TNG/Earthling : Holding Google To Account
by Lisa Page, ThisIsBattle : lisa @ thisisbattle.com
TNG/Earthling has been responsible for the development and the high ranks of this and many other websites.
From his digs on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, Bob Sakayama has been running into some very interesting stuff on his watch, a lot of it coming from the dark side of search. These are stories where legitimate online businesses are harmed by actions taken through the search. These could be bad players with SEO knowledge who can hack sites to plant links and content that then push rank by stealing the credibility of the hacked site. But actions that harm businesses are also taken in very large numbers by the biggest player in the game, Google, attempting to protect the credibility of their search by penalizing sites that violate their guidelines. When investigating penalties on behalf of clients, Bob and his team at TNG/Earthling discovered proof that, in spite of Google's denials, there were operators already in business, successfully triggering Google penalties on behalf of competitors - using Google to harm the competition. Then imagine a similarly successful, ongoing effort to advance ranks, where money and technology are used to insert results at the top. Either way, Google needs to be held more accountable, especially when innocent people or businesses are harmed by their actions.
High page one search results are super valuable because they can be monetized. They deliver the traffic that's searching for what you're selling. Or the service you offer. Or the information you provide. Or the potential for engagement. Getting to the top of the search is the holy grail of an online presence. The organic search results are far more trusted than Google Ads on the same results page. High organic ranks bring revenue, but also stature.
So you might expect the top positions in Google's search results to be positions honestly earned because the nature and quality of their information best answers the query. Google tries to do this. They advise webmasters to create sites with unique content, useful information, written by credible authors, providing expertise, trustworthy and accountable practices. Businesses hire SEO professionals to tweak the factors on and off the site that are known to optimize ranks. Google rewards sites that have inbound links pointing to them from other sites, so SEOs have included link building as a billable service, driving credible arguments that links are still at the heart of successful efforts to game the ranks. Early on, Google made a huge misjudgement in not assigning a quality test to these links, which resulted in the widespread buying of links and the corruption of their search results - read about it here.
Since the very early days of Google, buying and selling links to advance ranks has been commonplace. This is probably the biggest penalty trigger, because it's so lo-tech and accessible. Bob has extracted many sites, both large and small, from penalties triggered by SEOs buying links. The most interesting and telling observation is that attempting to game Google in this way has become mainstream. This NY Times post about JCPenney getting caught is a good indicator that it's not just outliers trying to fool Google. This story is from 2011 but in so many ways nothing has changed - the competition for high ranks involves a secret selection process that happens behind closed doors. If someone could insert a website high in the search results no one is going to know. Google certainly will not announce any discovery like this. The JCPenney humiliation also set a great example for the perpetrators of rank manipulation - they made a lot of sales over the holidays, they were not penalized by Google (they only lost the ranks they gamed), and if it weren't for the press, there wouldn't even have been any embarrassment. But the one who was most embarrassed was Google, and their humiliation likely drove a tech effort to detect and disrupt rank insertions of any kind. But, given what's at stake, do you really think there are no techniques that can productively manipulate Google's search results?
There have been many instances documented by TNG/Earthling's team, where Google's search results got played by those who used Google's algorithm to advantage sites they controlled - here's a good example. They brilliantly crafted strategies that played to the factors Google uses to rank sites. These factors include relevant keywords embedded in content - but even more important is the authority of the domain, so an article published on harvard.edu would have an advantage over content posted to a less authoritative site. The above linked post reveals the link scheme involved hacking a powerful site, like the major university sites, and then hijacking that power to artificially rank casino affiliates on Google's page 1. They also pointed links from hacked sites to advance their ranks - links are a primary ranking signal for Google. Links from authority sites are seen as "votes" for content on another site, and as such are highly valued by Google's algorithm.
Because these techniques are clearly in violation of Google's guidelines, anyone using them has to be concerned about detection, and sophisticated tactics are in play. And technical skills beyond SEO serve a major role in some of these incidents. Cloaking is good example, by showing different content to the Googlebot than is displayed for a normal visitor. So they might show Google a page on a school website, but everyone else sees links to casinos.
A skillful hacker can expedite a rank manipulation by influencing 2 ranking factors. A hack can take over a page on an authoritative domain, use it to show the casino links to everyone but the original school content to Google. And by hacking other authoritative sites the manipulators can post powerful links to the content they want to rank.
It's obviously in Google's interest to stop the gaming of their search results, and they've been very successful in automated detection of certain kinds of tactics, and removing the offending sites from their results. But given the value of high ranks, there will always be some very smart people working to jump the queue. And for those who discover such a technique, a gold mine. It has been an ongoing condition of online business in the past so if it's continuing, that would not be unusual. Given the history of failures we've seen in the past, and the potential for harm to people and businesses, is anyone holding Google to account?