Search Engine Ranking Escaping the Web Site Black Hole

Getting a decent Google ranking can be vital to a company's success. Which explains why the field of search engine optimizing is booming. But is it legit?

By Klaus-Peter Kerbusk

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are in a twist about optimizing search results.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are in a twist about optimizing search results.

There is no getting away from Daniel Buchholz -- at least not when you type "SPD" (Germany's center-left Social Democrat party) and "Umwelt" -- German for environment -- into an Internet search engine. Google, MSN or the new German search engine Ask Deutschland, they all pop up with Berlin-based Buchholz at the top of the list. Even Yahoo lists him in fourth place. 

Which is odd considering the politician's relative anonymity. Ask a hundred Germans and you'd be lucky to find more than a handful who have heard of him. One has to dig deep even to find his name on the SPD homepage or that of the German parliament. A reflection of the real world. Tops on the official lists? SPD Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel of course.

The first mention of Gabriel's name combined with SPD and "Umwelt" comes some 70 spots later on the Google list. "And that's how it should be," jokes Buchholz.

After all, Buchholz is paying for his rankings. Specifically, he is paying Search Engine Optimizer Rüdiger Vossberg, who is part of a new breed of Internet consultant becoming increasingly important in the online world. Optimizing one's results, says tech consultant Thorsten Wichmann, "is a rapidly growing market."

All clients have to do is hire themselves an optimizer and watch their search engine results escape the Internet data black hole. "I was very skeptical myself at the beginning, but it really works," says Buchholz.

The World's Most Popular Search Engine

A decent ranking in the results list of a search engine is becoming more important all the time. Increasing numbers of users find their way round the Web with the help of search engines -- the most important of all being Google, which was founded in 1998, by former Stanford University students Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Today, a vast number of Internet users turn to Google for their search needs, including 80 percent of German Web surfers. But of the millions of results thrown up, most folks never look further than the first 20.

BMW was de-listed from Google for optimizing its results

BMW was de-listed from Google for optimizing its results

And if your company's Web page isn't near the top, it's almost as though it doesn't exist. Unless, of course, you have a widely recognized brand name like BMW. "Only 1.5 percent of our online visitors reach our site via a search engine. Most intuitively type in in the address space," said a representative of the car company. Which is quite fortunate really, considering that a few days ago the German Web site was wiped from Google's search index.

The fuss surrounding BMW's banishment into electronic exile put the spotlight on the ordinarily secretive search engine optimizers. BMW, it seems, together with the Munich company Netbooster, which has worked for the car manufacturer for the past two years, had infringed on Google's quality control guidelines. Google reserves the right to permanently remove such sites.

BMW, it seems, had used a type of programming often relied on by less reputable Web sites and thus not accepted by Google.

But the BMW case will likely not be the last. Search engine marketing is one of the fastest growing areas of advertising. "There are more than 100 companies in Germany alone which offer services like this," says Wichmann. And the future is looking extremely good. Experts believe that only 20 percent of Web sites have been optimized professionally so far.

How Does Optimizing Work?

Search engines may treat their working methods like state secrets, but the general idea is well known: the search robots, known as spiders, don't generally list sites with too many fancy graphics. What is important, though, is a high number of links to other Web sites and meaningful key words in the otherwise invisible source codes.

But spiders can be fooled relatively easily -- for example by using key words that don't have anything to do with the actual Web site in question, by making confusing links between pages and by creating artificial pages that are only made for the search engines and that remain invisible for normal users.

The result? In extreme cases, such techniques can mean that Web sites, which have nothing to do with the search request, end up at the top of the list -- even though they actually lead somewhere else entirely. If users find themselves being deceived by such spam too often, they change to other search engines. This, in turn, has an effect on advertising revenue, which is based on the number of visitors.

Where exactly the boundary lies between serious optimizers and search machine spammers -- known as "white hats" and "black hats"  in industry jargon -- is debatable. What is clear, though, is that the black hats are on the increase. "Germany has become spam-land number one," says Google spokesman Stefan Keuchel. And Google now wants to do something about it.

Berlin-based lawyer Rainer Pietschmann had to experience first hand just how irritating search engine spam can be. While searching for "Pietschmann lawyer," he was led to numerous suspicious-looking sites from Belgium, Poland or Slovakia. Sites which had nothing to do with him and which could easily pass on computer viruses.

"It has been like this for months, and we just don't know what to do," said a representative of the Berlin firm. "No experts have been able to tell us why exactly our name is being linked to such sites." Pietschmann has now become so irritated that he has resorted to the most extreme solution: his company will soon be appearing online under a different domain name.


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