Can you Trust Search?
By David Dorf on Feb 17, 2011
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 Levi.com, Banana Republic, and ShopStyle show up.The NY Times recently uncovered a situation where JCPenney, via third-parties hired to help with SEO, was caught manipulating search results so they were erroneously higher in page rankings. No doubt this helped drive additional sales during this part Christmas. The article, The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, is well worth reading.
My friend Ron Kleinman 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 JCP was 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 its 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.
soapbox: I already have lots of spammers posting bogus comments to this 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?
Now retailers need to expand their SEO efforts to incorporate social media as well, but do us all a favor and please don't cheat.