The Google backlash

The king of search rules the Web -- but now some of the natives are growing restless.

By Farhad Manjoo
June 25, 2003 12:00PM (UTC)
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When Robert Massa, the owner of a small Web company called Search King, decided to sue Google in 2002 after the search engine lowered his site's ranking, he knew the move wasn't going to win him any friends online. Back then Google was worshipped by practically everyone on the Web; not only did the search engine produce the finest results, but the company that ran it was also regarded as modest and affable, a refreshing thing in the tech industry. Massa was right: People immediately started saying nasty things to him. "'They ought to wipe you out of business.' 'They should sue you!' -- that kind of thing," Massa recalls. "It's scary that those kinds of people are sitting out on the Internet."

Massa's lawsuit didn't get very far; Google insisted it had the right to do whatever it wanted on its own site and pointed out that Massa had even been publicly boasting about gaming Google's PageRank system. On May 27, 2003, a federal judge in Oklahoma, where Search King is based, agreed with Google and dismissed Massa's suit.


Massa is surprisingly upbeat about the loss. He says that he's conferring with his attorneys about what to do next. But he doesn't think further litigation against Google will be necessary, for the simple reason that nobody believes, anymore, that Google is an angelic, big-hearted firm with only the Web's best interests at heart.

"To be honest, I feel like I made my point," he says. "There's been a perception that Google is something special, something bigger than life. My point is they're just a search engine -- they're a damn good engine -- but they shouldn't be above the law. I accused them of having tremendous power and having no accountability. And now people are starting to question their motives."

Massa may be according himself a bit too much credit, but he's essentially correct -- Google's halo is beginning to tarnish. Much of this has to do with the influence the firm now wields in virtually every corner of the Web. Google is the biggest search engine in the world, by a huge margin; when you count the people who use the Google site as well as other sites that employ its technology -- including Yahoo, AOL and EarthLink -- the company may handle as many as three-quarters of all search requests online.


But the company does much more than run a good search engine. Google is also, by its own proud reckoning, the world's largest advertising network. More than 100,000 businesses currently advertise with the company, many of them small companies for whom Google is a primary driver of customers. In February, Google purchased Blogger, making it the biggest blogging company, with more than a million registered users. Google also hosts a "product search" site, a paid-research service, and Google News, which is fast making most news editors, if not reporters, superfluous.

The fondest rumor in the tech industry is that Google will soon go public and, just as Netscape did in 1995, ignite a long-running market boom. But even if it doesn't launch an IPO, one look at the dozens of jobs the firm has available leaves little doubt about its plans for expansion.

(Representatives of Google were unable to comment for this article.)


Is Google's growth provoking a backlash? Industry observers are beginning to think so. A few years ago, they note, it was difficult to find anyone who didn't worship Google, but now many people have a beef with the firm. Some of the complaints are obviously self-serving and maybe even dismissible -- such as those from the Chinese government, say, or the Church of Scientology. But the ire of other groups has more heft. In recent months, the question of how Google should index blogs has become a hot topic online. Google has been attacked by some critics who say the search engine gives blogs too much weight, and others who say it's not giving blogs their due. Then there are webmasters and people in the "search engine optimization" industry, folks whose livelihoods depend on ranking well in Google. With so much riding on the whims of one firm, these people are constantly, pedantically, obsessed with and irritated at Google, sometimes, as in Massa's case, to the point of litigation.

To be sure, millions of people still love Google. When they step up to a Google query box, Web users are expecting one thing from the search engine -- to be quickly directed to the one page that can solve some momentary, pressing mystery. Google provides such pages with remarkable consistency, and that accounts for its success -- but it also points to a vulnerability. Google is so good that it's now seen, in some ways, as an arbiter of truth, a kingmaker. What Google says about a particular subject, from "Iraq war" to "bookstore," can have real political or economic import. That's why so many people fight over Google's results, and why, as the company grows, concerns about its influence will only get louder.


Google's influence also makes it a juicy target for rivals. The company's position on top is by no means guaranteed. Yahoo once seemed indomitable, too, notes Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Watch and perhaps the foremost observer of trends in the world of search. But things on the Web change very quickly, and Yahoo's lead didn't last long. "Has the world become so different that things can't balance themselves out with Google, too?" Sullivan asks. The question is not rhetorical. Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, Overture, and -- perhaps most distressingly for Google -- Microsoft are all determined to make a play for a bigger slice of the search market.

Can Google outmaneuver these rivals? It very well might. But there's a more interesting question: Now that Google is no longer a plucky underdog, will anyone root for it?

