What Hath SEO Wrought? The Google Responds

June 4, 2013

What caught my attention this morning was “Negative SEO: Looking for Answers from Google.” Since the early days of The Point, which we sold to Lycos decades ago, my partners and teams have produced content one way. We follow the format of traditional commercial databases; that is, we track important articles like this one about negative SEO and provide a quote and a comment. Traffic is not high on my list of what I think about because I use the content in this blog Beyond Search as a way to keep track of major developments in search, online, content processing, and, more recently, analytics.

The SEO thing has always been a threat to objectivity. Now the article, if it is accurate, suggests that it is possible to use online content as a weapon; that is, weaponized information. I have given some lectures about “weaponized information” to specialist groups in various government agencies. The substance of much of my work in the last couple of years has been to document how specific mathematical methods can be manipulated by flows of specially prepared content.

This “Negative SEO” article struck a nerve. Here’s the comment which caught my attention:

At the end of the day it is the unsuspecting that need protection. I’ve written before about the relations of SEOs and Google. Those in the know that stray toward the boundaries, they do so at their own risk. I don’t play the ‘hat’ game. It’s all degrees of tactics. If you get burned while knowing the risk, then fair play. I worry more about those who aren’t aware and what ramifications it can have on them. I know plenty of great people that have been stomped over the last while and often they have seemingly done little to incur it. Or were mislead as to what “safe” really was. Some type of simpler system would help benefit webmasters and Google as well the way I see it. If you have some ideas on how this could be dealt with by working with Google, fire it off in the comments. A positive discussion is far more likely to get Google working with us than whining about the evil…


My View of SEO

I gave some talks at search engine optimization meetings. I was horrified with several aspects of these local, regional, and national events.

First, the attendees wanted traffic in order to keep their jobs. I was fascinated with the self preservation bubbling beneath the surface of the casual conversations, the get togethers, and the questions asked of the speakers. Maybe the events have changed, which is probably a step forward. However, my recollection is one of finding some way to prove that a Web site or other online marketing activity would deliver the brass ring — a number one listing for a query.

Second, the presentations were an odd blend of “wow, we discovered this” and “you may want to try that” but “we are good guys wearing white hats.” It took me a while to figure out that a “white hat” reported ways to trip up traditional methods of delivering relevant results. A “black hat” used tricks and methods which would result in a penalty from whichever search engine was spoofed. I watched in fascination as a very large industry grew up to undermine precision and recall.

Third, the search vendors were caught in a trap. On one hand, the vendors needed ad revenue, data, and traffic to make their business models work in a “winner take most” environment. On the other hand, the search systems had to deliver results that most users (think about the solid C student in driver education or American history) would find acceptable. The brighter folks should know better than trust a free search system. Those dwelling west of the average would not notice if a hit were off kilter. The vendors, therefore, had to give folks the impression that SEO was okay. When SEO methods did not work, the vendors had to offer an alternative which was, in my opinion, a “pay for traffic” option. No problem. Everyone seemed happy.

Vendors Have a Tough Hill to Climb

Vendors of commercial systems as well as the free systems which SEO seems to manipulate face a big hill to climb. I am not sure that anyone will put a ladder to the summit like the one which will be installed to help climbers at Mt. Everest.

Here’s what’s ahead in my view:

  1. Computational limits mean that most vendors use the same numerical recipes. The differences are, like the Food Channel celebrity chefs say, in the mixture. The ingredients are well known. These ingredients have characteristics. Some of these characteristics can be manipulated, according to my team’s research findings. If the ingredients are the same, systems built using them can be affected in similar ways. The problem is deep, and the solution may not be easy to deliver with surgical accuracy.
  2. The sameness of systems means that certain signals can be amplified and propagated across other, similar systems. The issue is not confined to fiddling with a Web page. The mechanisms for triggering system reactions includes SMS, email, blogs, Web pages, Twitter messages, Facebook posts, etc. As a result, the attack horizon continues to grow larger. I will do a video about what I call “Arnold’s Law.” The idea is that as the volume of content goes up and the content processing systems improve more slowly the attack surface is the gap shown in the diagram below which may not be used without permission from Stephen E Arnold.image

    Vendors have to find a way to minimize the attack surface of commercial and free online content processing systems. The task will be difficult, expensive, and  time consuming.

  3. New opportunities exist for creating software and systems which can figure out what’s “okay” and what’s “not okay.” What happens in this business opportunity space is that the outfit with the most resources and reach is going to be the “decider” about what’s right, wrong, good, bad, etc. Online has some interest properties, and I am not sure the huddled masses or those on the left side of the normal curve understand the trajectory. That’s okay with me. I am old.

Net Net

There is some excitement ahead. Will there be deep philosophical thinkers who answer the question “What will Google do” or ponder a life in the “shallows.” Sure. These folks will explain what’s happened after it has occurred. History is useful. Planning for the future. That is a different game in my opinion.

Stephen E Arnold, June 4, 2013

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