Google has said that the one of the reasons DecorMyEyes was ranked so highly on its search engine was because of “reputable links” coming from “mainstream news websites such as the New York Times and Bloomberg.”At the time, the tech company didn’t say which exact stories linked to DecorMyEyes’ website. But responding to my email, Google spokesperson Jake Hubert has supplied the missing links.
Hubert says it was Bloomberg’s story in September, “Brooks Brothers, Estee Lauder, Nature Publishing: Intellectual Property“, and the Times’ blog post, “The Fifth Down“, in October last year that linked to DecorMyEyes.com, giving the site a boost in search rankings. As documented by a recent disturbing Times story, online merchant DecorMyEyes bullies its customers with the goal of increasing its Google search ranking. (The expose itself did not link to the merchant’s website.)
Google said it wasn’t the consumer complaint sites that were promoting DecorMyEyes like the Times story suggested. Those sites used a line of web code “rel=nofollow” to prevent DecorMyEyes links from receiving any weighting from search engines. The Times blog post from last year and the Bloomberg story did not, so they both gave DecorMyEyes.com extra weight. Google did not provide any further reason for why DecorMyEyes was so highly ranked in the first place, so publicly, the company’s finger is pointed at the two news companies.
The Bloomberg story mentions a company that is suing DecorMyEyes. The Times blog post from last year is from the site’s NFL Blog, of all places, and has virtually nothing to do with DecorMyEyes. But the blogger mentions that Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin wears Versace 2049 sunglasses, and links to DecorMyEyes.com. It’s not clear why the Times blogger did so, but it may have been to show the glasses he was talking about, since the link goes to a page with a picture of the glasses.
So are Bloomberg and the Times really to blame? The “rel=nofollow” code that the consumer complaint sites used is a simple web tag, but certainly not common knowledge in a mainstream sense. The two news sites seemed to have unwittingly helped DecorMyEyes, but the bigger issue here is the lack of transparency behind Google’s ranking algorithm.
On the one hand, Google is justifiably concerned about spilling its trade secrets. After all, most of its considerable revenue comes from advertisements off of its search engine. In addition, Google says that if everyone knew its algorithm, many would try to game the system. But the flip side of that argument is that sites and users of Google typically don’t know how to help the system, and may accidentally hurt it, as in the case of the Bloomberg and Times stories.
I purposely did not link to DecorMyEyes in this story. I even put the “rel=nofollow” code in my link to the Bloomberg and Times stories that link to DecorMyEyes.com, just to be safe, and not somehow indirectly promote the merchant. But I don’t know if that makes things better, worse, or makes no difference at all to Google’s search engine. That’s the problem — I don’t know.
Google is asking the public to trust the company, saying it knows what it’s doing. But when cases like DecorMyEyes pop up, and in a time when Google’s doings have raised privacy concerns, users may find it harder to trust the simple “do no evil” mantra.
To be fair, Google’s search algorithm must be fairly complex, and many web users simply want something to work and don’t care to know the details of the inner workings of the black box. Information on “rel=nofollow” is available on the Internet, too, so it’s not like the Times or Bloomberg had no tools at their disposal to help Google keep DecorMyEyes’ rank down if they had known or wanted to. Perhaps Google could open up about its algorithm a little more, and perhaps more education of the public is needed. After all, it is something many use, unquestioningly, every day. The big lesson here, at least, is not to necessarily trust a website that has strong Google search rankings.
It’s a tough issue for the company, but it comes with Google’s considerable territory.