Earlier this year, Matthew Inman had achieved the notable distinction of vaulting a Web site called JustSayHi high into the results for a search on "online dating." But after he expanded his effort to new areas, Google obliterated the site from its search results.
Inman had used an aggressive technique called widget bait to get good search results, but had to scrap a site that had been used for years and start from scratch. He was caught in a gray area in a sometimes-shady industry called search engine optimization (SEO) where it can be tough to distinguish a clever trick from a dirty trick.
It's well known that Google wields tremendous economic power for those trying to use the Internet as a business tool: high search results can send customers to an out-of-the-way bed-and-breakfast. The SEO industry has sprung up to help customers find ways to get their Web sites high in search results, and its practitioners are always testing new methods.
Some "white-hat" methods pose no problems, but others range somewhere between crafty and definitely naughty "black-hat" techniques. Notwithstanding Google's belief that it's not so tough to comply with its guidelines, the trouble for SEO companies is the size of the gray area.
"Eighty percent is in the middle," said Sage Lewis, president of online marketing company SageRock, who believes his industry's reputation suffers as a result. "Some people consider SEOs to be spammers. If there were standards, that could make us more reputable."
Gaming Google PageRank Gaming the system is hardly new to the Internet. The quantity of plumbers with "AAA" in their company names shows how important alphabetical order was in the days when people found services through the phone book.
What's new with the Internet is the global breadth and the technological automation that figures into the search engine business.
Google got its start in search success with an algorithm initially called BackRub, later changed to its current name of PageRank. This technique judges the worth of a Web site based on how many other Web sites include hyperlinks to it, and on the worth of those other sites.
The result in SEO circles has been a wide variety of techniques to build as many of these inbound links. "Everything we do revolves around the power of the inbound link," said Matt Stoddart, executive vice president of sales at search marketing company LinkWorth. "The Web is like a popularity contest. Each inbound link counted like a vote."
Google, which wants to show the best Web results based on content rather than promotional budget, can penalize a site that uses paid links designed to manipulate search results. But links are bought and sold all the time, Stoddard said. … Read more