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Fredric Paul

Search engine scams

Search engines are bugging me. All right, maybe not search engines per se, but the way hit-hungry Web builders and unscrupulous consulting services are manipulating them for short-term gain.

Where your site pops up in search engine listings can determine how many hits you get.
  Because the big search engines and directory services control so much Web traffic, your site's placement in their listings can have a big impact on how many hits you get. That's fine, but it's led to widespread tampering by Web publishers hoping to better their positions in the rankings. And while that may be good for the sites in question--at least for a while--in the long run it's bad for the search engines and bad for the Web.

There's a wide spectrum of offenses here. On the mild side, there are a number of services that, for fees ranging from free to fairly expensive, will submit your site to all of the major--and the hundreds of minor--search engines and directories. These services come from big, multifaceted operations like Website Garage as well as smaller outfits like Traffic Accelerator. There's little harm in this, although it may be a waste of money; most of the big search engines make it easy to submit sites yourself, and if they're any good, they'll find your sites on their own anyway.

Other services try to hitch a ride on the whole controversy. PositionAgent offers to tell you where your site ranks on a dozen major search engines, using search terms you choose. Unfortunately, that service seems to be mostly a come-on for the company's consulting services, which are designed to boost those rankings. (Another service trying the "where-do-you-stand?" approach is PositionSleuth.)  
The power of search engines has lead to widespread tampering.

It gets worse. Pro Site Online, for example, "guarantees" top-20 placement on the major search engines. But it doesn't seem to care whether your site actually deserves to get that ranking. Or whether your site actually delivers any content a person searching for the chosen word or phrase might be looking for. It's a blatant attempt to distort the system.

Most consulting services don't seem to care whether your site actually deserves a high ranking.
  Pro Site is not alone, of course, it just happened to spam me with a product pitch. In fact, I seem to get a couple of these every week, and they make me crazy. (There, just got another one. Aaargh!) Many of them don't even list URLs, they just tell you to respond to their emails. But a quick search reveals hundreds of pages fighting to offer these services. (Doing a search to sniff out the search abusers: almost poetic justice, don't you think?)

It's especially galling that many of these spammers and scam artists like to claim that "buying" search engine placement is a better bet than buying banner ads--on the search engines or anywhere else. It's cheaper and more effective, they say.

The danger here is that while everyone is falling over themselves to fool the search engines, they're going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If Web surfers get skewed results, they'll stop using the search engines. At the very least, they'll use them less.  
Manipulating search engines threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

And if Web surfers disillusioned with search engines subsequently can't find the information they're looking for, they may lose faith in the Web. It's sort of like spam, where a few unscrupulous people are taking advantage of technological loopholes to further their own interests at the expense of the very medium that's providing them with the opportunity.

Try to attract the search engines with content, not tricks.
  Sure, the people who run the search engines say they do their best to constantly update their search algorithms to filter out the cheaters, but clearly efforts to influence the engines are having some effect.

There are also unconfirmed reports that some search engines actually sell placement in their own listings. That's even worse than third parties trying to manipulate the system. (Don't confuse selling listings with selling ads based on specific search terms. That's a common practice, and there's nothing wrong with that as long as the ads are clearly identified as such.)

So what should Web builders do? I'm not going to sit here and tell you not to try to get good placement with search engines. They're simply too important to ignore. But try to behave responsibly and attract the engines (and visitors) with content, not tricks. That way, Web surfers have a chance of finding what they're looking for, not just the sites most adept at promoting themselves.

Read more from Fredric Paul

Fredric Paul is editor for CNET

Related stories:
 • Can you trust your search engine?, in CNET.COM

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