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.