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Are Internet Search Engines Manipulating the Message?

Updated on June 18, 2011

A friend of mine recently started a new business enterprise, an online website that features connections to retailers of women’s fashion, accessories and personal goods. She is a long-term unemployed individual who recently became homeless after expending her long-term unemployment insurance, and has really been trying to have some success with newly learned Internet website development skills.

After spending time preparing her website and making connections with quality retailers who would advertise on the site, she launched SonoranWoman.com and requested search engine indexing from the three major providers of that service: Google, Yahoo and Bing (MSN).

Within days, her site was accessible on Google using a simple search using the keywords Sonoran Woman. Not only accessible, but ranked in the top position.

As the weeks passed though, despite having her site climb in rankings on Google with various keywords, it did not appear in Yahoo’s or Bing’s search results. At all. And during that time it became apparent that there are major differences in how search engines index and display listings for new sites.

There are differences in the time taken to crawl the site. With nearly a month passed since she launched her site, Yahoo and Bing have yet to acknowledge its existence. Either their web crawlers are painfully slow, or they’re purposely excluding Sonoran Woman from their search results.

There are also differences in how results are displayed. When using a basic search with just the words Sonoran Woman, the results displayed are anything but relevant. There are a few sites that have the word Sonoran in them, but the majority of the results don’t have the two words together, especially in that order. And many of the results are from years ago, so they’re not only irrelevant to the search, they’re stale.

My friend also recently re-submitted the sites to Yahoo and Bing for searching, but has yet to see results.

So... Why?

There are a few reasons that may explain the delay in adding the site to Yahoo and Bing’s rankings. It may be that Yahoo and Bing simply take several weeks to crawl the web for new sites, so the addition of the site for searches would be delayed for some time. Chalk it up to slothful ineffectiveness.

But that seems odd, not only because of the competitive environment the engines operate in, but given that news stories and other current internet content is often nearly simultaneously available for online searches. For the major news media, anyway.

Aren’t the two search engines in competition with Google for users to utilize their sites? As such, it would seem that the two would want to be more responsive to sites seeking indexing. Then again, the favoring of moneyed and more well known corporate sites over mom-and-pop startups wouldn’t have that big of an effect on the typical search engine user, who wouldn’t be aware of what he or she was missing.

There are known variables for improving how a site is ranked on the major search engines. Algorithms consider the number of pages, links between pages, links from external websites, metadata like page titles, descriptions and keywords, in addition to other factors.

New sites launched by small businesses and other entrepreneurs will initially have low traffic, not a lot of pages and no links from other sites. So they immediately start at a disadvantage compared to larger, corporate and other organizational sites, in a system that unfairly favors the large corporations and organizations and their resources over those who don’t.

It may be that with the complexity of data, information and websites that reside on the Internet, that the search engines’ algorithms have become so complex that they have unwittingly subverted their original purpose of presenting the closest matching results, and instead result in errors. Or perhaps it’s a planned and programmed result to favor publishers with more resources.

In addition to featuring ads from online retailing affiliates, my friend has also placed some Google ads on her site. I don’t know if I would suspect Google’s favoritism (because their results display as expected) as much as I would wonder whether the other search engine’s are penalizing sites who do business with a search engine competitor, or with those who don’t have a relationship with them.

A cottage industry that has sprung up in recent years involves companies that promise to guarantee high rankings on the major search engines. Is there a financial connection between any of those companies and the search engines themselves? Has the landscape changed such that organic rankings take a back seat to pay-for-play, and that sites will be required to pay for search engine rankings? Let’s hope not.

It didn’t used to be this way. I’ve developed, launched and promoted websites for years, and have never seen such an obvious difference in how search engines function.

For whatever reason, my mouse smells a rat. And it doesn’t take an algorithm expert to see that something’s not right, and that it appears to be blatantly unfair to small businesses and website publishers.

Potential Implications

Since the means of finding information on the web is a search engine, the major providers of online search results like Google, Yahoo and Bing have a great amount of influence and power in controlling what people can view on the Internet.

If they were to use that influence to favor some sites over others, for whatever reason, it would completely change the landscape. By allowing them to pick and choose which sites they will allow or favor, they effectively become gatekeepers over a substantial amount of the Internet.

Add the monetary factor, and you have unfair barriers to entry that favor large corporations over small fish, money over modest resources.

And as search engines control websites’ visibility to users, what impact could this have on the dissemination of news and opinion? The practice of blogging created an open market of ideas, enhancing the position of one person’s opinion with respect to the “established” news media – the corporate monolith that can easily manipulate a unified message. If search engines can quash the dissemination of individual viewpoints then the Internet takes another step backward.

Conclusion

If this truly is a more widespread issue, in addition to being blatantly unfair to thousands of websites it could also bode poorly for those of us who don’t want regulation over the internet.

Such practices could open the door for government to find a toehold to begin regulating internet search engines and other online entities whose self-serving actions result in a market failure. The unfair manipulation of a public resource for their own advantage over that of the citizens who utilize it would require government intervention to correct. And that would just be the start.

And it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think about the lawsuits that this type of unfair practices could spurn, as entrepreneurial individuals and business owners are prevented from having a fair playing field on a public resource and are unfairly penalized from promoting their goods and services on the Internet.

Then again, maybe I’m just going wildly overboard with speculation and cynicism.

Granted, this is only one example of how search engines favor some sites over others. It may be an isolated incident where the site just “slipped through the cracks.”

But at a minimum, in a fair system we should expect that within a few days after a site is launched and indexing requested, that a basic search using the words in the site’s domain name and the site name in the text of its home page result in a ranked display of the page (at least ahead of other sites with less relative connections to the search terms). If not, something is wrong.

Kudos to Google for having a search engine that appears to be open and egalitarian. And for Yahoo and Bing, if any of my suspicions are correct, as my Mother used to say, “shame on you.”

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