Google announced some significant changes to the way it ranks page results this past weekend to better weed out low quality sites that are used to prop up companies seeking to game the system. This move, chronicled best in The Wall Street Journal, follows the high-profile cases of J.C. Penney and Overstock.com, who both got caught using spam-filled link farms to capture the results of hundreds of searches. The ongoing cat and mouse game will continue as long as there are cats and mice, of course.
But here’s what I found most interesting in The Wall Street Journal’s article Saturday reporting on Google’s changes: widely-followed scholar and academic VivekWadhwa pronouncement that he had written off Google because of its allowing spammers to take control of search. When someone like Wadhwa dismisses the value of a Google search, that’s a problem for Google. Wadhwa does say that Google’s improvements made him “optimistic that they may well get this under control.” But more alarming, he told the Journal that, “It’s not rocket science; they know who the bad guys are, they compensate the companies” by letting them post Google ads and share revenue.
I wanted to know more about what’s behind Wadhwa’s dark view of internet search, so I went to his blog site to find out. Let me quote from a recent posting:
“But what has really changed in search [over the past 15 years]? We still go to the same text boxes, enter expressions that we hope the computer will understand, get back lists of web pages that reference those words, and click on links to find the information we are looking for. The only real difference is that now the top links take you to spam sites—which want you to click on other links that make them money and that make Google money. Creating low-quality, low-cost information pages has become such big business that the leading content farm, Demand Media, just went public and is valued at $1.9 billion. According to Blekko’s spam clock, over 1 million spam pages are created every hour. So the web is becoming one giant heap of trash.”
For organizations truly hoping to provide quality content across the internet in a legitimate desire to attract viewers, this isn’t good news. First, it makes every result that much more competitive with the spammers. Second, it undermines confidence from key audiences that search results will provide quality results. And third (and this isn’t really bad, just another challenge), it means that companies trying to target their audiences will have to broaden their outreach– through social networking sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, through traditional media and paid advertising, and through new avenues that emerge every day. Google will remain important, but if it doesn’t get the spam results under control, it may be soon relegated to oblivion.