Search Engine Tricks and Sponsored Links

Top search rankings on major search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, Lycos, Altavista, and others have become an important objective for many online businesses. The goal is to have the name of the company appear on the first page (ideally at the top of the first page) of search results when a search is performed by someone looking for products or services of the type the company offers.

This can be accomplished in one of two ways. The first technique is to buy top placement. Overture Services, an Internet advertising company acquired by Yahoo! last year, pioneered pay¬per-click searches (the Overture service is called Precision Match). Google followed in 2002 with a similar service called Adwords, where sponsored links appear beside results when certain words are searched. In both cases, the sponsored links are sold to the highest bidder using an online bidding system.

Sponsored links have become big business and are expected to generate as much as US$4 billion annually by 2005, according to published reports. Google and others have been trying to get a piece of the action. Unfortunately for them, Overture (then known as GoTo.com) had filed a patent on its “system and method for influencing a position on a search results list” in 1999 and had a patent issued on July 31, 2001.

A two-year-old patent infringement action against Google is still ongoing. The second technique is to use various search engine optimization techniques or “tricks” to manipulate the results. In fact, the latest thing for Internet pranksters is something called “Google bombing.” This involves using the same techniques to make your competitor’s or opponent’s name to appear when a search is conducted for negative attributes that are sought to be associated with the competitor or opponent.

The term and technique were invented last year by Stanford University student Adam Mathes who wanted to play a joke on his friend Andy Pressman. Mathes’ goal was to make Pressman’s Web site the No. l Google search result for “talentless hack.” Mathes’ method was to encourage as many people with Web sites as possible to link to Pressman’s site using those words.

Now, more than a year later, Pressman’s Web site is still Google’s No. 1 search result for that phrase.
More recently, an anti-Kerry “waffles” campaign was apparently started by a Pennsylvania law student. Typing “waffles” into Google may bring up some search results about Belgian waffles, but the top link is for the John Kerry for President Web site.

Not to be outdone, Kerry supporters have also been busy. A search on the term “miserable failure” using Google or Yahoo! brings up a link to George W. Bush’s official biography on whitehouse.gov. But then, so does a search for “great president.” The trick is possible because Google indexes more than just the contents of the target Web pages. It also considers what words are used to link to a site.

Fun and games aside, these pranks can also have a sinister side. For example, searching on Google for “Jew” brings up an anti-Semitic link in top place. The same result does not occur with Yahoo!, Lycos, or MSN. While Google has elected not to remove the link or alter its placement, to their credit they have inserted a header on the search results page to explain the offensive search results.” Of course the header is a sponsored link which Google presumably bought from itself. I’d love the see the creative accounting on that transaction.

Note: The above appeared as a Bits & Bytes article published by Law Times on September 6, 2004.