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Is Google Good For Us?

By John Carpenter
1st August, 2010


Online business is extremely competitive. Although a simple shop that might once have served one small town can now serve all of the UK, or perhaps the World, many thousands of similar shops are doing the same. Therefore, it is vital that when we search for items that this shop sells, it is this shop that is placed at or near the top of the result list.

A vast amount of effort and cost is put into optimising websites primarily for Google and for Yahoo!, Ask and now Bing. Search engine optimisation (SEO) has grown from being a fancy webby term to a multi-million pound industry. In short, if website owners are not doing SEO they are not in the game.

SEO is about optimising the content of key web pages to the words that we might use when searching with our favourite search engine. We might use a phrase like, ‘fishing tackle in Plymouth’. We then expect to see a list of shops that are located in or near Plymouth that sell fishing tackle. With my settings I have Google set to deliver fifty results per page, I get at least ten pages returned. For me, The Tackle & Bait Shop came out on top. Optimised or not it is this shop and the next 4 or 5 in the list that are most likely to hook the customer – excuse the pun.

But is this list being totally honest with us? I don’t see the words ‘fishing tackle in Plymouth’ on the top site’s web page – not even in its hidden meta-data. Meta-data is information about the document that is hidden in a web page’s code and is used by search engines. I don’t even see the exact phrase ‘fishing tackle’.  Yet, much further down the list there are plenty of shops with this phrase and my original phrase. So it seems that Google has ranked its search result based upon something that we cannot control. We could of course wrap our phrase in (double) quotation marks, which will bring back only the sites with the exact phrase, but this really narrows the search. By leaving off the quotation marks we open up the search, but there was once a time when Google would have ranked the results by matching the content of web pages with the words we used and the order we used them. The word ‘fishing’ would be considered most important, followed by ‘tackle’ and so on.  Today, the word ‘fishing’ appears just three times in the top listed site – in the third paragraph – not even in any titles. So why has Google listed this site’s web page at the top of the pile?

Google and other search engines determine the importance of a web page, amongst other factors, by the amount of other web pages that link to it. For our top site there appears to be a large number of other web pages that link to it. So this could be the deciding factor. If so, this means that website owners can distort the results that should be delivered to us by getting other website owners to link to their web pages. This in fact is very much encouraged in the SEO world – website owners often swap links with one another. It is especially good when links are exchanged with sites that are in a similar business or industry but not in direct competition. For example, our top site is linked from a page on the South West Sea Fishing website. So we have a site that is all about sea fishing that has a link to a fishing tackle shop. This would be considered a top quality link by most website owners. While this is good for the website owner who has probably put extensive effort in to building link popularity, how is this good for us?

I don’t know about you but I feel somewhat cheated that Google has returned me a result set in an order that means nothing to me. Frankly I don’t care how many other websites link to an outlet that sells fishing tackle in Plymouth. I determine how good a shop is by what it sells, how well its stock is laid out for me, how helpful the stock descriptions are, and of course the price. If I need to refine the results, I might get better with my searches. I might, for example, use ‘sea fishing’ or ‘hair rig’ to be more specific of my needs.

It’s not just shops. Do a search like ‘Dorchester history’ and up pops thousands of hits. The top web page is entitled ‘A History of Dorchester’.  While that seems like it will do, it’s not quite what I asked for. Flip onto the next page of fifty hits and about half way down is a web page entry entitled ‘Dorchester History – local history, historic sites and famous…’ I think that this page should actually be at or near the top as it is the only page that has ‘Dorchester history’ in its title within the first one hundred results.

There was once a time when search engines, we were told, went out in search of all web sites which they indexed in their databases and served them up when we entered search words and phrases that matched. This is not so any longer. If you create a website and publish it and do nothing else, it is very likely that especially Google will not index it for several months, maybe years. Even if you submit your website details to Google it can take several months to be indexed. This raises another issue on fair play. It stands that if you open a shop and do very little in the way of marketing, a few people will find your shop and some will buy things. Where there is no other form of marketing the only way to find the pages of websites on the Web is via search engines. But if search engines are not out there finding new sites and indexing their pages these sites will simply not be found – ever.

The SEO way to get websites noticed and indexed with Google and other search engines is to get a link to the new site from an existing web page that already has a high ranking with the search engines. One such place is the BizWiki directory. Buy why? Why should owners of websites have to get listed somewhere before a search engine will index them?

What this means is that when we search Google and the others for anything, not only is the list of results being manipulated in some way which might be contrary to what we expect, we are not seeing the full picture. We are being short-changed. There could be a perfectly good web page out there that is a good match for the search words and phrases we use, but it is either not indexed or it appears too far down the list for us to be able to sift through the results easily.

So while the webmaster world is pouring all their effort and money into building link popularity and SEO to appease Google and the others, perhaps they could spare a thought for the customers they are trying to tempt. We are not getting what we are searching for and, who knows, we might be searching for you!


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