Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Should Google Rank Businesses Higher Than Blogs?

Slashdot and Techdirt link to yet another story on someone dissatisfied with their Google PageRank, however, this time its a blogger being harassed by an online business over the blogs higher ranking.  The blogger, Dean from deanhunt.com, hasn't divulged the identity of the business at issue, but he has posted their email conversations wherein the company asks that Dean contact Google to have his site removed from the result pages for an unidentified search term.  After Dean balked, the business claimed that it has asked Google to take action, justifying its behavior with:
You have to understand Dean that an online business should be higher in Google than a blog. Don’t forget that Google is a business as well, they obviously make more money from other businesses than they do from blogs, so it is in their interest that I am higher than you for certain searches.
This is not only a dubious assertion, but also betrays a fundamental misuse of Google.  A Google ranking is supposed to be entirely about relevance to what a user is searching for.  Not all results actually are relevant, but given how PageRank works, Google seems to get it right for the most part, most of the time.  Even assuming that blogs should be ranked higher than businesses, there is no way to stop people linking to your site so, as long as someone isn't manufacturing links to their site to boost their ranking, there is nothing that other people looking to be identified with a specific search term can do.  Allowing people to essentially "vote" for which sites will appear in PageRank helps make search results more relevant, which makes Google more money because it will be known as the most relevant (thus the best) search engine.  That process makes Google a lot more money than those businesses foolish enough to rely on Google rankings as the primary means of getting business.

But should businesses be ranked higher than blogs?  Certainly not in all cases.  Blogs and any other website that is not devoted to selling things are often (if not always) more relevant to what a user is looking for.  Say for instance you want some information about the amazon.  The rain forest gets only one link on Google's first page of results and it's ninth, behind eight results for Amazon.com.  How relevant is that?  If you run a business and are all flustered about not being highly ranked, Google has its AdWords program so you can have your business prominently listed for certain keywords.  Basically, if you run an online business, you should have some conception of how online business works.

I find Dean's email exchange even more distressing for what it reveals about how some view the Internet.  One view is that the Internet is just a gigantic mall where all people do is shop and consume.  The other view emphasizes access and finding information.  These two views coexist peacefully, though legislation (eg. copyright) may sometimes prefer the commercial vision over the other, but search results represent an area ripe for huge conflict between the two.  Since no one ever looks beyond page three in their search results, pushing non-commercial information down to the bottom of the list so businesses can have top billing would threaten to wreck what makes the Internet most useful.

In addition, Google would most likely resist such a request because manually editing its rankings like this would be equated with exercising editorial control over its rankings, which could actually get it in trouble over what their search results display.  If they can promote businesses over blogs, why can't they block links to defamatory or copyright infringing sites?

I only wish Dean posted the search term and website at issue.  He has been given the "I have consulted with a lawyer" threat, so we'll have to see what happens.
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