So, Google’s blocked BMW from appearing on its search engine, because it stuck in a whole bunch of spurious pages to get its ranking higher. Hurrah for free speech and democracy!
Do I really mean that? No. For a number of reasons.
First, when did any Web site worth its salt not do things to increase its ranking on Google and other search engines? Plenty of Web sites that incorporate keywords to make them more attractive to indexers. There is a whole spectrum of quite acceptable keyword use possible before this becomes abuse of the mechanism, and there are plenty of other techniques, including crosslinking between sites and so on. While Google may have picked on an obvious example here, there are no generally agreed criteria that I know of to determine what is use and what is abuse.
Second, as Google is only a company (controversial view, I know) at the end of the day, it still has its own corporate responsibility to think about. Unilateral action to block certain Web sites that contravene its rules is fine in principle, but while there is no clear process to do so, Google itself could put itself in a difficult position. Should there be a warning for example, a 30-day resolution period, room for appeal? Google isn’t obliged to do any of these things, but the sudden finality of the current approach doesn’t seem particularly evenhanded. Either Google is to restrict its service to all of the Web sites it indexes, or it may find itself be open to the criticism that it is abusing its power.
Third and finally, this smacks of easy targeting. That is, “BMW is big and obvious, therefore bag it.” For a while now I have noticed it becoming almost impossible to search for certain types of information on Google. The majority of links are to sites to purchase products, and not to provide information – the result is wading through reams of results to get to useful information. Somehow purchasing sites are prioritised over informational sites – this will not be by accident. Some companies have multiple sites, each of which is selling the same catalogue of products so that it can appear in multiple places in the search results. Bloggers employ their own techniques – “please link to me”, they tell their friends, “that way my ranking will increase.” Such actions are totally un-police-able, and yet they’ve reached the point that if you want to appear at all, the only possible action is to join in. And so we have “Googleseep” – if Google is intent on slamming the big doors to make a good-sized noise, it will of course find its indexees seeking every possible “acceptable” way of getting around any regulations and mechanisms it imposes.
Clearly BMW overstepped the mark and needs to do something about it – last I heard, the company had fixed up its site and was waiting to be re-instated. All the same, even if Google’s actions were well intended and not just a thinly veiled attempt to generate some publicity (as some might suggest, and as if they’re not getting enough already), I think the company’s on a very sticky wicket indeed. Either it’s indexing the Web as it stands, or its not. If it wants to make the world better, it could adapt some of its own Chinese filtering technology (great article by Martin Brampton, by the way) to give all of us a way to see through the clag that litters most searches. If democracy is about freedom of choice, personal filtering of search results would be a good start. Perhaps the second point above could be somehow resolved with a Googletest utility to verify the acceptability of a site – would it be too much to suggest that untested sites are further down the rankings than tested ones?
As a final note, ‘BMW’, ‘motor car’, ‘red’, ‘convertible’, and please link to me, that way my ranking will increase…