Feature Article (Pub: May 07) The Ethics Behind Search Engines by Paul Rudman
For many years it has been made abudantly clear to the average Joe that there are things you can do and things you can't do to your website in order improve ranking placements, most of which are specified by the search engines themselves on their sites.
- Make it interesting
- Make it unique
- Keep updating it
- Hidden links
- Hidden text
What happens when good search engines go bad?
However is it always so black and white? An interesting example of a potential conflict of these rules surfaced recently, when it was highlighted in some of the more reputable blogs and search journals that the official Google blog featured a Flash search box on the Volkswagen site which is powered by Google enterprise search. Imagine everyones surprise when it turned out that Volkswagen were using a CSS class to make two paragraphs of text invisible to users - but not to search engines - which surely is a clear violation of Google's inclusion policy.
Whether you choose to accept the idea that this hidden text was accidentally overlooked by the folk at Google - or was politely ignored due to a big financial deal - is entirely up to you, but it's certainly not the first time that a major search engine has bent the rules for a company that they have a vested financial interest in.
I have some personal experience of this myself, as a few years back I worked on a project for a company in the UK that was planning a financially lucrative partnership with a major search engine. A few calls later and the relative sites I was working on appeared in rather prominent positions in very desirable locations. Was it ethically wrong of me to take advantage of this partnership between 2 companies for the benefit of my client? I'd say definitely not, if you were a client of CommerceTuned, wouldn't you expect us to do everything we could to get you high rankings and drive traffic (while not taking any risks that could get you penalised)?. However, that's not to say the offending search engine should have actually acted on my request, so it did raise the issue of a questionable moral decision on their part.
I very much doubt anything will be proven either way in the instance of the Volkswagen site and associated gaffe, but I think questionable decisions and favouriticism is something that will never go away with the seemingly neutral and independent major search engines who wield such potential power to make or break your business by giving or taking away a potentially rich source of traffic.
Remember when BMW Germany was temporarily banned from the Google index last year for hiding text on the site? I suppose the conspiracy theorists would suggest that they were re-included within the search index in just about record time, and the punishment may have been somewhat harsher for a company with less of a profile who probably spends a great deal less of Google associated services such as Adwords.
Anyway, this is something of interest, not something to view or discuss with anger. At the end of the day, Google and the other engines got to the top by making sense of the Internet for us at a great deal of expense to themselves, so why shouldn't they take the occasional shortcut or do one of their partners a favour from time to time? I've been in that boat, and I can assure you that if you do get a chance to get ahead or an advantage over your competitors you don't hesitate, so perhaps we should lay off these guys for a while and stop looking for ways to trip them up.
Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at CommerceTuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.