Google: Can the Marcia Brady of Search Stay Sweet? Part 2

In part one of this series, I suggested Google is like Marcia Brady — the star of the search engine family. A quote from Marcia herself is applicable to Google: “Oh, my nose!”

Oh, My Nose! Oh, My Links!

It comes from an episode in which a football hits Marcia, causing her nose to swell to gigantic proportions. The Google connection? Links. Google uses links as part of its ranking algorithms. They’ve always been an asset. Over the past few months, the popular impression of how important links are to Google has grown to the point where other factors are being forgotten. Like Marcia’s nose, everyone pounding on about Google’s link use obscures other features of its face.

The popularity of the Google Toolbar has made it easy for someone to measure the “importance” Google places on her page. Google gives every page a “PageRank” score, a measure of how important the page is deemed to be based on links pointing to it.

The PageRank display is significant in that no crawler-based search engine ever before allowed site owners such direct feedback about the quality of their pages. You can immediately see if your page has a good or bad score in clear numerical format. As a consequence, people are increasingly obsessed with pushing scores higher and panicking if they get no score, or the dreaded “gray toolbar.”

PageRank for Sale! Anyone Want Some PageRank?

The Google Watch site provides one example of PageRank obsession, where the argument is made that only pages with high PageRank will ever rank well at Google. Untrue, because PageRank is only one of many factors Google uses to rank pages.

Context of links is extremely important. Words used in or near links that point to a page help define that page for Google and play a critical role in determining what the page will rank well for. Traditional on-the-page factors remain important. Does a page use the terms searched for? Do the words appear “high” in the document? Are the terms in the title tag? All are taken into account.

“We do have over 100 factors, and that is something that people gloss over,” Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer who deals with Webmaster issues, said.

PageRank obsession hit a new high last month, with the first overt attempt by a third party to cash in on PageRank, when the PR Ad Network debuted. The network sells text links from pages with high PageRank to advertisers wanting to build traffic, presumably by getting PageRank transmitted to them.

A threat to Google’s relevancy? Probably not. Just getting a link from a high-ranking page isn’t enough. There are many other factors that influence ranking.

Nevertheless, it sounds bad. It makes it seem as if Google can be controlled via links, in the same way some bloggers earlier this year asserted that they could push any site up by Google Bombing.

Neither bloggers nor the PR Ad Network individually threaten Google, but the emphasis on building links solely for search engine ranking purposes could ultimately have an impact — not just on Google, but on any crawler-based search engines relying on link analysis. In the near term, though, link analysis will likely continue as the main way crawler-based results are saved from being drowned out by spam.

Loving Marcia

Google’s popularity is its weakness. It’s facing increasing pressure from Webmasters desperate to be listed well in editorial results. These site owners and marketers may try to hold Google to a higher standard, as happened to AltaVista.

In 1997, AltaVista came under fire for listing only 600 of 6,000 pages at the Federation of American Scientists’ Web site — far more than any of its competitors. Regarded as a search engine that “mattered,” AltaVista faced greater pressure.

Google’s importance caused the Google Watch site last month to suggest it might need to be regulated as if it were a public utility.

“Yahoo holds the power to so many Internet businesses,” a reader wrote in 1997. At the time, people were dismayed there was no organized, guaranteed way to get listed on Yahoo An online mall, denied a Yahoo listing, cried foul, saying Yahoo “acts as a public enterprise on the Internet” and thus faced responsibilities.

Today, no one thinks Yahoo needs regulation. It’s an important search engine but clearly does not control what people visit on the Web. If Yahoo doesn’t, neither does Google. The fact Google has competition is why the company does not face anger like that aimed at Microsoft.

People choose where they search. Many chose Google. They seek it out. Google’s not viewed as having gained market share through deals that unfairly push out competitors, as Microsoft has been accused of doing. If Google “crushes” competition, it’s because positive word of mouth drives users to the site.

Though Webmasters may have concerns about being listed on Google, the vast majority are appreciative of the traffic they receive. They feel they get that traffic because Google’s system works.

As long as a number of good search engines exist, there’s little reason to “fear” Google. It may seem a “Google, Google, Google” world, but there’s no guarantee it will stay this way. It didn’t with AltaVista and Yahoo If Google fails its audience or misuses its power, users will vote with their feet (or mice).

“We have very poor lock in. Microsoft has very high lock in,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, at Google’s offices last month. “The switchover cost for you to move to one of our competitors is none. As long as the costs are so low, we run scared. Every day, I wonder if there are very smart people at Berkeley coming up with a new algorithm,” he adds — but in a way that clearly suggests that he wants Google to run scared to keep the company smart and honest.

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