Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The purity of search results challenges Google and offers an opening to rivals

Posted by Tom Foremski - March 17, 2005

by Tom Foremski for SiliconValleyWatcher

LabScientist.jpgThe purity of search results, free from commercial influence, is likely the only way a new search engine company can challenge Google and win over its users.

That's because Google is struggling to purify its search results in the face of a large industry that actively tries to manipulate its searches for commercial gain, so that a client website link appears on the highly-desired first page of Google’s keyword search results.

The search engine optimisation (SEO) industry is huge, and continues to grow. There are some good companies in that sector; but there are also a few bad ones that have given SEO a dodgy reputation. Yet thousands of web site owners contine to pay SEO companies large sums of money to trick and influence Google into awarding their web site a first page ranking.

This means that there is a constant battle between Google and the SEO companies over the purity of Google’s search results.

My position on SEO is that the sooner it dies the better—it will free up a large amount of what is now largely wasted human effort, IMHO.

It’s wasted effort because no one can figure out all the nuances of Google’s search algorithms and so there is a “black magic” of sorts involved in SEO.

Web site owners will sometimes find their sites boosted into a much improved ranking—and not know how they did it. Then the next day they can just as quickly get pushed out to page 900 of a Google search, virtually a death sentence for an online retailer relying on search pages.

Google engineers must constantly change their search and indexing technologies to battle the craftiest SEO practitioners.

If a search engine company can maintain the purity of its search results, it will have a good shot at becoming hooked into a viral buzz in which users become evangelists and share their discovery with others. That kind of grass roots viral buzz has always been how search engines grew in popularity.

One new search company that has made it onto my newly created “Hot Watch” list of companies is Become. The recently launched shopping search site Become.com has indexed more than 2.2bn web pages; and it claims to have a spam-proof ranking technology, called Affinity Index Ranking (AIR), that cannot be influenced by SEO actions taken by web site owners.

I recently had lunch with Michael Yang, who along with Yeogirl Yun, co-founded Become. Both have extensive experience with shopping sites, through their prior venture MySimon.com.

The claim about being spam proof was what first caught my eye when I met with them earlier in the year; and I was keen to follow up on this topic at this meeting. “Are you sure it is spam proof?” I asked.

“That’s what Yeogirl tells me,” Mr Yang said. “He told me he had studied the problem, and could not figure out how somebody could do it. He said it would be impossible.”

Yeogirl Yun is the chief technologist at Become.com and has designed four search engines so far. He was also a former classmate of Google co-founder Sergey Brin at Stanford University.

Become.com however has taken some precautions, just in case somebody does figure out how to influence its search results. It has applied for patents for its technologies, including one that patents a potential spamming technique.

“Its an insurance policy,” Mr Yang smiles. “We can sue the spammers for patent violation if we have to. I don’t know if that will work; nobody has tried it and if Yeogirl is right, we won’t need to.”

Become unveiled its AIR web ranking technology earlier this week as part of its ongoing beta test of Become.com. It says AIR is unaffected by SEO techniques.

If that is indeed the case, we can kiss SEO goodbye and get back to building compelling online businesses that are focused on the customer’s needs and not on Google’s searchbot.
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