February 12, 2011

Jumping the Shark: New York Times' "Dirty Little Secrets of Search"

Blog Update (February 15, 2011): "The SEO Lament" - With Apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan

Greetings. The New York Times has just published a rather lengthy article about the apparent gaming of Google Search results by (or in some way for the benefit of) J.C. Penney.

Most of the article is the discussion of a campaign to "game" certain Google organic (natural) search results to Penny's benefit, and how Google has now specifically (and appropriately) cracked-down on this subterfuge.

However, the article begins to "jump the shark" -- that is, push beyond the realm of good sense -- when it explores the conspiracy theory that Google is engaging in what might be called purposeful "illicit comingling" of natural and paid search results in this case (and by extension in other cases).

This kind of assertion just drives me bats. Such accusations seem cut from the mold of the classic loaded query: "Answer yes or no, have you stopped beating your wife yet?"

If there's one thing that Google considers to be the "holy of holies" within the context of Search, it's the sanctity of their search algorithms and their firewall between organic and paid results.

Not only has Google asserted this innumerable times over the years in public, but also to me privately as well. Google's Matt Cutts, who heads the team responsible for weeding out "spammy" search results, is in my view a great guy faced with a herculean task. The fact that "black hat" SEO can contaminate Google Search results does not reasonably imply that Google is ignoring the problem, nor that they are complicit in any way.

Rather, it demonstrates the almost unimaginably immense scale and scope of search and the associated databases, and the ingenuity of those outside parties who would illicitly game those results to their own advantage. To a certain degree, it's like an enormous game of Whac-A-Mole, with Google trying diligently to "tune" the playing field over time to make it ever harder for evil moles to appear.

Conspiracy theories are very popular with Google's adversaries. Those same parties often suggest that Google is lying about their search results -- that they actually are allowing their organic results to be influenced by the paid advertising side of the business.

To accept this line of reasoning would require not only that one considers it conceivable that Google has directly lied to the press and regulators, but that various Googlers, including Matt, have lied directly to me.

I reject such "reasoning" completely. I know many of these folks well enough that I simply do not buy the concept that they're disseminating search results falsehoods.

What's more, whether you love Google or hate them, to assume a lie-based search results "conspiracy" on their part just doesn't make logical sense.

Think about it. Search results aren't secret! Which is logically more likely when manipulated results appear -- in this case allowing the New York Times to write their story? Possibility one: Black hat SEO manipulation of search results that Google didn't catch among the vast universe of entries. Possibility two: Google purposely allows manipulated results to appear, where they could be found by anyone and used to attack Google's integrity.

What possible logical upside could there be to the latter course, as compared with the stupendous downside potential of getting caught doing such a thing?

And why would Google even need to take such a risk in the first place? The company is enormously successfully across a range of vectors and measurements not only limited to search. Does it make even remote sense to imagine their risking so much through such publicly observable sophistry?

I don't buy it. It's not logical. It only could make sense in the context of a "bizarro" world view of wacky conspiracies -- the sort that claim little grey space aliens are stealing those missing socks from our clothes dryers.

Read my lips. Google is not perfect. The organization is composed of human beings -- flesh and blood just like you and me. The scope of search is such that it is impossible for Google to weed out every underhanded campaign from entities around the planet -- who will try just about anything to get an unfair advantage in search results.

That Google is not 100% effective in eliminating all such attacks is not a sign of conspiracy, rather it's a hallmark of humanity -- people in the process of evolving technology that has only even existed for the merest relative blink of time.

I understand the many people enjoy conspiracies, even though any conspiracy theory that you've ever heard of is among the least likely to be real! It's so much easier, perhaps comforting, to believe in underhanded, secret dealings than to accept the realities of imperfection amidst even the most idealistic of endeavors.

And to be sure, political sensibilities increasingly capitalize on these fears, leading to a radicalization of opinions, and a coarsening of discourse, that seem to create an ever expanding circle of yelling at each other, rather than contemplative and productive discussions.

There has yet to be any even remotely convincing representation from Google conspiracy fans -- or anyone else -- that Google is unfairly manipulating their natural search results. But you're free to believe whatever you wish, of course -- no matter how silly and illogical.

But would you do me a favor? If you ever think that you've found my missing socks on a UFO somewhere, please ask them to hold the starch next time.


Blog Update (February 15, 2011): "The SEO Lament" - With Apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan

Posted by Lauren at February 12, 2011 01:05 PM | Permalink
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