By all appearances Google is having a pretty good decade. Revenue is up, acquisitions are happening, and Google’s position at the top of the search engine fight is unassailable. The folks at Mountain View must be pretty happy with the way things are going.
They shouldn’t be. Google might be on the top of the online world right now but in getting there and staying there, they may have sold their soul. The company that made “Don’t be evil” their motto is now running their business in a way that is highly profitable, highly successful and borderline evil.
So what makes Google evil? There’s no shortage of issues to choose from. You can point to their censorship in China (until 2010), their position to weaken Net Neutrality, or Larry Page apparently knowing about illegal Canadian pharmacy ads as indicators of a company that no longer “does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains” and probably qualifies as evil. But for me, the proof of Google’s evil is the fallout from the two Panda updates where so many high-quality sites got kneecapped in the SERPS and other, much lower in quality, sites remained high.
The idea behind Panda is a good one. Because Google does use an algorithm to determine the order sites show up on searches, people started to game the system to get their site to appear higher than the others. Web spammers and Made For Advertising sites have a huge incentive to get to the top of the list (their entire business depends on it) so while they have no direct knowledge of the algorithm, they can figure it out well enough from observation and change their sites to maximize their exposure and page rank. This pushes down legitimate sites and causes a lot of frustration which may have led people to try a different search engine.
So a fix was needed and Panda is that fix. A change to the algorithm to target spammers, scrapers and content farms and get the good stuff back up high. But Panda caused a LOT of collateral damage in the form of being buried in the results and/or even being buried behind a site that scraped one’s own content! Google’s response to this is “it’s not us, it’s the algorithm.”
What makes this a special kind of evil is the reliance on the excuse of the algorithm (the ITAS defense) on the part of Google when responding to the web masters of small sites that were eaten alive by an angry Panda. By throwing their hands up and pointing to the algorithm, the engineers responsible for this mess are signaling their lack of care for the small businesses that publish the original content that Google monetizes several different ways. It’s okay for Google to make money off your work even if it means promoting a scraper site over yours, but apparently not okay for you to operate the same way. Not cool, Google.
To compound the evilness, Google is being very selective about which sites are affected by Panda. Most famously, the Cult of Mac felt the Panda’s wrath but was the beneficiary of being well-connected in the industry and was able to obtain a manual exception. However, the little guys were not so lucky and many owners lost revenue and have not been able to regain previous levels. If this were to serve a greater good, fine. But Google clearly is not interested in the greater good of web results for how else do we explain eHow.com and other Demand Media properties somehow bypassing the hit? For those of you not familiar with eHow and Demand Media, the links above are required reading. These people DEFINE content farming and there is a burgeoning plagiarism problem but there they are, sitting pretty at the top of the list while sites full of good original information languish at the bottom.
So what can we do? As much as I disagree with Snarky McPerfectPost on most things, he does have it right when he says:
When 88.2% of all traffic for your website comes from a single source, criticizing that single source feels … risky. And perhaps a bit churlish, like looking a gift horse in the mouth, or saying something derogatory in public about your Valued Business Partner™. — Coding Horror
But something needs to be done. Whether that is trying to go cold-turkey for all Google stuff and convince others to join you (fat chance) to working within the system to effect change in how Matt Cutts‘s team evaluates the their work I cannot say. But I’m not happy with the current state of the web and neither should you be.