To see the range of emotion that Google can inspire -- everything from fear, anxiety, irritation and anger to, more rarely, unbridled exuberance -- the best place to check in is the Google News section of WebmasterWorld, an online forum where webmasters and search engine optimizers congregate to discuss the search site. No change that Google makes goes unnoticed here because, says Sullivan, "if you look at the number of hours people spend searching Google, it means that if anything changes at Google, Web site owners may feel it more dramatically than they have felt it in the past." So, as Chris Sherman, who edits a newsletter on search engines called SearchDay, says, webmasters spend their lives "watching every twitch that Google makes."


The webmasters become especially agitated every 30 days or so, when Google updates its index to reflect the new data it has collected from around the Web. Since an update can change a particular site's ranking on a particular set of keywords, each month portends a dramatic shift in fortunes for any Web owner. In the wake of a new index, some people find themselves up, and some people find themselves down, and the forums on Webmaster World come alive with complaints, questions, suggestions and compliments to Google.

It's a fascinating interplay: The webmasters kick and scream, and GoogleGuy, the company's online ambassador to the webmaster world, tries to calm their fears and answer as many questions about the changes as he can, while remaining, out of necessity, somewhat coy about Google's ranking scheme. Some of the webmasters hate this -- they consider Google secretive and capricious and they wonder why it has so much influence on the Web. They cook up conspiracy theories: Is Google trying to put search engine optimizers out of business? Is Google changing search-result rankings to force businesses to buy ads on its site instead? Or is Google perhaps just broken?

Experienced webmasters and search optimizers have a more nuanced outlook -- they consider Google's shifts a challenge, a puzzle that they've dedicated themselves to figuring out. "It is frustrating," says Justin Sanger, the president of Pulsity, a Chicago company that helps Web sites rank high in Google and other search engines. "Not only is it impossible to ascertain the exact nature of the rules, but it's also a moving target. Google's always changing, so it's a continual cat-and-mouse game. But it is our job as independent professionals to understand it. The onus is on us to identify how Google, in providing its free search services, ranks our sites." Others have a more a Zen-like approach to doing well in Google. "You can't control Google," says a search engine marketer who goes by the name martinibuster on Webmaster World. "Anything you do to control Google, the more you try to manipulate it, the more it will backfire on you. It's counterintuitive, but it's when you let go -- when you don't try to control Google -- then your results get better."


In its May update, Google switched from an index it called Cassandra to one named Dominic. (Google gives each successive index a name in alphabetical order, in much the same way that meteorologists name hurricanes.) Google seems to use every update as an opportunity to fine-tune its ranking algorithm, and Dominic, apparently, contained major changes. On Webmaster World, more than a couple thousand people wrote in about Dominic, many of them saying that something must be very wrong at Google -- the results it was spitting out seemed bizarre.

It's not clear whether Dominic represented an actual algorithmic departure for Google or if it was a minor tweak blown out of proportion by webmasters. Most people on the Web probably didn't notice a difference. But one person who did see a change in Google in May was Jeremy Zawodny, a Silicon Valley engineer, whose blog had been, for a while, the page Google returned first when someone asked it about "Jeremy." Then Zawodny noticed that "Jeremy" returned, instead, the site for the comic strip "Jeremy" at the No. 1 ranking, and that his blog had dropped below No. 10. Zawodny's old-school home page was in fact ranked higher than his blog, which he found very odd. His blog, which he updated all the time and which was much more popular online, should have been on top. (Zawodny works at Yahoo, but he cautions that his opinions and observations of Google are strictly his own.)

So Zawodny blogged about his Google demotion. Why, he wondered in a May 24 post, was Google suddenly being so mean to blogs? Was this evidence that the search engine was trying to weed them out from its rankings? Zawodny speculated that he was seeing the first signs of a bad trend. "Google is no longer concerned solely with what's popular," he wrote. "Like most companies, they also care a lot about what sells or what advertisers want. Many speculate that Google is responding to various pressures to keep blogs from tainting their results. Perhaps."

Zawodny's post came at a time of high tension in blogland. In recent months, many pundits have complained that Google's results were getting clogged with blogs. In March, Andrew Orlowski, a writer for the Register, an online tech daily, pointed out a phenomenon he called "Googlewashing" -- a practice in which bloggers, working together, can essentially redefine some important cultural or political concept in Google. The idea was not exactly new. Since Google relies heavily on "link analysis," and since bloggers are the Web's most indefatigable linkers, the search engine has always given them great weight -- and bloggers found out last year that if a whole lot of them started linking to the same thing at more or less the same time, they could affect Google's results.


