“Catfishing” Google – The Importance of Authenticity in Search Engine Rankings
By Neil James – Digital Strategist
If you’ve never heard the term before, “catfishing” refers to the phenomenon where individuals fabricate comprehensive online identities in order to trick people into long-term emotional or romantic relationships. The recent scandal involving Notre Dame linebacker, Manti Te’o, and his fictionalized girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, is one of the highest-profile examples of catfishing to date.
Although perverse in the real world, it’s not uncommon for organizations to deliberately cultivate multi-faceted, inauthentic identities that are designed to appeal to an increasingly important decision maker – online search engines. Companies stuff their pages with unrelated keywords, buy links and even design alternate versions of their website exclusively for search engine spiders in order to boost rankings and draw increasing amounts of organic traffic.
For many years, these tactics proved highly effective. Increasingly, however, marketers are likely to find “catfishing” Google to be an untenable long-term strategy.
The Value Exchange of Organic Search
For most marketers, the value of search engines is a simple calculus: the higher you rank for search queries conducted by prospective customers, the more online traffic, leads and orders you reap.
But if you’re going to practice search engine optimization (SEO) – the art of courting free traffic from search engines – you need to understand what sites like Google and Bing expect in exchange. The answer to this question can be indirectly inferred from Google’s mission statement:
- “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
It’s important to never lose sight of this mission – the less effectively Google organizes its information and makes it accessible through search, the less frequently people use the site. And the less frequently people use the site, the fewer advertising dollars it can command through its Adwords platform.
Make no mistake – being useful is critical to Google’s revenue stream. Anything that undermines Google’s usefulness to end consumers represents a fundamental threat to its business model.
Gaming the System
Do you remember the precursors to Google: Altavista, Lycos, Webcrawler and Infoseek? Part of the reason these former titans met an untimely demise was that their results were easily gamed. Early webmasters stuffed their web pages to the brim with every type of remotely relevant keyword, recognizing the nascent potential of search engines to refer significant volumes of web traffic.
The consequence of this is that users who searched for “best insurance company” were not actually returned a list of websites that represented the best insurance companies, but rather the websites that contained the most instances of “best insurance company” stuffed onto their pages. This easily manipulated construct had a highly adverse impact on the actual usefulness of these early search engines.
Google was the first search engine to introduce inbound links as a factor in rankings. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, hailed from an academic background where a research paper’s worth was often measured by the frequency with which it was cited in future publications. In 1998, Brin and Page extended this philosophy to search engine technology, reasoning that a web page that was linked to from many sources was more likely to be credible than a page without any inbound links.
Fast forward to today. Nearly 10 billion searches, 61 percent of total search engine market share, are conducted on Google in the U.S. each month. Each year, Google’s ranking algorithm (which accounts for over 200 factors) is updated between 500 and 600 times!
If the number of updates seems excessive, there’s good reason. To preserve its user experience, to fulfill its mission of effectively organizing the world’s information and making it accessible, Google is in a constant battle with legions of shady webmasters and spammers who seek to manipulate rankings for their own end. Google themselves estimates more than one million spam pages – pages that threaten to bury truly relevant results – are created every hour.
Sometimes, the Bear Gets You
One of the tactics that used to be highly effective at currying favor with search engines was creating vast volumes of low-quality, keyword rich articles. One of the most notorious abusers of this tactic was eHow.com, which at one point was publishing 5,000 articles per day in the quest to attract eyeballs for publishing revenue.
To counter these content farms, Google released the now infamous Panda update – an algorithmic change designed to punish low-quality websites that were cynically created for the sole purpose of attracting search traffic. This update decimated several web properties – 12 percent of all search results were affected, and eHow’s total traffic dropped 40 percent.
Google followed this one year later with its Penguin update, which was designed to punish webmasters who attained search engine ranking through abuse of linking tactics such as purchasing backlinks. Although not as influential as Panda, the Penguin update still impacted three percent of total search queries.
