Google Sued Over Drop in SERPs

When KinderStart sued Google recently for the “cataclysmic fall” in its rank on the search engine results pages (SERPs), I got the sense that a lot of websites rather wished they could do the same thing. It’s no secret that many online businesses live and die by their SERPs rankings, and that Google is the most widely-used search engine on the planet. Because of the effect this could have on the entire search engine field, the facts surrounding the lawsuit deserve a closer look.

Indeed, if you look at the raw facts of the situation as presented from KinderStart’s point of view, what you see is the secret nightmare of every online business. The site is aimed at parents of children who are less than seven years of age. It launched in May 2000, and managed to build up its traffic to a quite respectable 10 million page views a month. Most of these views were coming from Google search users.

Then in March 2005, disaster struck. Page views dropped by 70 percent; advertising revenues fell even more precipitously, by 80 percent, and still haven’t recovered. In other words, KinderStart went from receiving 10 million hits a month to just three million. And Google will not explain to the company what happened.

It is perhaps understandable that KinderStart would believe that Google erected some sort of barrier that diverts web surfers who would visit its site to somewhere else. What happened next has been described in the press as a two-year-old throwing a tantrum (and worse), but the difference is that two-year-olds don’t usually call in the courts. The site filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court that charges Google with, among other things, violating its right to free speech; using a monopoly position to harm competitors, thus violating section two of the Sherman Act; engaging in unfair practices; and committing defamation and libel.

It gets even more interesting. KinderStart wants the court to turn it into a class action lawsuit and award unspecified damages to affected businesses. It is also seeking financial damages for itself, and wants Google to be more transparent about how it ranks sites. In short, it is hoping to start a full-fledged rebellion and turn the search engine world upside down. But before those of you who also think Google needs to be less tight-lipped start cheering, let’s take a closer look at KinderStart itself.

I may not be a mother of young children, but I do have an interest in search engine optimization. I also know that Google isn’t that prone to out-and-out mistakes, so if the search engine had done damage to the rankings of a quality website, I wanted to see it. So I fired up my browser and went directly to KinderStart’s website.

KinderStart bills itself as a search engine. Scroll down past the search box and the ads at the top, and you’ll see sixteen categories in two columns which would be of interest to parents of young children: child development, learning activities & crafts, education/daycare/childcare, and so on. Just below that is a link to KinderToday.com, “news that burps,” and some headlines.

Figuring I’d reached a site where I could find some great content, I started clicking links. The main category links led to subcategory links. And these links led…to more links. Specifically, they led to a page full of links to websites, with a one-sentence description of each site. In some cases, the descriptions looked a little like advertising text to my web-trained eyes. Some of the links had stars next to them, which must be a rating system of some sort.

In short, KinderStart doesn’t have content. It isn’t even a content aggregator; it’s a link aggregator! Hungry for content, I clicked on the link for KinderToday. I landed on a page set up very similar to SlashDot’s home page. Rather than describing stories and including links to them, the page included the actual opening paragraph or two of each story, then provided the link. Many of the pieces were quite short, often no more than a page. I guess the company figures that parents of young children have limited time (or limited attention spans). Ah, was this content at last?

Alas, not really. While the four most recent articles carried dates in mid-to-late March, the fifth one was dated January 24th. January 24th?! The website actually went for almost two months with no significant new content?! Do you suppose that Google’s spiders got bored and stopped coming back?

From my point of view, another problem with the content on these pages is that there is no real way to tell whether these articles have been written by experts in the field, an educated layman, a quack, or a clueless newbie, short of actually reading the article. So the only thing that really counts as content on KinderStart’s web page is not even on the home page, and of indeterminate quality. I was discussing this with my colleague Mike McEwan, whose work you’ve probably read on this site. Like me, he doesn’t do SEO for a living, but he knows a thing or two about the right practices. His analysis, as usual, was right on target: “It’s like a kid tracing a cartoon character and trying to sell it to an art gallery.”

One of KinderStart’s biggest complaints is that Google is violating its right to free speech under the United States Constitution. Well, I really hate to seem flip, but in order for the right to free speech to be violated, there has to be some kind of speech going on. For the most part, as near as I can tell, there really isn’t. KinderStart has forgotten one of the most basic rules of SEO: content is king. Fresh, quality content is what you need to rank well in the SERPs. If KinderStart’s site has always been like this, I’m surprised that they even managed to get 10 million page views per month, or that they didn’t experience their “cataclysmic fall” in visitors even sooner.

The sad thing is that it would be so easy for KinderStart to do something that would make them deserve a higher position in the SERPs. They have all these links to different websites. How difficult would it be to get someone to visit one or a few sites a day, poke around very thoroughly, and write a nice, long, detailed review? That would give the site fresh, valuable, useful content on a regular basis. There would be no need for a lawsuit, because Google’s spiders would come back regularly and KinderStart would score high in the SERPs for having relevant content.

But think what would happen if KinderStart goes forward with its lawsuit and prevails. Google would be seriously constrained as to the kinds of changes it can make to its algorithms. If the court were to force Google to be more transparent, it could even be compelled to reveal trade secrets. This would hurt users of search engines, because it would discourage innovation. Not just Google, but other search engines as well, would start delivering results that are less relevant, not more. Anyone who has been using search engines over the years knows what kind of frustration that can produce.

The whole argument about constraining free speech is bogus for another reason. KinderStart has not been entirely removed from Google’s index, as some stories have claimed. When I did a search on “KinderStart” in Google (without the quotation marks), on the very first page of results I saw a link for KinderToday—which, as I already mentioned, is where the site’s real content, such as it is, is located. So what’s going on here?

Perhaps it helps to draw an analogy. Think of Google for a minute not as a search engine, but as an editor or a publisher of a newspaper. There’s a lot of news happening all the time, plus editorials, press releases, classifieds, and so forth. All of this needs to be presented to readers in an organized format, preferably so that they can easily get to the most important stuff, and find whatever interests them. So the Powers That Be in a newspaper have to make decisions, not only as to what goes in and what gets cut, but what goes on page one and what goes on page 34E. Indeed, if they put something on page one that isn’t truly worthy of it, they’ll hear from their readers—and constraining someone else’s right to free speech, if we use KinderStart’s argument!

I think I’ve pretty much made the case, at least for anyone who is experienced with performing search engine optimization, that KinderStart’s loss of rank on the search engine results pages is justifiable. It remains to be seen whether this will be proven in a court of law. But aside from this, I have to ask: does KinderStart raise any valid issues with its complaint?

Here, I have to give a cautious “maybe.” Even experienced SEOs complain about Google’s opacity. It seems to me that there must be a grain of truth in something this widespread. And it is certainly true that Google has enormous influence. If an online business loses its standing in the SERPs, it can have serious repercussions on its sales and marketing operations. So some people can use a little extra help.

There are things SEOs and site owners can do to turn up clues as to the way Google thinks. Start by looking at Google’s webmaster guidelines. Google Sitemaps and its pay per click programs, when used properly, can also provide some valuable clues. Remember though, it isn’t easy…and it isn’t necessarily supposed to be easy. When people try to game the system, they’re trying to get something for nothing. Google’s algorithms are there to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that searchers get real, relevant content. That’s hard work…but then, if it were easy, any kid could play.

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