I was already teaching Internet public relations when Google’s search engine first became popular. In those early days, I could search for the word “job,” and nine of the top-10 results were for a sex act, rather than employment sites.
Google quickly learned how to keep the porn merchants out of its search results. It wasn’t easy, because vendors of pornography were some of the earliest pioneers of search engine optimization (SEO). It’s thanks to them that SEO firms learned “black hat” techniques, such as “wallpapering,” where keywords are invisibly repeated thousands of times in the background of a page.
Today, Google’s safe search results are reasonably free of pornographic material. Unfortunately, they are often free of reasonable material, as well. Google is either aware of this and ignores the problem, or condones it because many of the low-quality or spam sites that dominate top search results use Google AdSense, and make money for Google. The company consistently denies that AdWords or AdSense have any impact on organic search results — but the only other explanation is that the spammers are smarter than Google, which I find harder to believe.
The Quality Problem
The problem with Google’s search results has frustrated many legitimate marketers for years. Until recently, few have been willing to speak out about it for fear of reprisals from the search giant. Eric Schmidt doesn”t take criticism very well. Many in my profession (Internet PR) feared Google’s “death penalty” — vanquished to the bottom of search results — if we spoke about the quality problem.
What quality problem? Why does it take Google months and an article from The New York Times to realize that JC Penney is gaming the search results? I could understand taking a few days, even a couple weeks to catch a clever cheater, but four months of obvious violations of Google’s criteria, and no smackdown?
How long would it take Google to catch porn merchants surging into search results for “Valentine’s Day?” Within a matter of minutes, any such attacks would be noticed and rebuffed. Why does it take so long to clean up organic search results — unless Google has a financial incentive to ignore the flagrant violations?
The Declining Ratio of Quality Sites
For 10 years, I have been teaching students at Tulane University how to responsibly market online, without spamming, without buying links, without resorting to cheap SEO tricks that never work for long. The answer, I teach, is to provide valuable content for your target audience. If you’re doing that, your search-engine position will improve over time, and it won’t be suddenly yanked away because you resorted to dirty tricks instead of value-added marketing.
In my book, Complete Guide to Internet Publicity (Wiley, 2002 — currently out of print), I describe how to conduct an ethical linkbuilding campaign. I advise students that they may have to visit 100 websites to find 20 that are worth pitching. That ratio held for nearly a decade.
About two years ago, things changed. I conducted a linkbuilding campaign for a client around the search term, “entrepreneurship.” In the top 100 Google search results, we could find only three websites that were worth asking for a link from. Approximately 80 of the top 100 results for “entrepreneur” were complete spam sites or link farms, containing nothing but links to other sites.
And the results were similar for all kinds of clients and all kinds of search terms. Finding a quality site in Google’s search results had become like looking for a needle in a haystack — a problem Google was founded to cure. If Google can keep the porn merchants out, who are infinitely persistent, sneakier, and more accomplished, why can’t they keep these clumsy link farms out?
Impossible Assignments and Obsolete Information
It has become harder for me to teach responsible Internet PR to college students because they can’t complete the assignments in a reasonable period of time:
- Find five quality websites to ask for a link from.
- Find five e-newsletters worth supporting.
- Find five top blogs to approach for a blog tour.
- Find five quality sites to syndicate an op-ed piece to.
The students complain that locating the sites takes hours. They turn in homework with lists of link farms that do not meet even simple criteria for a quality site. They can’t locate directories of quality sites that will help them in their search. It’s not just spam farms that Google directs them to, it’s also keyword-stuffed content and horribly out-of-date material.
Looking for a list of the top blogs? Google consistently refers you to a Forbes list which hasn’t been updated since 2004. Most of those blogs don’t exist anymore, or have been reborn as, you guessed it, link farms. Looking for “internet publicity“? Google still sends people to a site I created for Wiley in 1997 that hasn’t been updated in over 13 years.
My students ask, “If you say Google has these quality criteria, how come so many of the search results are spam sites?” Clients ask, “Why should I pay to produce quality content for my site when my competitors are besting me with paid links?” “Take the high road,” I advise them, “because sooner or later, Google will catch up to those paid link scams and punish those sites, whereas your investment in quality content will have long-term benefits.”
“Sooner or Later” has become “Someday or Never”
A few weeks ago, before the JC Penney link-buying article, I was helping a student with her homework. She was producing a mock online PR campaign for her Avon business and looking for sites to offer an article on Avon’s efforts to curb domestic violence. I suggested she Google the term, “beauty secrets,” to find sites used by her target audience of young women. Virtually all the top-10 search results were spam sites. There was, however, a Google ad for Avon in the sidebar. Does Google intentionally allow the organic results to get so bad that people click on the ads instead? It’s possible for a cynical person to draw such a conclusion.
Google supposedly has the smartest people in the world working on their sacred algorithm to yield the finest quality search results. Maybe they need to hire some stupid people, because even a moron can tell that organic search results are often yielding crap. If there’s one thing worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, it’s searching for a needle in a pile of manure.
Google should and can do better. This situation has been going on long enough. Fix the algorithm or forget the rhetoric and take your place as the king of all spam farms — a giant collection of paid links masquerading as a helpful resource.
Image: Screen capture of Google search results.
Steve O’Keefe is co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of SixEstate Communications, and the creator of Newsblogging. He has taught Internet PR at Tulane University since 2001, as well as courses for Stanford University, UCLA Extension and PRSA, among others. Steve wrote the bestselling book “Publicity on the Internet” in 1996.