It doesn’t take long to realise who is in potential violation of Fair Search’s transparency principle, “When search providers engage in search discrimination – manipulating search results to promote favoured products and demote competitors – consumers pay the price”. Google Search is at the heart of the internet, with the average number of global searches each day in 2012 reaching 5,134,000,000. With many considering the first page of 10 results as a search totality; anything beyond the first page is not worth knowing. The results of the 2007 investigation ‘Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google’ (PDF file) highlight the danger of large dominant search engines.
So it doesn’t surprise me that plenty of companies exist who attempt to manipulate Google’s search engine results. Appearing on the first page of results can be a matter of life and death. When I search for ‘Where can I buy cheap shoes?’, what gives the right for boohoo.com to appear as the first result and shoezone.com to appear on the third page? It’s a pertinent question that companies and individuals alike wish to be answered. Especially when search results become a matter of reputation management, like when an Australian man’s name implied he was a most wanted criminal. Believe me, this is not an isolated case. It’s an abomination that Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, implied in a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal that the answer to such risks in the future may be automatic entitlement in society for people to change their names to avoid reputation risk. For a man frequently praised for his intelligence, this seems like a short-sighted solution to a problem which has wider implications than just dodging the bullet from Google’s search results.
In August Tom Foremski threw up how the modern practices of PR could fall foul of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (I swiftly responded), with many industry practitioners feeling offended. Whole businesses exist who offer SEO services and in August the entire industry had to re-think their strategies. The apparently scientific analysis required to manipulate search results has changed because Google updated their link schemes document,
“The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
- Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
- Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
Using automated programs or services to create links to your site”
The above list reads like a death warrant for many SEO agencies. For a long time link schemes have been an effective way to build traffic to websites, now Google has thrown everything in question. In fact, every travel blogger who goes on a familiarisation trip on behalf of a tourism board could fill the pinch on their own search traffic. If I accept a guest post to this blog, I could see my own search results see a sharp fall. Yet, the document is not absolute, “this can negatively impact”.
From last month, Google started making a series of changes that has made it pretty much impossible for SEO to be managed like it once was:
1) Google quietly decided to encrypt all search activity
In the past website owners could see the search terms that brought people to your website. Now Google has blocked this data, meaning that query referrer data is 100% not provided. In essence, Google knows more about your website than you do and has pushed people to use AdWords instead.
2) Google’s External Keyword Tool stopped working
This tool was completely free and used to show keyword suggestions and the traffic these terms received around the world. Now this tool has been closed down and the only way to get the data back is to sign up for AdWords.
3) Websites have been completely destroyed by Google’s Penguin 2.1 update
Essentially this update reinforces Google’s link scheme policies; it targeted links across the internet from bios, forums, link directories and even blog comment boxes.
Google may publically say that it is trying to perfect its search results and personalise our search experiences. In reality it is pushing publishers and businesses towards using their advertising platform, whilst throwing the existence of SEO agencies into question. No doubt over the next few months’ even harsher changes will come into place.
Let’s hope that Microsoft’s ‘Bing It On’ campaign gets some traction.