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INNOVATION ECONOMY

How to land a top spot on Google is a mystery wrapped in an enigma

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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In ye olden days, the Yellow Pages were what mattered to businesses. And the alphabet reigned. If you wanted to be listed first in your category, you named your company AAA Amazing Auto Body, and if you insisted on calling yourself Zabriskie & Sons Auto Body, you’d bring up the rear.

In the 21st century, Google is supreme. More than 65 percent of Internet users begin hunting for products and services via Google; the next closest competitor, Yahoo, has just 16 percent of the market, according to the measurement service comScore Inc.

The way Google assesses sites is generally understood, but when the Silicon Valley search giant tweaks its ranking software, as it did last month, it can be tough to tell why your listing dropped from the first to the 72d page of search results. And if your site disappears entirely from Google, causing your traffic to plunge, there’s no human at Google you can ask for a reason why.

“We’ve been dropped from Google’s index altogether, and when that happens, everything we’re doing grinds to a halt,’’ says Matt Douglas, chief executive of the party planning site Punchbowl.com in Framingham. “Over the years, it has happened four or five times, and it has lasted anywhere from a day to a month. You just make a bunch of changes, and you hope that one will work.’’

Even businesses that spend millions of dollars advertising on Google’s site can’t get a straight answer as to why their ranking dropped. “We have a sales rep at Google, and what they will tell you is, ‘I can’t really help you, but I will relay the message,’ ’’ says Stephen Kaufer, chief executive of TripAdvisor in Newton. “At least it’s a voice on the other end of the phone.’’

When Google changed the software algorithm it uses to evaluate and rank websites earlier this year, Kaufer says a network of travel blogs that TripAdvisor owns, TravelPod, saw its position fall. While TripAdvisor runs the most frequently visited network of travel sites, “so much of what Google does is a complete mystery to us,’’ Kaufer says.

State government has confronted that same mysteriousness. In 2005, state IT employees upgraded the software that runs the Mass.gov portal, and, as a result, most of the state’s Web pages vanished from the search engine. Google’s suggestion about getting to the root of the problem? Consult online help documents.

So, how does Google decide which site appears at the top of the very first page of search results?

Google analyzes more than 200 factors, such as how many times a search term shows up on a page. Google also looks at how many other websites link to your site. If those sites have substantial “authority,’’ and aren’t just your cousin’s blog, you will get ranked higher.

Sites can also do things that hurt their Google status, like copying content from other sites, or paying for links from low-quality sites. Another foul: including dozens of hidden keywords that visitors can’t see on the page, but which serve as bait for search engines.

Google doesn’t share specifics of how its algorithm works. Divulging the secret formula “would give unscrupulous Web masters a way to game our system and promote their own sites in our rankings, at the cost of user experience as well as high-quality websites,’’ writes Amit Singhal via e-mail. Singhal is a Google Fellow who works to improve the algorithm.

Singhal’s advice on achieving a good ranking?

“Create relevant and useful content with original analysis that people will want to link to and share,’’ he writes.

Even if you figure out how to attain the pole position in Google’s results, you may not keep it. The company tweaks its ranking software 500 times a year.

“I had a client who went from number one to number 31,’’ says Andrew Shotland, a California-based search engine consultant. “At that point, you may as well be number 31,000.’’ Shotland adds that many of the websites he advises depend on Google for up to 80 percent of their traffic. When that flow of visitors ebbs, or stops completely, it can have a major impact on business.

Ben Saren recalls feeling the impact when his start-up city guide, CitySquares, launched an expansion and added several million pages to the site in short order. Google, however, questioned the quality of so many new pages appearing so suddenly and banished much of the CitySquares site for a time, rendering it unfindable through Google.

“Our traffic went from sky high to terrible numbers,’’ says Saren. “It was about four months of really negative effects for advertising dollars, and there’s no appeals court, no e-mail address, no 800 number to call.’’

While you can’t get answers from a Google employee when something happens to your ranking, Google says it publishes blog entries, maintains an extensive help center, and builds tools to try to assist site owners in diagnosing problems. You can also fill out a form requesting that Google reconsider your site if it isn’t showing up in search results, or has gotten bumped down.

“I do think because of Google’s dominance, they have a responsibility to be more forthcoming with why things are the way they are,’’ says Kaufer at TripAdvisor. Google might supply a specific reason to sites it drops from its database, rather than forcing them to play a guessing game, he said.

Phillip Malone, a Harvard Law School professor, wonders, “What duty does a dominant company like Google owe to all the people and businesses that appear in its index?’’

Perhaps a phone number to call, or a personalized analysis of where you might have gone astray? Malone’s answer is that there isn’t yet a good answer, because “we haven’t really seen a company like Google before that has such power as a gatekeeper to affect the visibility and success of so many others.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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