Mahalo: SEO Excitement

February 18, 2009

If a Web site is not in Google, the Web site does not exist. I first said this in 2004 in a client briefing before my monograph The Google Legacy was published by Infonortics Ltd. The trophy MBAs laughed and gave me the Ivy draped dismissal that sets some Wall Street wizards (now former wizards) apart. The reality then was that other online indexing services were looking at what Google favored and emulating Google’s sparse comments about how it determined a Web site’s score. I had tracked down some of the components of the PageRank algorithm from various open source documents, and I was explaining the “Google method” as my research revealed it. I had a partial picture, but it was clear that Google had cracked the problem of making the first six or seven hits in a result list useful to a large number of people using the Internet. My example was the query “spears”. Did you get Macedonian spears or links to aboriginal weapons? Nope. Google delivered the pop sensation Britney Spears. Meant zero to me, but with Google’s surging share of the Web search market at that time, Google had hit a solid triple.

The SEO (search engine optimization) carpetbaggers sensed a pot of gold at the end of desperate Web site owners’ ignorance. SEO provides advice and some technical services to boost a Web page’s or a Web’s site appeal to the Google PageRank method. Over the intervening four or five years, a big business has exploded to help a clueless marketing manager justify the money pumped into a Web site. Most Web sites get minimal traffic. Violate one of Google’s precepts, and the Web site can disappear from the first page or two of Google results. Do something really crazy like BMW’s spamming or the Ricoh’s trickery and Googzilla removes the offenders from the Google index. In effect, the Web site disappears. This was bad a couple of years ago, but today, it is the kiss of death.

I received a call from a software company that played fast and loose with SEO. The Web site disappeared into the depths of the Google result list for my test queries. The aggrieved vice president (confident of his expertise in indexing and content) wanted to know how to get back in the Google index and then to the top of the results. My answer then is the same as it is today, “Follow the Google Webmaster guidelines and create compelling content that is frequently updated.”


I was fascinated with “Mahalo Caught Spamming Google with PageRank Funneling Link Scheme” here. The focal point of the story is that Mahalo, a company founded by Jason Calacanis, former journalist, allegedly “was caught ranking pages without any original content-in clear violation of Google’s guidelines.” The article continued:

And now he has taken his spam strategy one step further, by creating a widget that bloggers can embed on their blogs.

You can read the Web log post and explore the links. You can try to use the referenced widget. Have at it. Furthermore,I don’t know if this assertion is 100 percent accurate. In fact, I am not sure I care. I see this type of activity in reality or as a thought experiment as reprehensible. Here’s why:

  1. This gaming of Google and other Web indexing systems costs the indexing copies money. Engineers have to react to the tricks of the SEO carpetbaggers. The SEO carpetbaggers then try to find another way to fool the Web indexing system’s relevance ranking method. A thermonuclear war ensues and the costs of this improper behavior sucks money from other needed engineering activities.
  2. The notion that a Web site will generate traffic and pay for itself is a fantasy. It was crazy in 1993 when Chris Kitze and I started work on The Point (Top 5% of the Internet), which is quite similar to some of the Mahalo elements. There was no way to trick Lycos or Harvest because it was a verifiable miracle if those systems could update their indexes and handle queries with an increasing load and what is now old-fashioned, inefficient plumbing. Somehow a restaurant in Louisville Kentucky or a custom boat builder in Arizona thinks a Web site will automatically appear when a user types “catering” or “custom boat” in a Google search box. Most sites get minimal traffic and some may be indexed on a cycle ranging from several days to months. Furthermore, some sites are set up in such a wacky way that the indexing systems may not try to index the full site. The problem is not SEO; the problem is a lack of information about what’s involved in crafting a site that works.
  3. Content on most Web sites is not very good. I look at my Web site and see a dumping ground for old stuff. We index the content using the Blossom search system so I can find something I wrote in 1990, but I would be stunned if I ran a query for “online database” and saw a link to one of my essays. We digitized some of the older stuff, but no one–I repeat–no one looks at the old content. The action goes to the fresh content on the Web log. The “traditional” Web site is a loser except for archival and historical uses.

The fact that a company like Mahalo allegedly gamed Google is not the issue. The culture of cheating and the cult of SEO carpetbaggers makes this type of behavior acceptable. I get snippy little notes from those who bilk money from companies who want to make use of online but don’t know the recipe. The SEO carpetbaggers sell catnip. What these companies need is boring, dull, and substantial intellectual protein.

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are somewhat guilty. These companies need content to index. The SEO craziness is a cost of doing business. If a Web site gets some traffic when new, that’s by design. Over time, the Web site will drift down. If the trophy generation Webmaster doesn’t know about content and freshness, the Web indexing companies will sell traffic.

There is no fix. The system is broken. The SEO crowds pay big money to learn how to trick Google and other Web indexing companies. Then the Web indexing companies sell traffic when Web sites don’t appear in a Google results list.

So what’s the fix? Here are some suggestions:

  1. A Web site is a software program. Like any software, a plan, a design, and a method are needed. This takes work, which is reprehensible to some. Nevertheless, most of the broken Web sites cannot be cosmeticized. Some content management systems generate broken Web sites as seen by a Web indexing system. Fix: when possible, start over and do the fundamentals.
  2. Content has a short half life. Here’s what this means. If you post a story once a month, your Web site will be essentially invisible even if you are a Fortune 50 company. Exceptions occur when an obscure Web site breaks a story that is picked up and expanded by many other Web sites. Fix: write compelling content daily or better yet more frequently.
  3. Indexing has to be useful to humans and content processing systems. Stuffing meaningless words into a metatag is silly and counterproductive. Hiding text by tinting it to be the same as a page’s background color is dumb. Fix: find a librarian or better yet take a class in indexing. Select meaningful terms that describe the content or the page accurately. The more specialized your terminology, the more narrow the lens. The broader the term, the wider the lens. Broad terms like “financial services” are almost useless, since the bound phrase is devalued. Try some queries looking for a financial services firm in a mid sized city. Tough to do unless you get a hit in or just look up the company in a local business publication or ask a friend.

As for Mahalo, who cares? The notion of user generated links by a subject matter expert worked in 1993. The method has been replaced by or asking a friend on Desperate measures are needed when traffic goes nowhere. Just don’t get caught is the catchphrase in my opinion.

Stephen Arnold, February 18, 2009


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