BrainTrust Query: Can You Trust Search?

Mar 01, 2011
David Dorf

a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt from a current
article from Insight-Driven Retailing Blog.

An awful lot of referrals
to e-commerce sites come from web searches. Retailers rely on search engine
optimization (SEO) to correctly position their website so they can be found.
Search on "blue jeans" and the results are
determined by a semi-secret algorithm — in my case, Banana Republic,
and ShopStyle show up.

The New York Times recently uncovered a situation where J.C.
Penney, via third-parties hired to help with SEO, was caught manipulating Google
search results so they were erroneously higher in page rankings. No doubt this
helped drive additional sales during this past Christmas as shown by their
36 percent rise in fourth-quarter earnings.

Last week, similarly
was found guilty of driving up search rankings by convincing university webmasters
to provide "discount links" to
faculty and students. In both cases, Google retaliated by dropping both Penney
and’s links lower in its search results.

Penney last week fired
its search engine consulting firm while denying any wrongdoing.
changed its practices to meet Google’s guidelines.

My friend Ron Kleinman, former
retail guru at Sun Microsystems, started an interesting discussion at the ARTS
LinkedIn forum. He posed the question: The ability of a single company to "punish" any
retailer (by significantly impacting their on-line sales volume) who does not
play by their rules … is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Clearly Penney
and were both in the wrong and needed to be punished, but should
that decision lie with Google alone?

Don’t get me wrong — I’m certainly not
advocating we create a Department of Search where bureaucrats think of ways
to spend money, but Google wields an awful lot of power in this situation,
and it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Now Google is incorporating more social
aspects into their search results. For example, when Google knows it’s me (i.e.,
I’m logged in when using Google) search results will be influenced by my Twitter
network. In an effort to increase relevance, the blogs and re-tweeted articles
from my network will be higher in the search results than they otherwise would
be. So in the case of product searches, things discussed in my network will
rise to the top. Continuing my blue jean example, if someone in my network
had been discussing Macy’s, perhaps they would now be higher in the result set.

I already have lots of spammers posting bogus comments to my blog in an effort
to create additional links to their sites and thus increase their search ranking.
Should I expect a similar situation in Twitter and eventually Facebook?

retailers need to expand their SEO efforts to incorporate social media as well,
but do us all a favor and please don’t cheat.

Discussion Questions: First, what do you think of Google’s move to punish Penney and for artificially boosting search results? How will incorporating social media into search results likely impact the value of such results?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

8 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Can You Trust Search?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Max Goldberg
10 years 2 months ago

Google’s reputation and significant market valuation are based on its ability to deliver accurate, unbiased, useful search results. If a company tries to cheat or game the system and is caught, they can and should be punished by Google. This holds true for the way Google has calculated search results in the past, and will be true when it incorporates social media into search. This should spur retailers to better utilize social media in their marketing efforts.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 2 months ago

David, with respect, I think you are looking at the problem upside down. Google is not penalizing offenders, it is rewarding those sites that play fair and actually have strategic relevant content users are looking for. Content farms were unfairly rewarding irrelevant sites. Relevance is time, time is money. Google is not only defending its reputation as a provider of relevant information, it is also helping you and me get to what we need faster.

The battlefield will soon move to the social media space. As the owner of two popular LinkedIn groups, I have seen a sharp increase in “fishy” membership requests recently (individuals with no connections, no job history, essentially attempting to get into the group to spam members since LinkedIn allows free messaging within a group). This problem will only get worse. Do I want Google to “punish” offenders and abusers? Absolutely!

Ralph Jacobson
10 years 2 months ago

Social media is the next logical step for search results. With the billions of pieces of content in social media outlets, a SEO is far from “optimized” if an entire category of content is ignored. Although social media conversations are less controlled than privately-managed corporate websites, the amount of valuable information available there can drive search results into completely new directions.

