Can you "Strike Out" a competing web site in Google?
So you want to rank higher in Google than your competitor for a certain keyword ... and despite all your best efforts at playing by the "white hat rules", you still can't pass 'em? It's been theorized that a "black hat" approach called Google Bowling can be used to knock someone down (and maybe out) of the search results. With money playing an increasing role in the online world, there is more incentive to go "Google Bowling for Dollars" and here's my analysis of that along with a case study of how V7ndotcom Elursrebmem for Celiac Charity was almost certainly Google Bowled in the 2006 V-E SEO contest. I also toss in my two cents on why Google's algorithm that allows a a 3rd party to penalize your website in the search engines results is a bad idea ... in the ideal world ... but in the (spam-infested) real world, is a good pragmatic solution.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a professional SEO or whatever - just a tinker'er/hobbiest who likes to try to figure things out ... so your mileage may vary for any/all of this. My Email address is on the FAQ if you want to send me a note with your thoughts/suggestions.
Case Study for Charity Website
GoogleBowlingSince GoogleBombing (see below) can be used to artifically inflate the search engine rankings for a page, Google responded by looking for unnatural linking patterns. While only Google knows for sure how this is handled, my theories are that it looks for site-wide links, excessive growth in links from a large number of web sites, so-called bad neighborhoods, and excessive percentage of inbound links all having the same anchor text. So when SEO spammers do this for their sites, Google penalizes them as part of the on-going arms races between them and the search engines. But an unintended consequence is that the same approach can be used as a weapon by black hat SEO's to sabotage the ranking of a competing page since the signatures looks identical to the Search Engine.
GoogleBombingWiki has a nice writeup on this but in a nutshell, it's possible to rank a page high for a keyword even if that does not appear in that page ... and/or even if you do not want to. The classic example is a Google search for "miserable failure" which shows the #1 result being the Biography of George Bush, Republican President of the United States. Needless to say, this provoked a response from the political zealots, and the very next Google result for "miserable failure" is the home page of Michael Moore, an anti-Bushie. I don't do politics, but I actually find all this kinda funny.
SEO - Search Engine OptimizationUsing various techniques to try to rank well in the search engines for a specific keyword. Can be used on web pages that legitimately are relevant to a certain keyword ... or (much) more frequently, is used to boost the rank of spammy, affliliate, or other types of pages in order to attract more surfers for the almighty buck.
On-Page OptimizationRefers to text in the web page (and the URL itself). Using the keyword in the title, headers, text (and gawd, even the meta tags) to help indicate that page is relevant for that keyword. Ditto if the URL (domain, path, or file name) has the keyword embedded in it. The webmaster has full control over their own pages, so they can do anything they want in this area. Can definitely be overdone - how often to you see:
and that page has keyword about a bazillion times. The search engines almost certainly detect/penalize over-optimization in this area. But again, this is something the webmaster can totally control ... versus ...
Off-Page OptimizationBasically inbound links to your web page. One can use relevant anchor text (and probably nearby text/pages) to indicate a target page has something to do with keyword. You control internal linkage (i.e. links from your same domain). And if you control other web sites, you can link from those too. BUT ... other web sites that you have no control over can also link back to you. While in most cases links are good, there are a couple of undesirable side-effects that the webmaster of the target page might not want ... and not much you can do about that. Examples are ranking well for terms such as "miserable failure" and being penalized via Google Bowling.
Page RankGoogle's measurement of how "important" a web page is - the logrithmic scale runs from 0-10, with 10 being the highest. The higher the page rank, the more valuable the link. Page Rank is discussed ad nasuem in SEO circles ... and may also be used as pickup lines at bars - "Hey baby, I got a strong PR8" - somehow I doubt they end up "Feeling Lucky" when it comes to GoogleGirl.
Site-Wide LinksLinking from every page on a web site - typically done in the sidebar or footer. In the past, 10,000 inbound links from a single web site may have counted as 10,000 votes ... but this is certainly devalued now ... and in fact, may act as a negative influence on your (or a competitors) search engine rankings.
Here's a great related example of Google Bowling. So I provide suggested link code for those folks who want to help support this site. The 2nd link is to the black hat SEO page - using that anchor text. Since a lot of people graciousely cut-n-pasted this on their web sites, I noticed that page climbed up the Google rankings and was as high as #6. Then all of a sudden, it was gone - no where to be found in the first 100 listings of Google. Yet, it is #1 in MSN and #3 in Yahoo. I.e. some sort of Google specific "excessive backlink penalty" got tripped. Again, this was probably due to the the exuberance of the folks that wanted to help out, rather than nefarious black hats, but clearly shows that external links can clobber your Google rankings.
The "V7ndotcom Elursrebmem" SEO contest kicked off on January 15th, 2006 with the goal being to rank #1 in Google on May 15th, 2006 for the term "V7ndotcom elursrebmem" - winner gets $7,000. On that day, a Google search yielded zero results. Two week later, it showed over 3 million web pages with those terms. Obviously, many of those were auto-generated as one SEO technique is to create bazillions of pages with the keyword of interest. Similarly, I'm sure the link farms were also fired up to send link juice toward these target pages. If nothing else, an interesting test of the search engine algorithms as tons of stuff, including the kitchen sink, would be tossed into the fray - see the contest stats.
