Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Accuracy of search engine results called into question

Posted By Ron Miller

There's been lots of news lately about consumer search engines that bring into question the accuracy of the results. Recently, reports surfaced that Bing was copying Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) search results. Then, last week there was a New York Times article suggesting that an eCommerce site was using search engine optimization tricks to rise in the rankings. It may lead you to wonder if you can trust the results in these search engines to deliver the best and most deserving links. It's hard to know and that is making website owners a little crazy.
Let's start with the Bing story. As Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols explained in a Computerworld blog post last week, it seems that Google got an inkling that Microsoft was copying its search results. So Google laid a little trap for Bing by embedding its results with nonsense searches, which then showed up in Bing. Oops.
Even more disturbing is a story in last Saturday's New York Times, which suggested that for several months, when you entered searches such as 'skinny jeans', 'dresses' or 'area rugs' into Google, JC Penney was consistently showing up at the top of the results. The article explained this was the result of some Search Engine Optimization tricks including buying oodles of paid links to the JC Penney site to enhance its place in the results (a violation of Google rules, which JC Penney denied being involved in).
If you try these searches today (as I did), you won't see JC Penney on the first page because the New York Times reporter blew the whistle on them and Google took action. Still, it's disturbing that it took a reporter to find the problem before Google did. Google's Matt Cutts was quoted in the article and said given the billions of links they deal with, Google does the best it can to prevent this type of abuse.
These two stories of search engine abuse involving two of the major search engine players (and don't forget that Yahoo! now uses Bing's results) has to be troubling to the people who in the words of Bill Clinton, "work hard and play by the rules."
My advice is, in spite of these stories, to keep on keeping on. If you have good content, I've found you really do rise to the top of the search results. I like to use the example my own blog for those who doubt that.
My name is rather common, but my personal blog, 'by Ron Miller' still appears in the Top 10 results on Google if you enter 'Ron Miller' and in the top two if you enter 'Ron Miller blog.'  Yes, maybe some sites pay to play, but in my personal experience, just producing what I hope is quality content for over seven years has earned me a place in the Top 10.
And lest you think Bing is copying everything Google does, I'm chagrined to report that I cannot repeat the results on Bing. In fact, in Bing, I find my blog doesn't appear until the second page using the 'Ron Miller' search (although it's worth noting that entering 'Ron Miller blog' does produce exactly the same results as a Google search). If Bing actually is copying Google, I'm not seeing it consistently in terms of placement of the results.
In the end, whether someone is gaming the system isn't going to matter much to end users so long as you find what you're searching for quickly (and I know in my experience in most cases I do, regardless of the search engine I'm using). As a website owner, however, you want to know that you have a fighting chance to get to the top, and while there are no guarantees, my feeling is that if you produce quality content on a regular basis, chances are you'll see results--no matter what you've read. - Ron

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