So, yes, you can trust search, as long as you understand the results are only “human” and you will get even more irrelevance with social media, however, more diverse results at the same time. We are all smart enough to sift through the irrelevance. Search engines need to prioritize results to help the user, and that will happen as more results get filtered with each new search.

This is all goodness.

Joan Treistman
10 years 2 months ago
We’ve heard many references to social media and the internet as the “wild, wild West.” So Google is the marshall…until there is a shootout. When the dust clears, Google stays the Marshall or a new Marshal comes to town. Seriously, did we think that companies were not out to climb to the top of the competitive heap? We want fair competition by our definition of fair. We can make that happen if all retailers and marketers agree to self regulation with penalties for behavior inconsistent with agreed to guidelines. However, organizing and regulating is a challenge. So we can tell everyone to use Google Adwords. Of course not all companies know how to use it effectively. And not all companies have the investment capital for it. Finally, it’s not sufficient for what retailers want to accomplish. But if you commit to Google Adwords you are playing fairly and no one will dispute that. J.C. Penney achieved what many retailers would like to make happen. Their vendor re-defined SEO on their terms for the good of… Read more »
Dan Frechtling
10 years 2 months ago
This is another installment in a saga that includes Penney, BMW, Forbes, and many lesser-known properties. There are enormous incentives to subvert organic search. The opportunities are larger than past borderline practices within telemarketing, direct mail, and email. What’s different of course is the power wielded by firms such as Google and Facebook. For Google, this power flows from their ability to drive revenue. They serve two-thirds of US searches. Fully one-third of traffic goes to the #1 organic result alone. Google also has the power to act or not act on offenders. It can impose the “death penalty” and remove sites completely as it did with BMW in 2006. Or it can avoid action on large advertisers and hide behind the difficulty of policing 200 million domain names. It comes down to what makes business sense for Google. In this case Google made a public example out of J.C. Penney. Can we trust firms like Google and Facebook? Yes, if we remember they are not always governed by integrity just because they’re free. As… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
10 years 2 months ago

To borrow and (hopefully) build on Joan’s comments, what this episode reminds me is how lightly the ‘net is regulated, and how we are always at the edge of having that change; it’s easy, here, to say the perps were “wrong” and Google was “right” to discipline them, and to point out their incentive to do so (i.e. retaining credibility), but a slight changing of the facts might alter that considerably: when does discipline turn into extortion, and what happens if Google–or any other big player in the e-world–concludes credibility is overrated?

Larry Negrich
10 years 2 months ago
I may be a bit jaded on this topic but I expect that a great many companies are trying to manipulate a host of variables that positively affect their page rankings. SEO is all about trying to optimize sites to ultimately improve page rankings. These methods are pushed to the brink of fairness or manipulation, your choice, to achieve better organic search results, page rankings, and ultimately site traffic. A fair vs. unfair method for achieving these objectives is for Google to decide as it is their service and their company. Of course Google is in a precarious position when it comes to “punishing” a customer both because of a potential loss of revenue from the customer and because of its market position in search. With Google protecting their “secret search formula” and constantly altering it, I would expect that companies will forever be trying to find ways to manipulate it in their favor. Social media gives enterprising search optimizers one more avenue to utilize to improve page rankings and drive traffic. Here’s to hoping… Read more »
Warren Thayer
10 years 2 months ago

Most of you know I am not a power user of the Internet, etc., so it should come as no surprise that a few months back I must have inadvertently hit a key that made all my searches include blogs. It was absolutely horrendous, with seemingly thousands of irrelevant and inane postings that kept me from getting what I needed. Then, mysteriously, it went away. (Sort of like how my cellphone from time to time says “Please say a command” and I tell it go to **** itself, and it eventually stops yammering at me.) My point is that if searches are going to include blogs, tweets, and other hogwash, I hope we can have an option to not get any of that crap.


Take Our Instant Poll

Was Google’s move to  punish J.C. Penney and justified or unjustified?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...