Google: Can the Marcia Brady of Search Stay Sweet? Part 1

  |  September 11, 2002   |  Comments

Nothing's a headache like... success. Can Google survive its own popularity? Part one of a two-part series.

Anyone who watched "The Brady Bunch" knows Marcia was the family star. Middle daughter Jan complained everyone always talked about "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"

In search, it's "Google, Google, Google!"

Google is Marcia Brady, getting more attention than others. While the Jans may envy Google's popularity, there are downsides to being on top.

Google's challenge may be that it's viewed as the only search engine that "matters." Microsoft's supremacy has caused it to be widely loathed. Does Google's dominance mean the search engine is destined to face hatred as well? Such a fate is not preordained. Let's review how Google is viewed as all-powerful.

How Do You Seem to Dominate? Let Me Count the Ways...

Last week, China deemed Google so potentially subversive it blocked access. Similar engines aren't blocked, though they provide much the same information. AlltheWeb and Teoma list the "Friends of Falun Gong" site in top results, as does Google. Yet Google's singled out.

In fairness to Chinese authorities, they blocked AltaVista, too. No one in China seems to be complaining about that. Stories are only about Google access, supporting the impression it's the only search engine that matters.

Last month, newly launched Google Watch took aim at Google's use of cookies and logging of search data. Many other engines have similar practices. Again, Google gets the attention.

In July, The New York Times discussed growing availability of personal information found via search. Although every major engine provides access to such data, only Google was named in the article and, indeed, was used as a synonym for search engines in the headline.

In March, controversy arose when Google dropped pages from an anti-Scientology site in response to legal action. Critics cried censorship. The site's home page was restored after Google said it was a mistake. Similar actions may have caused pages to be removed at other search engines, but publicity was focused exclusively on Google.

In February, The Seattle Times suggested before Google, we simply didn't find information on the Web -- a growing myth. "Early search engines... returned every imaginable citation except the one you wanted," the article said. Untrue. Google raised the relevancy bar, but search engines were far from useless.

In January, influential technology columnist Dan Gillmor positioned Google almost as a replacement for the domain name system. His "Google effect" means users can more easily navigate to a site via search engines than by guessing at domain names.

Search engines are great navigational tools. This is something they've done for years. Gillmor acknowledged this is not uniquely a Google experience. "I trust Google and several other excellent search engines, such as AllTheWeb to save me the trouble," he wrote.

Still, Google gets the credit in the "Google effect" label and is singled out for concern it may become a "too-powerful gatekeeper."

Google Obsessed

Further evidence of Google's monolithic stature comes from Webmasters and marketers. No one worries much about being listed in any search engine's editorial listings but Google's. Understandable, given the sheer amount of traffic Google can drive to a site. It's almost certainly the most heavily used search engine.

When Webmasters aren't ranked well, they assume the worst. Banned for spamming? Is Google censoring them or depressing their rankings to get them to buy advertising?

Few site owners are likely to have spamming problems with Google, as with most search engines. Google says the same.

"It's a little frustrating to hear people worried about penalties when the vast majority of time, they have nothing to worry about," said Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer who deals with Webmaster issues.

Being censored or suppressed by Google to build advertising could happen, but it's doubtful. It's not Google's style and carries too many risks. Yet the issues have been raised and will continue in the future.

Bilderberg.org is devoted to exposing what it calls "secretive" conferences. When the site was dropped from Google, owner Tony Gosling assumed U.S. government pressure was brought to bear on Google.

Google's response, published on Gosling's site, was that his server was inaccessible. Give it up to a month and you'll be back, he was told. Not satisfied, he kept emailing. Six days later, the site was restored.

Conspiracy? Sites are accidentally dropped. In this case, Google took faster-than-normal action to rectify the situation. Gosling was emailing a contact in the PR department, who probably kept telling engineering they needed to solve the problem so he'd stop getting the email.

Ad Rep, Can You Help?

Emailing PR is no magic bullet. I don't recommend it. Chances are, they probably won't deal with your concern unless they perceive a real PR problem is related to it. Site owners wondering why their sites aren't listed are supposed to use help@google.com.

Google doesn't respond to all mail. There isn't time. Consequently, people seek help on public forums or email anyone they think may help, which can include Google ad reps.

During Search Engine Strategies, people said they could get action by asking ad reps for help. No one suggested ad reps could get someone an improved ranking, but in plenty of anecdotes missing pages were finally included or old spam penalties were removed.

An anonymous post to a newsgroup by a purported Google insider alleged Google results are "100 percent manipulated" by engineers in return for kickbacks. Other sites are "intentionally penalized or moved down in ranking" to get them to buy ads, the post claimed. Cutts was singled out as the chief cause of alleged abuses. For the record, he denies them.

I doubt the allegations, although anecdotes were shared by attendees at Search Engine Strategies about ad reps seeming to know sites had been banned by Google, making the pitch to buy ads more attractive. It's an issue I'll explore, but hardly Google specific. Similar allegations are made against crawlers with paid-inclusion programs, where companies found they'd get a pitch to take out paid-inclusion listings after all pages suddenly dropped for "spam" reasons.

I don't doubt an ad rep might get a problem with editorial listings resolved. Body Shop founder Anita Roddick found this to be the case when an ad was pulled by Google last May.

Roddick ran ads because her site was ranked poorly for a search on "anita roddick." The ad was pulled because of a brief comment on her site against an actor, violating Google's policy of accepting ads from "anti-anything" sites. Discussion over removing the ad and Roddick's poor name visibility in editorial results revealed a problem with how Roddick's site was indexed. It was corrected, improving placement.

Is it corrupt when ad reps are involved this way? Not as long as they don't influence rankings. Is it fair those with accounts may get faster responses than those using Google's "free" email form? Probably not, but it's understandable and hardly Google specific.

The ad rep backdoor was a popular means of finally getting listed with Yahoo, before its paid submission program launched in 1999. In the bad old days, people could go months before they were listed. Many never got a response.

This happened to small and large sites. Larger sites running banners had an "in" at Yahoo: their ad reps. Though Yahoo has the same ad-editorial separation Google does, the two sides can talk. A suggestion from ad sales that an important site may have been overlooked is an effective way to get editorial to take another look.

"I don't think there's any preference between whether you talk to your AdWords rep or a user support person. It's just that there's so many of those emails," Cutts said.

Ideally, Google might have a service where owners could get their sites reviewed for potential problems. Users would benefit as well. How to cover the cost of creating such a service, especially given the demand? Google might have to charge, a route it wants to avoid.

"There's a fundamental conflict of interest," Cutts said. "That's the slippery slope that leads to paid inclusion."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Danny Sullivan

Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.

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