Check out this story in December 26th N.Y. Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/business/media/google-penalizes-rap-genius-for-gaming-search-rank.html?rref=technology&_r=0
The N.Y. Times reported “Google has punished a provocative music-lyrics website after learning it had unscrupulously tried to improve its search rankings.” (From the NY Times story).
This story wasn’t exactly buried. While it was not front page news, it appeared in the business pages of all the major newspapers and was discussed in many media and business blogs.
The most consequential implications of the story were missed, because it is commonplace for Google to make, (constantly) revise, and police the rules governing where sites get ranked on its pages. So, in many respects it was not really news.
Rap Genius was apparently caught by Google using “unscrupulous” methods to boost the number of links to its website. One of the mainstay factors in Google’s ever changing and mysterious algorithm for ranking websites, is the number of links to a site. A large number of links suggests, to Google, that the site is important and merits appearance on the first few pages of a search. Where a commercial website ranks can of course make or break a business.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of “search engine optimization” (SEO) tries to “game” the system in some manner by accumulating links to its site. Some methods, such as creating hundreds of phantom blogs or sites and then linking them to one’s main website, are clearly unscrupulous. Other approaches, such as using social networking to increase awareness of your site, are clearly appropriate, encouraged by all the SEO gurus, and advised by Google.
Many methods fall in a gray area. Rap Genius apparently induced music bloggers to link to its site by rewarding them with mentions and favorable treatment on its social media accounts, like Twitter and Facebook.
It is not abundantly clear to me how this method is materially different from other, approved SEO activities. Or that Rap Genius’ efforts were especially tricky or uncommon. But Google chose to make an example of the provocative service. The result: Rap Genius, for now, is removed from the front pages of Google searches. That could kill the business.
The most significant implications of this story are the potent reminders that…..
1) Google has enormous power to make or break a business.
2) Google’s methods and rules are opaque; understood only by businesses with the money to hire the best and brightest SEO experts.
3) Small business is at a distinct disadvantage in mastering Google.
4) The Internet has not leveled the playing field, as promised; to the contrary it has given bigger businesses a greater advantage; and….
5) Small businesses are preyed upon all the time by unscrupulous “SEO experts” who promise to make them “show up on all the search engines” for a “small” monthly fee, which (most often) means not much more than getting the company “registered” with Google and a few other search engines. First page? Fogettaaboutit, unless you have the money to game Google, in which case you could get punished. .
Another issue raised by this story is the willingness of many to entrust a private operator, like Google or Regence Blue Shield with decisions that can make or break a business or a human life, but scream at the idea of government performing the same functions.
I’m not advocating for a government agency to take over search engine rankings, but I would appreciate an articulation of why its OK for Google to have all this power, but not an agency run (albeit) by a “bureaucrat,” who has been appointed by someone actually elected by many people? Am genuinely interested in a good answer to that question. One possible answer is: Better to have multiple tyrants, each in their own sphere, rather than one tyrant dominating many spheres. Their ought to be a solution somewhere in between Google and the Federal Government.