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As of 12:14 a.m. EST Wednesday, February 26, 2003


Web Sites Try Everything To Climb Google Rankings
Search Engine Punishes Firms That Try To Game System and Improve Exposure

By MICHAEL TOTTY and
MYLENE MANGALINDAN
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Joy Holman sells provocative leather clothing on the Web. She wants what nearly everyone doing business online wants: more exposure on Google.

So from the time she launched exoticleatherwear.com last May, she tried all sorts of tricks to get her site to show up among the first listings when a user of Google Inc.'s popular search engine typed in "women's leatherwear" or "leather apparel." She buried hidden words in her Web pages intended to fool Google's computers. She signed up with a service that promised to have hundreds of sites link to her online store -- thereby boosting a crucial measure in Google's system of ranking sites.

The techniques worked, for a while. Ms. Holman's leather site climbed to as high as No. 1 in Google's search results and was receiving as many as 26,000 visitors a month. Then, suddenly, her site all but vanished from Google. Ms. Holman claims Google deliberately removed her from its listings. "I thought I would have a really good Christmas," Ms. Holman says. "I probably lost thousands in sales."

Google won't say if it deliberately demoted exoticleatherwear.com, but Ms. Holman apparently ran afoul of the company's fierce desire to protect its search formulas. The skirmish is part of an arms race between big search engines such as Google and a cottage industry of search-engine "optimizers" -- companies that help merchants climb to the top of search results.

[Portrait] "You have this war going on," says Susan Feldman, an analyst with IDC, a market-research company. "Search engines are trying to be as accurate and impartial as possible, and enterprises that want to be in the top 10 are engaged in all sorts of machinations to get noticed."

Google's site has become the prime battleground because of its unprecedented power over the Web. Barely four years old, Google has grown largely by word of mouth to become the place where most people start to look for something on the Internet. Three-quarters of all online searches use Google or sites that use Google's search results, according to WebSideStory Inc., a San Diego-based Web analytics company. "Googling" has become a synonym for searching online. In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a man in a bar says, "I can't explain it -- it's just a funny feeling that I'm being Googled."


Popularity Contest

Google works by sending "crawlers" across the Internet and using its 10,000 computers to update its index of about three billion Web pages. A site is ranked largely by the number of other sites that "link" or point to it, making Google a kind of online popularity contest. Each link is treated as a vote, with more weight given to links from more important sites, and a site with more votes will have a higher Google ranking.

Because of its importance, Google can make or break businesses that sell over the Web. It's the new "location, location, location" for online retailers, for whom ranking at the top of a Google search is the Web equivalent of landing a choice corner on Miracle Mile or Fifth Avenue.

Some optimizers and Web sites claim that Google is unfairly punishing them. Last fall, an Oklahoma Web company, SearchKing Inc., saw its ranking plunge on Google after it began selling online advertising that tried to capitalize on Google's formula for ranking sites. In effect, SearchKing was offering its clients a chance to boost their own Google rankings by buying ads on more-popular sites. SearchKing filed suit against the search company in federal court in Oklahoma, claiming that Google "purposefully devalued" SearchKing and its customers, damaging its reputation and hurting its advertising sales.

Google won't comment on the case. In court filings, the company said SearchKing "engaged in behavior that would lower the quality of Google search results" and alter the company's ranking system.

Google, a closely held company founded by Stanford University graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page, says Web companies that want to rank high should concentrate on improving their Web pages rather than gaming its system. "When people try to take scoring into their own hands, that turns into a worse experience for users," says Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer.

Coding Trickery

Efforts to outfox the search engines have been around since search engines first became popular in the early 1990s. Early tricks included stuffing thousands of widely used search terms in hidden coding, called "metatags." The coding fools a search engine into identifying a site with popular words and phrases that may not actually appear on the site.

Another gimmick was hiding words or terms against a same-color background. The hidden coding deceived search engines that relied heavily on the number of times a word or phrase appeared in ranking a site. But Google's system, based on links, wasn't fooled.

Mr. Brin, 29, one of Google's two founders and now its president of technology, boasted to a San Francisco search-engine conference in 2000 that Google wasn't worried about having its results clogged with irrelevant results because its search methods couldn't be manipulated.

That didn't stop search optimizers from finding other ways to outfox the system. Attempts to manipulate Google's results even became a sport, called Google bombing. Pranksters would try to bump a site to the top of Google by creating a series of links using a particular search phrase. In an early example, a Stanford University student in 2001 created a series of links to make a friend's Web site appear on Google for the phrase "talentless hack." In another highly publicized instance, anyone searching on Google for particular obscene phrase would call up a site that sold President George W. Bush memorabilia.

Search-engine optimizers also found they could boost their clients' sites by creating Web sites that were nothing more than collections of links to the clients' site, called "link farms." Since Google ranks a site largely by how many links or "votes" it gets, the link farms could boost a site's popularity.

In a similar technique, called a link exchange, a group of unrelated sites would agree to all link to each other, thereby fooling Google into thinking the sites have a multitude of votes. Many sites also found they could buy links to themselves to boost their rankings.

Ms. Holman, the leatherwear retailer, discovered the consequences of trying to fool Google. The 42-year-old hospital laboratory technician, who learned computer skills by troubleshooting her hospital's equipment, operates her online apparel store as a side business that she hopes can someday replace her day job.

