SearchEthos : rethinking search on the internet & SEO practices

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The Power of Google

14 January 2003
Christina Buu-Hoan

Google has a problem. Its dominance among search engines opens Google to the charge that it's no longer a simple provider of comments on information (via its rankings of results relevant for specific keywords). Google is also the provider of access to that same information via its command of the market share. [This issue is first raised by James Grimmelmann of LawMeme.] While it's not the only access, it is the major source by which many searchers navigate the web to find something they're looking for. Simply by virtue of its popularity, Google's power to influence where people go on the internet and what content they see is enormous. If you have a site on the Internet and can't be found on Google, how will others find you? Similarly, if you're ranked #80 in a sea of 20,000 results, how many people will make the effort to look that far into the results?

This influence is troubling given the potential for abuse from both within and outside Google. Whether or not you agree with the idea that information wants to be free, Google's quest to provide greater search relevancy (still a free service) and remain profitable- is not a simple one. (BusinessWeek describes some of the problems facing Google in 2003.)

In the Webmaster and SEO community, Google has been ever vigilant in stamping out abuse and recently posted a "tips" page on SEOs *. However, some of its tactics** to combat abuse concern even veteran search engine professionals such as Danny Sullivan and Jill Whalen (see the section marked "Outbound Link Concerns"). Specifically, in this article on the suit against Google brought by SearchKing, they express concern over the possible negative repercussions of linking to a page penalized by Google. While Sullivan explains that this fear is perhaps not fully warranted, the concern over censorship should be considered.

Google both directly and indirectly affects the design and content of many pages on the internet by its policies (e.g. no cloaking, no manipulation of links, no duplicate content). If webmasters and SEO companies are concerned to maintain or improve their rankings, they may opt to follow these policies strictly or advise their clients of the risks and dangers of not adhering (losing ranks or being blacklisted/expunged from Google's database).

What happened in the SearchKing case is not entirely unprecedented. Other companies have explicitly sold links to high-scoring Google PageRank pages in an attempt to boost rankings. So SearchKing wasn't the only company to provide such a service, just the most vocal and attention-seeking one.

On a related note, it was common knowledge in the search community that penalties were imposed by Google on both link farms and sites receiving outbound links from link farms. [Link farms are also known as "FFAs" or "free-for-all" link exchanges where the sole purpose of exchanging links was to boost Google PageRank. That is, a true link farm page consisted of nothing more than hundreds of links, poorly organized and of low interest to the average visitor.] While the penalties made sense from a user-perspective [the link farms were artificially boosting a page's popularity and thus "tampering" with Google's link-popularity-based algorithms (often by linking to spam of the worst sort)] others pointed out how easily such a tactic could be abused strategically by competitor sites. Why not hurt your competition by submitting them to a link farm? (Yes, search engine optimization is unfortunately also famous not simply for those who use "snake-oil" tactics but cut-throat ones as well.)

So when does censorship become troubling? If you find yourself omitting content or links on your page that legitimately deserve to be there out of fear of reprisal of some sort (e.g., decreased rankings), that's troubling. However, as debated in many intro-level ethics classes, freedom of speech needs to be balanced against harm to others. Thus, while I might mourn the loss of access to U.S. government info previously available on the web, I understand the need to prevent such info from being abused. Can Google make the case that it has the right to impose such penalties in order to prevent its algorithms (and thus, its livelihood of search) from being compromised or further manipulated?

I don't know the answer to this although I suspect there are many who would argue "Let the market decide". That is, Google can act as it sees fit because the ultimate decision belongs to the consumers or users. So long as Google continues to provide highly relevant results (or greater relevancy in comparison to other search engines), it will continue to be rewarded with many users. Should its relevancy decrease or another engine emerge that provides similar or better relevancy (with fewer restrictions than Google), then the market will reward that engine with more users.

Even if Google could be taken as an impartial arbiter of content on the Internet, so long as high rankings for a web page translate into greater traffic and more money, there will always be a strong interest in cracking Google's algorithms for relevancy and manipulating them for profit.

