RealTime IT News

Google's Search Engine Smack Down

It was the cyber-slap heard around the world.

BMW Germany, or an as-yet unnamed someone who worked on its Web site, apparently engaged in a bit of heavy-handed text tinkering to boost the site's rankings on Google.

The search giant responded on Feb. 6 by yanking BMW.de from Google's index of Web sites. Search for "BMW.de," and Google displays a message "Sorry, no information is available for the URL BMW.de." But input almost any other URL and Google will provide a link to the Web site.

"This is the most high-profile dropping of a company we've seen," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, a Web site that tracks search technology. "Bigger companies have probably been dropped, but we haven't heard about it."

However, as of this morning, BMW.de has returned to the top of the search ranks.

On the surface the issue seems simple -- play by Google's rules or you don't get listed in Google's index of Web sites. But reaction to the move may be another sign that the golden child of the Internet, the company that could do no wrong in the eyes of geeks, is no longer Teflon-coated.

BMW's saga continues to be widely discussed on blogs and message boards. Some are cheering for Google, saying that BMW got exactly what it deserved. Others complain that Google is too vague about its rules and doesn't allow Web sites to correct mistakes before pulling them from the index, a sentiment echoed by BMW.

"It was a misunderstanding," said Martha McKinley, spokesperson for BMW of North America. "I don't know what Google's issue is. I can only guess."

McKinley said her company had done nothing wrong. "What we have done is try to direct customers to relevant pages when they type in certain keywords," she said. "We're surprised that Google took this action. They took it without talking to us. I think that if we had been able to speak with them it could have been resolved."

Google, while confirming that BMW.de had been removed from its search results, remained tight-lipped about the incident.

"We never comment on the specifics of individual cases, but we would stress that the quality of our index and search results is of the utmost importance to Google," said Debbie Frost, a company spokesperson. "Google may temporarily or permanently ban any site or site authors that engage in tactics designed to distort their rankings or mislead users in order to preserve the accuracy and quality of our search results."

Google technician Matt Cutts details on his blog what got BMW.de into trouble.

In search engine optimization parlance, the automaker created a "doorway page." That's considered to be bad manners in the world of search engines, as they can skew search rankings and make results less valid.

Techniques such as doorway pages have given search engine optimization (SEO), the science of improving a site's search engine rankings, a bad name.

Legitimate SEO is supposed to result in a Web site that's both useful to visitors and easily understandable to search engine spiders, but there are also ways to use SEO to artificially boost a site's rankings.

Search Engine Watch's Sullivan said doorway pages have been around for years. Still, it's possible that BMW executives had no idea they were doing anything wrong.

He noted that Google and other search sites are reluctant to detail discredited SEO techniques "because they don't want to give people ideas about how to do it."

"If you were doing something fairly sneaky and Google told you it had spotted it, you might make a few changes in your approach and see if you could slip something by them," he said. "That's been the historical problem. The more they define the precise rules, the greater the chance that people will go right up to that line without crossing over."

Sullivan said Google and other search engines should be doing more to educate companies on the good and bad sides of SEO.

"They need to be proactive by giving site owners more of a heads up if they're doing things they shouldn't be doing," he said.

Google's delisting of BMW.de struck some online observers as heavy-handed.

"Google did not need to be so darn righteous about cutting BMW off. Google may be right, but it is being clumsy and asking for trouble. Google is doing neither itself nor its shareholders any favors in its over-orthodox application of its own rules, consequences be damned," wrote venture capitalist Paul Kedrosky, on his Infectious Greed blog.

Kedrosky's comments sparked an interesting conversation on his blog, mostly in favor of Google.

"Google is looking out for its users, who are hurt by inaccurate searches," wrote Roger Bohn, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego and a specialist in technology and operations management.

But some Google users were perturbed by the action against BMW. Taken in conjunction with the search engine's recently announced decision to offer a censored version of its site to users in China, they saw the move as another sign that Google is overstepping its bounds.

On Slashdot, more messages were posted in favor of the company than against it.

But there were also remarks like this one: "Although this seems reasonable in light of the perfidy that BMW was perpetrating, it also illustrates the large and growing power of Google, a power that may not always be used for optimal goodness."