The New York Timesrecently revealed that J.C. Penney, via SEO vendors, was found guilty of cheating Google results to “win” top rankings. Concurrently, Overstock.com was caught manipulating search rankings by soliciting universities to provide links to students, professors, and administrators.
In both cases, Google responded, driving down both J.C. Penney’s and Overstock’s rankings in its search results.
This is another installment in a saga that also includes BMW, Forbes, and many other properties. There are enormous incentives to subvert organic search. The opportunities in internet search are larger than past borderline practices within telemarketing, direct mail, and email.
What’s different of course is the power wielded by firms such as Google and Facebook. For Google, this power flows from their ability to drive revenue. They serve two-thirds of US searches. Fully one-third of traffic goes to the #1 organic result alone.
Google also has the power to act or not act on offenders. It can impose the “death penalty” and remove sites completely as it did with BMW in 2006. Or it can avoid action on large advertisers and hide behind the difficulty of policing 200 million domain names.
It comes down to what makes business sense for Google. In this case Google made a public example out of J.C. Penney. But this is just one episode in an ongoing drama.
The ubiquity of search engines like Google and Bing have led many to view them as they would the yellow pages or 411: directories with a straightforward function of publishing legitimate business data.
But they are not. They are more like spam filters or anti-virus software. They filter out what is manipulative and filter in what is useful.
Furthermore, they make money on clicks, not listings. They are governed by business model, not purity or integrity.
Can we trust search engines? Yes, if we remember they’re a “buyer beware” enterprise, not in spite of being “free” but because they are free.