Who is Behind the Successful PR Campaign Poking Holes in Google’s Search Quality?

It appears someone has launched a successful PR campaign poking holes in Google’s search quality.

Why do I think someone has launched a PR campaign? As Auric Goldfinger tells James Bond in the movide Goldfinger (1964), “They have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action.”

Here are the big dots that I’m connecting to move from happenstance to coincidence to enemy action:

  • On Oct. 31, 2010, Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times wrote “A New Search Engine, Where Less Is More.” She said, “Rich Skrenta, Blekko’s co-founder and chief executive, says that since Google started, the Web has been overrun by unhelpful sites full of links and keywords that push them to the top of Google’s search results but offer little relevant information. Blekko aims to show search results from only useful, trustworthy sites.” She added, “The engine also tries to weed out Web pages created by so-called content farms like Demand Media that determine popular Web search topics and then hire people at low pay to write articles on those topics for sites like eHow.com.”
  • On Nov. 26, 2010, David Segal of The New York Times wrote, “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web.” Segal told the story of DecorMyEyes, which used bad publicity to build links. He asked, “Can’t Google separate catcalls from huzzahs?”
  • On Feb. 12, 2011, Segal wrote another article, “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.” Segal asked Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media to examine J. C. Penney’s ranking on Google. His analysis suggested “a world of intrigue in the search business.”

Now, let’s be clear. As Mike Grehan observed in “The Google Spam-Jam,” Google has had a problem with spam “from day one and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.” He added, “Even before the current murmurs, a large fraction of bad search results have always been included.”

And eHow isn’t a content farm just because Blekko says it is. One of the top 10 eHows is “How to Change Startup Programs in Windows 7,” which appears to be original and unique content of genuine value.

But someone saw an opportunity to generate some publicity about the obvious weaknesses to be exploited at Google that have always been there.

Although Google seemed to ignore the first NYTimes article, it responded quickly to the next two knocks on its search quality by the newspaper that has won 104 Pulitzer Prizes:

  • On Dec. 1, 2010, Amit Singhal, Google Fellow, announced on the Official Google Blog that Google had developed an algorithmic solution which detected DecorMyEyes “along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience.”
  • On Jan. 21, 2011, Matt Cutts, Principal Engineer, said on the Official Google Blog that “English-language spam in Google’s results is less than half what it was five years ago, and spam in most other languages is even lower than in English.” He added, “As ‘pure webspam’ has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to ‘content farms,’ which are sites with shallow or low-quality content.” And he said, “we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.”
  • And on Feb. 24, 2011, Google launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites. On the Official Google Blog, Singhal and Cutts said these were “sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”
Greg Jarboe interviewing Matt Cutts.jpg

So, who could be behind this PR campaign that’s pushing Google to constantly tune its algorithms?

Well, I don’t think it’s The New York Times. Telling its reporters to attack Google just isn’t in The Gray Lady’s DNA. However, I suspect that a PR guru is playing one or two of Times reporters like a fiddle.

It could be Microsoft’s Bing. According to Experian Hitwise, Bing searches increased 21 percent in January 2011. That makes it a strategic threat to Google.

And some people at Google seem to think Microsoft is behind the PR campaign, which would explain the uncharacteristic post Feb. 1, 2011, by Singhal on the Offical Google Blog entitled, “Microsoft’s Bing uses Google web search results — and denies it.” But I’m not convinced that Bing’s PR experts would pick a fight with Google on an issue like “search quality.” They are smart enough to know that it’s a fight Bing wouldn’t win.

I suspect someone else is behind the spate of stories poking holes in Google’s search quality.

It could be Blekko, which was launched last fall — coincidentally, just before the PR campaign began.

Now, can I prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is Blekko? No. As for the evidence, I admit that it is circumstantial — but it echoes all of the key messages that Blekko has been communicating since its launch last October/November. And the team behind the new search engine has the means, motive, and opportunity to launch such a successful PR campaign.

Blekko was founded in 2007 by Rich Skrenta, Michael Markson, and a bunch of former Google and Yahoo engineers. Previously, Skrenta and Markson had built Topix. Blekko is backed by notable angel investors, including Ron Conway, Marc Andreessen, Jeff Clavier, and Mike Maples. It has also received a total of $24 million in venture funding, including $14 million from U.S. Venture Partners and CMEA capital. So, it has the means.

Blekko’s About page says, “You know the sites you want search results from and you know the spammers, SEO gamers and content farms that just get in the way. So get out there and slash the web: slash in the sites you like and slash out the ones you don’t.” And Blekko recently formed an alliance against spam with Stack Overflow. So, it has the motive.

And Skrenta was interviewed by Miller of the Times back on Oct. 31, 2010. And its Blekko in the News page is full of more than 20 other press articles. So, Blekko has had the opportunity.

Hey, I could be wrong. But whoever is behind this PR campaign has succeeded in making Google’s search quality an issue and making life difficult for content farms. (Frank Watson reports that Mahalo, Business.com, and article aggregators seem to be the hardest hit. Early data also suggests that Demand Media’s much maligned eHow property has benefited the most from the Google update.)

So, I tip my hat to whoever it is. They are creating one of the new public relations case studies that should be taught in online PR classes.

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