The last Major League baseball game was played on October 30, 2019. The Nats won.
There are few forces more powerful on the Web than Google’s search algorithm. Online retailers engage in intense competition to climb the ranks of search results for “dresses” or “area rugs.” But a growing number of businesses are turning to underhanded, “black hat” tactics to game the system. We’ll learn how it works and who, if anyone, is cracking down on these practices.
- David Segal Reporter, New York Times
- Benjamin Edelman Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
- Vanessa Fox Author, Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy IS Your Business Strategy (Wiley & Sons)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Most of us when we search the Web don't think a lot about what's behind the results that pop up but what comes to the top and why is much more than speculation for a lot of companies. Bumping up an organization's position in search results, known as search engine optimization, is a big business whether it's done legitimately with relevant content and by building up links from other sites or by using what are known as black-hat tactics, like planting links on thousands of obscure websites.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIGoogle, Bing and Yahoo! are constantly tweaking their top secret algorithms to prevent manipulation, but some say that Google itself might be unfairly biasing its results. And what does JCPenney, the department store, have to do with all of this? Joining us to untangle the mysteries of search is David Segal. He's a reporter with The New York Times. He joins us by phone from New York. David, thank you for joining us. David Segal, I'm not hearing you. Are you hearing me?
MR. DAVID SEGALYup.
NNAMDIYou wrote an article recently called "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search." You discovered an interesting phenomenon when people search for some retail items like rugs and cocktail dresses. Tell us what you found.
SEGALWell, what was happening was that JCPenney was turning up on the top of the list in Google for dozens and dozens of very valuable keywords like, as you said, dresses, like skinny jeans. Some of them were really basic words like furniture. Some of them were more obscure like grommet top curtains. But for dozens and dozens of these terms, JCPenney was consistently number one or number two, and this seems very strange and anomalous. And it was going on right through the very lucrative holiday season, so it seemed worth looking into.
NNAMDISo as JCPenney would come up first in all of these categories, what was actually happening in the search that was bringing JCPenney to the top?
SEGALWell, it turns out that what JCPenney or rather its -- perhaps its search engine optimization consultants were doing was they had this elaborate campaign of, what are known as, back links. Now, just to -- a little bit of background, the reason that a website comes up high in a Google search is because of the number of links to that website, so it's essentially like a vote. So that your website about, say, paper airplane folding will rise up the ranks of Google's search as more and more people who are aficionados of paper airplane folding link to your website. It is like voting for your favorite website.
SEGALSo what had happened was someone had set up links, thousands and thousands of links on these utterly obscure completely abandoned, in many cases totally abandoned, websites. So what I found was that there were, in fact, 2,015 websites scattered all around the world on completely random subjects all of which had a link to JCPenney's dresses page, and you would find somewhere on those websites a page where the word dresses appear just completely randomly.
SEGALIt'd be like -- the website would be nuclearengineeringaddict.com, casinofocus.com, websites about cars, about dentistry. Many of them hadn't been visited for months and yet they have these links, and the links effectively made JCPenney the number one return for the word dresses.
NNAMDISo that if I went to Google or Bing or Yahoo! and clicked on dresses, what those websites -- what those search engines give me are the companies, the businesses that have the most links including dresses, giving the impression that people have actually been going to that website more than anyplace else looking for dresses? Is that what's referred to as black-hat optimization?
SEGALWell, apparently, there's all sorts of black-hat secrets, and link farms or link schemes are just -- is just one method. But Google puts such a strong emphasis on links in its algorithm that building a whole huge campaign of links is an extremely effective way to get to the top of Google.
SEGALAnd what black-hat guys will tell you is that the secret is so effective that the secret is to do it gradually, so that you can have, say, 30 links per week, 60 links per week, if you really want to be ambitious. If you have too many, if you just suddenly unveiled 2,000 links to your dresses webpage, Google will see that as anomalous and flag it, and you'll be in trouble. So the black-hat guys who are good roll these campaigns out slowly.
NNAMDIHow did -- what did JCPenney have to say about this?
SEGALJCPenney said that they were appalled, that...
NNAMDIWe're shocked, shocked.
SEGALYes, they were shocked. And they initially said that they had nothing to do with it, and their search engine consultants, a company called SearchDex, had nothing to do with it. And then -- that was on a Wednesday. On Thursday or Friday, I can't remember which, they fired SearchDex. And I asked them why they've fired SearchDex, and they wouldn't talk about that. And then, I tried to get in touch with SearchDex and never heard back from them. SearchDex now has a -- one of their webpages has basically a denial that says we had nothing to do with this, and we're investigating to find out who did it.