My appoach was a bit different. I wrote a handful of pages (using the well regarded html editor vi with tidy & W3C for validation) that described the contest, some misc. SEO information, and said that (since my kids have this) any/all winnings would be donated directly to Celiac Disease Research - specifically the University of Maryland as oulined at that URL. I have a couple of web sites (not hundreds/thousands like some SEO's) and spread the word about my efforts, hoping to generate some sort of buzz/interest. That ending up happening
LOTS of people thought that donating the prize money to a good cause was a great thing, and so added links on their web sites to mine ... and in several situations, site-wide links. Google doesn't show all backlinks (and updates infrequently), but according to MSN and Yahoo I had 14,639 and 26,300 inbound links a month later on Febuary 15th. And by March 15th, those had climbed to 30,742 and 44,400 respectively. In addition, Google had done a Page Rank update and the page was a PR7, which is darn decent and actually the highest in the competition. I was a bit overwhelmed by this generous support, along with a number of Emails from the folks with Celiac saying how much they appreciated my efforts to not only win the money for research, but to raise awareness.
In the all important Google rankings, I spent most of my time in the top-5 spots ... and also MSN and Yahoo for more than a month. In addition to www.google.com, I was checking a couple of dozen google data centers, since especially in a contest such as this, there was a lot of flux initially. All looked good.
But at the end of February, I noticed an abrupt change in the Google rankings. This site dropped to #9/10 in an increasing number of datacenters, and by March 15th, was between #11 and #13 on pretty much all of 'em. But it continued to rank in the top-5 spots in MSN and Yahoo. I.e. whatever was happening was Google specific. Puzzling, since compared to other contest pages, mine had the highest page rank, reasonable on-page optimization, and more inbound links than anybody.
My guess is the later was the problem - there were too many inbound links and so my site was initially GoogleBombed for the contest keywords, but because a lot of people wanted to help out, it ended up getting GoogleBowled.
One interesting aspect is black-hat SEO's could use this
GoogleBowling technique to knock down a competitor site ... and
there is nothing they could do about that. According to
Facts & Fiction for Webmasters:
Fiction: A competitor can ruin a site's ranking somehow or have another site removed from Google's index."almost" emphasis because Google added that not too long ago to signal that maybe there were now ways to clobber a competitor. As implied above by the MSN/Yahoo rankings, this negative influence from GoogleBowling appears to be specific to Google. It actually should end up boosting the rankings in other search engines that don't implement this type of negative filter.
Fact: There's almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. Your rank and your inclusion are dependent on factors under your control as a webmaster, including content choices and site design.
Now I'd love to tell you that I can identify the the black hat SEO's that are GoogleBowling my site for charity in an attempt to win that $7,000 for themselves. I actually expected some nefarious activity to crop up in this contest. But there are too many links out there for me to check manually - maybe some SEO professional with advanced tools could tell me. So it might just be the exuberance of the folks that want to help me out, and all the links they added ended up tripping Google's Bowling filter. One person suggested I ask Google ... uhhhhh ... has anyone ever got a human answer from Google?
So for me, the question/delima I have as I write this on March 15th is what do I do about this so I still can try wo win that $7,000 for Celiac Disease Research. I have the Email addresses of SOME people who have linked to me, but tons of others have also done so. And it would be confusing to now ask "support me but don't link to me" - huh? Or do I just wait it out - I have until May 15th ... and trust in Google to sort it all out?
Made a dramatic jump from #17 to #3/4 on most data centers on April 7th - perhaps we have been un-GoogleBowled?
Should Search Engines do negative weighting for links?Historically, a link counted as a "vote" for your website, so it could only help you. Webmasters then realized that if they did site-wide links (often on auto-generated pages), they could cast thousands of votes. So naturally, Search Engines devalued these spammy efforts by doing something like 1 link = 1 vote, 5 links = 2 votes, 10 links = 3 votes, 100 links = 5 votes ... and (maybe) 1,000 links = 3 votes ... note the weighting curve slopes back down. But the weighting was always positive.
What is new/unqiue about Google Bowling is the concept of negative weighting. If Google detects unnatural linking patterns, instead of devalueing or discarding that link weight, it may count against you. This actually makes sense in their battle against web-spam. But an unintended consequence of this is that it can be used as a weapon by the black hat SEO's to knock down a competing page - it's a continual arms race between these guys and the search engines.
So it is not really fair that web sites (unknown to them in probably almost all cases) get hammered by Google Bowling from competitors using unsavory SEO tactics. But on the other hand, this "tons of inbound links" technique is surely used much more frequently to push questionable pages up in the search results, so the overall relevance of search engine results is probably increased by having the Google Bowling negative weighting engage in an attempt to address unnatural linking.
My guess is that Google Bowling is more effective against fairly new websites/pages that don't have a lot of established links. I.e. some sort of percentage threshhold of total links probably has to be reached before you get knocked down in the rankings. And the more links the target website already has, the bigger the bowling ball that would have to be employed. Consider it some sort of weighted percentage of inbounds links, with a bias toward anchor text.
For example, a fairly new site has links from 10 seperate domains with random anchor text. In an attempt to rank well for keyword, 10 more links are created (by that webmaster) on other domains with keyword as the anchor text. This probably helps it move up in the rankings. But then 10,000 links are created on other domains (by the same webmaster or a competitor) - this sure looks like unnatural linking, so the Google Bowling penalty is engaged and the rankings drop below what it originally was. If on the other hand, the site had hundreds of inbound links before hand, then perhaps 100,000 links would be required. As you can guess, the black hat SEO's have to be sure to use use a big (GoogleBomb) bowling ball, because if they don't, they will actually enhance the ranking of the target page. Note that in both cases, the rankings would probably rise in MSN and Yahoo.
So while unfair to that handful of folks, a pointy-eared Vulcan
"the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"
and this is a pragmatic solution to a real-world problem.
MSN and Yahoo do not appear to have implemented this
next-generation anti-spam technique, but they probably should be
looking into it.