The Increasing Power of Search Engines

Great mainstream article about the power of very obscure aspects of search engine algorithms and how they are impacting business. The highlighted company is which is changing their URL to Managing the 301 redirects (technical term!) to make that switch as seamless as possible is a difficult and obscure search engine optimization (SEO) topic that I am honestly a bit surprised to see discussed in the WSJ this soon:

Money quote from the article here.

Such a simple change, Mr. Skrenta has discovered, could have disastrous short-term results. About 50% of visits to his news site come through a search engine -- and about 90% of the time, that is Google. Some companies say their sites have disappeared from top search results for weeks or months after making address switches, due to quirky rules Google and other search engines have adopted. So the same user who typed "Anna Nicole Smith news" into Google last week and saw as a top result might not see it at all after the change to

Even if traffic to Topix, which gets about 10 million visitors a month, dropped just 10%, that would essentially be a 10% loss in ad revenue, Mr. Skrenta says. "Because of this little mechanical issue, it could be a catastrophe for us," he says.

Further frustrating him is that Google's response to Topix's plea for help was an email recommending that, if the switchover were to go badly, the company should post a message on an online user-support forum; a Google engineer might come along to help out. "This can't be the process," Mr. Skrenta says. "You're cast into this amusing, Kafkaesque world to run your business."

Things to keep in mind:

  • There will be increasing pressure on Google to be "fair" and explicit in their search rankings given its dominant role as a gateway to the internet. So far, legal challenges have failed on grounds of free speech. "This is Google's opinion of top sites about this topic. If you don't like it, post your own list" has been the courts' response so far.
  • That said, misguided legislation is always a possibility. What is likely to happen over time is some pressure on more transparency from Google. To date Google's position is that both its automated results and the manual exclusions or reinstatements of sites were "none-of-your-business".

    Inevitably as they grow, they will mess something up on the manual side and have to have some accountability or due process relating to how they are saying they are calculating search results and how they are actually calculating search results. PC Magazine maybe be perfectly entitled to do benchmark tests on PCs and release them but if each time, they spuriously have false performance data for, say, Dell, ultimately, I am sure they would have some liability.

    I am not saying that Google is deliberately giving poor or false results, but someday, something inappropriate will happen.

    Google does not believe that this is an issue for them now, but I am sure the little software company called Microsoft never thought the US government would move to break it into pieces, so we will see...

  • Make sure that you have additional routes to traffic except Google search results. Easier said than done.

Full article here, subscription required:

WSJ: How Search-Engine Rules Cause Sites to Go Missing

Posted on March 13, 2007 and filed under Online Media.