Name. The remaining words are those words that are of highest importance in calculating the rank. Thus the words SEO, Slideshow, Window and Door are words that I want to rank highest.
Because there are only 63 usable characters in the Land Name, it is crucial that you consider carefully which words to include. Although you may be tempted to add various “prettiness” characters, you should also consider the tradeoffs in spending those characters for essentially useless text. The Search Indexer will ignore them for the most part, but they also steal character space that might be used to better benefit.
Parcel Description – Humans Only Need Apply
Next in importance is the Parcel Description. There is a tremendous tendency among many to turn the Parcel Description into what I like to call a “Dictionary Explosion”. This means that most folks enter every keyword they can think of into the Land Description, separating each with commas and generally making it just one long run-on list of words. Well, guess what … don’t do it.
The Search Indexer doesn’t actually understand English, but it does know about certain rules of language. One of those rules has to do with how many punctuation characters are usual for a well constructed paragraph. When you pile all the keywords under the sun into the Description, the Indexer spots all those commas and other punctuation and downranks your Parcel for using “Bad Grammar”. The Search Dev team’s goal is to coerce people into creating Descriptions that are legible and human friendly. As a result, your best approach is to create 2 to 3 well written sentences that read well and adequately express the general specialties of your Parcel or Store.
You will notice that in my example Parcel, I’ve violated that rule. Here is the Description I’m currently using:
SEO Tools, Slideshows, Tipjars, Venetian Blind, Windows, Doors, Mailbox, 1-Prim Slide Show, 2-Panel Slide Shows, Search Engine Optimization, RP Titler
That’s a perfect example of what NOT to do. (I know, bad boy … *sigh*) A better Description would be something like this:
DGP4SL Main Store showcases our entire line of SEO Tools and Slideshows. Our selection of Gadgets and Gizmos covers the range from Building Parts such as Windows, Doors and Venetian Blinds to Tipjars and the famous RP Titler
There are at most 254 usable characters in the Description field, so it may take a few tries to craft a Description that fits and includes all the keywords you want. The primary goals though are to emphasize the most important keywords from your Land Name as well as include any additional words that you did not include in the Name.
Parcel Objects – Bleh!
As I mentioned above, the Objects on your Parcel that are set to Show In Search are of little or no import when In-World Search calculates the Rank. I say “little or no” because they can have some very minor impact, especially for those keywords that are relatively rare. But for the most part, the primary use of marking things as “Show In Search” is simply to provide potential customers with a handy directory to your Store and its offerings.
Remember that the Parcel web page does include teleport links to each Object set to Show In Search. Thus a potential customer can use it to teleport directly to the specific item they are interested in purchasing. But with most people barely using In-World Search these days, it’s rare that you find someone that actually uses the Parcel web page to find what they are looking for. All the same though, there are some rules to follow when deciding how to name the Objects on your Parcel and which ones to mark as Show In Search.
One of the more obscure rules that folks frequently run afoul of is the minimum number of Objects to mark as Show In Search. If you run a business that is not specifically the type that sells items (for example a Land Rental business or a Job Agency) then it may be difficult to set up the minimum number of Objects required. In order to avoid being smacked with a Boost rating of -1 or worse, you must have at least 100 items set to Show In Search. The actual number may vary depending on the size of your Parcel, but the 100 item minimum is a good factor to work from. If you just cannot find at least 100 items to name and set for Show In Search, you have two options.
Your first choice is to simply set nothing for Show In Search. This will create a very “empty” looking Parcel Web page, but it will also avoid assigning a -1 Boost to your Parcel. There are some specific niches where a -1 Boost has virtually no effect (such as Zyngo Parlors and the like), but for the most part you want to avoid it. So if you don’t have the ability to mark at least 100 objects to Show In Search, it may be best to just uncheck everything.
Your second option is to use a device such as the Spim Prammer to create a set of specially named Objects that are automatically set to Show In Search. The Spim Prammer is specially designed to generate and name lots of objects with Names and Descriptions that are assigned using options set by a configuration Notecard. Use of the Spim Prammer may seem a bit unfair to some, but in those cases where you need to create enough objects to avoid a -1 Boost, it can be the best and most effective means. You can find the Spim Prammer, as well as all our SEO Tools, in our Main Store. A directory of all our Product Lines is available from our Main Store VLM Directory Page.
DGP4SL SEO Tools
Over the history of In-World Search, we have created and sold a number of different tools to help you get control of your Rank in Search. While some of the initial tools have been retired due to changes in how In-World Search works, there are three tools in specific that are still very useful.
Search Bot V2 – The Search Bot V2 is the latest iteration of our very popular Search automation tool. Using a very simple configuration Notecard, you set up various Search Terms that you want your store to rank well. The Search Bot V2 will then use those Search Terms to look up and locate your Parcel’s rank. It keeps a complete rank history record for the last 30 days. You can then track how your Parcel’s rank is affected by changes you make to the Land Name, Description and the Objects you set to Show In Search. Search Bot V2 is available from the SL Marketplace or at our Main Store.
Spim Prammer – The Spim Prammer is a handy device for rapidly creating a large number of objects with customized Names and Descriptions. Primarily used to provide the minimum number of Objects to avoid a -1 Boost, or when it is necessary to provide that tiny extra “oomph” in your Parcel’s Rank, the Spim Prammer takes all the hassle out of creating the objects by hand. It is available only from our Main Store.
Parcel Boost Freebie – The Parcel Boost value can be of great importance when you are trying to get that last little bit of advantage in your Parcel’s Rank. This Freebie Tool will report the Parcel Boost for your Parcel when it is rezzed and touched. It is available either from our Main Store or on the SL Marketplace.