Orlowski fretted about this small group's power over Google. "Orwell would be amused, indeed," he wrote. In the New York Times in May, the linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg picked up on Orlowski's thread, writing that Google's rankings often "mirror the interests of the groups that aggregate around particular topics: the bloggers, experts, hobbyists and, often, the crackpots":

"Not long ago a German friend of mine went to Google for help in refuting a colleague who maintained that American authorities engineered the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, citing as evidence, among other things, the delay in sending American fighter jets aloft that morning," Nunberg wrote. "My friend did searches on a number of obvious strings, like '9/11 scramble jets intercept.' But almost all the pages that came up were the work of conspiracy theorists, with titles like 'Guilty for 9-11: Bush, Rumsfeld, Myers' and 'Pentagon Surveillance Videos -- Where Are the Missing Frames?'"

Around the same time, Orlowski reported an apparent scoop: Google had recognized that blogs were hurting the search engine and it wanted to fix the "blog noise problem" by putting all weblog content into a separate tab in the search results, just as it does with newsgroup content. Orlowski acknowledged, in his article, that this idea was more theory than fact, and Google has since denied the notion repeatedly. But the thought that Google was up to something nefarious seemed to stick, and it was amplified in the echo chamber of blogland.

So when Jeremy Zawodny saw that his blog was no longer high up in Google, he figured that Google had finally caved in -- that it had altered its ranking algorithm to appease the critics who said that bloggers had too much sway. "I think Google just kind of thought, Maybe these bloggers are getting too powerful," he says. On his blog, he wrote, "I'd like to talk a moment to mourn the passing of PageRank, the secret sauce that made Google the spicy search engine we once knew and loved." It was the end of an era, he suggested; Google had lost its innocence, its algorithmic blindness, and it now seemed to be choosing its own favorites. Zawodny's post was cited by many bloggers as a sign that Google had lost its way.


On June 15, Google began updating its servers to a new index called Esmerelda. And in this index, a query for "Jeremy" will return Zawodny's blog as the first result -- just as it did before the Dominic update. What happened? Did Google decide that it did not, after all, want to demote blogs? Had the company determined that the heat from bloggers -- who, remember, are also now one of the company's key constituents -- was too great? Or was the Dominic update just an aberration -- had the company never meant to do anything to blogs, and was the whole thing some kind of computational misunderstanding?

For good reason, Google doesn't talk about its ranking algorithms; if folks knew what Google was doing, the search engine would be easy to trick. But in the absence of information from the company, rumors, theories and groundless speculation run free. On the Web, Google has taken on the aura of a god -- enigmatic, arbitrary, worthy of our fear and our love. Everyone's watching it for signs of anger and of embrace; we know that whatever it does will affect us profoundly, and so people watch it, and they worry.

There are some people for whom Google is a very generous god, one who, in return for small gifts, will bestow great fortune -- these are the people who use its AdWords program, which, according to many who run Web businesses, has revolutionized the way products are sold online.

AdWords ads are the ones you see on the right side of the screen when you do a Google search; they're small, text-based pitches that are triggered by keywords that advertisers bid on, as in an eBay auction. Google did not invent this ad model --, now called Overture, has long been a leader in the field of keyword-based search ads, and, indeed, the company is suing Google for allegedly infringing on its patents. (Google denies any wrongdoing.) Overture has done remarkably well selling so-called pay-for-placement ads, which run on search sites all over the Web, including on Yahoo and MSN. This year, Overture will make over a billion dollars in revenue. But Google's program has attracted more advertisers because, Web owners say, it treats all businesses, regardless of size and wealth, equally.


"It works on a system that's independent of the cost," says Ashwin Iddya, the author of an e-book on AdWords. "In Overture, a big guy like eBay may beat all the other competitors," Iddya says, explaining that Overture determines rank strictly according to the price a company pays for a certain keyword. "In Google that's not a problem. In Google the listing of the ad depends on the price you pay and on the click-through rates" -- meaning that a big company's ad could end up lower than a small firm's ad if the small guy has a more attractive pitch.

"So I think most advertisers think that Google is God," Iddya says. "It's working out great for small businesses and medium businesses. Before this, they really didn't have a major avenue for advertising on the Internet. If you wanted to advertise in Yahoo or AltaVista, you needed to pay like $2,000 up front. Now you can start paying something like $5 and $10. You pay only for the clicks you get. So what you would call 'mom and pop' sites, people who start small businesses sitting at home, these people love Google."

