Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Is Google Inadvertently Evil?

I work for a company who's business model depends on showing up on the first page of results for a wide variety of Google searches. You can argue that shows a weakness in the business model, and to an extent I think you'd be correct. All things equal it's a better business if we aren't dependent on Google's goodwill. But that's easier said than done; even the "big guys" like Amazon are dependent on Google for a non-trivial portion of their business. Let's accept as given, then, that pleasing the great Google is a necessity. That being the case a prudcent company will try to figure out what Google wants and give it to them.

Prior to taking my current position I spent most of my IT career in the "boiler room" building servers, doing backups, maintaining the SAN, etc. I supplied the building blocks, but it was someone else's problem to do anything with them. Now I work with public-facing websites, which means that everyone in my group is worried about "search engine optimization". It drives me nuts; it's such a different mindset from what I've done before that I'd argue it doesn't even count as an IT discipline anymore.

First off, "search engine optimization" is a bloody misnomer; nobody cares what Yahoo thinks about their website. It ought rightly to be called "Google optimization" since Google's the only player that really matters. The problem is that no one really knows what Google wants. Google is a giant black box of such complexity that its impossible to study empirically.

This may be the 21st century, but human nature hasn't changed all that much. In the absence of any systematic understanding of how Google search works people have reverted to form; SEO now resembles nothing so much as the IT equivalent of augury. There are arcane treatises to study, wise experts to consult, portents in the blogs, and a great, omnipotent god which must be appeased.

People in my company are afraid to make even small changes for fear of pissing off Google. And making major changes is out of the question unless they're blessed by our SEO expert (who, I might add, has yet to demonstrate that he's any more efficacious than an O'Reilly book). Even worse, there's a lot of Web 2.0/Ajax-y improvements that could be made, but these (if the SEO poobahs are to be believed) make Googlebot cranky. This is the first time I've been on the front lines, but I've no cause to assume that my company is particularly unique in this regard.

This is where the "inadvertently evil" comes into play. Google, darling, you're simply far too powerful and inscrutable. Though I'm fairly certain this wasn't your intention, you've taken the web out of the hands of empiricists and raised a false priesthood in its place. People probably have lots of cool ideas about what they could be doing to make their web sites better but aren't able to put those ideas into production due to concerns about how you'll react.

That, I think, is the heart of the issue; Google's feedback mechanism is nearly non-existent. The webmaster tools are a nice idea, but they really don't provide that much information in practice. I've had websites drop from the top 3 results to page 8 overnight without any changes on my end. In such a situation I'd expect that the webmaster tools might tell me something, but they are silent.

So Google, if you're listening, do me a favor will you? Give me some tools. You needn't reveal the details of your beloved PageRank; knowing how complicated it likely is under the hood I doubt it'd be useful anyway. But give me something, anything, so that when the nattering nabobs of negativity complain that some change will ruin their precious website I can tell them "No, it won't". If I can't do that then the daemons of stasis end up winning and you, of all people, should appreciate that that does no one any good in the long run.

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