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5/5/2005
04:49 PM
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Goosing Google: Is It Worth A Slap In The Face?

So you've got a small or medium-sized business. You're doing pretty well but you want to do even better. You've got a Web site and your logs tell you that 30% of your new orders are coming through referrals from search engines like Google and Yahoo. Not bad. But you want to do even better because you know that everyone in the world has access to the Internet, and wouldn't it be great if at anytime, anywhere someone wanted what you sell, they'd see your site first when they searched for your prod

So you've got a small or medium-sized business. You're doing pretty well but you want to do even better. You've got a Web site and your logs tell you that 30% of your new orders are coming through referrals from search engines like Google and Yahoo. Not bad. But you want to do even better because you know that everyone in the world has access to the Internet, and wouldn't it be great if at anytime, anywhere someone wanted what you sell, they'd see your site first when they searched for your product? So you Google the product you're selling and see how your site ranks. Unfortunately, your site doesn't show up until page five of the listings, and every one of your competitors' sites is listed on page one."That's not fair!" you think. "My product is 10 times better than my competitors'. Google should have me up in the top position!"

But Google isn't in the business of rating products, it's in the business of rating Web sites. So how do you get your Web site to rate better in Google's eyes?

Well, as it turns out, there are hundreds of search-engine optimization (SEO) companies out there whose business is based on helping someone like you make your site look better to Google (or Yahoo or MSN Search or any one of the other dozens of search engines out there). Like most things, though, the rule of caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies here, too. There are businesses that do things the right way, and there are businesses that don't always follow the straight and narrow.

The more unscrupulous companies practice what is known as search-engine spamming. Now everyone knows what spam is. That's the stuff we have to clean out of our E-mail in-boxes every morning that promise instantly enlarged body parts or riches from faraway nations just waiting to be deposited into our bank accounts. But how do you spam a search engine?

Basically, these companies will take what they know (or what they think they know) about how Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search rate Web pages, and then "tweak" your site to trick these search engines into thinking your site deserves to be rated higher. Here are some of the more prevalent tricks:

  • Doorway pages: This is a page loaded with nothing but links going back to your site. Sprinkle a few of these doorway pages around and lo and behold, look at all those links going to your site. Must mean that your site's pretty important, huh?
  • Satellite sites: Similar to doorway pages, but instead of just having links on the page, why not add some content that's on the same topic as your site? But let's not go into the effort of actually developing new content on these pages, we can just duplicate the pages you already have, over and over and over again. And then just keep cross-linking these sites to each other. Oh yeah, that'll fool Google.
  • Keyword stuffing: Hey, I know you just sell tennis shoes, but what if we stuff keywords into your Web pages like "Angelina Jolie," "Brad Pitt," "Star Wars," or whatever topic is currently hot? Then anyone searching to find out about the new Star Wars movie will see your site selling tennis shoes. Imagine how many new orders you'll get. Why you'll be picking out the carpeting for your private jet in no time.
  • Hidden text: All right, it's true that Google no longer uses the information in the keywords meta tag to rank pages. So let's just take the keywords out of the tag and put them into the body of your page. Of course, that'd just look like gibberish to your real customers coming to your site, so we'll make the text white and put it in front of a white background. That way it's invisible to your customer, but the Google spider will still find it. Now, are you sure just one private jet will be enough?

Will these tricks work? Yes. In the short term they will help bump your site up a few positions on search engine results. Is it illegal to do this? No. As with most things regarding Internet law, lawmakers just can't keep up with the pace of innovation. So what's the downside, why wouldn't everyone do this?

Ah, here's the catch: Even though Google's spider will give you the temporary bump up, it'll also log in your site as a possible spam violation. Eventually, an extremely well-qualified software engineer from Google is going to go to your site and look through your source code, click through your links, and investigate the other sites that are linking to your site. And if he or she determines that you're engaging in search-engine spam, that person will ban your offending pages, or even your entire site if the violations are egregious.

So now 30% of those new orders from Google have dried up. You're out the money you paid for the "tweaks" you got. And you have to pay another company to clean up your site. Then you have to politely and respectfully ask Google to reinstate your site into its index. Ultimately, you just have to ask yourself: Was it worth it? After all, it's your business, you're not doing anything illegal (unethical, maybe, but not illegal). So as long as you know what your risks and benefits are, the final decision must be yours.

But I wouldn't put a deposit down on that jet quite yet.

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