Wednesday 16 November 2011

How to win attention and annoy people

Search Engine Optimisation is big business in IT. It’s just a pity it’s become so intrusive.

It used to be this simple
(Photo from

Can I have your attention please? I apologise in advance, but I am about to abuse my position as a software tester. No, I’m not going to sell confidential client information to Russian spies or anything like that, but I am nonetheless going to misuse this blog to further my personal interests outside of my job. All right. Are you ready? Let’s do a countdown and get this over with. 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …

Actually, you needn’t click there if you don’t want to. I’m not too fussed either way. For those who didn’t bother clicking, that was a link to my web site on play writing, which is what I do in my alternate life. I don’t care too much whether you view it – seriously, there can’t be that many people with interests in both software testing and theatre in the vicinity of Durham – but that’s not the purpose of the link. The purpose of the link is for Google and other search engines to know it’s there. Because the more links Google finds to your page, the higher it gets up the page rankings.

It used to be so much simpler. In the olden days, if you wanted some builders in Woking, you looked until “Builders” in the Yellow Pages. Builders and other businesses paid for advertising space, with more money for a bigger advert, and unless you traded as Aaron A. Aardvark or Zzacharias Z. Zzyzz, there wasn’t any real way of gaming the system. This all changed when the internet came along. The early search engines gave the top entry to whichever entry put the search term in the text and keywords the most often. This was a reasonable idea – after all, if you’re looking for a web page about Yorkshire, you probably don’t want a food menu from a pub in Dorset that happens to include Yorkshire puddings in its Sunday roast – but this inevitably resulted in every builder in Woking entering keywords of BUILDERS BUILDERS BUILDERS BUILDERS WOKING WOKING WOKING TRUSTWORTHY RELIABLE QUALITY etc. etc.

So when a couple of researchers at Stanford University came up with the idea of “PageRank”, which instead considered how many websites link to yours (and how prominent the linking pages are), Google became the overnight success we all know about. But anyone hoping for an end to search engine wars can be disappointed. I confess, I find chasing pageviews on this blog and my own site addictive, but I have better things to do than put links on as many sites as possible. If, however, you’re business dependent on web visibility, there’s a lot more at stake. And this is why Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is such big business.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to portray SEO companies as the bogeymen. Plenty of SEO techniques, such as placing appropriate links on other websites, are considered perfectly legitimate. I have absolutely no problems with my Google searches being made relevant to what I’m looking for. If I’m looking for builders in Woking, I’m quite happy for SEO companies to ensure that no-one I might be interested in gets overlooked. The problem is that once market forces come into play, a “relevant web experience” often means trying to bombard users with whatever gets money out of them. As soon as Google started judging importance on links from other sites, attention turned to these other sites – and the lengths some sites went to was astonishing. Blogs and open wikis used to get plagued with irrelevant links (with reasons for the link frequently no better than “check out this cool site”). Many platforms, including Wordpress and Wikipedia now use the “nofollow” tag to stop this practice paying off, but whether this actually deters link spammers is anyone’s guess.

The lengths some sites go to is astonishing. There is a big business is linkfarms: sites that serve no function other than trying to push up another page’s Google place. Sites that get caught by Google are, in effect, disqualified and put to the bottom of the list. One high-profile casualty in 2006 was BMW. Three years earlier, a company called SearchKing was rumbled and penalised for blatantly gaming the system, who promptly resolved by suing Google. They got nowhere, but it says something about how much some people consider buying their Google rank as entitlement.  Lately, Google appears to have gone to war with WebPosition Gold for sending automated queries to probe Google’s rankings (and, one might suspect, find the loopholes). But the question remains: how much of this practice goes undetected?

Then there’s the practice of drawing people to your site who were looking for something else. I got a surprising number of visitors to my blog entry about software patents who were looking for pictures of the Montgolfier brothers. That was purely by accident, but there is a growing suspicion this sort of thing is being exploited on purpose.  BMW was found to have redirected users to a site with far fewer keywords that the user searched for. It was claimed by Private Eye that journalists are encouraged to put popular search phrases into articles in order to increase web traffic, and therefore advertising revenue. There's no knowing where this will end.

Is there a solution to this? I honestly don’t know. I’ve previously argued you could solve the software patent problem by scrapping patents, but you can’t exactly solve this problem by scrapping search engines. It’s all very well telling Google to try harder, but they are already in a fight to stay one step ahead of the link spammers. I’m almost tempted to suggest a return to an internet version of the Yellow Pages, where people looking for adverts can go to a web page where prominence is once more governed by how much you pay for advertising cyberspace – but as paid adverts are an even bigger pain in the backside, I can’t the public buying into this idea.

Don’t get me wrong: no-one can deny the benefits that the internet has brought. People like me could not hope to get the word out on what they’re doing in the days of the printed media. And blaming Google for the search engine war that followed is like blaming YouTube for Justin Bieber. But I can’t help thinking that in the days of Yellow Pages, at least life was a lot simpler.

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