I know... Google art holier than thou... We should all drop to our knees and beg to sit in the presence of such geniuses, for we poor dim-witted bastards are not fit to wash their feet.
I just love pointing out when Google does something awful. Anything I can do really to fight the halo effect. Certainly there are some things Google has done well and some things they have done not so well -- but if ever there was a company that produces a halo effect, Google has it in spades. If we were to call a spade a spade however we would see that they are moderately innovative and make mistakes just like everybody else.
Earlier today I just happened across a good example... or something I thought was a good example. On closer inspection it turned out to be something other than I thought it was.
Google has created what is widely considered to be the best search engine available. It is indeed an innovative algorithm which seems to produce more relevant results much of the time. Even that is hard to quantify however, which is why there's still such a thriving SEO industry and why if you search for "used car portland", it remains that the top ranked sites are the ones who've spent the most time and more importantly money to get there in spite of the fact that it's described as "organic placement".
I will say that I applaud Google for spending quite a bit of time and energy working to eliminate "black hat" SEO techniques, even to the point of banning sites which use obvious mechanical techniques in an attempt to artificially inflate their results. You can't for example create a hidden div at the bottom of your jet-ski dealership home page containing the string "sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex crochet sex" and expect your Google ranking to improve because a bunch of people surfing for sex (and crochet) are finding your site (no matter how sexy you might think your jet-skis are). At least you can't expect to improve your ranking that way without there being some kind of repercussions if that ploy succeeds.
On the other hand, "organic" placement really ought not be inflated by advertising -- in as much as it's possible to control that sort of thing. Obviously there's not a lot Google can do about the fact that there are loads of different ways to advertise on websites and they're not going to be able to identify every form of advertising. Off the top of my head, I wouldn't expect them to be able to filter out for example forum-spam where someone found an exploit in PHPBB and uses that as a means of posting hundreds or thousands of Viagra ads into unrelated forums across the web.
If however it's something that Google definitely can control, particularly something they created in the first place, then I'd kind of expect them to control it.
Earlier today I received several "eCards" from JupiterGreetings.com. Normally I don't look at eCards. Most of the time I expect them to be either viral or phishing and simply delete them (and I didn't have a positive opinion of them before "phishing" became a household word either). These several had come from someone I know and my first instinct was to think that he'd been infected with a virus. So obviously I didn't want to just go straight to the eCard site, even in FireFox because I have no illusions about FireFox being immune to exploits. (Speaking of FireFox, have I mentioned the halo effect?)
Instead I typed the name of the eCard site into Google along with the word "virus". The very first hit on that search was one on their website, so obviously not one I want to look at. The 2nd hit was this entry on creativebits about the potential for a virus that affects Apple's OS X operating system for the Mac. (Speaking of Apple, have I mentioned the halo effect?)
Market share is still the big reason that there aren't viruses for Mac OS X. People find exploits in unix builds just the same way they find exploits in Windows builds and they could just as likely find them in OS X. They don't simply because Macintosh still lacks the market share. In a few years when their marketing has succeeded in carving a larger section of the home-user market for the Mac and virus authors have developed the skill-set to locate exploits on them, we'll be seeing blog postings from Windows zealots showing this Mac ad with the obligatory title "PWNED!". (Speaking of Microsoft, have I mentioned the halo effect?)
But this isn't about Mac, this is about Google. Remember I said I would expect Google to be able to filter out anything that might influence organic placement such as advertising if (and this is the key point) it was something they could control, particularly something they created. Well although there is mention of viruses in that article, there's no mention of JupiterGreetings in the content of that article. The rest of the first page of results are pretty much identical for the search terms "JupiterGreetings" and "virus". None of them actually mention JupiterGreetings in the content. They do however all have something in common.
They all display Google Ads.
It took me several minutes of looking at these pages (minutes I'm not sure most people would have taken) to realize that some of them aren't displaying Google Ads (or at least don't display the word "Google"). Then I realized they all have something else in common. They're all owned by Jupiter Media and every one of them, no matter how marginally related to their greeting card business has this plate of links at the bottom of every page on their site:
So much for "organic placement". I realize search engines in general are a "best effort". However this strikes me as being another one of those cases in which "technically correct" may not be the best policy.
"Hermes Conrad, you are technically correct, the best kind of correct!"
I've heard from SEO specialists that this is a good and "correct" way to get "organic placement" on the search engines, the way Google wants me to improve my rankings... However, given that Jupiter Media is just a giant faceless corporate entity with millions of dollars to throw at their marketing efforts (since they obviously own a wide array of at best marginally related companies), I wonder that this doesn't really look more like favoritism. That Jupiter Media gets away with doing this with sites and content that have little or nothing to do with one another merely because they're part of the "big media" clique.
Obviously some of them are related, for example several of the companies listed are obviously stock photo companies. That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is that an eCard site has an at best tenuous relationship to stock photos, stock video or stock music. If I'm searching for stock photography, I fail to see how that has any relationship at all to "Crank City Music" except by the very tenuous point that they happen to be owned by the same parent company Jupiter Media (a point which has zero relevancy to my desire for stock photos).
If I started several small businesses out of my home and those businesses were about scuba diving, crochet, poodle grooming and hibachi, would I be allowed to drive traffic to my poodle grooming business by splashing it with scuba diving and hibachi content? Or would that be considered spamdexing? I obviously don't know what the conventional wisdom is here. I'm not an SEO expert, but this just seems to me like a sleazy thing for them to be doing to improve their SEO ranking. Is this actually sleazy or am I biased because they run an eCard site and I have a halo influence from my poor opinion of eCards?