Lately there has been a flurry of coverage in the mainstream media about Google’s efforts to improve the quality of its organic (non-paid) search results. In the past two weeks we’ve seen articles in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal just to name a couple. Never before has the practice of search engine optimization, or SEO, received such prominent publicity.
The reasons behind SEO’s sudden fame are not very flattering, though. The story begins with Google’s rise to prominence in the search engine wars by delivering higher quality results than its competitors. It was common knowledge that nobody could “buy” their way to the top of Google’s organic search results, and whenever people tried to game the system, Google’s smackdowns were relatively swift and harsh.
Over the past 6 months there has been an increasing chorus of online complaints that Google’s organic results are being blatantly manipulated, and that many of the websites listed on Page 1 results are of poor quality. Search is a zero-sum game, so when poor results rank well, relevant results get pushed to page 2 and beyond. From our own observations, the complaints have merit. Google risks losing its industry dominance if it doesn’t clean up organic search.
Google’s latest tweaks have focused on two areas. The first relates to purchased links. This was the main indiscretion that JC Penney (or, better said, their search marketing firm) engaged in. Throughout the 2010 Holiday shopping season, those thousands of purchased inbound links helped the retailer dominate a wide swath of highly competitive one-word and two-word keywords, which, in turn, brought in huge traffic and enormous profits. Only after the story broke in the NY Times did Google manually intervene. But manual methods don’t scale well, and it still remains to be seen how Google manages to adjust for purchased links algorithmically.
The second area Google is trying to clean up is the explosion of poor-quality websites that monetize themselves through online ads. One of the major players that’s often mentioned in this regard is Demand Media, the rising content powerhouse that’s cranking out thousands of web pages per day on a variety of properties including its eHow self-help platform. Search engines have a tough time distinguishing between good and bad quality content. Indeed, we’ve found some of eHow’s content to be pretty useful ourselves. To this end, Google is starting to tap into user experience data from its Chrome browser to determine content quality. People tend to bounce off of poor-quality sites more quickly, and Google is able to mine this data from Chrome as well as the 70% of websites that run Google Analytics.
And you thought Google was just giving us free tools like Chrome and Analytics because, well, they’re so nice!