Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Content Wars and the Search Engines

Creating "content" for websites can be a challenge. I suspect that usually what happens with website builders (like me) is that we have an idea for a website, we register a domain or five, we throw up a half-baked temporary home page, and then about three months later we might actually get back to trying to make something out of it.

The two minor practical problems that make "instant websites" impossible to achieve are:

1. design
2. content

Both of these things take thought, imagination, and work. You cannot make them happen by snapping your fingers. Unless you have either an instant website machine, or a staff of five or six people, building websites invariably takes time.

This sometimes leads people like me to consider using a content generating program like Search Engine Cloaker or Article Bot. Both of these programs try to kill two birds with one stone. They create as much content as you want by spitting out machine-generated pages. If you want thousands of pages they will give you thousands of pages. At the same time they make your new "content" search engine friendly by building in "relevant" text, keywords, and links.

On the face of it, this seems like serious "cheating". If nothing else it is intended to deceive the Search Engines -- especially Google. Like so many other web marketing techniques, it is another attempt to get "something for nothing" -- ranking for content that really does not deserve it. But there is more to the story.

The morality of website content

This brings me to one of my pet topics: the legitimacy or what I call the "morality" of content. I have argued elsewhere that by setting themselves up as the Content Police the self-righteous people at Google have exposed themselves as hypocrites.

Why? Because on the one hand they proclaim that a website's search ranking must be based on "relevance". And according to their rules this relevance must be earned on the basis of the quality and importance of the site's content -- what we might call "merit". Meanwhile they are prepared to sell ranking to the highest bidder with Adwords (or Overture in the case of Yahoo). There is a pretty serious conflict between Plan A (ranking by merit) and Plan B (ranking by purchase).

This issue should not be oversimplified. Just because Google is willing to sell ranking it does not automatically follow that Plan A (ranking by merit) should be pitched. But it certainly makes one wonder if diligent rule followers are being played for suckers.

The problem is that Google has "moralized" the issue by bringing preconceived notions of Relevance and Importance and the Purpose-of-the-Web to their ranking scheme. In other media we more or less let people decide what they will watch, listen to, or read. We (usually) do not have some self-righteous body pre-determining the Purpose of Television or the Correct Role of Radio. Except in the case of national broadcasters like the BBC or CBC, it is generally assumed that "the market" will determine what thrives and what perishes.

Google's moralizing of the web leads directly to manipulative techniques like "Search Engine Optimization". In what other communication media does such an anal activity exist? Radio, television, magazines, billboards, movies, printed materials...? Not likely.

In our zealous struggle to gain the favour of Google, it is easy to lose site of the fact that Google themselves have turned the normal relationship between content and (mere) indexer of content upside down. Because of the perception that the Search Engines can determine our success or failure, we stop creating our content for people and start making it for Google -- the Great Indexer.

This is the only reason that content generating programs like Search Engine Cloaker and Article Bot exist. Nobody actually wants thousands of pages of "optimized" nonsense, or hundreds of variations of your award winning article.

Only the Search Engines.

So even though they seem to pervert "the purpose of the web", there may be some justification for such programs. Large corporate websites like about.com can spit out virtually limitless amounts of "relevant content", and since the Search Engines have declared that "content is king", these corporate websites will invariably dominate the rankings.

Given this kind of domination-based-on-quantity, the only serious way of combating it is to create quantity of your own. In other words, if you know how to machine-generate content that meets the Google "relevance" criteria, then why should you not just go ahead and do it?

The reason, I humbly suggest, is not that it is evil or contrary to the law of the Great Google God. The reason is that it is stupid and a waste of time. Garbage content can only generate garbage traffic. But chasing after the attention of the Search Engines blinds us to this fact. What is the point of having thousands of pages of garbage content? People come to your site and they find...nothing! Or what is the point of having thousands of links pointing to your site if nobody ever looks at them?

As I have suggested elsewhere, the way out of this pointless quest is to think of content as something worth reading -- in other words, leave it to "the market" to decide what is good or bad and basically forget about trying to please Google.

The other conclusion is that for all its warts and imperfections, the advertising model is a more honest way of determining "merit" than the Google-as-God model. Links should be viewed as methods of impressing the SEs only in the short term. More importantly, they should be seen as advertisements which you buy or trade for.

Questioning the Use of Content by the Search Engines

Another important side issue is the use of other peoples' content by the Search Engines themselves. Both Google and Yahoo have "news" features which it is tempting to think of as real news services. But they are not real news services. The fact is that the SEs -- Google, Yahoo and MSN -- are simply bundling search results as a news service. One might argue -- and I am sure some already have -- that they are simply stealing this content and labelling it as their own.

Of course it is true that web information is public, and that simply putting something on the web makes it susceptible to being viewed and used by others. But it does not follow from this that anybody can just take someone else's content and package it to make money from it -- for instance, by using it as the anchor for Adwords or Overture advertising.

Nor can it be argued that using content in this manner is like someone placing an RSS feed on their website. The fact is that the "syndicator" of the feed gives implicit permission for others to use it by the very act of "syndicating" it. If I "syndicate" my content that means I want others to see my feeds and click on the links that bring them to my website.

No such implicit permission is given when search results include some of my content. The Search Engines just take it and use it -- usually to make money by enveloping it in advertising. But there is something inherently dishonest about packaging other people's content and identifying it as "Yahoo News", "Google News" or "MSN News".

But please don't tell them I said any of this...

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Build Page Rank said...

I have read and experimented alot with link exchanging. From what I can see the more links you trade with the better your site does. But if you want to see your Page Rank increase, get your site on a few sites with a very high page rank. My only issue is no one can truly explain how google measures this and what real importance it has because some sites appear in the top of google search results with no pr. So any information would be great or input. reciprocal link exchange

Build Page Rank said...

I have read and experimented alot with link exchanging. From what I can see the more links you trade with the better your site does. But if you want to see your Page Rank increase, get your site on a few sites with a very high page rank. My only issue is no one can truly explain how google measures this and what real importance it has because some sites appear in the top of google search results with no pr. So any information would be great or input. reciprocal link exchange

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