NNAMDIAllow me to have our listeners join the conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How useful are search results that you get? Do you think there are too many ads and paid content sites that are not relevant? Call us for this Tech Tuesday conversation on gaming the search engine. 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Segal, who's a reporter from The New York Times. David, you described discovering that the landscape of the Internet was like, quoting here, "A city with a few familiar well-kept buildings surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads painted on their walls." But exploiting these sites is anomalous, wasn't it?
SEGALYes. So Google makes it clear in their guidelines that they want the links to be relevant, so that's a sort of crucial test. Is -- does the website that is linking to your, again, let's use dresses as an example, does it have some relevance to dresses? Does it have some relevance to clothing? And again, the really good black-hat guys understand this, and they try to find -- they try to set up their links on websites that are related to clothing.
SEGALAnd in fact of the 2,015 websites that were connected to the dresses webpage of JCPenney, I'd say maybe a quarter of them had some kind of clothing connection, but 80 percent of them had nothing to do with clothing at all. They were just utterly, you know, the most random assortment of subjects, and this is explicitly a no-no.
SEGALBut one of the things that you realize as I -- as you mentioned there in that part of my story, is just there are -- there's just thousands -- millions and millions of these websites that have, you know, someone has created them at some point, maybe for a conference or they had some hobby and they're basically abandoned. And there's enormous business and just buying up domains. And the reason a domain that is abandoned that would have any value at all is because it has the possibility to set up links. And this business of black-hat optimization traffics in this kind of websites by the thousands and perhaps millions for just that reason.
NNAMDIGoogle calls this method link schemes, but these techniques, David, are not illegal. So what did Google do when it was brought to Google's attention?
SEGALSo Google is not -- does not have the force of law. It does not -- and then, there's nothing, say, in the FTC guidelines that would say this is -- this will get you in any kind of trouble. Google basically says if you want to rank in our system, you need to play by our rules. And so what happened was I just sent all of the evidence that I had of this link campaign to Google on a Wednesday, and about an hour or two later, they realized that this, in fact, went directly against their guidelines.
SEGALAnd then the next day, I had a conversation with them where they basically said we are going to manually demote JCPenney in the rankings. And effectively what that means is they would take -- let's again use dresses -- instead of being number one, they would physically -- manually take that result and drop JCPenney down. So it was not an algorithm change. It didn't affect everybody. It was specifically targeted against JCPenney.
SEGALAnd the reason they do that is they don't want to put JCPenney back to where it should be but for the help that it got from these link farms, they want to punish -- effectively, they want to punish people who tried to gain their system, which makes a certain amount of sense because if they didn't punish them, then everyone would try to gain the system. And once they got caught, they would just go back to where they would have been anyway.
SEGALSo it was an amazing thing to watch because I -- at about 6 o'clock checked out where JCPenney was ranking for a couple of dozen of the terms that I'd been focusing on, and they were, again, number one, number two, at worst. And then, I got back from dinner about an hour and a half later, and for every one of those terms, they had dropped to like 40, 50, sometimes 70, which effectively makes them invisible.
SEGALThe reality any of those SEO guys, search engine optimization guys, will tell you is that if you're not on the first page, you're pretty much invisible, and certainly by the fourth or fifth page, you're buried.
NNAMDIGoogle's way of saying bad, bad JCPenney. David Segal is a reporter for The New York Times. Joining us now from studios in Spokane, Wash., is Vanessa Fox, author of "Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy is Your Business Strategy." She's also a consultant on search engine strategy. She was previously Google's search engine spokesperson responsible for communicating how Google's search algorithm works to website owners. Vanessa Fox, thank you for joining us.
MS. VANESSA FOXThanks for having me.
NNAMDIVery often, Vanessa, websites that are pretty much abandoned, as David was pointing out, are used for these ads, do we have any sense of how many defunct websites are out there?
FOXThere's a lot of these websites. As the Web gets larger, right, there's more and more of these abandoned sites, and there's also, as you mentioned, a lot of sites that people build specifically to build these link schemes because they want to build as many links as possible. Fortunately, of course, Google is working really hard to try to find these things algorithmically, although, as in this case, they do occasionally miss them.
NNAMDIAnd, David, Google had a very strong response when it caught BMW, the high-end German carmaker, using these tactics in the past, correct?
SEGALYes. They gave what the BBC called the death penalty, and apparently, that meant that for a while -- and I'm not sure how long, and maybe Vanessa knows actually, BMW -- the German website of BMW was banished entirely from Google. You couldn't find it at all, and the punishment meted out to JCPenney was not as harsh because it was still visible, but it was up there.
NNAMDIVanessa, you know about the BMW episode?
