There's an interesting article making the rounds through the blogosphere that talks about how certain companies are using black hat style search marketing techniques to try and bury online criticism of their business. The article, "Companies subvert search results to squelch criticism" was written by Mark Glaser and is viewable at the Online Journalism Review.

The idea of manipulating search results is nothing new, it's the entire idea behind the search marketing industry. What this article focuses on is the more recent trend of using search engine results as part of online public relations campaigns designed to both promote and criticize businesses.

(For background on search marketing and public relations, check out these articles:
Small Businesses May Benefit from Ego Surfing
Could Paid Search Influence Elections?
The Ego Shot that can come with Googling Yourself...

The Glaser article explores the search marketing PR campaign being pushed by the folks at Quixtar, the "new" version of Amway. Anxious to limit access to online articles, blogs and Web sites that are critical of Quixtar/Amway, the company has taken to relying on black hat style search optimization to help push pro-Quixtar sites to the top of the search results, thus burying any criticism of the company.

The technique isn't a new one. Google bombing gained notoriety a few years back when anti-Bush bloggers managed to push the president to the top of the results for the phrase "miserable failure." Bush supporters retaliated during the 2004 election by pushing John Kerry's site to the top of the rankings for the phrase "waffles." Google bombing is usually harmless, brought about by pranksters rather than as part of an actual corporate PR strategy.

The interesting thing to note is that when Glaser wrote and published the article, the Quixtar site was no where to be seen in the top ten rankings for the phrase "quixtar" at Google. This afternoon, less than a day after the article was published, suddenly appears as #1. (Google conspirators can start their field day.)

So how can a company like Quixtar take over the search results? It's simple really - they take the time to build enough sites on their own, or to encourage their members to build sites, and then put in the time and money required to optimize them for high rankings. Eventually, any good search engine optimizer should be able to push most of the negative sites out of the rankings. Unfortunately for Quixtar, their naysayer aren't planning on sneaking quietly away into the night. Organized Google bombing, link farm schemes and good old fashioned optimization are possible on both sides, meaning that it's only a matter of time until Quixtar critical sites find their way back into the rankings.

Quixtar critics are quick to point out that any campaign designed to bury negative commentary flies in the very face of the ideas behind the Web. Rather than allowing search engines to serve as resources, the search engines become pawns in an online duel. "It's about flooding the Web with crap, and in that sewage, [they're] going to bury everyone else" explained Eric Janssen, an anti-Quixtar blogger in the OJR article.

Representatives from Quixtar are quick to defend their search marketing efforts. Public Relations manager Robin Luymes sent Glaser a statement that read:

"If Quixtar inadvertently breaks rules established by search engines, it is our expectation that providers like Google, Yahoo, and MSN would alert the company so that appropriate corrections can be made. Quixtar has never knowingly broken guidelines established by the top search engines and, on the few occasions it has discovered practices that did not follow these guidelines, it has taken the necessary corrective steps."

The precedent being set by this search results battle is a dangerous one. As word spreads that it pays to put in the time, effort and questionable techniques that it sometimes takes to dominate the search results, search engines will find themselves devoting even more time to battling search engine spam and manipulation. In the meantime, companies that could have focused simply on promoting their business and making money may find themselves forced to put valuable marketing dollars not toward their products, but toward deflecting attacks from other businesses.

Online retailers and Web sites have long managed to mingle, somewhat peacefully, side by side in the search results. The lessons learned during this public relations battle could prove to be the catalyst that ends that peaceful co-mingling.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
June 2, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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