July 12, 2010 6:51 pm

Groups magnify chances of Google hits

In an office in Santa Monica, wedged between downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, the future of the media industry is being drawn up.

Demand Media is a company created specifically for the Google Age. It tracks the queries entered into search engines to find out what users are interested in, then hires freelance writers at rock-bottom rates to rush out articles to meet the need.

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To make sure these articles appear high up in the results when similar searches are done in future, it uses the techniques of search engine optimisation – the term given to the art of designing a web page so that it is accorded a higher ranking by Google’s algorithm. It also makes money by displaying adverts alongside its articles from Google’s advertising system.

The fact that content factories are being created to ride on the back of search engines highlights an uncomfortable paradox.

Google’s search engine formula marks an ambitious attempt to model the real world in mathematics, identifying its users’ needs and desires and delivering the best information from the web in milliseconds. But as its influence across the web grows, Google’s algorithm is starting to shape the world it describes.

“The unintended consequence is that you get a lot of mediocre content getting a more prominent position than it should do,” says Shelby Bonnie, co-founder of Cnet, which now forms the heart of CBS’s online division. “The risk is that, as Google has become more and more dominant, people have made a business out of gaming its system.”

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Demand Media is part of a wave of online media companies that have risen to prominence with low-cost, high-volume content. Yahoo, through its recent purchase of Associated Content, and AOL, which has also invested in the large-scale production of low-cost content, are among the household names to try their hand.

“If there is an information gap out there and someone fills that gap, it’s good for the world,” says Amit Singhal, the Google engineer responsible for its ranking algorithm.

But critics argue that cheap content is produced by taking shortcuts and often involves writers plagiarising other online content – often found through Google – to produce lower-quality material they can then try to push up the search rankings.

“What they’re doing isn’t wrong,” says Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University law school. “The fault is Google’s, which hasn’t come up with an algorithm that screens out all this junk content.”

Demand Media refuses to discuss its use of search engine optimisation, but says it is only a small part of its overall business. It also says it employs editors and an automated plagiarism-detection system to maintain the quality of its content.

SEO is a technique long used by companies looking to rise above the clamour of voices on the web. But its use has been spreading far more widely as access to customers through Google has become a matter of life or death for online businesses.

While the techniques were originally used by small online commerce companies, they have been adopted more recently in the media world. Also, large consumer product companies have got in on the game, using SEO as a complement to the related practice of SEM, or search engine marketing, optimising their use of Google’s AdWords system to promote their goods.

The growing interest of established businesses has touched off a fear that has long permeated search engines: that they will cement the position of the already powerful and make it harder for new sites to break through.

“Google has been very positive for the internet by opening it up to many more voices,” says Mr Bonnie. “But today we’re seeing big companies putting a lot more resources behind [SEO], and the risk is they will become dominant.”

Viewed from one perspective, SEO is a practice that greatly enhances the usefulness of search by bringing valuable information to the fore.

At its heart, it is based on a few simple best practices. “Build good content, make sure your title communicates what you want to say,” says Mr Singhal. Google itself offers general advice on how best to present material so that it is easily digestible by the “crawlers” that scan the web.

A number of basic techniques underpin the success of the large SEO operators. These are based on some of the main approaches used by Google to identify useful content – though critics say they are open to abuse, and Google is in a constant battle to prevent its system being gamed.

Being linked to by a large number of other sites on the web – something known inside Google as “page rank” and the measure it relied on in its early days to identify high-quality sites – still carries sway, though Google says this is now only one measure among many.

Companies with a high page rank are in a strong position to move into new markets. By “pointing” to this new information from their existing sites they can pass on some of their existing search engine aura, guaranteeing them more prominence.

This helps companies such as AOL and Yahoo as they move into the low-cost content business, says Mr Bonnie. “They can use their Google page rank to make sure their content floats to the top,” he says.

Google’s Mr Singhal calls this the problem of “brand recognition”: where companies whose standing is based on their success in one area use this to “venture out into another class of information which they may not be as rich at”. Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect, he adds.

A second technique used by the SEO operators is to seek recognition from Google’s algorithm for their expertise on a particular issue.

“You have to have depth of content, not breadth,” says Mike Kwatinetz, a venture capitalist with investments in online media companies. “One article isn’t going to do it, but if you have 100 articles it will help.” This exposes the system to abuse by companies that produce large volumes of low-grade material on a single topic, he adds.

A third widely used technique is the frequent repetition of the keywords that search users are likely to enter into their queries. Repeated in the text of websites, in headlines, and even, if possible, in URLs, these are a good way to attract the attention of the search engines.

Big companies have started to master these methods. In a study conducted by the online marketing company Covario this year, the site of Office Max was found to be highly optimised for the term “office supplies”, while Sears scored highly on “hardware” and “tools”. Along with rival Office Depot, Office Max also maintains large networks of links from other sites, with each site receiving more than 60,000 links from other sites on the web.

The same heavy focus on keywords to appeal to the search engines is being felt at all levels. Mr Goldman points to Attorney.org as an example of the crop of new sites that are using low-cost content to gain a foothold. In one largely uninformative 500-word article on the site about personal bankruptcy, the phrase “bankruptcy attorney” appears 10 times.

“There’s good SEO, allowing people to get to more relevant content,” says Google’s Mr Singhal. “And then sometimes people do shady things and sometimes our algorithms are fooled.”

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