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Does Google control the internet?

The rise and dominance of Google in the web search market now means that the success or failure of an online business can depend on the decisions of this online giant. Jonathan Crossfield asks whether a search engine has a right to tell you how to run your website.

In 2005, a giant shrugged, creating shockwaves throughout the online business. Google, the world’s most popular search engine, implemented changes to its algorithm designed to improve the quality and relevance of its search results.

The directors and managers of Kinderstart.com were in shock. Overnight, the PageRank of their website dropped to zero. Hits from Google disappeared, reducing the website’s total traffic by 70%. The drop in traffic led to an 80% fall in revenue, a huge downward stroke on the business graph that would have any company director cowering under the boardroom table.

Kinderstart fought back. In 2006, it sued in the United States District Court citing nine counts against Google. The lawsuit claimed the drop in PageRank and the effect on the search results was an example of ‘pervasive monopolistic practices’, destroying fair online competition and denying the website’s right to free speech. Among the nine counts, Kinderstart put forward that the drop in PageRank amounted to defamation, reducing the level of authority and trust consumers might place in Kinderstart.

After 11 months, the judge ruled that “KinderStart had failed to explain how Google caused injury to it by a provably false statement… as distinguished from an unfavorable opinion about KinderStart.com’s importance.”

To most observers, the ruling was not a surprise. Previous rulings – most notably in the case filed by Oklahoma City-based Search King Inc in 2003 – had established that Google tweaking its search results system was a form of opinion protected by the same free-speech rights Kinderstart claimed Google had violated.

Despite these court rulings, many webmasters and online marketers continue to object when Google’s actions negatively impact their websites.

The irresistible rise of Google

Ten years ago, Yahoo! was seen as the winner in the search engine battle. The Guardian said it had a “near-monopoly of the hierarchical directory search market”. Only a few years later, Google would claim this pedestal from Yahoo! This dramatic change illustrated how internet dominance can be as fickle as a mouse click.

Google has had a level of success far beyond the original imaginings of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the two creators who designed a search engine virtually synonymous with the online experience. For a company name to become a recognizable and commonly used verb is an achievement matched by only a few select brands. Internet users refer to ‘googling’ a term, even when they may use another search engine to do so.

The key to this influence, and the reason for the company’s rise, is Google’s faster and more accurate algorithm. Once Google became established, webmasters wanted to tap into that influence through search engine optimization (SEO).

But as Google’s influence has grown, some website owners have begun to see Google rankings as a right, not a service. They argue no single company should dictate how websites must behave to reach the majority of web users. Google’s power to dramatically change a business’s bottom line with the push of a button makes the company an easy target.

Google takes control

John Roberts, professor of marketing at the University of New South Wales, has closely followed the growth of Google and the development of online marketing.

“Google should not be punished for excellence,” he says. “Google has risen to such prominence simply by being better than anyone else. In terms of unpaid search, I think Google has done a reasonably good job in meeting the needs of searchers. Does it need to do better? Of course. Search engines from established companies like Microsoft and Yahoo! are continually improving.”

Google agrees. “Our popularity is a result of our continuous efforts to provide the best search service for users,” says Adam Lasnik, search engine positioning strategist at Google’s California headquarters. “Google earns its success one click at a time – we are only as good as our last search result as users are free to use other search engines.

“Google does not have a natural monopoly and so when it stops being good for the market, or when another search engine demonstrates that it is even better, Google will lose its position.”

Yet it seems Google will maintain a strong presence for a while yet. Search engine optimizers still see Google rankings as the primary source of traffic and design their strategies accordingly.

Search engine optimization was not always the powerful marketing tool it is today. Eleven years ago, some visionary webmasters realized how search engines were deciding the online behavior of their target audience. They identified some of the factors used to assess and rank websites and developed strategies to exploit these.

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Not all SEO techniques were, or are, frowned upon. Some are based on the simple premise of providing the most relevant quality content for the user – precisely the goal of the search engines. But some techniques sought to exploit loopholes or use simple tricks to gain traffic, resulting in changes to the search engine algorithms to correct and limit these manipulations.

“Online marketing is still very much the wild west,” says Larry Bloch, CEO of Netregistry. “People are still learning what the boundaries are and pushing things as far as they can get away with. Rules and codes of conduct don’t appear until someone goes too far or pushes the boundaries of what the wider online community decides is acceptable.”

When Google launched in 1998, the company actively sought to have regular communication with webmasters in the hope that both sides could learn from each other and identify these boundaries.

“We work hard to keep in regular communication with webmasters and have been actively informing and learning from them in many ways,” explains Lasnik.

This transparency and communication resulted in the Google Webmaster Guidelines, designed to provide detailed information on how to avoid penalties and construct sites in concordance with Google’s vision. The Guidelines have been the source of fierce debate; critics see them as Google trying to dictate how webmasters should construct their sites.

“Companies in any industry have to adjust to a number of factors: their consumer’s tastes, the specifications of their retailers, government regulations – webmasters are no exception,” says Roberts. “They have to adapt to the rules set by Google and other search engine companies. The question is whether those rules are fair and if they are not fair, who is responsible for doing something about it.”

