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Google: a search monopoly?

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.

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.”

Despite this court ruling and others like it, many webmasters and online marketers continue to object when Google’s actions negatively impact their websites.

Google takes control

“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.

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.

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.

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.”You can read the full article here.

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