So where do we go from here? Should Google's influence be treated like that of a major media outlet (where corporate influence affects what's reported and what's not, as captured in something like Noam Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent")? Or should Google's influence be viewed more like the influence of Britney Spears on her fans in terms of skin exposure and virginity until marriage? We take the influence of the former far more seriously than the latter (although the latter isn't to be underestimated). After all, ignorance costs- in more ways than can be counted by the dollar. The obligation to strive for impartiality is not a legal one, only a moral one. And a thorny one if we compare the marketing budgets of Fortune500 companies to that of the typical small-business. That is, do the Google algorithms ultimately reward those having higher marketing budgets with higher rankings (for those highly competitive keywords)?

It could be argued that despite the very real possibility a small-time business breaks through solely on word-of-mouth spreading (and receiving links) from others in the internet community, the majority of top positions for certain keywords will be ruled by those companies with greater presence (which tends to correspond to greater budgets for press, etc.).

Google knows its fortunes are tied to its ability to serve the most relevant results to its users. And its ability to produce relevancy is tied to its proprietary algorithms which it protects with no small measure of ferocity. Those of us in the search community will continue to monitor emerging engines such as FAST/AlltheWeb and the quality of results served up on Google (as well as what doesn't turn up that perhaps should have turned up).

On a final note, SearchEthos asks: Why did Google feel so threatened by Jessamyn West's article on Google Answers that it fired her? I found both articles informative and funny although it's disconcerting to see Google's lack of a sense of humor and seeming inflexibility (perhaps indicating its growth toward corporate status?). Another company might have rewarded her for the observations on areas that could use improvement (although they may not have wanted shortcomings or disagreements, particularly at the beta test level, displayed so publicly). This leads us to yet another way in which Google's power has already, if unintentionally, affected us: loss of privacy (have you been googled yet?).

Because it acts as the major access source of information for many netizens, I believe that Google has responsibilities (moral if not legal ones) to provide honest and objective search results; to be careful about its power to influence opinion and action; and to setup safeguards both within the company and outside to prevent abuse of those results (while being mindful of how its penalties can affect the innocent for the worse). Who knows how long Google will remain on top or how any of the above issues be affected should it go public? To any search engine or internet entity present or future that holds such power, the clichés hold true. With great power comes great burden. Use it wisely. Use it well.

Your comments are invited: RP [at]

*The only one I disagree with significantly is the insistence on a money-back guarantee which Google itself does not offer via its AdWords or Sponsorships.

**Another tactic employed by Google to crack down on robot or automated searches resulted in a brief denial of access to innocent Comcast surfers.

Related Articles: Google-SearchKing Lawsuit and the follow-up Preliminary Injunction Denied.

Reader Comments:

At what point does a private organization gain sufficient power in a given area that it starts to have the kinds of obligations that governments have?

- Chris MacDonald, Halifax, Canada

SearchEthos replies: My sense is that there's a disconnect between having obligations and living up to them (or having strong incentive to live up to them). The "timeframe" is probably as precisely pin-down-able as that point when a fetus becomes a person... ! I personally am more concerned with identifying the process by which power and responsibility come together. Or is enforced by groups/society.

Google would no doubt respond to your essay here with: "The above situations are unfortunate, but it's scarcely our responsibility. People scam on their tax returns all the time, yet we don't hold the IRS or the tax system accountable for that; we prosecute the cheaters. Why hold us responsible for what are basically sound and well-intentioned policies aimed at ensuring that a site's probability of being returned in a search has something to do with its relevance to the search terms?"

One potentially legitimate complaint about Google's policies themselves - is how it uses a site's "popularity" (as measured by credible links) as an indicator of its "relevance" and how highly it should be "ranked." If the value of a site is determined by external links which are themselves ranked according to their existence or ranking on a Google search, "popularity" thus becomes a second-order quality indicating not whether a site is worth viewing but whether we think Google thinks it's worth viewing.

