In light of Google’s recent declaration of war against web-spam and content farms, bloggers are starting to suggest the era of “Black-Hat SEO” is over, signaling that from now on the subtle, sometimes morally dubious practices that site-owners use to increase their domain’s status in search results may no longer be effective.
One’s instinct is to take these kind of pronouncements only half-seriously. After all, Google has always had a very active and sizable webspam team who has been working on this problem for years (see this post, for example, from 2008 about how search performance is constantly improving). So if all Google is saying is that it will continue to fight the good fight, then who cares, right?
But judging by the way Google execs have responded to criticism, more likely they are saying they are willing to do things that, out of principle, they never did before. TechCrunch recently observed that perhaps Blekko’s move to ban content farms altogether might prompt a similar move from Google. But will Google have the guts to start making such bold ideological decisions over what kind of content is worth reading?
The controversy sparked a team discussion over what the most terrible SEO company practices in the world are (or the ones we find most annoying, anyway), and why Google will be scared to do anything about them.
4. The Evil Business
Before this whole content farm debate, the New York Times highlighted another crazy SEO problem in a business that purposes abuses its customers to increase its Google rankings. The article reads like a whacky fiction novel, where an eye-glasses store owner starts stalking and attacking a customer, threatening her family’s life, all with the secret attention of generating negative online press that in turns raises its ranking on Google.
I wonder whether this store-owner was a black hat SEO genius or just a mentally disturbed guy with free time (“Do the right thing and everyone goes away. I AM WATCHING YOU!”), but the point remains, Google is not good at distinguishing between bad and good press. The result is that businesses sometimes have perverse incentives to be well known than to be well liked.
Why Google is Scared to Fix It: You’d think it would be easy to fix this kind of problem; after all, sentiment analysis, by which text is run through a filter that judges the attitude of the writer about the subject, is pretty far advanced. So why can’t Google just employ a basic one to punish companies who abuse people in their search results?
They answer is they say they’re trying, but they find it hard to distinguish between evil people and just controversial ones. Politicians and elected officials, for example, usually have disastrous sentiment ratings by comparison to regular people, but is it fair to punish them for it? And sometimes the most heated subjects are the ones most worth displaying in a search.
It strikes me that Google will never really be willing to make an ideological judgment call about when someone is so evil he’s not worth knowing about, except in certain edge cases, and as a result it will still pay to be crazy, weird, and even evil for search optimization.
- How Annoying Is It: 10/10
- How Common Is It: 1/10
- Will Google Fail to Fix It: 6/10 – They’ll try and eliminate some poor quality merchants, but not aggressively enough to matter
Ruining the World Score: 17/30
3. Poorly Named Companies
This might just be a personal pet peeve of mine, but say you just threw a party at your apartment and some friends spilled various beverages all over your carpet (and say, for example, that as opposed to cleaning it up they continued to dance in the mess in order to cover their tracks). You might find yourself in need of a carpet cleaner. If you live in DC, like I do, you would probably type into Google, “DC Carpet Cleaner,” right?
Well, let me tell you, your top search rankings will display dozens of well-differentiated companies. There’s “DC Carpet Cleaning,” “Carpet Cleaning Washington DC,” and even the creatively named “DC-Carpet-Cleaning.” Differentiating your business is one of the best ways to build and market a brand – a creative name and unique way of pitching yourself helps customers remember and evangelize you, and gives them understandable options to choose from. But Google rewards you for describing yourself in the most generic, vanilla way possible, because that’s what most people search for. The result is that my carpet never gets cleaned because I get confused between which business I called (I think it was the hyphen one, but I’m still not sure).
Why Google Is Scared to Fix It: If we were to buy into Bing’s brand marketing, perhaps Google is scared because they are happy being a “Search Engine” rather than a “Decision Engine.” That is, Microsoft saw some room to build a search engine that aspires to help its users differentiate between products and experiences, while Google is more interested in helping its users find the closest thing to what they’re looking for, based on the terms you input.
It’s just their philosophy on search, and it’s hard to fault them for it. But it still means it’s not getting fixed anytime soon.
- How Annoying Is It: 7/10
- How Common Is It: 5/10
- Will Google Fail to Fix It: 6/10 – They’ll incorporate features like Local Search, Google products and Google Movies into their search results, but it will still pay to be bland.
Ruining the World Score: 18/30
2. Comment Spamming
Among SEO firms, comment spamming is the consensus most-annoying black hat practice on Google, where users add links to the comment section of a blog or article to promote their own website. The idea is that when a search engine sees a lot of traffic going your way from different sites, it increases your rankings.
Why Google Is Scared to Fix It: They aren’t, actually. In 2005 they implemented a tag convention (“rel=nofollow”) that blocks sites from getting credit for commented links. Basically every blogging platform automatically puts this tag in their links (so don’t spam us!), and the problem should be solved. But it’s not universally applied in the same way, there are still tons of comment and submission platforms that don’t adopt it, and there’s still the sneaking suspicion amongst a lot of SEOers that Google still gives you some credit for nofollow links, however diminished. The bottom line is, you still see random comment spam all over the place.
- How Annoying Is It: 7/10
- How Common Is It: 8/10
- Will Google Fail to Fix It: 8/10 – They did pretty much all they could and it’s still a problem.
Ruining the World Score: 23/30
1. Content Farms
Finally, the big cheese: content farms. Content farms are some of the biggest web properties in the world – Demand Media, for example, was recently ranked the #16 trafficked site, ahead of Craigslist, eBay and WordPress. The way these sites work is by encouraging people to pump out tons of content on every subject under the sun, whether or not it’s true, reputable, or well-written.
The result is that you get tons of unreliable content, clogging up Google search results. So it was when one day, when I was sick, and typed in my symptoms, that Answers.com told me I had Multiple sclerosis (I don’t… hopefully). More than annoying, this new kind of mechanic, promoted by Google Search results, paid for by Google Adsense traffic, may be signaling the downfall of quality online media. ReadWriteWeb suggests,
“the rapid rise of these two companies may be bad news for the Web. If a small number of companies come to dominate a content market, usually blandness and lowest common denominator fare follows.”
Why Google Is Scared to Fix It: For all Google claims to be at war with content farms, it’s extremely unlikely they will do anything about it. The line between content farms and regular websites is extremely thin and subjective. Maybe Demand Media, who pay freelancers pennies to write low value content, is an easy target, but is ehow.com, Answers.com, or thefreedictionary.com (all banned by Blekko), which sometimes can be the only sites with any info on really obscure topics – the bad guys? And then there’s tons of wiki-powered, user-moderated web communities that power the internet – remember they (we) won Time’s Person of the Year not too long ago.
Maybe upstart search sites like Blekko can get away with blacklisting these web publishing giants, but Google, the largest and most influential force on the web, cannot. They will make tiny concessions to the users upset about content spamming, but no more.
- How Annoying Is It: 9/10
- How Common Is It: 10/10
- Will Google Fail to Fix It: 9/10 – No blanket bans, no punishing, maybe selective punishment or a user-driven content spam feature.
Ruining the World Score: 28/30
So what have we learned? Google is good at what it does, but it doesn’t (and can’t) do everything. As the biggest search property, it can’t make ideological judgments about what content is high-quality or what people are evil enough to be hidden. And as the world’s best search engine with an emphasis on search, there’s still spaces for others who adopt a different philosophy.
I wonder then, is the problem with SEO a problem with Google, or with a marketplace with only one algorithm driving traction, business and fame? Given that any single algorithm can be hacked and optimized, perhaps the answer to all these perverse incentives is a more diversified search landscape.