Reflecting on Google’s power: a case for regulation?

Via Martin Belam’s blog I came across this account of how the well-known flower vendor Interflora has, it is claimed, been penalised by Google for violation of its webmaster guidelines on paid links:

Searching for the terms [Flowers], [florist], [flower delivery], [flowers online] and hundreds of other related search terms yielded the interflora.co.uk domain in first place – until yesterday afternoon.  Now the website does not even appear for its own brand name.

Possibly by no coincidence, an official Google post reminds us of the rules:

We do take this issue very seriously, so we recommend you avoid selling (and buying) links that pass PageRank in order to prevent loss of trust, lower PageRank in the Google Toolbar, lower rankings, or in an extreme case, removal from Google’s search results.

I find this troubling. Here are a few statements (some may be contentious) that taken together will, I hope, express why.

1. Google has a market-dominating position in search, certainly in the UK. With good reason, users wishing to visit Interflora’s site are more likely to type “interflora” into a search engine, probably Google, then to type the URL directly. The combined address bar and search box in most browsers encourages this. Many users probably do not appreciate the difference. Of course they might also type “order flowers” into the box, delegating to Google the responsibility for finding suitable sites.

2. In consequence of 1, Google has direct and immediate power over the amount of business that will be achieved by a company trading online. In some cases that might be make-or-break, in some cases not, but it is a significant influence.

3. A further consequence is that Google’s search and ranking algorithms form an incentive to businesses to do all they can to climb higher in the search ranking. Since this appears to be influenced by incoming links (though probably less so than it once was) Google’s algorithms attempt to judge which incoming links are meaningful and which are not. Paid links fall into into the latter category, hence the guidelines which prohibit them.

4. Despite (3) above, the internet is infested with paid links and link exchanges. Even running a small site like mine, I get thousands of paid link and link exchange requests every year. The implication is that Google is not all that good at ignoring and/or penalising them, otherwise the activity would cease.

5. Worth noting: web site owners are free to accept paid links and vendors are free to buy them. They are not doing wrong. The only disincentives are first, whether you want to fill your site with worthless links, and second, whether you will be penalised by Google for doing so.

6. Google’s process for determining whether or not a particular web destination is down-ranked is not transparent. This is for good reasons, insofar as a transparent process would arguably be easier to game. On the other hand, this also means that a business which is penalised has no recourse other than to plead with Google, unless it felt inclined to experiment with legal action (prohibitively expensive and uncertain for most).

7. In fact there is another option, which is to advertise with Google, a form of paid link which the search giant is happy to accept. It seems to me obvious that this form of advertising is designed to look similar to unpaid search results, despite some small effort to distinguish them with small print and a light background colour change:

image

It is not clear to me that this intermingling of paid and organic results is in the user’s best interests.

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