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Naughty or nice?

Everyone wants their web site to appear high up on the lists of the major search engines, and one of the challenges for designers is – well, not making sure that it does, because you can’t make sure: a high ranking can’t be guaranteed (as we explain in detail here). What we – and those companies who specialise in Search Engine Optimisation – can do is make sure your site is Google-friendly (for example, search engines index text, so we make sure that key search terms are not concealed in graphics).

Naturally, there are people who try to beat the system. To make it harder for them, Google is quite secretive about how it ranks sites, (which makes it harder for everyone) but here’s one example: We know that a site with plenty of incoming links is rated higher because of it (it makes sense that if people link to your site, it’s because they think the information on it is useful, and if they think so, other people are likely to think so too – so the site is given a higher ranking). One result of this is that unscrupulous people try to create as many links as possible, not because the information is relevant and useful, but just to improve their rankings. They create interdependent sites, all multiply linked to each other; they seek out guestbooks which are not being maintained, and write entries which are nothing but links to their sites… Naturally, the search engines retaliate by refining their criteria – where once the quantity of links was enough, now they look at the quality of the links as well.

An article in last week’s Technology Guardian reported that Google’s revision of its rules habitually takes place in December, and this makes life very hard for companies who want maximum exposure in the run-up to Christmas, and have to work out how they have displeased Google, and why their ranking has dropped. “Is Google a Grinch or a good guy?” it asks.

It’s certainly possible to do something in all innocence which is treated as suspect and loses your site credibility with the search engines. I’ve done it myself – once, long ago, I was transferring a site to a new home, revising and updating as I went, and thought it was a good idea to retain links to the old pages until I had time to replace them. This did not go down well, and it took a long time to get the new site the sort of rating it deserved. So I do have some sympathy with the feeling that Google is a Grinch, making people’s Christmas harder than it should be.

Nonetheless, the intention is not to be a Grinch. If anything, Google is more like Santa Claus, trying to reward the sites which have genuinely valuable or entertaining content and punish those who cheat to obtain credit they don’t deserve. They make a list, they check it twice, they try to find out who’s naughty or nice…

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