FOXYeah. And actually, they were caught doing another of the black-hat sort of things that you talked about. It wasn't link scheme. And in their case, what they were doing is hiding a bunch of text on their websites. So as a person, if you went to the site, you saw what the site was. But for Google, they were showing Google a whole other set of texts because they wanted to rank and search results for a whole bunch of other things. And so that, when you actually do things on your site that are deceptive, that's an even more extreme version of black hat. And so, yeah, they were out of the index entirely for several weeks until they fixed everything and then were allowed back in.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. David Segal, thank you for joining us.
SEGALIt's my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIDavid Segal is a reporter for The New York Times. Our Tech Tuesday conversation is about gaming search engines. When we come back, we'll be joined by Benjamin Edelman. He's a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. But you can join the conversation right now. Call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think there are enough search options or do you feel Google just dominates? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to this Tech Tuesday conversation on gaming the search -- gaming search engines. We're talking with Vanessa Fox, author of "Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy is Your Business Strategy." She's also a consultant on search engine strategy, previously Google's search engine spokesperson, responsible for communicating how Google search algorithm works, the website uses. She joins us from studios in Spokane, Wash. Joining us by phone from Cambridge, Mass., is Benjamin Edelman. He's a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Benjamin Edelman, thank you for joining us.
PROF. BENJAMIN EDELMANThanks for having me.
NNAMDIVanessa, the conversation we were just having before, content farms, I related to that conversation. What are content farms?
FOXSo content farms have been in the news a lot lately, because they really started to sprout up everywhere, it seems like. And the issue with content farms is they're not exactly black hat. They're not exactly spam. You can't say, okay, this is, you know, a link that shouldn't be there or text that's hidden. Instead, it's actually a page, it's a set of content about a topic. The problem is that it's generally very low value and content that doesn't really say anything, right? So you see these types of things that's like, how to tie a tie. Well, first, you get a tie, then you put the tie around your neck, right? So it doesn't actually say anything. But from the Google algorithm perspective, it can be hard to tell a high-value page about a topic from a low-value page. And so that's where there starts to be an issue is people don't wanna see these really low-value articles at their search results.
NNAMDIBut then spam does exist in search, too, does it not? What kinds of things count as spam in a search result?
FOXOh, absolutely. And so this is sort of what we were talking about before where the search engines say, all right, here's the guidelines that we have, because we have a set of algorithms to try to find the most relevant, useful, valuable result. And if you do things that try to manipulate these algorithms and rank higher than you should rank, that's, sort of, what they count as spam. So that's, sort of, what we were talking about in terms of links. If instead of having links that people give to your site because they find your site valuable, but instead it's because you've used a back room, paid link network or if you're hiding things on your site so that the search engines see the text but people don't see the text, those tend to be the kinds of things that are more spam.
NNAMDIBenjamin Edelman, Google in January admitted in a blog post that spam is a problem and changed its algorithm in an attempt to address it. Care to comment?
EDELMANSure. You know, I think fixing these problems is absolutely crucial for Google to maintain Google's good reputation with users. They need to keep users happy, you know, want to make sure that when you run a search on Google, the results you see are results that don't have you thinking, I want to give that Bing thing a try because Google isn't delivering what I'm looking for.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. Vanessa, black hat techniques David was talking about are opposed to organic results. What kinds of things would normally bring a site to the top of the rankings?
FOXSo the legitimate things that you can do -- and this is, you know, what I tend to talk to people about both when I was at Google as well as now -- is what you really want to do is find out who your audiences are, what they're searching for and make sure that your site really solves those problems that searchers have, you know, answers their questions, helps them accomplish their tasks. That's, sort of, the key thing, right, is having useful and valuable content. The other big thing, of course, is just to make sure that you've built a website that the search engines can even access.
FOXSometimes, people will build sites that the search engines can't even get the content from. And then, sort of, the third set is all of the marketing awareness that you would normally do just to make sure that people know the content exists because, of course, that's gonna lead to those links that you were talking about before that are so valuable. So whether that's through social media or, you know, other types of outlets to just let people know that your content exists. And if they find it valuable, then they'll link normally, organically, as opposed to these artificial methods.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. How useful are search results that you get? Do you think there are too many ads and paid content sites that are not relevant? 800-433-8850. Do you think there are enough search options or do you feel that Google is simply too dominant? Again, the number, 800-433-8850, or you can send us e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Sarah in Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAHI have a question about the opposite situation. I want to find some white hat version of the black hat system. I'm involved with an organization, and all the links, all the search engines go to an old, defunct website instead of a website that has current information. And I'd like to be able to know how to have the current website show up in search engines instead of an old, defunct website.
NNAMDIAny ideas about that, Vanessa Fox?
