In what's believed to be the first lawsuit of its kind, an ad network and search marketer is taking Google to court over changes the popular search engine made to its page-ranking system.
Oklahoma City-based SearchKing, which represents text-based ad inventory on sites with a high Google Page Rank, filed suit in federal court that charges the search engine with unfair competition and interference with SearchKing's contractual relationships with affiliates.
According to SearchKing Chief Executive Bob Massa, sites in the company's three-month-old Page Rank Ad Network were "downgraded" in Mountain View, Calif.-based Google's system after the search engine caught wind of the fact that SearchKing was basing ad sales on sites' Page Rank. Page Rank is thought to be based on the number of unaffiliated links pointing to a site, and also widely believed to be one of the chief factors determining placement in Google's search results.
The downgrade, which SearchKing said reduced the affected sites' ranking in search results, also hurt traffic to his network, which in turn damaged ad sales, the complaint charges. It also affected SearchKing's own Page Rank, Massa said.
"From February of 2001 to last month, SearchKing's PageRank was seven," Massa said. "Within 30 days of launching PR Ad Network's services, our PageRank dropped to four."
As a result, the lawsuit asks for an injunction and damages in excess of $75,000.
"Due to the high value associated with Web page rank, the purposeful reduction of SearchKing and its related Web sites' page rankings has damaged SearchKing's reputation and diminished its value," the complaint reads. "Google, as a provider of a ranking system upon which the Internet community relies, must apply the system in a manner that is not arbitrary, nor aimed at restraint of trade."
Google has come under fire before for changes in its Page Rank system. Some Web site owners have charged that Page Rank unfairly discriminates against new sites, in favor of established sites that share links with other established sites. Google rarely describes in detail how the system functions, and spokespeople were not available for comment at press time.
However, the site has said that Page Rank is not the only factor in determining a site's position in search results. It also makes no guarantee that search results will remain unchanged after it updates its site index, which happens roughly every month.
Such changes often accompany changes in its search algorithm, which Google has used in the past to defeat search engine marketers who attempt to create networks of their own sites to share links with each other, thereby "artificially" boosting Page Rank. The practice is dubbed "link farming."
SearchKing itself has been viewed by some search engines as one of the firms attempting to create "link farms." In addition to operating the Page Rank Ad Network, it also offers search optimization services and hosts a series of interconnected Web sites on its servers.
However, Massa charges that the Page Rank Ad Network, and SearchKing's hosted sites -- dubbed "Portal Network" -- aren't, in fact, link farms, and shouldn't be banned as such by Google.
"It is so important for all of us to accept that few link farmers would go to the trouble and expense of a federal lawsuit if it was just about getting caught doing something wrong," he wrote in a letter to affiliates. "SearchKing's Portal Network is not a link farm. It is a network of small independent niche directories."
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