SearchEthos : rethinking search on the internet & SEO practices

best practices for search usability and SEO

January 2003 Archive of What We're Reading

31 January 2003

Let's agree to disagree... SearchEthos looks at the current differences of opinion on cloaking. Alan Perkins just posted a white paper on "Why Cloaking is Always a Bad Idea" in Jill Whalen's HighRankings newsletter. This set off an interesting thread in the IHelpYouServices Forum to which Danny Sullivan clarifies "... non-approved cloaking is bad" [where "bad" = risky or dangerous with regard to search engine penalties]. And perhaps an even more interesting thread is going on in WebMasterWorld where Brett Tabke claims that not only has cloaking gone mainstream, but it's gone full circle: "We no longer cloak to deliver custom content to search engines, we now cloak for the search engines to keep them from getting at our cloaked content for visitors."

For a distinctly different synopsis of cloaking (different from Perkins, that is), see Tabke's summary of Five Types of Cloaking or the interview Peter Da Vanzo conducted with Fantomaster's Ralph Tegtmeier (see 20 January 2003 below).

What does SearchEthos think?

As I explained in the article "SEO Ethics: Hype and Hypocrisy?", it's just not constructive to frame the debate in moral terms. Better to explain that a very particular technique comes with certain risks and might be considered a bad business practice. I do tell my clients why most cloaking is counterproductive and too high of a risk to bother with. But ultimately, if they could explain to me why it's in the best interests of their users, I'd have to consider it.

Note: I don't personally use cloaking. Haven't met a client yet who could make the above argument successfully to me in their market. But I am considering offering an XML feed although it's not for the purposes of deception!

End of day: I believe your user's needs trump the search engines. Still, you'd be crazy not to have respect for the parameters that the search engines lay out- especially since they're a major conduit connecting you with your users.

I don't buy the position that all cloaking is spam. But where it can legitimately be viewed as spam, you're not serving the users (and thus, I'm against it). The search engines aren't gods. Neither are any of the SEO professionals mentioned here. Learn, discuss, then decide which best serves your audience.

Other interesting reads: SearchEngineBlog talks to Chris Ridings and Ammons Johns (long but far from boring reads) and Enfin talks to FAST's Tim Mayer who says (and we wholeheartedly endorse) "A webmaster should create pages and sites for users not search engines. Ask yourselves, 'if search engines didn't exist, would I be doing this?'"

30 January 2003

Josh McHugh, for Wired, has written an excellent article that examines the moral compromises made by Google and those that lie ahead. He also displays a very human portrait of Sergey Brin, co-creator of PageRank (along with Larry Page) and current moral compass for Google. McHugh suggests that Google's ethos, as shaped by Brin, lies more along utilitarian principles than absolutes of integrity and purity.

In a separate article on the Google lawsuit, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick cuts to the heart of what concerns us most: "Sure, they [Google] are entitled to pick and choose which Web sites they rank and how they do it, but is it healthy for a single company to control what the rest of the world may actually read and not read? Once everyone agrees that Google rankings stand for some universal benchmark, can Google go in and tweak those benchmarks just to punish its competitors?" [Well, it's not really competitors but those who are seen to be manipulating Google's system in a way that adversely affects Google's ability to return relevant results.]

28 January 2003

SearchEthos is tickled by Chris Ridings' question to GoogleAnswers "Is Google's PageRank (TM) an opinion or an objective measurement?". The answer might surprise you. Check it out (though it's worth keeping in mind that opinions can have an objective basis and still be opinions; something I was reminded of via anonymous comments on LawMeme below).

27 January 2003

Preliminary injunction denied in SearchKing-Google case. LawMeme again looks at the latest development in the case first mentioned below (see 14 January 2003). Some of the spicier tidbits:

"The Court further notes that the integrity of the PageRank system has already been compromised by virtue of the manual decrease to SearchKing's PageRank. Google's decision to intentionally decrease [sic] PageRanks for reasons unrelated to the factors ordinarily taken into account by the mathematical algorithm that produces the PageRank has distorted the objectivity of the PageRank system."

"While Google's decision to intentionally deviate [sic] from its mathematical algorithm in decreasing SearchKing's PageRank may raise questions about the 'truth' of the PageRank system, there is no conceivable way to prove that the relative significance assigned to a given web site is false. A statement of relative significance, as represented by the PageRank, is inherently subjective in nature. Accordingly, the Court concludes that Google's PageRanks are entitled to First Amendment protection."

One further note: in the Comments section of the above column, someone purporting to be the SearchKing Lawyer has posted that they've filed a "Rule 59 Motion to Alter Judgment", arguing that Google's patent on PageRank alleges objectivity [the very same objectivity Google is now moving away from in its efforts to have PageRank legally classified as opinion protected under the First Amendment].