Iddya himself has done well with Google's program. He lives in Bangalore, India, where a few years ago he got caught up in the tech boom. "I was a marketing executive at a dot-com that went bust," he says. "We burned all the V.C. money, just like any normal dot-com." After that, he started looking at Google's AdWords program and decided it was a good way to sell small products online -- which is what he did for a while, until "I realized that AdWords is different, and so I wrote a book about it." His book, which offers a step-by-step guide for creating effective ads, became a hit, and one day a reader asked Iddya if he would, for a fee, care to manage the reader's AdWords campaign. So that's what Iddya does now -- from India, he manages AdWords campaigns mostly for American firms. "It worked out," he says. "Now we have three employees and an office, and we are basically riding piggyback on Google."

As a private company, Google doesn't disclose its finances, but according to analysts the firm could make about $600 million in 2003, much of it money from AdWords ads. The firm is expanding the program: It has just announced a program called AdSense, in which Web site publishers can get money for allowing Google to post targeted text-ads on their sites. (Notice, for example, how this article on affirmative action at Infoplease is served up with a bunch of ads for affirmative action consulting companies.)

Some Google-watchers wonder if Google will become too enamored of ads. Especially if the company goes public, this suggestion goes, Google might decide to put the bulk of its resources into its advertising programs, where the money is. What will that mean for its search services? "The mistake that Yahoo and AltaVista made was saying, 'We can't be a search engine company anymore, we have to offer all these other products and services' -- all the trends that characterized the dot-com mania," says Sherman, the Search Day editor. "Google has avoided that with what they call their 'laserlike focus on search.' But they're expanding at so fast a pace that I find it hard to believe that their laser-like focus is at all as laserlike as it once was."

Google is expanding into new areas at the same time that its rivals are honing their search services. In February, Overture purchased AltaVista, an acquisition that gave it some of the best search engineers in the country. The company has been a bit cagey about its plans for AltaVista, but most observers believe that Overture is attempting to position the company as a viable alternative to Google. More troubling for Google was Yahoo's purchase, in December, of Inktomi. Google is currently a Yahoo "partner"; when you search in Yahoo, many of its results are provided by Google.

"I think there are people at Yahoo who feel like because they partnered with Google, they helped make Google what it was," says Sullivan, of Search Engine Watch. He expects that when Yahoo's contract with Google comes up for renewal in September, Yahoo will drop Google and start using Inktomi's results.

Asked about this possibility, Tim Cadogan, Yahoo's vice president of search, was noncommittal. "The best way to think about that is, we're focused on our goal," he said. "And we're going to use whatever component technologies there are to get to that goal. To date Google has been a very good partner to us. We've been very happy to use them." But Cadogan also said that Yahoo plans to invest in Inktomi's technology, and, when asked if he thought that Inktomi's results were as good as Google's, Cadogan said that "a couple of third-party studies show that Inktomi is slightly better than Google." (This study -- which was commissioned by Inktomi but appears quite free of bias -- found that Inktomi came up with slightly more "relevant" results for a given list of queries.)

But the gravest threat to Google comes from Microsoft, which has been suggesting for some time that it's thinking of going after Google's business. "We do view Google more and more as a competitor. We believe that we can provide consumers with a better product and a better user experience. That's something that we're actively looking at doing," Bob Visse, Microsoft's MSN chief, told Reuters in April. And in the middle of June, several webmasters noticed that Microsoft had released a "crawler" -- software to scan and index Web sites -- onto the Web, a first step in creating a search service. Microsoft declined to comment on the discovery.

Many people are already putting the worst spin on Microsoft's intentions. There are suggestions that the company will tie its search service into its next version of Windows, that it will enable people to search using MSN from any desktop application, not just a Web browser. Google and the other search sites might find it hard to compete with Microsoft when it begins integrating a key service into its popular software, meaning that they could suffer the same fate as Netscape. But some webmasters are also suggesting that Microsoft's entry into the search market, combined with Yahoo's possible dismissal of Google, will have a salutary effect on Web searching. Google needs some competition, they say, to rein it in.

More than that, Google needs competition to stay as good as it is. Search engine users are fickle creatures. Sure, Google's been good to us, but none of that will count if the search engine begins to slip in its results. Many observers note that, unlike changing your car or your computer's operating system, it's pretty easy to switch your favorite search engine. It's free and there's nothing to learn. "You want to say it's all over -- nobody could do what Google has done," says Sullivan. "But that can be a naive statement for an industry that's just coming on to 10 years old. Something could happen, like how IBM got replaced by Microsoft."

But martinibuster, the search engine marketer who takes a meditative view of controlling Google, cautions not to count the company out. "Remember when Joe Montana had the ball? He was just moving backwards and slipping and sliding all around while everyone tried to get him? That's Google."

Editor's note: This story was updated since it was first published to include the information that Jeremy Zawodny, who is quoted criticizing Google, works for Yahoo.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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