Every couple of years, a new start-up search engine makes an attempt to breach the essentially monopolized world of search. While these would-be Cinderella stories are easy to doubt, it’s important to note that Google was in this same underdog position for several years after its initial release. The most recent instance of an impressive new competitor is found in “Blekko,” and their story bears a striking resemblance to Google in some additional striking ways.

First, Blekko is coming to search attempting to resolve the same issue that Google tried to resolve on its release: that of web spam. Blekko is using an innovative approach that revisits how we think of search, categorization, and optimization. Just like Google, they’ve begun as a “cult classic,” seeing some extremely loyal followers, solid publicity, and a rapid rate of growth; the company recently reached a million searches per month, just three months after its public release (which occurred on November 1, 2010).

But what does this mean for web optimizers? For this we must look at Blekko’s innovative new concepts in search. While the company does use an automated ranking feature (a “bot” or “spider”), it also uses human verification to power its SERP. This human verification happens primarily through users, who categorize sites through “slashtags.” These slashtag categorizations are often descriptive (“/news,” “/humor,” “/nfl,” “/vegan” — and users can even add their own), but can also be positive (such as the Facebook integrated “/likes”) or negative (such as the dreaded “/spam”). Users can then search with the extra slashtag as part of their search term to get more specific results (with “Iraq /news /liberal” giving far different results than simply searching for “Iraq”).

Getting tagged positively or negatively here can dramatically impact your search engine position on Blekko, with sufficient “/spam” tags resulting in a removal from Blekko’s search page or, in extreme cases, their entire index. Similarly, good categorizations or likes will bolster a site’s ranking in a highly visible way. What becomes important, then, is that the site be optimized not only for keywords, LSI, placement, etc. (which are still important), but also for the user experience (let’s call it “UEO”). Optimizers should aim to both provide an excellent and useful experience for visitors that will result in positive tags and enter a niche where they’re likely to be categorized with tags that, while not objectively positive, are likely to generate more traffic (for example, the “/humor” tag).

When discussing the need to optimize for user experience, we must be clear that we’re not simply stating that Blekko will grow into the next Google or that Blekko’s current searchers are that valuable. Rather, it’s crucial to understand that Blekko signifies a shift in how we perceive the Web. While it’s impossible to say whether Blekko will fall or flourish, the concepts it has introduced are already being adopted, integrated, and used as the groundwork for further innovation for other search engines. For those on the cutting edge of SEO, user optimization is the most essential new territory to learn.