How Competitions Affect SEO Perceptions

In February 2005, Israeli Internet portal NRG Maariv sponsored a Google Bombing competition. The goal of the competitors was to score as high as possible in the search results of Google Israel for the chosen phrase. While the competition may have had its winners, the clear losers, were professional SEOs. Itai Levitan explains why.

Israel is a very interesting country which is unique in regard to its people’s creative and innovative IT development abilities. Israel is not, however, renowned for its marketing capabilities. This does not come as a surprise since Israeli firms have little experience with international marketing (as opposed to the U.S., for instance, which is considered the marketing leader of the world).

Search Engine Optimization in Israel

Search engine optimization is growing in Israel and in February, one of the largest Israeli portals, NRG Maariv, held a Google Bombing competition: Latoor Motor (in Hebrew: לתור מוטור). The competition invited the search engine optimization community to take the Hebrew translation of the two words “לתור מוטור” and promote any Web content that targets that phrase in order to achieve top rankings among organic search results of Google Israel (http://www.Google.co.il). In search of mass ratings, NRG Maariv was using its homepage and explicitly called for anyone to “fool Google.”

Bombing Google in Israel

As noted in Wikipedia, Google bombing competitions are won by sites that use a combination of keyword spamming and, at times, link spamming. Google has publicly commented about Google Bombing in the past, calling it “cyber graffiti.” In my opinion, it didn’t want to give too much attention to the phenomena, hoping to diminish its publicity; but I’m quite sure that the Google engineers are very much against (and possibly afraid of) competitions that mess with their algorithms, increase their transparency, attract potential lawsuits and affect users’ experience of finding and browsing search results.

Getting back to the Google bombing competition going on in Israel till the end of February 2005, the response was pretty impressive among many small-time SEOs and webmasters, many of whom have less than two years of experience in the field and fewer have ongoing hands-on experience in handling real optimization campaigns while professionally servicing real clients. Personally, I was quite disappointed with the approach of this competition, as I oppose the over-rating of any Google bombing competition. I would like to share my opinions and my reasons for this.

First, Google bombing competitions are what the initiators might call a “Google Test,” “SEO Challenge,” “SEO Competition,” and so forth. The idea is to take a search query (i.e. term or phrase), which at the time of the competition’s announcement, returns either no results (i.e. “Your search did not match any documents”), or results that are going to be very easy to beat. This sterile search results space is now a good starting point for competitors to start their optimization race. At a specified pre-set date and time, the judges of the competition search for the targeted phrase and Google SERPs define the order of placement winners (first place winner, second place winner, and so forth).

Google Bombing Competitions Deliver the Wrong Message

The first reason that I don’t like such competitions is that they give the field of SEO a bad name. Search marketing is the primary driver for the growing Internet advertising market. It is a sophisticated field that requires a combination of technical and Web marketing knowledge, skills and most importantly – experience.

In the real world where competitive market players are operating, SEO is not a practice to hack Google by simply fiddling around with on-copy optimization techniques (reminder: don’t you love it when people ask you if a website can be pushed to the top by simply stuffing some keywords into the Meta tag…!?!). Google bombing competitions deliver the wrong message to people outside the community, including potential clients and stakeholders, that Google can be pretty easily hacked in order to quickly achieve top rankings for any website within any market. That message is far from the truth.

Professionals search marketers today already know that SEO and search marketing as a whole is only one small (and critical) part of the sales and/or relationship-building chain. It is only part of the lead generation link in the chain. Why only part of a link and not an entire link? Well, would you contact a business after landing on its website following a click on a search engine result, only to find out that the content of the site is not to your satisfactory? That the company seems unreliable? That you find it really irritating to navigate and find the information you are seeking for? If your answer is “no,” then it means that the other side has just lost a lead. Hence, in this case, the lead generation link in the chain is broken.

What does this have to do with Google bombing contests? The winner of the competition may deserve some credit for achieving the top ranking but it does not reflect the real world, since the winner doesn’t really care if a search engine user would have been converted into a real lead. Things like “conversion rates,” “brand recognition” and “consumer confidence” are completely outside the scope of a Google bombing competition, but are very much inside the scope of a real search engine marketing campaign.

So, in that case, who cares if the competing site has terrible graphics? If the fonts are ugly and take up half of the entire page? Who cares if the copy of the homepage doesn’t make sense, thus making new visitors leave the site within 20 seconds? And there are more unrealistic elements to a Google bombing contest. For instance, the winner’s site may well be supported by a link campaign that is unrealistic because it has exchanged links with other players in the same exact market, as defined by a set of keywords. Most real clients would be reluctant to exchange links with their direct competitors. All in all, why should the winner of a Google bombing competition care if the winning site cannot convert a single user?

The Relationship Between Algorithm Architects and Professional SEOs

A second reason that I don’t like Google bombing competitions is that they may trigger unhealthy instability in the subtle relationship between search engine algorithm architects and professional, ethical SEOs. I argue that the evolution of search engine technology is beneficial to users, search engine companies and professional SEOs. Thus, when search engine algorithms become more complex and performance is improved, professional SEOs should be happy with that, rather than frowning at it!

Why? Eventually, it requires SEOs to evolve while improving the convergence of their marketing and technical skills. This is harder to do and, in turn, creates a situation where the stronger and more professional SEOs survive while the weaker SEOs are left behind. And if you agree that stability between professional, ethical SEOs and search engine algorithm architects is beneficial for both sides, then both should not support Google bombing competitions that may force the search engine architects to tweak certain parts of an already stable algorithm, just because they must avoid transparency (for obvious reasons).

Summary

To summarize, while it is possible to find certain merits in Google bombing competitions, such as the exhibition and learning of a variety of SEO techniques being used, high publicity of such competitions impose serious disadvantages to the SEO community. For the long term, such competitions present the SEO practice in a bad light.

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