It's a hazard common to many institutions that orchestrate and arbitrate tastes in popular culture. "Independent" films, for example, are increasingly less "independent" in terms of their artistic vision. Directors abandon their own aesthetic sensibilities and hew ever closer to those they believe will stamp their work with the imprimatur of an official "indie" selection by a Sundance jury. Sundance Film Festival juries thus, whatever their intentions, no longer judge the "best independent" films available; they evaluate films that are tailored to the look and feel that Sundance itself enforces. Google seems to be doing something similar with its criteria for "relevance."

- Ed T., Chicago, Illinois

SearchEthos replies: Very true. This is why I ask the question "By virtue of its popularity, is Google's responsibility more akin to a media outlet than that of a celebrity?" Google is a valuable tool, so much so that it merits discussions on its impact and power.

As you've described it here, Google's imposition of penalties for a site's unsavory practices is not "censorship" per se. They're merely saying "here are the rules you need to play by if you want us to 'find' you in relevant keyword searches." Hence it doesn't really seem to be a comparable censorship dilemma where, say, free speech rights are pitted against some other value. In fact, since Google doesn't really seem to be extorting anyone in the process- their policies are driven by the demands of some sense of "authenticity" in the web site, not by doling out hits to the highest bidder- it's difficult to see what Google is ethically responsible for (other than perhaps the consequence of sites "gaming"the system and trying to elevate their ranking or "bury" their competitors with, say, the strategic use of link farms- something that Google apparently didn't intend and doesnt profit by; or does it?).

SearchEthos replies: It's probably true that Google didn't foresee the unintended effects of an algorithm that measures relevancy in terms of link popularity. However, as you'll see below, I believe Google does profit from the shortcomings of its algorithm via its AdWords and Sponsorships.

You imply that Google rewards higher marketing budgets with higher rankings but I'm not following you. Why is this?

SearchEthos replies "While I can't discuss all the potentially creative methods that are at the disposal of companies with larger marketing budgets, let's say it's comparable to the quality of legal counsel or medical aid you believe a larger budget affords you. Since higher quality link popularity is a major factor in determining the ranking for specific keywords, one of the more obvious strategies that a larger company can employ with success is its PR power to post hundreds of news releases on a particular subject that get picked up by local and major media outlets. If these outlets have an online presence, that's hundreds of links right there- particularly if they archive them. Larger companies also tend to have more and greater quality alliances online from which to build links whether it's through their vendors, partners, clients, and so forth. I'm not saying that Google intended this. In fact, I actually believe the opposite. But it's something for their engineers to think about: how to improve relevancy without heavily penalizing the smaller players (such as non-profits, small businesses, or individuals with relevant information on their sites). Also, whether you perceive it as an equalizing tool or not, Google's AdWords and Sponsorships provide opportunities to bypass the Google algorithm by purchasing adspace for particular keywords. This is partially how Google is able to remain profitable. But it's also a way in which the system can again favor companies with larger marketing budgets.

Isn't the problem that consumers and users don't have the ability to make an informed choice - that the "self-censorship" of content and links that Google invites will preclude some types of information from ever being posted to the WWW, given the host's fears that some information might cause her site to be "ignored" in a Google search? Users would never know what they're missing, or that they are in fact missing anything.

SearchEthos replies: That's certainly one of the problems. It's again a challenge for Google and Google's engineers. Certainly, one of their responses has been to issue the above-mentioned tips section so that newbies are alerted to potentially dangerous SEO companies and bad techniques. Also, GoogleGuy makes appearances on now and then to present the Google perspective. Ultimately, it will come down to how sophisticated the algorithm becomes such that it detects the appropriateness and relevancy of particular content and links so as to differentiate between abuse and legitimacy. As Sullivan expresses in his article, "if it makes sense to tell the type of visitors you have about a link, you are really unlikely to be pointing to something that will hurt you in Google and other search engines."

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