22 January 2003

Dan Gillmor's current column on why there needs to be a separation between content and content delivery. Although he's specifically talking about internet service providers and the dangers of ownership concentration (in both ISPs and data-access providers), his warning is timely in light of the issues previously discussed below (e.g. alternative news sources to the media conglomerates and the potential impact of Google's dominance).

20 January 2003's Interviews (list is found in the right-hand column, toward end of page)

Peter Da Vanzo asks ten questions of some of the best in the search industry field- including Brett Tabke of WebMasterWorld, Ralph Tegtmeier, and Mike Grehan. While a lot of the information found here will be of interest to the SEO professional and internet marketing folk, there's also a lot of practical information and resources that will be of use to the novice or those who are just learning how to improve their site's visibility. Among the gems:

"... we need to take the next logical step and think beyond the search engines entirely. There are other sources of traffic out there." (Brett Tabke interview)

"... there's a pervading myth in the search engine marketing and optimization industry that if you're a good boy, the engines will pat your head and will reward you with fine rankings, even if it may take an incarnation or two. That's unfortunate because not only does it fuzz up the hardcore technological issues involved, it also attracts all sorts of gut level thinkers to the SEM world, flogging their gut level advice ("content is king" being just one pervasive popular myth in question) and confusing each other and everybody else." (Ralph Tegtmeier interview)

"I get a little bemused about this whole ethical thing. SEO in its purest sense is about manipulating search engine results anyway. That's why we do it. Our optimised web pages beat the crap out of our competitors pages which are not. And we gladly accept money for this service from our clients." (Mike Grehan interview)

DaVanzo also has a nice summary on the current state of Search Engine Marketing (as of January 2003).

Also, because today is Martin Luther King's Day in the U.S., we thought it worthwhile to contemplate the philosophy of non-violence and a good place to start on the web is Ironically, in reading more about the Nonviolence Web, one of the publishers Martin Kelley discusses both the financial difficulties the group faced plus the lack of knowledge regarding good web design. In addition to his comment that "most [activist or non-profit] webmasters really didn't know how to put together a site", we could probably add: neither did they seem to be aware of search engine optimization, or how to market their message online.

Message to Activist/Non-Profit Organizations: SEO need not be ideologically incompatible with your organization's philosophy or methods! (This message is similar to the idea that those who work in SEO and those who work for search engines- can share similar goals with regard to what is desirable as an end-result for users.)

Kelley mentions the Independent Media Center- which is worth checking out because it provides an alternative source of news to the major media outlets. Additionally, it has an interesting feature called "Hidden Articles" that allows you to view those submitted articles that contravene their editorial policy. What's potentially valuable about this is how it places the power of judgment back into the public's hands. One of our key concerns with Google is its ability to influence "self-censorship" as well as render a site practically invisible (should it appear extremely low in its rankings for a particular set of keywords relevant for it- due to its lack of link popularity). Granted the "Hidden Articles" can remain buried due to the sheer quantity and burden of slogging through spam or simple opinion contained within. But the dedicated reader or researcher can get a sense of IMC's editorial policy and raise public argument or awareness if it spots abuse. This "transparency" is something lacking in the search engines- perhaps for good reasons. Nonetheless, it's interesting to contemplate ways in which users can actively contribute to improving search relevancy beyond tracking which results they click on first (and what order) and what URLs they choose to link to.

14 January 2003

Google's Response to the SearchKing Lawsuit

James Grimmelmann of LawMeme presents an excellent analysis in this case where a search-engine-marketing company alleges its business was hurt as a result of reduced rankings, due to specific changes made by Google to the algorithms which decide a page's ranking for specific keywords. These changes were prompted by SearchKing's attempts to increase the PageRank (Google's proprietary system for ranking pages) of certain pages artificially by linking to them from other high-scoring PageRank pages. SearchKing made these links from sites within its network- commercially available to paying customers.

SearchEthos is particularly interested in the following issues raised by Grimmelmann:

- Google's claim that PageRank is "commercial speech, protected by the First Amendment" and that rankings are simply "professional opinion".

- the related question of whether Google "provides access to information or merely comments on it".

For more on our perspective of these issues, read "The Power of Google".

Just so we're clear, SearchEthos neither condemns nor advocates the policy of purchasing or obtaining links from high-scoring PageRank pages in itself. However, if those links don't have relevancy for the keywords on your page (or your business) and they don't serve your user's interest (other than as an unwanted or irrelevant commercial), you're doing yourself and your users a disservice. This, of course, is separate from any penalties Google may impose (such as the ones above) should they discover this particular attempt at manipulating their system.

Your comments are invited:

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