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Sat, Apr 02 2005

Search Engine Gaming And Other Gambles

Earlier this week there was a lot of commotion about WordPress and the controversy over its hosting of third-party articles that manipulated rankings at search engines like Google. Many of the comments I've read seem to be angry ones directed at either Wordpress or at Google, who apparently removed WordPress from its index after the gaming was discovered.
What confuses me is the idea that the manipulation was possibly an experiment. If that's true, why not approach the folks at Google first and tell them you'd like to try such a thing to see what happens, rather than leave them out of the loop? (I always wonder the same thing about people who try to hack into big corporate sites to prove it can be done so that they can help the company. Maybe I'm just dense.) Google seems to me to be full of people who love to try new things and use search engine techniques to present information in as many ways as possible. It's just unfortunate that WordPress and Google couldn't get together ahead of time and do the experiment together. I'm still reading about what happened, but as far as I can tell right now, Google was an unwitting participant in the whole matter. If one tries to use Google to manipulate Google's users without Google's knowledge or consent, why should we be surprised when Google withdraws its support?

One of the ideas set forth in an article on Wired News earlier this month is that links are "bought and sold" all the time. Search engine optimizers seek to spike a company's search engine rankings by using keywords, linking popularity and other methods. When someone criticizes the SEOs, they say they are just using Google's parameters to make life better for the SEO's clients. Is this acceptable to most users of internet search engines? Is a company who does this as a business less culpable than an open source blog software site? And why do people blame Google first, rather than blame those who seek to take advantage of the technology that Google uses to present information freely to the average user?

When I sit down to do a search using a search engine, I am most interested in research and not in sales. If I thought all search engines existed merely to funnel my attention to "stores" I would use search engines much less. When I do want to look for something commercial I can usually find it without much trouble. It's the sites who mask themselves as content-rich sites but offer little more than ads that annoy me. When I run across those I leave. Ads don't bother me in themselves. Leading me to believe I've come across a lot of information and then flooding me with ads bothers me a lot. Google has been pretty successful at presenting both commercial and non-commercial results, at least in my experience. I'm happy to let them do that, but they can do that best if those who create web sites maintain some sense of integrity.

I'm not familiar with Wordpress, but the software seems to be enjoyed by quite a few people. I can see the polarization of anger with this incident masking a lot of bigger issues. If search engines simply blacklist sites that present a mixed message we might lose important information in the future if someone uses third-party content without realizing it has search engine gaming as part of its content. Will these sites then be caught in the middle and be banished from search engines, or be relegated to some lower level of the internet? Then we begin to create an internet caste system. Do we want that? We'd might have to decide, once we start placing blame here and there.

The folks at Google are constantly learning and finding new ways to make searches better. Because of all this arguing surrounding search engine manipulation by third parties, I'm wondering if Google will someday split its results into completely separate commercial and non-commercial sections, or will even develop another whole search engine site that returns non-commercial results for those of us who use the internet as a giant reference desk. I doubt such a site could be free to use unless Google used the commercial side of things to help pay for the non-commercial results. And someone would have to determine what non-commercial means and then figure out how to filter out sites that tried to sneak in linking and ads. Wait a minute. Isn't that what started all this trouble in the first place?

posted at: 17:34 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry



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Stealin' copy is as bad as horse-thievin'
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