Black hat vs white hat

The webmaster guidelines led to online marketers describing themselves as either ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’. Black-hat SEO webmasters flouted the guidelines in favor of quick results and a fast buck.

“Many SEOs provide useful services for website owners, from writing copy to giving advice on site architecture and helping to find relevant directories to which a site can be submitted,” says Lasnik. “There are some who fall under the unethical banner, however, who use overly aggressive marketing efforts in an attempt to unfairly manipulate search engine results, giving the industry a black eye in the process.”

Roberts finds the line between black hats and white hats harder to pin down, creating a grey area that can trap unwary website owners.

“The line between hyping and cheating is still not well-defined and it is shifting,” he explains. “It makes good sense for companies to design to the standards that we can expect to see tomorrow, not what they can get away with today.”

Bloch also believes the boundaries have not been firmly defined. “Just because a technique works today doesn’t make it right or that it will still work tomorrow. Rules are still being created, and new guidelines and restrictions will be created to address deceptive behavior or limit activities that negatively impact on the search experience.”

This state of flux means debate continues about how online marketing should evolve, what responsibility online marketers should take for the integrity of the web, and what role Google should play in dictating this direction.

“For a rule to be made, someone needs to break it first,” Bloch continues. “Someone has to have committed the crime or gone out on that limb for the rest to decide it is unacceptable and to see it necessary to restrict that behavior.”

Some black-hat methods are easily identified and are weeded out by Google’s algorithm or the webspam team without much difficulty. Keyword stuffing, invisible text, deceptive linking practices, and a host of other black-hat methods are detected every day, with penalties handed out to reduce the site’s influence in the SERPs.

However, people have developed more intricate and clever ways of tricking the algorithm. One popular method is ‘cloaking’, serving up one page for the search engine to assess, but another to any person who clicks through the link. BMW was severely penalized in 2006 for using cloaked ‘doorway pages’. Although the BMW pages appeared high in the search results for phrases such as ‘used cars’, the user was redirected to a page with far less relevance to the topic.

BMW, like Kinderstart, was removed from the Google listings and traffic plummeted. But BMW reacted very differently. On discovering the reason for the penalty, the offending pages were removed and BMW was able to negotiate a resubmission to Google.

There are undoubtedly thousands of websites showing in Google results that use black-hat techniques. Some webmasters are willing to take the risks for the short-term gains – a week at the top can be far more lucrative than months further down the page. Businesses wanting to protect their online reputation, while building a business with a secure online future, accept Google’s authority over their results.

Steering a path through Google

The Google Webmaster Guidelines are here to stay. Of course, no one is forced to use Google, or any search engine, in their online marketing strategy. There are other methods of gaining traffic, but Google remains the ideal route for most websites.

Jordan Kerr is the internet marketing services manager for Netregistry. With his team, Kerr services the SEO needs of up to 700 websites every month. Having cleaned up hundreds of SEO disasters over the years, Kerr knows very well how small businesses can protect themselves from expensive potential Google penalties.

Use SEO professionals

“If you don’t have online marketing experience, reading a few blog articles isn’t going to make you capable of putting a strategy together,” Kerr explains.

“The intricacies of web code are not for the faint-hearted.”

The time it takes to tinker with your website is a business cost as well. What could take a professional a few hours to complete, with no mistakes, could take amateur days of trial and error? Weigh up the costs of hiring an expert against the time and the possible mistakes if you were to attempt the task yourself.

Assess the skills

The SEO industry does not currently have qualifications or industry standards. Anyone can hang up a shingle and start hawking their services in search engine marketing. Some of these professionals have developed their skills through proven experience and have the case studies to back up their successes. Others are riding the crest of a business trend and are more likely to take risks to achieve results.

Choosing the wrong SEO professional can be a costly mistake. “Find out where their website is ranking in the search engines for the keywords ‘search engine optimization,” Kerr advises. “If you can’t find them in the results, chances are they won‘t be able to do much for you.

“You can also tell a lot about what they can offer by the questions they ask you. Do they ask about your website’s role in your overall business model or are they only concerned with the keywords you want to rank against? Are they interested in your own goals for the site or merely which page of Google you want to be on? If they are asking intelligent questions, you can feel more confident of a tailored approach.”

Remember the reader

“Don’t consider the search engines but instead consider the search user,” Kerr concludes. “If the strategies you use to add value for the reader, the search engines will probably also respond.”

For example, to rank strongly for the keyword phrase ‘flower pots, Sydney’, adding content and headings to your site about the topic of Sydney-based flower pots provides quality content for readers interested in the topic and naturally provides a strong search engine ranking.

Google was designed to provide the best and most relevant content for users. By focussing on this core value, your website has a stronger chance of being rewarded with a higher ranking and also avoiding penalties.

Work with Google, not against it

Google continues to grow in transparency, offering to work with webmasters to avoid issues, as Lasnik explains. “We already offer far more information than any other search engine as a result of our Webmaster Tools. We provide a lot of useful diagnostic info on how the Googlebot sees each site and encourage anyone with a site that’s violated guidelines to file a re-inclusion request.”

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