22:06 PM

From Poacher To Gamekeeper: GOOG Should Use Performics To Battle "Evil" SEO

Last week Google completed its acquisition of online advertiser Doubleclick and now finds itself in a very embarrasing position: it owns Doubleclick's Performics group, which sells search engine optimization services that trick search engines into ranking web sites higher than they normally would.

On my blog on ZDNet I wrote a post saying that Google should do the right thing and close down Performics. [Please see: Google should close down “evil” Performics business]

But maybe closure is not the right strategy. Google could use Performics to help it battle against SEO companies, essentially turning it from poacher to gamekeeper.

A never ending war...

Google is in constant battle against sophisticated SEO techniques. Google will ban or demote any sites it finds going beyond its basic SEO recommendations. It once banned BMW Germany's web site for using hidden text to sway its search engine results.

Not only does egregious SEO pollute the purity of GOOG's search results, but it also competes against its advertising business. Companies that pay money to rank high in search results do better business than if they bought advertising links from Google.

That's because Google's users trust "organic" search results more than they trust the ad links.

The fight against evil...

Google's corporate motto, "Don't be evil" is well known. What is less well known is that "evil" for Google, means the pollution of its search results by companies deliberately trying to trick its search algorithm into awarding a web site with a higher page rank.

As part of its battle against companies trying to game its index, Google regularly changes its algorithm. It's an ingenious way of quickly identifying web sites that have optimised their pages for the specific characteristics of its previous algorithm.

Whenever a new algorithm is released, the SEO forums are full of tales of woe as companies try to figure out why their web sites have experienced a dramatic fall in page rank.

When that happens, companies return to SEO companies such as Performics, to help them regain their position in Google's index. And so the game goes on...

Now that Google owns one of the top SEO companies what should it do?

Danny Sullivan, one of the gurus of the search engine marketing sector, has called on Google to sell Performics. In his recent post Open Letter To Google: Do The Right Thing, Divest Yourself Of Performics, he writes:

Conflict of interest? You bet. And worse from an image perspective, the purchase puts Google in the paid inclusion business, something it dissed as evil back in 2004, when it went public...
. . .

It just doesn't feel right. To me, it's the same thing as if the New York Times owned a PR company, where much of that company's main work focused on getting articles to show up in the New York Times. It's a conflict that will hurt Google's trust...

He points to Google's 2004 IPO filing and the "Don't be evil" section:

Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating...

Our search results will be objective and we will not accept payment for inclusion or ranking in them...

Mr Sullivan advises Google to sell Performics as quickly as possible. But selling Performics would mean that Google is allowing companies to buy their way into a higher page rank. As Mr Sullivan points out, that would harm its stated mission of creating an objective search index free from paid inclusions.

My advice to Google is to turn Performics into an anti-SEO company, use it to learn the tricks and techniques that fool its search algorithms. Use Performics' technology and its workers to create a better search engine.

It would mean the loss of about $70m in revenues that Performics brings in, but that's a drop in the bucket compared with revenues of $16.6 billion Google reported for 2007.

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Other viewpoints on Performics:

Techcrunch - Google Now Selling SEO Services Via Performics

Stephan Spencer's Scatterings - Google to own a SEM and SEO firm?!

SearchEngineJournal - What Will Google Do With Performics?