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How you and Google are losing the battle against spam in search results
The pool of people who could answer our questions online is growing fast. Internet users spend more than 20 percent of their time online using social networks. Last year, with more than 500 million users, Facebook topped Google as the world's most visited Web site. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham is on Facebook's board of directors.)
While millions of people still use Google every day with no problems, I now see requests in my Twitter and Facebook feeds for things I once Googled: opinions on new cars, the best home repair person, the best place to eat, how to find a developer for iPhone apps. When I asked a friend on Facebook why she turned to her friends for new-car ratings, she replied: "facebook makes me smile b/c everyone has opinions about everything. i thought that, in this case, the opinions would actually be helpful. i can't read big google search findings b/c i have no patience."
A good side, a dark side
No doubt, there is a lot to wade through, with more than a million new spam Web pages created every hour, according to Blekko, a new search engine trying to take on Google. Optimizing what search engines find on all those pages is a big business - with a good side and a dark side. On the good side, analysts say, there are legitimate search engine experts such as Jill Whalen, founder of the Boston-area firm High Rankings, who works with big companies to make sure important information appears high up in search results. These search engine optimizers are masters of key words, site design and other techniques.
"It's very frustrating for decent SEOs right now," said Whalen, who recently wrote a blog post headlined, "Dear Google, Stop making me look like a fool!" "I would think it would be very hard to get into this business now as a new SEO because there is just so much noise."
The number of links to a Web page is one measure Google uses to rank Web sites, and that brings us to the dark side of search engine optimization: There are services that sell links to content that spammers are promoting. The more links to a Web page, the better.
In a particularly devious way of goosing a page ranking, some spammers use Amazon's online marketplace for Web work, Mechanical Turk, to hire people at a nickel a click to follow links that would boost their site's presence on Google. Panos Ipeirotis, a New York University business school professor, studied Mechanical Turk's new work offerings late last year and found that more than 40 percent were for spamming work. "The results were disturbing," he wrote.
Then there are the content farms. Companies such as Demand Media, which raised $151 million in an initial public offering Wednesday, and AOL have created businesses that pay writers - or anyone who can reasonably string sentences together - to post content that answers popular search queries. AOL's Seed division offers low-paid writing assignments based on hot topics. Demand Media, particularly through its eHow Web site, specializes in how-to information. The company has told investors it relies heavily on revenue generated through Google's advertising program.
Content farms are masters at surfacing their content high in Google's search results. The content, critics say, is often less than masterful. A search on Google for "how do I calibrate flat screen tv" turns up two eHow sites in the first three links. One is written by someone named Jenna Johnson, whose other articles include "How to Organize a Small Bedroom" and "How to Use Leftover Meatloaf." (Make a meatloaf sandwich, she suggests.)
Demand Media declined to comment, citing the quiet period after its IPO, but company executives have in the past rejected the "content farm" label. AOL Senior Vice President David Mason also disputed the "content farm" term, saying the company pushes its authors to write deep, engaging content. Seed recently highlighted an item on its blog about cleaning eyeglasses with toothpaste.
My friend with the lousy TV picture found nothing in the eHow posts - or the other links that Google surfaced - that helped her.
"I was about to take my new TV back to the store because I thought it was just a kind of TV that wouldn't work the way we wanted it to," she said. Then Twitter, not Google, saved the day. Asked how her picture is now, Skloot said, "Amazing."
A step behind
Google, for its part, says that it has long been aware of link buying and other spamming tricks and that its algorithms take all of that into account. But many of Google's critics wonder how far ahead of the spammers the company really is.