By Leslie Walker
Thursday, April 27, 2006
If your Web site isn't getting the attention it deserves on the Internet, it may be running low on Google juice.
Google juice, for the uninitiated, refers to how high a Web site ranks in Google's search results -- the higher the ranking, the more juice. Google juice is all about links. As many people know, the Internet search leader ranks Web sites based largely on the quantity and quality of other sites linking to it.
It's no wonder that a whole new industry has arisen around mining the Web for links and other page-tweaks that can help sites boost their Google rank and reel in more visitors.
This industry calls itself "search-engine optimization," though I think a better name would be "search-massage consultants." The young, geeky types who are behind this enhanced way of boosting a Web site's Google juice let off steam with practical jokes, including global Google-gaming contests, one of which I've been watching with amusement for three months.
The goal of this contest is to make a Web site that comes up first on the results page when anyone does a Google search for the gobbledygook phrase "v7ndotcom elursrebmem."
"We usually make up a word from scratch just to keep the playing field level in these contests," said the event's sponsor, John Scott, who runs an online forum for search optimizers. "If we did 'Viagra,' " a lot of sites would have a head start."
Of course, trying to change Google's ranking for "Viagra" might also get participants in hot water with the search-engine police. Most participating sites wouldn't really be about the virility drug, yet by adding a bunch of links labeled "Viagra" to their pages they might muck up Google's results for a popular search. And Google takes a dim view of attempts to artificially manipulate search results.
All the more reason to use a meaningless phrase, since Google might not worry as much about what comes up when people search for "v7ndotcom elursrebmem." For the curious, the first word is the name of Scott's site ( http://www.v7n.com ) and the second is "members rule" spelled backward. Scott chose the phrase as a symbolic thanks to the more than 100,000 registered members of his site's online forum.
His contest, which offers $4,000 to the winner, has drawn criticism from those who see it as a ploy to draw links and thereby boost his site's Google rank. But it has drawn hundreds of participants, who registered all kinds of silly Web addresses and wrote bogus articles with the silly phrase liberally sprinkled in.
Searching on "v7ndotcom elursrebmem" on Google yesterday yielded more than 6 million matching pages. My favorite is the site ranked No. 2, which purports to be the official site for "The Grand V7ndotcom Elursrebmem Hotel," a nonexistent hotel in London, complete with photos and a virtual tour.
Holding the No. 1 spot is a page maintained by Jim Westergren, a Swedish search consultant. In an e-mail, Westergren said his winning formula involves writing material "relevant" to the contest phrase, getting lots of links to his page from elsewhere on the Web and already having a good Google rank for his personal site, where he writes a blog.
I asked several consultants what, if anything, the contest shows about the integrity of Web search results and the value of links.
Several said it has gotten much harder to influence Google results for popular searches, which is why many consultants advise businesses to encode their sites with specialty phrases and keywords related to the business that people might type in the Google box.
Westergren said he thinks it's "very hard" to game Google today, particularly since it keeps improving its link analysis: "Recently Google has been getting more smart about this and can even detect and devalue paid links," he wrote.
Rand Fishkin, chief executive of a Seattle-based search consultancy called SEOMoz, said he focuses on getting editorial links for his clients, partly by creating feature articles that Web publishers will link to: "We call it link-baiting. The idea is to attract a lot of natural links."
It sounds like the Web's version of public relations, with consultants baiting webmasters much like PR firms pitch stories to reporters. Fishkin's latest success came from creating an online awards contest he called "Web 2.0 Awards," touted on Web pages that linked to his firm's Web site.
Bill Leake, chief executive of Apogee-Search.com, a consultancy firm in Austin, said links are still the key to impressing Google. He advises businesses to take a two-step approach to boosting their Google rank. First, they should test search terms related to their business by purchasing Google ads for those words, which allows precise tracking of ad click-throughs and purchases. After learning which search words yield the best results on ads, businesses can hire a consultant to embed those terms into their sites and buy links relating to them.
"The link brokers are going great guns," Leake said.
One such firm is TextLinkBrokers.com, which started in Phoenix three years ago by brokering paid links between sites with high Google ranks to those with low Google ranks. But Google's changing formulas have made it harder to boost a site's ranking just through paid links, said Jarrod Hunt, chief executive of the 60-person firm.
"Editorial links are more valuable now than the paid ones," he added.
Hunt said his firm still brokers text links for sale from thousands of independent Web sites, but it also develops original editorial content to help get links Google might consider to be of higher quality. Often the articles are given away or sold to sites in a program he calls "hosted marketing pages," basically online advertorials with embedded links.
There are shady ways to get Google juice, too, but be careful -- it could get your site booted completely out of the Google index. If you break the search-engine rules, the juice can turn to poison and lead to the Google death penalty.
Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.