Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: search engines

How black hat SEOs justify their existence

Here’s how an anonymous black hat SEO consultant justifies the existence of his industry:

I think we need to make a distinction between two different kinds of searches — informational and commercial. If you search ‘cancer,’ that’s an informational search and on those, Google is amazing. But in commercial searches, Google’s results are really polluted. My own personal experience says that the guy with the biggest S.E.O. budget always ranks the highest.

That’s from a long New York Times piece on search engine optimization.

The ways people use search engines

Marco Arment lists the ways people use search engines and talks about how spam has taken over each of them. I think his categories of search types are pretty accurate and agree completely that spammers are systematically taking over each of them. I find that going to Amazon or other trusted retailers and looking for reviews is much more useful than looking for product information on Google these days. I also find that I use site: searches more than I ever have before. Trusting Google to return results for the whole Web just isn’t very effective any more.

The search engine game

In today’s New York Times, David Sanger writes about a disreputable retailer who has realized that customer complaints on consumer forums help improve the ranking of his site in Google. The company in the article is a particularly offensive example of gaming Google for profit, but they are hardly alone. Indeed, they are just an extreme case of what every search engine optimizer sells.

To make an obvious point, Google (and other search engines) don’t know what people are searching for. They created a model that attempts to describe which sites people are looking for when they enter search terms. Every area where that model departs from reality is an opportunity for the clever and unscrupulous to improve their search engine rankings. For example, if Google weights links from popular consumer sites positively, even if those links are in complaints about a company for selling counterfeit merchandise, an opportunity is created to gain business by mistreating customers.

This isn’t really Google’s fault. They’re the whale in the search engine industry, so people work hardest to exploit their model, just like virus writers target Windows because it’s the most common personal computer operating system. If Bing were the most popular, then the focus would be on picking apart and exploiting their model instead.

Some might argue that Google shouldn’t be making value judgements in the first place, privileging some content over others. There are two problems with that. The first is that the model is going to pick winners and losers no matter what, simply because it’s a model created by humans, not a natural process. Second, and more importantly, Google makes its money through the quality of its search results.

Because Google gets most of the attention from the search engine gaming crowd, an opportunity is created for other companies, who may be able to produce higher quality results simply because people aren’t spending so much time trying to exploit their model. Eventually, people very well may abandon Google simply because there’s so much trash out there designed explicitly to take advantage of Google’s flaws.

That, I think, is the biggest risk to Google’s future profits. In some ways, they have the biggest fraud problem on the Internet. Publishers, online merchants, search engine optimizers, content farmers and everyone else are trying to drive traffic to their sites. One of the best ways to do so is to juice your rank in Google , and it’s often cheaper to do so by breaking Google than it is by building something good and promoting your site honestly. I feel for the Googlers whose job it is to stay one step ahead of all of those people — they’re losing the war.

Update: In the comments, Magnus points to this Get Satisfaction following up on the New York Times article. Of course, the specific details of this case don’t matter so much with regard to Google’s larger problem with people gaming the search engine.

Google on rewriting dynamic URLs

Google says that rewriting dynamic URLs is obsolete as far as they’re concerned. Google has no longer has any problem indexing sites that are built using dynamic URLs.

I prefer frameworks with nice URLs, but if you’re not using one, it’s fine to just go with the standard URLs produced by the application rather than using Web server hacks to make improvements that are no longer needed.

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