Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lies, damned lies, and SEO

A few weeks ago, a story ricocheted around the Internet about a 13-year-old boy who stole his father’s credit card to hire hookers to play videogames with him in a Texas motel. The problem is that the story wasn’t the least bit true.

But the reaction to the widely discussed hoax was not outrage from many of the publishers and marketers who ply the web for fun and profit. Much to the contrary, several celebrated the stunt, offering hearty congratulations to the perpetrator.

They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

With the Internet the greatest, most open and most accessible forum for information, opinion and entertainment in human history, those of us who appreciate this modern miracle must take its stewardship seriously. And that means working hard to assure the reliability and the usefulness of the information we publish.

But that’s not how many cynics see it.

Hailing the tsumani of traffic the hooker story drove to the originating site, web professionals like Jane Copeland said it “really doesn't fuss me much that I read a story that turns out to be made up.” Writing in her blog that Fox News and other mainstream media foolishly picked up the story without verifying it, Jane said “the fact it makes Fox look stupid is one of my favorite things about the entire episode.”

Far from being on the fringe, her comments were cheered by an overwhelming majority of the more than 125 comments to her post.

While Jane’s sniggering disregard for the truth is dismaying on its face, it is doubly disturbing because she works for SEOmoz.Org, which describes itself as “a hub for search marketers worldwide, providing education, tools, resources and paid services.” SEO stands for search-engine optimization and “moz” evidently refers DMOZ.Org, which describes itself as “the largest, most comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web.”

In other words, Jane’s organization is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of outfits who get paid to help websites gain all-important recognition on Google and other search engines. As such, Jane and her peers know full well the damage a skilled individual can do with a well-crafted, yet deceitful, posting.

The tale of the teenager and hookers was posted on May 9, in a tactic as known as “linkbaiting,” on an inside page of an obscure site covering personal finance. (I am deliberately omitting the name of the site because I am not taking the bait.) The author evidently listed the phony story on Digg and similar user-generated news sites, and it spread virally over the web in short order.

The point of linkbaiting is to attract, by hook or by crook, as many in-bound links to a site as possible, so as to enhance its relevance, or “PageRank,” in the system Google uses to sort search results. When many sites contain the keywords searched by a Google user, the results for the site with the highest PageRank are displayed higher in the results than those of sites with inferior rank.

The hoax worked to the extent that it momentarily boosted the site’s traffic by more than tenfold, according to Alexa.Com. But the incident apparently attracted such notoriety that Google has not advanced its PageRank beyond 3 out of a possible 10 on a logarithmic scale. The site’s PageRank prior to the escapade could not be determined.

What Jane and her ilk fail to recognize is that Google will not long suffer the gaming of the algorithms it uses to sift and sort content. Here’s one example:

In the early days of the web, people loaded tons of keywords into the invisible meta tags on their websites in hopes the words would favorably influence the search engines. Once this practice became widely and aggressively abused, the search engines de-emphasized their reliance on meta tags and developed different ways to categorize content.

If the linkbaiters think they can outsmart Google for long, they are dead wrong. But the baiters are doing far more damage than any transient inconvenience they cause the rocket scientists at Google, who actually relish the challenge of staying ahead of them.

The steady pollution of the web with phony and malicious info-junk could turn an awesome resource for humanity into little more than useless, time-wasting digital flotsam.

How can that be good for users, publishers or advertisers – and, especially, for the people who make a living as SEO sherpas?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sites, like yours here, that might wish to link to another page without contributing to pagerank, can create a link with the nofollow relationship attribute:

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not everyone who calls themselves an SEO thought what this guy did was "cool":

One website doesn't speak for everyone.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you mean "could turn [the Internet] into little more than useless, time-wasting digital flotsam"?

In case you missed it, it's already that, and has been for a long time.

Granted, there are good sources of information out there, but as long as the public has had access to the web, users have had to dig through piles of excrement to get to it.

The Internet is like a whole community smashed together into one place. In real life, the community is spread out for a reason. There are facilities we believe are wholesome — libraries, churches, schools — and there are facilities we believe are not wholesome, although they may have their appeal to certain people — bars, brothels, the woman who sits on her porch and gossips about everybody. Those facilities are separated into neighborhoods and you go where you choose to go based on what you believe is right and important.

In real life we have to pick and choose where we go to get our information and experiences, and on the Internet we do too.

It's "Let the viewer beware." And it always has been.

8:04 PM  

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