Although many affected webmasters might disagree, Panda and Penguin were ultimately created to enhance the experience of using Google. Punishing those who attempted to manipulate search engine results through content and linking gamesmanship and rewarding those who cultivated authentic identities was a natural extension of Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it accessible through search.
Google’s Achilles Heel
Google’s vulnerability to ranking manipulation, a practice wholly at odds with its mission, arises from an inherent design limitation. For years, the keyword, the words typed into the search box, was Google’s only clue in deciphering the search intent of its users.
Unfortunately, keywords alone cannot fully reconcile ambiguity. What are the 74,000 people who type “dentist” into Google each month looking for? Some will be looking for a local dentist, whereas others are looking for information on the practice of dentistry. Others may be simply looking for a stock photo of a dentist. If you’re Google, how do you determine the true intent of the individual who conducts a search using this keyword?
Even a more specific keyword is not necessarily clearer. If someone searches for best insurance company, what should Google return? The company with the lowest premiums? Or maybe the company with the best customer service? Should it return listings specific to the searcher’s location, or should they be nationally based? How does it decide?
To adapt a phrase, a spammer abhors a vacuum. By exploiting the ambiguities of keyword-based search, spammers and black-hat, unethical SEOs were able cultivate inauthentic online presences that tricked Google into extending high ranking, regardless of whether they deserve to or not.
But those days may be ending.
The Network of Authenticity
The problem of spammers and gamed search engine results is one of authenticity. Webmasters create a false identity that is solely designed to abuse ranking factors and obtain visibility for search queries under deceptive pretenses.
To distinguish authentic from inauthentic profiles, search engines are increasingly configuring their keywords to consider factors beyond keywords and links.
More and more, a strong social media presence is playing a major role in search engine rankings. A recent study by Searchmetrics found Facebook and Twitter metrics comprised five of the top six signals that most highly correlated to search engine rankings. A BrightEdge survey found that 84 percent of search marketing professionals believe that likes, Tweets and +1s will be more important in achieving rankings during the coming year. From Google’s perspective, this stands to reason – it’s harder to manipulate social signals than it is manipulate keywords and backlinks. As such, websites with strong social profiles are more likely to be authentic authorities.
Whether a search is conducted on a mobile device is also an increasingly important signal in determining the intent of a search query. Rimm-Kauffman Group recently estimated that more than one-quarter of all Google searches in Q4 2012 originated from mobile devices. Most notably, as Search Engine Land observed, mobile searches are much more likely to return localized results than desktop searches.
Historical click-through rates also play a significant role in the types of results that are returned. For example, Googling “dentists” will return a list of clinics near your current location – Google has enough search data to know that the vast majority of people aren’t interested in visiting a clinic in Anchorage, Alaska. Conversely, results for “industrial trash compactor” searches are nationally-based – Google is smart enough to realize that these types of inquiries tend not to benefit from locality considerations.
What’s the common thread? By applying a layer of context to keyword searches, Google is more accurately able to infer the actual search intent of its users. And by relying on a greater number of variables when determining the websites most likely to satisfy search intent, Google is more capable of distinguishing legitimate, authentic authorities from inauthentic, inferior destinations.
How to Win Friends and Influence Google
So you’re ready to move away from calculating keyword density, stuffing meta keyword tags and determining whether the annual fee for a link from BobsLinkFarm.com is worth it. Here are a few steps you can take now to cultivate an authentic online identity that wins customers and builds trust with Google:
- Maintain an Active, Multi-Faceted Social Presence: The more your brand’s online identity is spread and shared across known properties, the more likely it is to be considered a relevant authority.
- Optimize the Mobile Experience: Mobile and desktop users often have different needs. Do you know how they differ for your site? Creating an experience that’s optimized for mobile users is easier and more accessible than ever.
- Own Your Online Listings: Do you own your Google+ Local Page? How about your Yelp or Foursquare page page? How do you address negative reviews that come in through these platforms? Cultivating an authentic, authoritative online presence necessitates securing and managing your profile on popular directory and business listing websites.