When she launched her Exotic Leather Wear store from her home in Mesa, Ariz., she quickly learned the importance of appearing near the top of search-engine results, especially on Google. She boned up on search techniques, visiting online discussion groups dedicated to search engines and reading what material she could find on the Web.

At first, Ms. Holman limited herself to modest changes, such as loading her page with hidden metatag coding that would help steer a search toward her site when a user entered words such as "haltertops" or "leather miniskirts." Since Google doesn't give much weight to metatags in determining its rankings, the efforts had little effect on her search results.
[Chart]


She then received an e-mail advertisement from AutomatedLinks.com, a Wirral, England, company that promised to send traffic "through the roof" by linking more than 2,000 Web sites to hers. Aside from attracting customers, the links were designed to improve her site's search-engine rankings by taking advantage of Google's link-popularity system.

AutomatedLinks claims to be different from other link-popularity schemes, such as link farms. For an annual fee of $22, Automated links will outfit a customer's Web site with an invisible piece of code that contains links to hundreds of other AutomatedLinks clients, according to its Web site. The service creates a kind of daisy-chain of "links" or mutual references, where the sites vote for each other and increase their rankings on Google.

In theory, when Google encounters the AutomatedLinks code, it treats it as a legitimate referral to the other sites and counts them in toting up the sites' popularity.

Shortly after Ms. Holman signed up with AutomatedLinks in July, she read on an online discussion group that Google objected to such link arrangements. She says she immediately stripped the code from her Web pages. For a while her site gradually worked its way up in Google search results, and business steadily improved because links to her site still remained on the sites of other AutomatedLinks customers. Then, sometime in November, her site was suddenly no longer appearing among the top results. Her orders plunged as much as 80%.

Ms. Holman, who e-mailed Google and AutomatedLinks, says she has been unable to get answers. But in the last few months, other AutomatedLinks customers say they have seen their sites apparently penalized by Google. Graham McLeay, who runs a small chauffeur service north of London, saw revenue cut in half during the two months he believes his site was penalized by Google.

The high-stakes fight between Google and the optimizers can leave some Web-site owners confused. "I don't know how people are supposed to judge what is right and wrong," says Mr. McLeay.

AutomatedLinks didn't respond to requests for comment. Google declined to comment on the case. But Mr. Cutts, the Google engineer, warns that the rules are clear and that it's better to follow them rather than try to get a problem fixed after a site has been penalized. "We want to return the most relevant pages we can," Mr. Cutts says. "The best way for a site owner to do that is follow our guidelines."

Crackdown

Google has been stepping up its enforcement since 2001. It warned Webmasters that using trickery could get their sites kicked out of the Google index and it provided a list of forbidden activities, including hiding text and "link schemes," such as the link farms. Google also warned against "cloaking" -- showing a search engine a page that's designed to score well while giving visitors a different, more attractive page -- or creating multiple Web addresses that take visitors to a single site.

To stay one step ahead of the Web sites, Google frequently tweaks its search algorithm -- the formula it uses to rank sites. It also relies heavily on the search-engine optimizers themselves to report egregious examples of trickery.

While Google approves of optimizers that help a site improve its content or design, it recently revised its Webmaster guidelines to warn against firms that, among other things, promise to guarantee a top Google ranking.

As evidence of the dangers of running afoul of Google, optimizers point to Oklahoma City-based SearchKing, an online directory for hundreds of small, specialty Web sites. SearchKing also sells advertising links designed both to deliver traffic to an advertiser and boost its rankings in Google and other search results.

Bob Massa, SearchKing's chief executive, last August launched the PR Ad Network as a way to capitalize on Google's page-ranking system, known as PageRank. PageRank rates Web sites on a scale of one to 10 based on their popularity, and the rankings can be viewed by Web users if they install special Google software. PR Ad Network sells ads that are priced according to a site's PageRank, with higher-ranked sites commanding higher prices. When a site buys an advertising link on a highly ranked site, the ad buyer could see its ratings improve because of the greater weight Google gives to that link.

Shortly after publicizing the ad network, Mr. Massa discovered that his site suddenly dropped in Google's rankings. What's more, sites that participated in the separate SearchKing directory also had their Google rankings lowered. He filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma City federal court, claiming Google was punishing him for trying to profit from the company's page-ranking system.

A Google spokesman won't comment on the case. In its court filings, Google said it demoted pages on the SearchKing site because of SearchKing's attempts to manipulate search results. The company has asked for the suit to be dismissed, arguing that the PageRank represents its opinion of the value of a Web site and as such is protected by the First Amendment.

"The big search engines determine the laws of how commerce runs," says Mr. Massa, who is persisting with the lawsuit even though the sites have had their page rankings partly restored. "Someone needs to demand accountability."

Google is taking steps that many say could satisfy businesses trying to boost their rankings. Google has long sold sponsored links that show up on the top of many search-results pages, separate from the main listings. Last year, the company expanded its paid-listings program, so that there are now more slots where sites can pay for a prominent place in the results. Many sites now are turning to advertising instead of tactics to optimize their rankings.

That's what Ms. Holman has done to keep up visibility for her Web site. Now she pays as much as $70 a month to appear in Google's paid listings. "You have no other alternative but to pay," she says. "I'm really frustrated that I don't have any other recourse. I've got to be in there somehow."



Write to Michael Totty at michael.totty@wsj.com
and Mylene Mangalindan at mylene.mangalindan@wsj.com

Updated February 26, 2003 12:14 a.m. EST


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