FOXWell, so the best thing, although it may not be possible in this case, is if you still have ownership of the old site or you know who has ownership of the old site is to redirect it to the new site because that's would let search engines know.
SARAHOh, I've asked a number of times but...
FOXAnd they won't do it.
SARAHThe problem is that the person won't do it, yeah.
FOXYeah. See, that makes it hard. So in that case, you sort of have duplicate information where the search engines know about the old site, and so they think that that's the right one. So in that case, probably, your best bet is to see if you can raise awareness of the new site and get people who linked to the old site before to link to the new site now. So you can go to -- well, Yahoo! has something called Site Explorer, and if you go there and type in the old site, it'll show you all the sites that linked to that old site. And if you can maybe e-mail those sites...
SARAHOh, then I'll know -- okay.
FOX...and ask them to change the links.
SARAHThen I can write to those people and ask them to change the links.
FOXYeah, because those links, once they linked to the right site, that will let the search engines know that they should be indexing that new site instead.
SARAHThat was called Site Explorer?
FOXMm-hmm. Yahoo! Site Explorer.
SARAHThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd, Sarah, thank you very much for you call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Benjamin Edelman, while companies are trying to game Google in order to rise to the top, Google may be employing some manipulation of its own. The Texas Attorney General's Office is investigating whether Google broke any anti-trust laws. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
EDELMANSure. You know, Google claims a remarkable degree of discretion in deciding what links to put at the top of the page, what links to put in prominent positions. If you search for almost anything, you'll find links to YouTube, a Google service. You'll find links to Google Products Search and Google News and Google Images and Google Maps. Many of those are great products. Some of them are quite popular. But imagine if you had a competing map service, think MapQuest or Bing Maps, or you had a competing video site, like Hulu, you might feel you weren't getting quite a fair shake, that Google was linking to its own stuff more than it was linking to yours.
EDELMANWell, that's been the persistent allegation from quite a few sites. And sometimes they have additional facts that make it look particularly compelling. For example, after Yelp turned down Google's acquisition offer, links to Yelp became much less prominent. It was as if Google said, hey, if you won't sell to us, we'll bury you. We can give you the death penalty, too, or at least something headed very much in that direction. So that's the worry, and that seems to be what the state of Texas is concerned about, as well as, to be sure, the European Commission, which has its own antitrust investigation.
NNAMDIThis is the first inquiry in the U.S. to look at Google's core search business. The European Union is also investigating whether Google pressures advertisers and manipulates the search results. Can you talk about that?
EDELMANSure. You know, one thing that the European Commission flagged, as to Google and advertisers, was the question of whether Google, in some way, prevents advertisers from using multiple search engines. There's a tool called the Google AdWords API -- API being a mechanism whereby your program can connect to Google servers. Officially, it's an application programming interface. Well, the rules of using that API are surprisingly restrictive. They say you can use the API, but you can't use the API to copy data out of Google and into Yahoo!, or out of Google and into Bing. And so an advertiser who wants to copy their campaign out of Google and to begin using one of the other search engines also has to do that copying in kind of a convoluted way. It's not as easy as it should be. That raises the cost of using competitor services and makes it that much harder for competitors to get a toehold. Hence, the European concern.
NNAMDIVanessa Fox, search neutrality is a term that comes into being, or that has come into being, because of this question, because of this issue, has it not? What is search neutrality?
FOXWell, so having worked on the organic side of search at Google before, I can say that this is a very important issue on the organic search side and, I'm sure, of all the search engines. And that is what happens on the advertising side has no impact at all on the organic side. Right. And so they try to keep those completely separate so that you wouldn't have...
NNAMDILike the firewall that newspapers talk about having.
FOX(laugh) That's right. Yeah. That's actually a really good analogy. And so, you know, what happens on the advertising side, you know, certainly there are these things that you talk about where, you know, if -- like if you're using AdWords, you know, they have these rules where you can't mix in, you know, the advertisements from the other search engines. But all of that is kept so completely separate from organic search that it really is like a wall.
NNAMDIBut -- and this question is for both of you, Vanessa and you, Ben -- isn't this a difficult line to walk? Search engines, inherently, have to make editorial decisions about what content is more relevant, popular or important, don't they? First you, Ben.
EDELMANSure. There's absolutely a crucial question of judgment for each and every search -- what belongs at the top of the page. When you search for car rental, should we put Hertz or Avis at the top? When you search for maps, should we put Google Maps at the top, or should we try one of the competitor services? You have to worry that sometimes the financial implications might cross Google's mind. The engineers there might be talking to the finance folks who are saying, look, if we can put our own stuff at the top, we'll get that many more page views and sell that many more ads. That's really the crux of it, from the perspective of the regulators looking at these questions.
