A British husband-and-wife team has been waging a three-year battle to get their price comparison Web site recognized by Google in a saga that sheds new light on the power of the world’s largest search engine.
Foundem.co.uk directs shoppers to online deals for goods such as TVs or flights, but has struggled since the day it suddenly disappeared from Google search results for these categories.
There is no evidence that Google is in any way being dishonest or unfair in the way that it ranks such Web sites, but Foundem’s fight to discover what happened has highlighted the ever-growing influence of its mysterious search algorithms.
Many consumers believe Google’s search engine works on a formula that was created by founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and that was that: They set it running and the rest is history.
In fact, as those in the Internet industry know, Google carries out regular “tweaks” of its algorithm. About 450 a year in fact. When they are made, the sheer scale of Google — it has an estimated 90 percent market share in Britain — means these can have huge and often unintended consequences.
Another example occurred about the time Foundem saw its traffic from the site drop off, when Google stopped returning results for Amazon.com for more than a day. The Internet retailer is a household name, so not appearing in Google’s results for a time is not the end of the world. However, for a start-up company, getting into Google’s results is a question of survival.
“A typical Web site in the UK receives around two in every five visits from search engines and obviously, the vast majority of those come via Google,” according to Robin Goad, research director at Hitwise UK, an Internet traffic monitor. “For a site that is selling things like Foundem then it is up to 60 percent to 70 percent of their traffic that comes from Google. It is definitely true that if you fall foul of the rules ... it can have a massive impact on your business.”
Exactly what those rules are is far from clear because Google does not want to give too much information away in order to avoid Web developers “gaming” the system and promoting sites that are not, in fact, relevant to users. That would lead users to try other search engines and affect its traffic.
Trying to find out why exactly your site has dropped off is difficult. You can fill out an online reconsideration request, but its wording makes it quite clear that Google assumes you have done something untoward and tried to game its system.
Foundem’s Shivaun Raff explains: “We sent reconsideration requests then started sending e-mails to as many people as we could find, expecting each time that this was just a failure of process, expecting that once our case was in front of people with the power to do something it would get fixed.”
But Google insists its search rankings are only ever driven by a desire to make results useful.
“We can’t comment on individual cases,” a spokesman said. “But our systems are designed to produce the most relevant and useful results for the people who use Google search.
“Where sites are adding little value or original content, they are likely to fall in our ranking. Surveys of our users show that what they most dislike when they search is to receive multiple results from sites showing the same or very similar content,” he said.
Foundem has been able to make revenues for the operation — which consists of just the two of them and a computer programmer friend — by offering their technology to other Web publishers. Foundem, for instance, currently runs the shopping comparison service for the Web site of Bauer Media’s Motorcycle News.
To become more well known and achieve a higher position on Google as more people link to you, of course, takes advertising, but again, the might of Google dominates the online advertising market in the UK, which is why the changes that happened in the summer of 2006 to Foundem’s scores within Google AdWords platform were so worrying for the company.
AdWords allows Web users to buy keywords in an online auction environment. When the keyword is used in a search by a Google user, that auction decides which ad appears either alongside or above Google’s “natural” search results.
However, it is not quite as simple as that. A Web owner could, in fact, outbid everyone else for a keyword and still not appear on Google if it does not have a high enough “quality score” (see sidebar).
What suddenly happened to Foundem a few weeks after it disappeared from Google’s search results was that its quality scores on Adwords dropped dramatically.
“Overnight all our quality scores went from excellent or very good to poor and very poor, and our cost per click went from five pence [US$0.08] to five pounds [US$8.20],” Shivaun said.
Google’s search team had alerted the AdWords team to the fact that Foundem was a poor quality Web site. As AdWords is the part of Google that has to deal with paying customers, its processes for dealing with potential problems is far more straightforward than in search.
Foundem contacted the AdWords team and was eventually able to persuade them that its Web site was relevant to Google’s users. It took a year — and then suddenly its quality scores went back up.
“Google uses algorithmic approaches to evaluate the site quality of AdWords landing pages,” a Google spokesman said. “No algorithm is perfect, so we have systems in place for the review of penalties based on human judgment and user feedback when appropriate. All of our algorithms and decisions are focused on improving user experience.”
However, it is odd that the fact that the Google AdWords team thinks a site is relevant to Google users has no bearing on whether its search business does. The connection only works the other way: If the search team does not think a Web site is relevant to users, they alert AdWords.
Google maintains that this one-way street is critical: “One of the core principles underpinning Google’s Web search has always been that natural search rankings [are] made independently of whether a Web site advertises with us. Both natural search and AdWords make automatic quality assessments to help the ranking process, but each system looks primarily at different signals, which we publish in our guidelines.”
Exactly how AdWords operates is to be tested in the US courts by a company called TradeComet.com, owner of search engine SourceTool.com, which has accused Google of “engaging in predatory conduct to block search traffic by imposing massive, unjustified price increases” through the system.
That case, and the now three-year saga of Foundem, are likely to raise concerns about the power of Google, something already worrying politicians in Britain.
“There is a real risk that Google, entirely unintentionally, could limit innovation simply because of its dominance,” according to Peter Luff, the Conservative party’s chairman of the Business and Enterprise Committee.
“I don’t ... believe that the organization ever seeks to behave in anything but the most socially responsible way — but monopolies will always act in their own best interests, and those interests may not coincide with those of the rest of us.
“Google is just too dominant for any of us to feel entirely comfortable,” he said.
How Google works
Google’s search algorithm relies on more than 200 individual signals to decide what sorts of site are relevant to its Web searchers. These start with PageRank, the breakthrough bearing the surname of Google’s co-founder Larry Page, which measures a Web site’s relevance by the number of other sites linked to it, and extends to measures of unique content and whether text on the page is replicated — either on the site itself or elsewhere on the Web — and even whether it is spelt correctly.
One problem faced by Foundem is that, as a price comparison service, its raison d’etre is to pull in information from elsewhere on the Web, so a lot of text — such as product descriptions — will be replicated.
Google says its users do not want to be presented with a list of options on the site they visit, while the Foundem pair point out that this is, in essence, all that Google itself does. Meanwhile, Foundem results are appearing relatively highly on Yahoo and Bing — Microsoft’s search engine.
Relevance is also crucial for Google’s AdWords platform. It assigns a quality score for each bid for a keyword — the word used in a user’s search query that will trigger an ad. A high-quality score means a lower cost per keyword. That, plus a high click-through rate, will get the ad placed higher on the Google page than other ads even though rival advertisers may have spent more on their keywords.
Working out what works with Adwords is very complex, and like Google’s search system has spawned an industry of people who claim to know exactly how to place advertisers high on Google’s results.
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