NNAMDIThe Texas attorney general, it's my understanding, wants to know Google's top secret algorithms that determine AdWords prices. First, Vanessa, what are AdWords, and why do they matter?
FOXSo when you look at the search results and you do a search, you have your organic or your unpaid results, and then you have your paid search or your AdWords results. And on the organic side, you know, in terms of determining editorial, what shows up at the top, you know, the search engines wanna be really sure that they don't, editorial, make those types of decisions, which is why the algorithms are in play, and which is why things like links become so important. But even on the AdWords side, since -- what sort of was revolutionary with Google advertising back in the day was that, unlike other types of advertising that we were accustomed to, AdWords advertising was specifically relevant to the search that you did, right?
FOXSo when you're watching a show, you might see ads for anything. But when you're doing some kind of a search, you only see advertising that's related to the search. So the AdWords algorithms, which is all on the advertising side, is not just based on how much you bid -- like if you, you know, offer to pay the most to show up at the top of the ad -- but it also has to be relevant to the search. And there's something called equality score where they take a look at your ad and they take a look at the page that the ad is linking to because they wanna make sure that that experience is good for the searcher even though it's advertising.
NNAMDIBen, the Texas attorney general, as I said earlier, wants to know Google's top secret algorithms that determine AdWords prices. Is that a first?
EDELMANNo one else has managed to get that data. No regulator has obtained it previously, to the best of my knowledge, in the various private litigations that have occurred, advertisers suing about this and that. No one has managed to obtain it there either. So, yes, I think it absolutely is a first.
NNAMDIHow big an investigation is this for like Texas is for Google?
EDELMANWell, for Texas, this is probably one of the largest investigations in their office and surely their biggest antitrust investigation right now. I don't think they expect to go it alone. They're expecting other state attorneys general to get onboard, as they typically do. They tend to come in groups. And I don't think they'd be surprised if federal antitrust investigators ultimately also turn out to be interested in it.
NNAMDIAnd, Vanessa, how big is this for Google?
FOXWell, it's hard to really say. You know, they've had things like this come up at the EU and other places before. And so far, when these things have come up, there's also been smaller investigations where, you know, they've tried to get access to, either the organic algorithms or the paid algorithm. So far, you know, they've done a good job of being able to say that, you know, these things are sort of core to our business and, you know, if we expose them, then, you know, we sort of give up, you know, sort of what's our, you know, our business value. So it'll be interesting to see what happens. I know that they've been doing a lot of blog posts lately to make it public, to try to make people understand what their algorithms are all about and why it's important that they're secret.
NNAMDIIt's a "Tech Tuesday" conversation about search engines and how some people are gaming search engines and the suspicion that has fallen on Google, in some cases. We've got a lot of calls here. So, now, allow me to go to the telephones, starting with Larry in Columbia, Md. Larry, your turn.
LARRYGood afternoon. Thank you for having me. What I find the most -- the main thing particularly on Google is when I'm looking for something very specific -- say, properties of cotton -- I will find two pages of ad saying -- of websites where it's buy cheap cotton or linking me to other search engines like buy.com or PriceGrabber and so on. And it makes it very difficult to use Google. And I'd like to know why that happens and what I can do about it.
NNAMDIWhen you're looking for something -- you say when you're looking for something specific, like what, Larry?
LARRYAs an example, properties of cotton or properties of aluminum.
NNAMDIVanessa Fox, can you answer that question?
FOXYeah. So it sounds like what you're saying is what you're looking for is informational sites. Instead, what you're getting is commercial sites. And, yeah, that's absolutely a concern. There's a couple of things that you can do. One thing is that, of course, from the Google perspective, they're -- they -- what you're seeing in part is you're seeing other search results -- say, from a shopping and comparison site -- in your search results. And there's actually a guideline in Google that they don't wanna show other search results in their search results. So they're trying algorithmically to find those things.
FOXYou can go to the advanced options and normally pick the option that says, show less of the commercial results. The other thing you can try is if you have Chrome, you know, which is the browser from Google. They just last week launched an addition so that when you're doing a search, you can specify the sites that you no longer want to appear in your search results, and that might help as well. I mean, unfortunately, it's something manual you have to do on your side. But they're also trying to tackle it, you know, at the same time.
NNAMDILarry, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Albert in Silver Spring, Md. Albert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Albert. Are you there? Albert, I'm gonna put you on hold. Albert may have stepped away from the phone. Let's see what Michael in Alexandria, Va., has to say. Michael, your turn.
MICHAELHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
MICHAELMy question to your guests this afternoon is this. I'm in the process of launching a site that markets to specific products with names that have never been associated before. They've basically been invented. And I'm having a tough time deciding what my SEO strategy is going to be. How do you begin to drive traffic to a site for products with new names? And I'll go ahead and take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIBenjamin Edelman, you know anything about that?
EDELMANSure. You know, having a new name can actually be great. Anyone who knows the name of that product and searches for that is going to get your site in pretty short order. Then you need to make sure that your site is viewed favorably for the generic terms in whatever sector you might be in, you know? Supposed, you've got a new -- I don't know -- a new moped, an electric bicycle. You wanna make sure that not just when people type, you know, Michaels' mopeds, they get your site, but also when they type in electric scooter or moped or what have you. And so for that, you need the same sorts of links that Vanessa described previously. You need links from sites that are relevant, that are pointing to you. You need to find some buddies who think that your site is great and who will link to you favorably, maybe bloggers or news sites or what have you. Failing that, of course, you could always buy advertising, although then you're in to pay a certain fee to Google each time a user clicks. And that could add up pretty quickly.
NNAMDIMichael, good luck to you.
FOXYeah. I would also say on that is that oftentimes, people have products that are brand new and people don't even know to search because they don't know that product exists. So if you think about the types of things, the types of, you know, like problems that you built that product in order to solve, you could put a blog on your site that, you know, explains, what the problem is and how you're solving it. And that way, you can get in, you know, indirectly, since people may not be searching specifically for what you have to offer.
NNAMDIHere's James in Woodbridge, Va. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESThank you. Earlier, you said that the way that Google handle this API is considered antitrust. If that is considered antitrust because of the difficulty that Google makes this API interface, then why isn't everything Microsoft does considered antitrust? I mean, yes, the government went after Microsoft several years ago, but Microsoft still does things that are very anticompetitive. And yet, nothing is done.
EDELMANWell, James, a couple of dots on that. First, the restrictions that are at issue specifically prohibit copying data from Google to competitors. So it's not just a limitation on what the API can do, but it's a limitation on how an advertiser can do it. The technology works fine. It's the lawyers who are getting in the way. And that, of course, causes some heightened concerns. But as to your reference to Microsoft, you know, Microsoft is under specific obligation both in the U.S. and in Europe to publish its APIs, to document them. There has been a special master supervising that process. One can question how good the documentation is. Maybe it's hard to understand. And, you know, if you don't spend a long time reading the manual, you might not get it.
NNAMDII was about to say, because API is application programming interface, which I'm not sure most of our listeners understand. Can you briefly explain, Ben?
EDELMANSure. If you're writing a program and you want your program to run on Windows in the fanciest possible way, maybe to support touch screens or cameras or what have you, you need to connect it to Windows to a particular programming interface. This is something that one programmer can use to talk to the code written by another programmer. And you need to do it in the right way. You need to send your data in the right format, in the right sequence and so forth. Google has these too. If you want to load ads into Google systems or get data back from Google, you need to communicate with Google in the right way. So long as the rules are just about technical standards, it all seems fine. Of course, there have to be standards. But when the rules start telling you what you can do with your data, you can't use it to try out a competitor service, that's when the antitrust regulators tend to get particularly concerned.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take more of your calls at 800-433-8850. How useful are the search results that you're getting? Do you think there are too many ads and paid content sites that are not relevant, or any question you might have about search engines, 800-433-8850, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday, a conversation about search engines with Benjamin Edelman, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. He joins us from studios in Cambridge, Mass. Joining us from studios in Spokane, Wash. is Vanessa Fox, author of "Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy IS Your Business Strategy." She is also a consultant on search engine strategy, previously Google's search engine spokesperson, responsible for communicating how Google search algorithm works to website owners. Vanessa, most of us noticed that something about searching on Google had changed last fall. It was the introduction of Google Instant. How has that changed searching?
FOXSo that was really an interesting evolution, I think, because Google is always very careful when they make a change, right, because it impacts millions of searches. But what they had found was that what happens when we do a search is that, at this point, it's become a habit, right, so our brains are on autopilot. And we type in only a couple of words because, you know, we really know that if we only type in a single word or just a couple of words, we'll actually probably get pretty good results. But what Google found that searches would, you know, do is that they would type in a couple of words, look up the search results and see that, well, these aren't exactly right, but I can see, based on the search results, the types of words I should add to the end of the query.
FOXAnd so they would do another search, which was basically called a search refinement. And so they wanted to speed up this behavior. And so, instead of doing a search, looking over the results, seeing what words to add, and then adding the words, it can all be done in one single step. So now, when you do a search, you'll start to see the search results appear based on what you've typed so far. And that...
NNAMDIFrom your very first keystroke.
FOXThat's right. And so in those sort of -- you know, in our brains, you know, kind of behind the scenes, we see what's showing up. And that enables us to know what words we need to add to the end of the query. And so it actually speeds up search. And so far, the results have been that that's been -- what's happening is that we're adding more words to the end of the queries that we get a better search result at the end.
NNAMDIWhat's interesting about that is Google Instant shows how we search refining as we see the results appearing on the screen, which tends to inform...
NNAMDI...us about how we search also.
NNAMDIBenjamin Edelman, you've said that search engines are only regulated indirectly right now. What do you mean by that?
EDELMANWell, there isn't any comprehensive body of regulation as to search engines. Maybe there doesn't need to be. But there certainly are a set of things that can go wrong from deceptive ads, to bias results, to advertisers being charged more than they've bargained for. And these sorts of problems seem to be increasingly pervasive. As Vanessa's book title even indicates, search engines grow in important and so many different ways.
NNAMDII guess there's a pretty big loophole then when it comes to deceptive advertising.
EDELMANWell, I think there's an awfully big loophole there. I could tell you the story of Miss Goddard, a woman who actually sued Google. And she needed to, she felt, because when she searched for free ringtones, the free ringtones that she found actually charged her $10 a month. And she thought that was a scam. She thought Google shouldn't have shown an ad for free ringtones that actually charged $10 a month. Wouldn't you know it? Google defended the case successfully by citing a law that says an online publisher isn't responsible for what they published, even if they pay for it, even if they are paid for it, as with advertising, even if they charge extra to show the deceptive ads. And sure enough, Google was charging more to show ads for free ring tones than for regular ring tones. But the Communications Decency Act said Google wasn't responsible and the case was thrown out. Google can sell those deceptive ads with impunity, make as much money as they want and Ms. Goddard and the rest of us can't do a thing about it.
NNAMDIWhich is not the case for my local newspaper or magazine.
EDELMANThat's right. That's a law that only applies to interactive computer services. If Google had been printing a newspaper or a magazine or for that matter, running a radio station, they would have been liable for these deceptive ads. Liable, because the publisher needs to exercise reasonable care in the ads that they publish. But the law grants a special exception for online interactive services like Google.
EDELMANI think it's crazy, frankly, but that's the law.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Neil in Alexandria, Va. Neil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NEILHi. I just wanted to make a quick comment about some of the speculation that was recently mentioned as well as in The New York Times article that Google can award high organic rankings based on websites adverts or advertising budgets. Just me thinking of this personally, when a website doesn't have a strong organic ranking, you know, they'll often compensate that with a higher adverts budget or have every incentive to spend more money in adverts to get more visibility. So I'm just kind of curious how that correlation can be made when it seems like a direct disincentive for Google.
FOXWell, as I was saying earlier, there is such a wall there that the people on the organic side of search completely stay away from the ad side of search. So I've certainly heard the argument both ways. One which is that, oh, well, if an advertiser pays a lot of money, you know, they might rank higher in organic results because they wanna keep that advertiser happy. I've heard, you know, the opposite argument like we've heard now, which is, oh, well, you know, if it's a spendy advertiser, they'll wanna make them rank lower in organic so they'll rank higher in ad or, you know, so that they'll have to pay more in ads. So I've heard arguments on both sides of the table, but I can say for my experience that neither of those things happen. It's completely siloed, right. The organic results are completely protected, and those rankings are only based on all of the algorithmic factors and not at all based on anything that has to do with ads.
NNAMDINeil, thank you very much for your call. Here's Dan in Silver Spring, Md. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANYes. Thank you for taking my call. I'm wondering if your guests can provide more detail on a story I heard about over the weekend. Since a man in New York running a company realized he could gain the search engine results by essentially providing very, very poor service so that the recipients of the poor service went online, complained, increased the occurrences of the name of his company on various websites, which in turn actually up his ranking so he got more business.
NNAMDIBenjamin Edelman, sounds like a remarkably innovative way to get business by providing poor service and therefore getting more links to your website.
EDELMANYes, it's troubling, you know? This relies on the fact that Google can't always tell the difference between a link that's intended to praise and endorse versus a link that's intended to criticize. The worst airline in the world and now insert your name of your least favorite airline. That was a real problem, Dan. And Google responded, they said that their system for detecting negative words associated with links hadn't worked as well as it was supposed to there. They said they made some adjustments to that algorithm in very short order, and they said the adjustments made a difference. This was all actually in the news first a couple of weeks ago, and Google did say they had taken action. I think it's a vulnerability, you know, figuring out who's best on the Web by monitoring links. It's not a perfect technique. We only like Google because Google's technique works better than anyone else's. If we could find one that was even better, still I suspect we might turn to that instead.
NNAMDIBecause when a lot of people go to that site, they won't necessarily read the customer reviews that exist on that site. If they did, they probably wouldn't shop there. But if they're in a hurry for eyeglasses, in this particular case, they probably wouldn't read the customer reviews.
EDELMANYeah. The reviews, of course, will be...
FOXYeah. Although we should know in this case...
NNAMDIYes. Go ahead.
FOX...he got -- he's been arrested. We should probably note that too for his deceptive business practices. (laugh) So it backfired on him a little.
NNAMDIHe was also -- it's my understanding he was also stalking one of his clients, but that's a whole another story. We got this e-mail from Brandon, who says, "With the growth of Facebook and the increasing power of social connections, my company is hedging our bets that advertising on Facebook will eventually become more powerful than Google. Is this an accurate forecast?" I'd like to hear from both of you on this. First you, Benjamin Edelman.
EDELMANSure. You know, I appreciate Brandon's suggestion and I hope that it turns out the way he hypothesizes. But I'm a little bit doubtful. Google knows exactly what you're searching for. If you type in cheap plane tickets to Milan, Google knows you're going to Milan. Facebook only finds out about it when you get to Milan and you say here are my pictures from the hotel. (laugh) At that point, it's too late to sell you plane tickets or hotel or almost anything else. So Google has a real leg up when it comes to commercial intent, and that's why they've been able to command such remarkable prices for advertising services.
FOXNo, that's absolutely the case, right? That's the magic of Google ads is that they know exactly what you're looking for and so, you know, an advertiser can really talk to someone who wants exactly what they're advertising. I do, though, think that it's a good idea to always have diversification in what you're doing, and so I think it's a great idea to explore these other options. Certainly, no one should rely only on what they're getting from Google.
NNAMDIWell, a majority of search is Google right now, something like 65 percent of the search market in the U.S., as high as 90 percent in the Europe. But is it likely to stay that way? Will we still be Googling in 10 years, Ben?
EDELMANWe haven't seen any country in the world over the past 10 years where Google's market share has dropped. It has only gone up in every country over the past 10 years. That is a remarkable fact. You can't say that about Windows, you can't say that about Internet Explorer, you can't even say that about Microsoft Word. So things have been looking pretty good for Google, although by the time you're up in the 95, 97, 98 percent market share as Google is in so many countries in Western Europe, really the only place to go is down.
FOXYeah. I mean, I think for most people, it just works well and people don't have a reason to try out other search engines necessarily. I think where we'll start to see some innovation and we'll start to see market share that isn't completely, you know, like dominated by Google is other types of search. So not the text-based search, but maybe voice search or search in your car or different types of search on your phone. You know, I think we'll start to search more and more in other ways, and that's where, I think, other startups can really make inroads. But, yeah, I think with just the text-based search, people really like, you know, to use Google, and it's a habit that they don't have a reason to try to break.
NNAMDIHere's Paul in Leesburg, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULWell, thank you, Kojo. I haven't talked to you since baseball came to Washington. That's how long it's been.
PAULI have a quick question. I was -- In '95 I bought a website which is very highly organically rated and I have done nothing to it. It's also on page one of Google. I'm just curious if your guests there have any comments to people. It's not a commercial site. It's just a regular site, but it's high up there. I'd like to maintain it, but I do really nothing to it. It's -- I'm just wondering what, you know, what could a person do or does a person have to do if they have a really nice website that's way up there. I'm not gonna say what the website is because that would be too self-promoting. So ...
NNAMDIDon’t abandon it and make somebody use it as a link. That's a good one.
PAULNo, no. I don't want... (laugh)
NNAMDIHere is Vanessa Fox. Vanessa, do you have some advice for Paul?
FOXYeah. I mean, that's the way things should work in an ideal world, right? If you have a good website that has useful information that people like and it's been around for a while so, you know, it has credibility because, you know, it's been around, and so, I would think that you probably wouldn't have a problem with it ranking well in the future. The only thing you might take a look at is, is there gonna be another site that pops up that even has better content that might eventually outrank you, right? I mean, that's always the case, you know, in terms of competition. But, I mean, it sounds like you're doing things right. You might even look at your audience and say, okay, why do they like my site, what are some other things I can add and, you know, even expand what you have now.
NNAMDIAnd Paul, thank you very much for calling and good luck to you. Vanessa Fox, thank you for joining us.
FOXThanks for having me.
NNAMDIVanessa is the author of "Marketing in the Age of Google: Your Online Strategy is Your Business Strategy." Benjamin Edelman, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIBen is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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